George, you asked, "Are you trying to understand, or just to impose your views?"
Can it be a little of both? All of my questions have been rooted in how to read the given text, and I'm not the first to puzzle over those words. On the other hand, yes, I do have a particular experience that I bring to the text, and that experience influences my questions. I'd like to explain.
I had an inner experience once where there was a overwhelming feeling of being forcibly "caught up." The ascent had three phases: 1) a feeling of being caught up in my physical body, like a levitation almost 2) next, a distinct feeling of exiting my physical body; but still, some bodily sensations remained -- an intuition of a body shape and intense pleasure and 3) ascending into a near perceptual void; just the faculty of thought with no bodily sensations whatsoever except a feeling of ascending and a whisper like breeze. From that level of ascent, my faculty of thought was suspended such that I have no memory of anything until suddenly, I awoke in my body, puzzled about where "I" was in the unremembered interim between seemingly being ascended without any body and being awakened in my body. The feeling upon awakening was of complete bliss without bodily desire.
Thanks for sharing this with us. There is no problem in trying to identify it with Paul's experience, provided you don't force the texts. Consider the possibility that Paul just summarizes the whole of it without caring for describing stages. At any rate the main point is not the stages in which the soul becomes somehow 'independent' from the body, but the fact that it becomes; and in this condition it still has a body, but not as being 'imprisoned' in it.
George, you wrote: "Consider the possibility that Paul just summarizes... The main point here is ... the fact that (the soul)...in this condition... still has a body, but not as being 'imprisoned' in it."
Does he still have a body? That it seems to me one of the open questions during the experience as Paul describes it. An underlying problem during such an experience is discerning whether one's body is physically dead or alive. The closest analogous Pauline text that I know of on this question is 2 Cor 5:6-9:
"...while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight— we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him."
Here, most interpreters agree, Paul is talking about the complete absence from body that comes with physical death. Likewise, in 2 Cor 12, Paul could be talking about a feeling of being absent from that body to such an extreme that one literally does not know whether one's physical body is dead or alive; that is, whether one is "without any" body anymore or not.
Maybe, with that angle, I can see the possibility that that is Paul's main point (no necessary stages). But if that is so, it seems to me that there would have been simpler ways of expressing it. And what about calling the heaven the "third heaven." Were there a first and a second heaven? The idea of three stages of altered consciousness fits somewhat neatly with there being three heavens.
We now talk about things probable, since they regard after-life. On my part, I follow the teaching of the Greek patristic tradition according to which no being whatever, man or angel, is without some material nature, some kind of a body, however light or spiritual. This I don't follow by custom, because I happened to be born in this tradition. If we examine it with reason we can infer that it can't be but true, since Christ assumed a body, He appears to men with His body, He did not 'abandon' His body but resurrected it. Therefore, if someone speaks about "complete absence from body", this sounds to me contrary to both reason and tradition.
That there exist stages or 'heavens' also can not be but true. Thinks about an eternal life without progress; it would be damnation not paradise. There must be eternal progress, that is infinite 'heavens', the number three being just symbolical and inclusive.
George wrote: "...no being whatever, man or angel, is without some material nature, some kind of a body, however light or spiritual."
I think I understand where you are coming from, but I admit, I had not heard that tradition or reasoning expressed before.
I'm not sure if this is related to what you are saying George, but I have been thinking also about Plotinus and his ascent of the soul experience. It is written:
"...after that rest in the divine, when I have come down from Intellect to discursive reasoning, I am puzzled how I ever came down, and how my soul has come to be in the body when it is what it has shown itself to be by itself, even when it is in the body (Fourth Ennead, 8.1)."
I suspect that he and Paul had similar experiences in that when they "came down" they puzzled over "how my soul has come to be in the body when it has shown itself to be by itself." Sounds a little like, "whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know."
I do not have a Greek text of Plotinus. Is such a text available in parallel or interlinear form online? Or do you perhaps have it? I wonder if there is some overlap in language in the Greek that might make comparison interesting.