Language and Religious Experience

Sophomore and above—Year

In this course, we will consider what language tells us about the nature of religious experience, as well as what religious experience tells us about the nature of language. Particular attention will be paid to the idea that certain religious experiences are said to be “beyond the limits of language.” The word used to describe this in the case of Western mysticism is “apophatic.” Interestingly, many Western mystics wrote at great length about their experiences—but by using various literary devices to “unsay” what they had just said. The Zen koan tradition is also apophatic in some sense but uses what appears to be paradox to “unsay” what is being said. We will look at the uses of language in these two traditions, with attention to a distinction between what Wittgenstein called “describing” and “expressing”—a distinction also found in the work of the great Zen philosopher mystic, Eihei Dogen. We will also consider the nature of prayer and mantra, the Biblical notion that God “speaks,” the uses of metaphor and analogy in religious discourse, the connection between language and creation, and the Western notion of the “Logos” or “Word,” all of which can be topics for conference work. Readings will be from Herrigel, Buber, Panikkar, Plotinus, Sells, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, among others.