Volume 36, 1998
Philosophy of Religion
Timothy A. Mahoney
Contextualism, Decontextualism, and Perennialism
Suggestions for Expanding the Common Ground of the World’s Mystical Traditions
This paper addresses religious epistemology in that it concerns the assessment of the credibility of certain claims arising out of religious experience. Developments this century have made the world’s rich religious heritage accessible to more people than ever. But the conflicting religious claims tend to undermine each religion’s central claim to be a vehicle for opening persons to ultimate reality. One attempt to overcome this problem is provided by "perennial philosophy," which claims that there is a kind of mystical experience common to all religious traditions, an experience which is an immediate contact with an absolute principle. Perennialism has been attacked by "contextualists" such as Steven Katz who argue that particular mystical experiences are so tied to a particular tradition that there are no common mystical experiences across traditions. In turn, Robert Forman and the "decontextualists" have argued that a certain kind of mystical experience and process are found in diverse traditions, thereby supporting one of the key elements of perennialism. I review the contextualist-decontextualist debate and suggest a research project that would pursue the question of whether the common ground of the world’s mystical traditions could be expanded beyond what has been established by the decontextualists. The extension of this common ground would add credibility to the claims arising out of mystical experience.