A Cheer or Two for Mystics PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Monday, 10 May 2010 15:32

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that contemporary theologians divide along this fault line: On the one side are those who take mystics seriously as theologians, while on the other are theologians who dismiss mystics or consider them pious and perhaps thrilling, but unserious.

Mystical theologians are often unguarded, extreme, un-nuanced, pressing to the edges of heresy, sometimes beyond.   Still, the mystics are worthy of study.  Why?

Many reasons.  Unlike some late medieval and post-Reformation dogmaticians, mystical theologians are often instinctively and richly Trinitarian.  Historical-critical approaches to Scripture left mystical theologians virtually untouched; mystics watch for details in the text in order not to dissect it but to unite more deeply with its Author.  Mystics know that textual meaning arises from an encounter with the text, not by detached “objective” analysis.  Mystical theologians have insisted that a theologian has to adhere to a set of practices, including bodily practices, to be a theologian at all, and thus have fought against the reduction of theology to academic puzzle-solving.  Mystics have little use for sharp distinctions of nature and grace, faith and reason, reason and revelation.  Mystics and mystic-leaning philosophers like Nicholas of Cusa, are not threatened by difference but know that difference is essential to knowledge.  John Milbank strikingly groups the controversial late medieval mystic Meister Eckhart together with Kierkegaard and Chesterton as thinkers who explored the overall logic of Christianity and accented the paradoxes inherent in Christian faith.

One more extended example illustrates: epistemology.  In the modern world, science has provided the paradigm of genuine “knowledge.”  Science claims to penetrate beyond the appearances that offer themselves to the senses and get to the real nature of things, offering reliable knowledge subject to testing and empirical verification.  Experimental operations are thought to produce objective truth as mechanically and automatically as a pin factory produces pins.

Theologians, in response, have too often been content to be shuttled out of the truth business altogether, escaping into the inner world of religious feeling and pretty ritual.  Other theologians have responded to the scientific imperialism of knowledge by attempting to makeover theology so that it can be the image of modern science.

Neither of these responses does what a mystical theologian would do – which is to challenge the scientific paradigm of knowing.  The marketers of science, if not scientists themselves, treat scientific knowledge as a product of pure human intellect that assembles the material sense experience, extended by instrumentation, and draws deductions or inductions from that evidence, in a process that somehow transcends the play and havoc of desire, love, will, envy, competition, and all the frailties of normal human experience and knowledge.

To mystics, this is pretentious nonsense.  It does not even describe actual scientific endeavor, a point that not long ago become clear in the stolen emails that drew back the curtain to reveal the mad pursuit that is contemporary climate science.  Why, a mystic would ask, engage in scientific activity at all unless one is driven by desire, a will to know the world’s secrets?  Even what is most intimate to us – our own self – resists our conceptual control, and the world, as the created effulgence of God’s glory, is equally elusive to the scientific gaze.

For mystics, knowing is a matter of “entering into mystery,” not an attempt to encompass God, His work, or His world.  We aim not at exhaustive knowledge but at what Nicholas Cusa called “learned ignorance”: “even he who is most greedy for knowledge can achieve no greater perfection than to be thoroughly aware of his own ignorance in his particular field. The more be known, the more aware he will be of his ignorance. It is for that reason that I have taken the trouble to write a little about informed ignorance.”

Human reason’s relation to truth, Cusa claimed, is the same as the relation of a polygon to a circle.  Multiply the polygon’s vertices to infinity, and it is still not a circle.  Analogously, “The real nature of what exists, which constitutes its truth, is therefore never entirely attainable. It has been sought by all the philosophers, but never really found.”  Paradoxically, this is not for Nicholas a counsel of despair; he does not conclude that we simply throw down our arms and give up the pursuit.  Precisely because the universe exceeds our grasp, our ignorance reveals the truth: “The further we penetrate into informed ignorance, the closer we come to the truth itself.”

What is striking is that this “mystical” epistemology acknowledges the limits of human knowing without collapsing into anti-intellectualism.  In part, this was due to a particular understanding of the nature of intellect (intellectus).  For medieval thinkers generally, intellect was not limited to discursive reason, but instead describes the openness of human beings to the world and to God.  Eckhart wrote that “the intellectual nature resembles as such God himself” because the intellect is “open to become all things and not this or that specifically determined being.”  In knowing an object, the intellect is that object in a different mode.  Even perception, the “lowest” sensible form of knowing, is union with the thing known: “If it . . . happens that my eye . . . is opened and directed towards the piece of wood in the act of seeing, then both remain what they are and yet both are so united through the act of seeing that we can truly say: ‘eye-wood,’ the wood is my eye.”

By the later middle ages, love and knowledge had been set in negative opposition to each other, so that, as Denys Turner has said, intellect “is simply bundled away at the point at which its affirmations fall.”  As a result, the union of love and knowledge inherent in Augustinian epistemology was “replaced with a simple bi-polarity of knowing and love.”  Increasingly the poles are set: Scientific rationalism or (mystical) anti-intellectualism.  The earlier mystical tradition, especially in a writer like Eckhart, combines a deep sense of the limits of human reason with a breath-taking intellectualism.  Eckhart was fond of quoting Augustine on the point: “The soul becomes like that which it loves,” and, more strongly, “we are what we love.”  Since knowledge is an act of love and will as well as intellect, the soul becomes like that which it loves.  In knowing God, the intellect, Eckhart says, becomes God.  You can see his point; but you can also see why Eckhart got into trouble with the authorities.

In addition to acknowledging the limits of human knowledge, the tradition of mystical epistemology also recognizes the dependence of reason.  Prior to Duns Scotus, mystical theology was not a branch of theology but a dimension of all theological inquiry, and this unity of mysticism and theology was partly “methodological.”  Since meditation on Scripture and participation in the Eucharist are prior to all theological formulation, it follows that “all of theology” is “mystical.” For all their flaws, mystics know that union with God through Christ and the Spirit, cultivated by Christian practice, is a prerequisite for genuine theological inquiry.

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