— Anantanand Rambachan Hindu studies scholar 1951
A review of Michael Stoeber's Theo-Monistic Mysticism: A Hindu-Christian Comparison (1994), in Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies Vol. 8 (1995)
Contexto: Theo-Monistic Mysticism is a thoughtful and challenging study which seeks a middle path between two influential interpretations of mystical experiences. The constructivist interpreters, represented here by John Hick, admit that mystical experiences are different but argue that the differences are explicable by reference to the socio-religious framework which the particular mystic brings to her experience. Stoeber is critical of this school for its inability to account for the transmission of new religious knowledge and insight through mystical experience, since the information which the mystic receives is entirely dependent on the prior conceptual framework. In addition, the constructivist thesis cannot adequately account for mystic heresy or for the similarities in mystical experiences where there are no shared socio-religious factors.
The essentialist school, represented by interpreters like Evelyn Underhill, W. T. Stace and Ninian Smart, see mystical experience as the same everywhere, but subject to a variety of socio-religious interpretations. Stoeber is critical o f the essentialist position for its disregard of vital differences between monistic experiences, which involve a loss of duality and exclude personal experience, and theistic experiences, which encounter the Real as dynamic and where "some sense of differentiating self-identity is maintained by the participants" (p.24). These important differences are illustrated by analysis of the writings of Meister Eckhart and Jan Van Ruusbroec.
The study of these two mystics leads Stoeber to propose a third experiential possibility which he calls theo-monistic mysticism. He calls it a theo-monistic experience "because although it involves an impersonal monistic realization, it issues in a perspective that also reflects an active, creative, and personal Real" (p.35). Theo-monistic mysticism avoids the extremes of the constructivist and essentialist schools by positing that mystical experiences differ and that these differences cannot be explained only by socio-religious factors. The theo-monistic experiences of mystics like Eckhart, Ruusbroec, Ramanuja, Aurobindo, and others can be explained only by positing a divine which is "both passive and active, non-dualistic and distinctive, impersonal and personal".
In this work, however, Stoeber does not argue only for the reality of the theo-monistic type experiences. Even more importantly, he proposes, in chapters 3 and 5, a theistic mystic typology which culminates in theo-monistic experiences but which authenticates the monistic experience and can account meaningfully for experiences of the paranormal, of nature and of the numinous. Monistic hierarchies, on the other hand, fail to fully authenticate theistic experiences and relegate them finally to the realm of the illusory.