The scholar of comparative religion, Karen Armstrong, wrote in her history of God:
“The [mystical] visions are not ends in themselves but means to an ineffable religious experience that exceeds normal concepts. They will be conditioned by the particular religious tradition of the mystic. A Jewish visionary will see visions of the seven heavens because his religious imagination is stocked with these particular symbols. Buddhists see various images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas; Christians visualize the Virgin Mary [or Jesus]. It is a mistake for the visionary to see these mental apparitions as objective or as anything more than a symbol of transcendence.”
(Armstrong, A History of God)
I agree. Most people tend to interpret their experiences of God according to their cultural conditioning, teaching, and understanding, and they may even experience it during the experience itself according to this preconceived understanding.
The way they have envisioned God in the teachings of their own local environment, religion, and family tradition is often how their mind experiences God, and how they thereafter interpret their experiences generally. Understandably, they often will use the symbolic “tools” and “concepts” with which their mind is already familiar in order to frame their experience.
Such symbols are often all their mind has to work with to describe their experience, unless they are willing to construct brand new symbols and concepts that their contemporaries and friends have never heard of, which most don’t seem to be willing to do. Often they may not even know that their mind is framing their experience in a particular way, according to their conditioning, and so their interpretation is done unconsciously, “behind the scenes” as it were.
The Indian Zen master and Jesuit priest, Ama Samy, put it this way:
“The specific teachings and practices of a specific tradition may determine what ‘[mystical] experience’ someone has, which means that this ‘experience’ is not the proof of the teaching, but a result of the teaching.”
(Samy, AMA (1998), Waarom kwam Bodhidharma naar het Westen? De ontmoeting van Zen met het Westen, Asoka: Asoka. Page 80, paraphrased on Wikipedia.)
A person’s experience of God is not proof of their teaching, proving that what they have been taught is the way the Divine actually is, but rather it is a result of the way they have been taught, their mind perceiving the Divine as they have been conditioned to perceive it.
In other words, we often experience God in a certain way because that is how we have been accustomed to perceive God, not because God is fundamentally or absolutely that way. It seems to me that God transcends all mental concepts in the rational logical part of our minds, but the mind must start somewhere in order to conceptualize it, reason about it, recall it, interpret it, think about it, share it, write about it, picture it, etc., and so it often uses what it has to work with. It starts from the foundation that it already knows.
Those who have studied religions and spiritual traditions widely and are familiar with a myriad of different interpretations of God may be better interpreters of their experiences and even others’ experiences, being able to paint the experiences in many different ways, with many different colors and types of brushstrokes, using many different concepts, terms, symbols, traditions, frameworks, points of view, etc., and not being dogmatic in holding any one of them as the absolute correct one or one true way to understand God.
Seen in this light, we can understand much better how mystical experience may easily lead to dogmatism, religious conflict, and even wars. If someone has studied Jesus Christ their whole life, and then has a mystical experience of God which their mind immediately interprets and paints in their mind’s eye as Jesus, then they might think that Jesus is the way God is, and all other ways of conceiving of the Divine must be horribly wrong. For they perceived God with their own eyes this way, and so they believe this must be the way God is.
If, on the other hand, someone has studied Buddhism their whole life, and then has a mystical experience where they perceive a Buddha or a Bodhisattva in the Light, then they might firmly come to believe that the Buddha is the one true way or the ultimately correct view of the Absolute or Transcendent, and all other perceptions and teachings must be quite mistaken. For they perceived the Buddha with their own eyes this way, and so they believe this must be the way things are.
The human mind plays many tricks on us, and we fall victim to it time and time again. This is perhaps most visible in the way many people throughout history have fallen to dogmatism in religion, believing their own interpretation of God, or the Divine, or the Transcendent, is the “one right way.” I perceive that we need to realize that all the ways that people have come to interpret their experiences of God are simply different ways they have interpreted their experience, the way their mind has painted the picture of God. They are not necessarily the way God actually is.
Some interpretations may be better than others in pointing us towards God, and the accumulation of them all, layered on top of one another, may work best in our attempts to approach that ineffable Supreme Being or Ultimate Existence. But, it seems to me, no single description can be the way God actually is, in any absolute way. All descriptions will fall short, and be fallible, since the experience of God transcends all mental constructs and concepts, it seems to me. The interpretation or translation of mystical experience comes after God, as only an approximation of God, in the human mind.
It is a painting of God, but it is not, and can never be, God as God is. Even direct personal experience can fall short of knowing God, if we do not transcend our conceptual mind which often wants to project its preconceptions, biases, and prejudices into the mystical “scene” that is perceived.
The scriptures often tell us about this.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
“Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him; wherefore, brethren, despise not the revelations of God.” (Jacob 4:8)