The Mystical Theology Network
Prophecy and Mysticism: the view from the seventeenth century
This paper offers an historical perspective on the taxonomical issues surrounding prophecy and mysticism, focusing on a period which has been characterized in contemporary historiography (most significantly in the work of Michel de Certeau) as a watershed in the development of mysticism; as the moment at which mystical utterance broke from its ecclesiastical and linguistic moorings. I will look at critiques of and apologies for visionary mysticism in the British Isles at this time of profound cultural disruption, in which suspicion about private revelation was embedded by the bitter experience of revolutionary passions, and yet a crisis in religious epistemology opened up the space for radical prophetic claims.
First, I suggest that prophecy and what was disparagingly known as ‘mystical divinity’ were casualties of Anglican rhetoric after the English Revolution, caught in the crossfire between the established church and its Roman Catholic and dissenting Protestant critics. To an extent, this process of constructing Anglican moderation helped to shape the course of the English Enlightenment, and served to institutionalize the marginality of prophecy, while domesticating mystical experience and asceticism.
However, I also want to explore the significance of de Certeau’s analysis of the progress of mystical interiority and discourse in the early modern period for this local context, and move beyond the hostile perceptions to the mystics and prophets who provoked them. I will ask how their visionary expressions manifested dissent and alienation; how they distinguished between mystical and prophetic inspiration, if at all; and whether there is anything that is intelligible in their experience for the modern reader.
Masculine mind and feminine body – a marriage made in heaven? Staging a mystical encounter between Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena
Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena can be read as key figures in the making of western constructs of masculinity and femininity associated with the rise of the medieval universities on the one hand and female mysticism on the other. Although dualistic accounts of masculine mind and feminised matter influenced Christian theology from the beginning in its engagement with Greek philosophy, according to Prudence Allen these ideas became universalised and normalised as Aristotelianism spread through western European culture and learning, not least through the influence of Thomas.
Thomas is more often read as a philosophical theologian than a mystic, but this paper suggests that an encounter between Thomas and Catherine in the terrain of mystical theology provides rich insights into the troubled marriage between masculine mind and feminine body. By exploiting inconsistencies in Thomas’s account of mind, body and God, and by considering how questions of desire and embodiment influence these two great Dominican saints and doctors of the Church, I suggest ways beyond the ongoing impasse in theological and theoretical accounts of bodiliness, desire, transcendence and God, to a richer and more incarnational account of the human creature in relation to God, neighbour and cosmos.
The Negative Dimension of Contemporary Theology: Mysticism Revisited
In this paper I set out questions regarding the fundamental intelligibility of mystical discourse in the modern world. The key point of reference is the debate between Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida at Villanova in 1997 (published in Caputo and Scanlon, eds., ‘God, the Gift and Postmodernism’, 1999). The Husserlian term ‘intuition’ is brought under scrutiny. I argue for the fundamental dislocation of Marion’s use of this term from the cognitive terminology deployed by Eckhart for instance. The paper gives a brief history of the post-Kantian terminology of ‘transcendental’ cognition, again raising questions concerning its fundamental intelligibility, and concludes with an analysis of the distinctions between the self of pre-modernity and modernity which underlie this disclocation. It is hoped that in this way a new hermeneutic of reading mystical texts across historical periods can be developed
Plotinus: Monist, Theist or Atheist?
The Neoplatonic tradition, of which Plotinus is the acknowledged founder, developed alongside the early Christian mystical tradition, and exhibits a similar tendency to apophaticism. Yet whereas “God” is a datum of Christian thought, Platonic speculation on the nature of the highest principle need not take an overtly theistic form. Plotinus, whose preferred name for this principle is the One, has often been represented as a monist or pantheist rather than a theist; since, like other Platonists, he does not engage in a visible cult of the one or assign to it any conscious superintendence of mortal affairs, it has even been suggested that he is one of the few known atheists of antiquity. This paper tests a number of recent interpretations against the relevant passages of the Enneads of Plotinus
Ignatian Spirituality: The Mystical within the Church
The Ignatian spiritual tradition implies both a strong sense of God working immediately within the creature and a commitment to the institution of the Church. This paper explores how a Jamesian account of 'mysticism' might be extended in such a way as to accommodate such a vision.
Prophecy and the Contemplation of History: Hugh of St. Victor and Peter John Olivi
This paper examines the Franciscan theologian Peter John Olivi’s (c.1247-1298) conception of prophecy, particularly as seen in his commentary on the Book of Isaiah. It argues that Olivi views prophecy as a crucial part of contemplative and mystical experience precisely because of the importance of an engagement with time and history. Olivi’s work is usually read in relation to that of the twelfth-century abbot Joachim of Fiore, whose predictions of the last age of history caused turmoil within the Franciscans, which helped bring about Olivi’s condemnation. But, Olivi’s understanding of the nature and purpose of prophecy can also be read in light of the far less threatening theology of another twelfth-century thinker, Hugh of St. Victor, with whom Olivi was very familiar. In this way, Olivi’s linking of prophecy to broader contemplative experiences rooted in meditations on history becomes a continuation of the Victorine’s work. Mysticism, for both, finds some of its deepest wellsprings in the course of sacred history within the flux of time.
The Visibility of the Invisible in Nicholas of Cusa
Our modern understanding of science and culture builds on two key concepts: a representationalist concept of space that presupposes the unification of arithmetic and geometry; and the concept of subjective autonomy. The theoretical formulation of these concepts can be traced back to Descartes’ Discours de la méthode, which was published together with his Dioptrics and Geometry in 1637. However, as I will demonstrate in a forthcoming book, both concepts had already rapidly emerged 200 years earlier after architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s public ‘demonstrations’ of the linear perspective in Florence in 1425. The modern concepts of science and culture were not invented by scientists, but were rather the outcome of an artistic vision of space. This explains why the accompanying vision of scientific realism was successful despite its anti-realist presuppositions and mathematical flaws.
In 1435 Leon Battista Alberti provided in his book De pictura what is assumed to be the first theoretical account of the principles that stood behind Brunelleschi’s experiments. This account built on Biagio Pelacani da Parma’s mathematization of the visual space with which he became acquainted at the lectures of Biagio’s disciple Prosdocimus de’ Beldomandis during his study time in Padua. Nicholas of Cusa may have met Alberti during these lectures, and he certainly made his acquaintance later at the ‘Florentine Stammtisch’ of his close friend Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli where Brunelleschi was also present. In his first philosophical book De docta ignorantia of 1440-42 Cusa developed a more mathematically rigorous account of the mathematization of space that avoids the simplifications of Alberti, and displays amazing similarities to the alternative liturgical vision of space in the north Burgundy paintings of artists such as Jan van Eyck. Eventually, in 1453, Cusa sent a little book to the Monks of the Monastery of Tegernsee entitled On the vision of God. This book included a comprehensive deconstruction of Alberti’s concepts of space, perspectivity, and subjective autonomy. My paper will provide a short introduction to this text.
Augustine’s Mystical Appropriation of the Trinity
Augustine’s great speculative work, On the Trinity, is something of a conundrum for scholars interested in his mysticism. Is On the Trinity a work of doctrinal clarification or intended for contemplative transformation? Probably both, but if so, how are doctrine and mysticism linked? In this paper, I shall attempt to read the text as one intended for personal appropriation on the journey towards contemplation. This possibility is alluded to by modern scholars, but little explored (in contrast to mystical readings by Augustine’s medieval readers). What does it mean to seek to appropriate this explicitly trinitarian and doctrinal form of mysticism? How does it ‘work’ and where does it lead? The focus will be on Augustine’s ‘image of God’ theology and his ‘psychological analogy’ for the Trinity in the human mind, as practical tools for human transformation. This appropriative and mystical reading of the text will be contrasted with readings that approach the text primarily for doctrinal explanation, at an impersonal level.
Mystical Theology Today: Contemporary Experiments in the Making and Breaking of Images
This paper engages with mystical theology both as an academic discipline and as a crucial imaginative, contemplative activity arising in the context of communities of faith
In her prophetic and much-neglected text Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, the ‘Christian atheist’ Iris Murdoch explores critical aspects of twentieth century western spirituality. Her text also enacts a progressive via negativa. Revealing the extent to which consciousness, and its relation to an invisible transcendent reality (the Good), is defined by the receiving, exploring, and re-making of images (metaphysics), her writing is, I argue, genuinely mystical in sustaining both an apophatic and cataphatic moment: with reference to St John of the Cross, she appeals for the recognition of an ‘abyss’ into which all imagery must ultimately fall, and yet out of which imagery is ceaselessly emerging. This movement is consistent with the Platonic content of her vision, in particular her engagement with the dialectics of the Cave, and the central metaphysical placement of a Sun too bright to look upon.
Yet the iconoclastic pilgrimage Murdoch prescribes is not only the outworking of a distinctly negative mysticism, but a response to the alleged disappearance of ‘traditional’ Judaeo-Christian religion - of traditional images of the divine - from western consciousness. With prophetic urgency Murdoch appeals for the preservation of a concept of holiness: of the unconditioned, of reverence, as the indispensable ‘mystical’ essence of a true religion ‘above the gods’. I consider how the contemporary Church in the west finds itself commissioned to create a new theological imaginary: and explore whether developments within the Emerging Church movement – insofar as these involve a reconsideration of received images of theological concepts – locate the radical playground of a contemporary theological mysticism, at the boundaries of the making and breaking of images
Mysticism and the Corporeal: A Feminine Approach to God?
Evelyn Underhill was a remarkable pioneer both in the work she undertook for her first major book, Mysticism (1911 and many reprints as it was ‘updated’) but in the theology she worked out from it, with Christ in person the paradigm mystic. The Latin Mass of her day she deemed to be recapitulating Christ’s own experience in some sense, as well as re-presenting the stability and growth of his ‘Body’ in the Eucharist. Once recommitted to the Church of England in 1921 at a time of liturgical revision and in a deeply troubled political era, she accidentally established herself in effect as the first woman ‘retreat director’. Her concentration on Christ’s sacrifice led her to embrace pacifism as Europe lurched into World War 11. Her final major book, Worship (1936) reveals her continuing preoccupation with the question of how Christology integrates with liturgy – or should so do! and therefore with the living of a distinctively Christian life.
The Maker’s Meaning: Divine Ideas and Salvation
The divine ideas tradition played a vital but often unrecognized role in the history of Christian theology. This paper investigates the possible loss to theology by examining how the divine ideas doctrine permitted a unified theology of creation and salvation, centred upon the contemplation of all things in Christ. Interpreting examples from Origen, Augustine, Eriugena, Bonaventure and Aquinas, the paper demonstrates that leading theologians understood the full truth of all creatures to be known eternally by God in the procession of the Word, that the incarnation of the Word restores the possibility of encountering and contemplating the truth of the creatures as known in God, and that by Christ's death and resurrection the creatures are understood to be freed from their false identities as distorted by sin and re-created in unity with the eternal truth of themselves as known by God in the Word. In almost every case, these approaches to soteriology have a profoundly mystical basis and implications.
The function and limits of human action: Meister Eckhart and the everyday
The paper will discuss the double-sided model of human action to be found in Eckhart’s vernacular sermons and treatises. On the one hand, he draws on the day-to-day concerns he shares with his listeners, and uses concrete images from their immediate experience. In everyday language, he urges his audience to cultivate self-critical and flexible habits in relation to themselves, and his sermons function as examples of the self-overcoming they describe. On the other hand, Eckhart’s model radically questions human agency. For Eckhart, we can do nothing to get closer to God because God is where we already are. His preaching is thus situated in everyday life (it is not a mysticism of withdrawal), and yet at the same time, it calls in question the very idea of human action. The particular appeal of this model for 21st-century attempts to re-think agency can be shown, on the one hand, by a comparison of Eckhart’s approach with the ways in which Augustine, in his Confessions, and Eckhart’s disciple Heinrich Seuse, in his autobiographical Exemplar, attempt more actively and more interferingly to mould the behaviour of their readers, fostering human action as a form of social and spiritual control, and preparing the way for modern habits of self-monitoring. On the other hand, a comparison of Eckhart’s approach with the position of the later Foucault shows how the idea of ‘techniques of the self’ can be productively transformed. The techniques communicated in Eckhart’s vernacular texts circumscribe a domain of actions, the habits of self-fashioning and self-abandonment, but at the same time they also open up a space where nothing more happens than what was already happening anyway and everywhere: our everyday life as the site of an unfolding that we can no longer call God’s unfolding
Witnessing the Passion in Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Divine Love: The veracity of ‘Seeing’ through Images and ‘Devout Imagination’
This paper explores the sense in which Julian of Norwich considers herself to be a witness at the Passion. It examines Julian’s debt to late Medieval Passion Meditation in relation to the elevated cognitive capacity that Bonaventure and Bonaventurean Passion manuals ascribe to the imagination, and consider the sense in which this may have impacted on the central role that Julian ascribes to the Incarnate Christ and the role of ruminative meditation. However, also reflecting on the ‘imagistic strategies of effacement’ that Gillespie and Ross note unsettle the referents underlying her imagery, it is argued that her employment of imagination goes beyond that advocated in many Passion manuals, challenging the sense that imagination is a simple reproductive capacity.
The Return of Mysticism— the Eternal Return of ‘the Same’?
The paper considers the question of how contemporary interest in mysticism and, especially, negative theology may have arisen from themes in recent philosophy of religion, especially the supposed ‘negative theology’ of deconstruction. However, it is argued that, in many ways, interest in these themes has been a constant of 20th century philosophy of religion. But there is a significant difference between the kind of postulate of a universal mystical experience proposed by much writing at the beginning of the 20th century and contemporary discussions that presuppose the writings of the later Heidegger and Derrida. This difference has to do with understandings of time and language and the nuancing of the ‘not’ of negative theology in the light of the ‘not-yet’ of radical eschatology. Mysticism as it is experienced and understood today is not therefore a case of ‘the eternal return of the same’ but a mode of human beings’ historicity
Mysterium Horrendum: Mysticism and the Negative Numinous
According to Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy, while elements of a so-called 'mysticism of horror' are well-acknowledged in Hindu traditions, this remains an under-recognised, yet undeniably present, strain in Western Christian mysticism. This paper explores Otto's account of the 'negative numinous' with specific reference to the under-examined notion of the mysterium horrendum: a variant of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans in which the element of dread is 'cut loose' and 'intensified', even to the point of 'the demonic'. Drawing particular attention to accounts of the darkness, absence, and wrath of God in Western mystical literature, I contend that the mysterium horrendum remains a vital facet of Christian mysticism which is ultimately resistant to sublimation by rational forces.
Mysticism as Object of Inquiry in the Writings of James and Troeltsch
From 1904-1912, Ernst Troeltsch took keen interest in a number of the psychological and philosophical works of William James. This interest is explicitly reflected by discussions or references to James in no fewer than five of Troeltsch’s publications. This paper explores the respects in which Troeltsch’s reading of James influenced the problematic configuration of Troeltsch’s Mystic-type as presented in The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. My suggestion is that, in part, the construction of the Social Teachings typology of Church-type, Sect-type, and Mystic-type, is influenced by Troeltsch’s reflective interaction with James’s empiricism and individualistic psychology. Specifically, I argue that Troeltsch’s construal of “mysticism” might serve as a bridge category that relates the individualistic psychology he develops in conversation with James’s thought to the sociology of “Church” and “Sect.”
The Apophatic Potential of Augustine’s De doctrina christiana: creatures as signs of God
This paper will draw on sign/thing and use/enjoyment distinctions in Augustine's De doctrina christiana in order to develop an understanding of creatures as signs of God. A semiotic construal of the creator/creature relation will in turn be used to ground an apophaticism according to which words signify God indirectly by way of their transformation of human creatures, making these creatures better signs of God.
‘To Centre or Not to Centre?’ Ss. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross and the ‘Centre of the Soul’
This paper arises from a reflection on the current trend to talk about ‘centering’ or ‘focussing’ prayer. Recently, whilst leading a seminar on the writings of St.Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582), the question arose as to what is meant by the ‘centre of the soul’ in Teresa’s writings. Having spent some time studying Teresa’s writing and trying to elucidate her psychological conception of the self in my recently published The Return to the Mystical (Tyler 2011), my immediate response was to say ‘But there is no centre in Teresa’s soul!’ Having said this both myself, and my audience, were struck by the oddness of this statement. The consequence was that I had to return to Teresa’s writings to see exactly what she meant by the ‘centre of the soul’ in her writings. The result is this paper.
Neither money nor delights, but daily bread: Meister Eckhart on the greatest temptation
According to Eckhart, the petition of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘neither about money nor about delights, but daily bread’. And yet, not money but delights are the real temptations, the replacement of the daily bread. ‘Money’ in the singular stands for material wealth, but also for anything earthly that does not necessarily build an obstacle to conversing with the Divine, while ‘delicious objects’ encompass the highest spiritual aspirations, including the search for eternal life and God Himself. Instead, as Eckhart states, the Lord asks us to wish for bread, daily bread, bread for the day, day by day. And he clarifies that it is not to be mistaken by the daily Eucharist – on the contrary, the latter can be less important than the stepping on a single stone.
‘Mysticism’ as a social type of Christianity? Ernst Troeltsch’s interpretation in its historical and systematic context
While it is well known that Ernst Troeltsch in his monumental treatment of The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches introduced church and sect as sociological types to describe typical formations of historical Christianity, his claim that ‘mysticism’ is a third such type is usually neglected. However, for Troeltsch this last type held out particular promise for religion in a modern, individualised society. It is the purpose of my paper to introduce Troeltsch’s argument within the context of his larger theological and sociological thinking. I will also contextualise it within a particular Protestant tradition of constructing and using mysticism in theological discussion. I shall ask what justification, if any, a use of ‘mysticism’ as sociological type could have and whether Troeltsch’s approach can explain some current interest in the topic.