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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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THE PRESENCE OF GOD A History of Western Christian Mysticism

The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany: Volume IV in the Presence of God Series by Bernard McGinn (Herder & Herder) The most eagerly awaited book in Catholic publishing! Bernard McGinn, the greatest scholar of Western Christian mysticism, offers the fourth volume of his Presence of God series, covering the greatest mystics of Germany, including Jan van Ruusbroeck, Meister Eckhart, and John Tauler.

The Harvest of Mysticism is a tour de force study of medieval German mysticism from Thomas Aquinas and his master, Albert the Great, to Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. This volume's importance rests not only in its comprehensive study of the fertile period which produced Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, and Henri Suso, but in its lucid discussion of the "problem" of mysticism as it comes to the fore in this era. A monumental achievement both in its historical sweep and for its conceptual rigor. Lawrence S. Cunningham, John A. O'Brien Professor of Theology, The University of Notre Dame. 

Excerpt: This fourth volume of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism has been long in gestation. Over the course of five years its scope and arrangement have evolved in ways that I had not foreseen, yet that became increasingly clear and even necessary as the research and writing progressed.

The original plan for a volume entitled The Harvest of Mysticism envisaged a study of all the major mystical literature between ca. 1300 and ca. 1500. The greater number of these texts are in the developing vernacular languages of Western Europe, especially German, Dutch, English, and Italian; but there is also a significant body of learned Latin texts of a mystical character. (Some of the most popular vernacular texts were translated into Latin to give them an international audience.) While the fourteenth century has been rightly called "the Golden Age of English mysticism," and while Italian mysticism boasts the towering figure of Catherine of Siena, and Dutch mysticism that of John Ruusbroec (let alone the other important writers in both languages), I think it fair to say it was in German-speaking lands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that the greatest production of mystical literature, a true harvest, is to be found. These two centuries saw the emergence of so many significant mystics and so extensive a proliferation of mystical texts that it eventually proved impossible to include it all in a single bookat least one of the character that I have intended for the volumes in this ongoing account of Western mysticism.

The writing of the volume began in early 2000, during the year when I was fortunate enough to enjoy the hospitality and scholarly fellowship of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. I began work on what I hoped would be the chapter (or chapters) devoted to Meister Eckhart, the central figure of late medieval Germany and one of the premier mystics of the Christian tradition. Although I had read, taught, and translated Eckhart for decades, and written several shorter studies of his mystical thought, it was a revelation for me to reread the whole of his corpus and the recent extensive literature on the Dominican, much of it corrective of previous studies. The upshot was a book, rather than a long chapter or series of chapters. The volume was published by Crossroad-Herder in 2001 under the title The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing. In the course of writing that book I identified a key mystical theme, that of the grunt, or ground, the "explosive metaphor" (Sprengmetapher) expressing the fused identity of God and human that for me stood at the heart of Eckhart's mystical teaching. Created by Eckhart, utilized and transformed by his successors, the mysticism of the ground is a way of identifying much of what is new about late medieval German mysticism. A considerably shorter, and in some particulars revised, version of that volume on Eckhart appears as the longest chapter in this book. It is introduced by a short chapter on the nature of the mysticism of the ground.

By 2002 I was at work on two major mystics, Henry Suso and John Tauler, who were students of Eckhart, at least in the broad sense. Suso was probably the most read mystic of the late Middle Ages, with many hundreds of manuscripts surviving. Tauler, on the other hand, especially owing to his influence on Luther and acceptance in the Protestant tradition has the distinction of being the most continuously read of medieval German mystics, by both Catholics and Protestants. These two Dominicans developed Eckhart's mysticism in their own ways, despite the papal condemnation of some of the master's views in 1329. It would be a mistake to reduce these significant mystics to the status of mere followers of Eckhart, but it would be difficult to provide an adequate account of their thought without attention to how they used Eckhart's mysticism of the ground within their own attempts to deal with the intimate encounter between God and human that is the core of mysticism.

In order to understand the theological background for the mysticism of the ground presented by these three towering Germans, one needs to look at their Dominican predecessors, particularly the way the preachers read the fountainhead of all mystical theology in the Middle Ages, the pseudo-apostolic Dionysius. Hence, there was need for an introductory chapter investigating the mystical theology of Thomas Aquinas, the official doctor of the Dominican order, as well as that of his teacher, the German master

Albert the Great, who was the founding father of a distinctive German Dominican philosophical and theological school.

Eckhart's condemnation was both a symptom and a cause: symptom, in the sense of reflecting growing suspicions of dangerous mysticism in the late Middle Ages; cause, because of the impact it continued to have on debates on mysticism over the next two centuries and more. Hence, a chapter on the relation of mysticism and heresy in the late Middle Ages soon emerged as a second prolegomenon for understanding the German mystics, and indeed all later Western mysticism.

These six chapters already constituted a decent-sized book. By late 2003 I reluctantly realized that to do justice to the wealth of other mystical literature (and art) in late medieval Germany it would be impossible to include the major mystical traditions of England, the Low Countries, and Italy in this volume. I had already decided that a chapter would have to be devoted to the mystical elements in the thought of that prodigious thinker Nicholas of Cusa. The Renaissance cardinal's contributions were many, and in many fields, not least in mystical theology. But the resources for the story of mysticism in late medieval Germany were by no means to be exhausted by consideration of the giants from Eckhart to Cusa. One of the most striking things about mysticism in German-speaking lands between 1300 and 1500 is the way in which mystical teaching was disseminated on a broad level to a much wider audience than ever before. Although the fourteenth century was the era of the most impressive creativity, the manuscript and early printed evidence shows that the fifteenth century was the age of greater spread of mystical literature. This phenomenon could not be neglected.

As I sought to bring the remaining materials into some coherent shape during 2004, I was privileged to be the recipient of an Emeritus Faculty Research Grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. I am indebted to the Mellon Foundation for its generosity, which has done much to expedite the completion of this long volume. During this final year of its gestation, the now entitled Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany achieved final shape in the ten chapters presented here. Along with the chapter on Nicholas of Cusa, chapters 7 to 9 were written during this time to provide a structure for beginning to appreciate the variety and the originality of the wealth that survives from this rich harvest.


Bernard McGinn, the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, is widely regarded as the preeminent scholar of mysticism in the Western Christian tradition. He has also written extensively on Jewish mysticism, the history of apocalyptic thought, and medieval Christianity. A cum laude graduate of St. Joseph's Seminary and College in Yonkers, NY, he earned a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1963 and a Ph.D. in history from Brandeis University in 1970. After teaching theology for a year at The Catholic University of America, he joined the Chicago faculty in 1969 as an instructor in theology and the history of Christianity and was appointed a full professor nine years later. Dr. McGinn was named to the Donnelley chair in 1992. He retired in 2003.     The recent recipient of a Mellon Foundation Emeritus Grant, he also has held a       Fulbright-Hays Research Fellowship, an American Association of Theological Schools research award, two research fellowships for work at the Institute for Advanced Study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a research fellowship at the Institute for Ecumenical and Culture Research at St. John's University, and a Lily Foundation Senior Research Fellowship. Dr. McGinn has delivered invited lectures at some one hundred colleges and universities in North America, Europe, and Israel. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Medieval Academy of America.  Past-president of the International Society for the Promotion of Eriugenean Studies, the American Society of Church History, and the American Catholic Historical Association, he is member of the board of The Eckhart Society. He served as        editor-in-chief of the Paulist Press series Classics of Western Spirituality and currently serves as a member of the editorial boards of Cistercian Publications, The Encyclopedia of World Spirituality, The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, and Spiritus. The author of some 150 articles in scholarly journals, he has been the editor or co-editor of ten books, including two volumes of the works of the German Dominican theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart and (with John J. Collins and Stephen J. Stein) The Continuum History of Apocalypticism (2003). The most recent of his fifteen books are the third volume of a projected five-volume series on Christian mysticism in the West, The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism, 1200-1350 (1998), The Doctors of the Church: Thirty-Three Men and Women who Shaped Christianity (1999), his highly-acclaimed Meister Eckhart's Mystical Thought: The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing (2001), and (with his wife Patricia Ferris McGinn) Early Christian Mystics: The Divine Vision of the Spiritual Masters, an introductory guide to selected mystics, which was published by Crossroad in 2003.

THE FLOWERING OF MYSTICISM: Men and Women in the New Mysticism, 1200-1350 by Bernard McGinn ($60.00, hardcover, 526 pages, Crossroad; ISBN: 0824517423) PAPERCOVER

This history will become the definitive introductory narrative to Christian spirituality. Most reviews have exuded praise. Encyclopedic in its erudition, masterful in style, up-to-date in scholarly opinion and research, one finds it hard not to lavish praise on this much needed history of the whole of western Christian mysticism. McGinn's significant analytic move is to define mysticism as the experience of the "presence of God," rather than in the more common but conceptually more difficult to delineate, "union with God." By making this important concession to the complexity of the tradition, McGinn has managed to accommodate a phenomenology of religious experience that avoids unnecessary conceptual issues.

The year 1200 marks a dynamic turning point in the history of Christian mysticism. New forms of religious life, especially the Franciscan and Dominican orders and the independent religious women known as Beguines, provided the impetus for a "new mysticism" whose influence continues today. THE FLOWERING OF MYSTICISM documents the spirited dialogue between men and women that made possible the richness of mysticism in the 13th and 14th centuries. Never before has the theological and spiritual significance of this unprecedented era been explored with such freshness and depth.

Initially, McGinn undertook this work in an essentially chronological way that would fall into two parts. The first dealt with the period 1200-1350, arguably the richest era for the production of mystical literature in the whole history of Christianity. The second part dealt with subsequent developments from about 1350 to 1600, since he considers sixteenth-century mysticism, even that of the great Spanish mystics, to be in basic continuity with the major lines of the new mysticism created in the thirteenth century.

The patient reader who has perused volumes 1 and 2 of THE PRESENCE OF GOD will recall the deliberately broad understanding of mysticism that has been McGinn’s touchstone in writing this history. Naturally, the comments and critiques of reviewers, conversations with students, friends, and colleagues about mysticism and different aspects of its story, as well as his own continuing reading, have led him to further and deeper insights about the promise and some of the problems of this approach. Mechthild of Magdeburg, one of the beguine mystics treated in this volume, provided a warning that all (especially scholars) should heed when she said: "Foolishness is satisfied with itself alone; wisdom can never learn enough." Nevertheless, even in an era like the late Middle Ages when discussion of the nature and meaning of union with God was widespread, McGinn still continues to think that there are distinct advantages to maintaining the notion of consciousness of God’s presence in a deeper and more immediate way as the fundamental category for coming to terms with the full range of Christian mysticism, including the many ways of understanding unio mystica.

Volume 3 of THE PRESENCE OF GOD was reconceived to treat primarily three broad traditions or movements during the period 1200-1350: Franciscan mysticism; female mystics; and the speculative mysticism associated with Meister Eckhart and his followers. During the course of his research and writing for the first part of the volume that he renamed THE FLOWERING OF MYSTICISM, the variety and creativity of the mystical texts of the period, especially those created by women, newly appreciated and recovered from the tradition, demanded a further change in his plans. In order to do justice to the movements beginning about 1200, particularly the "mystical conversation" between men and women that was central to the evolution of the new mysticism, McGinn ascertained that it would not be possible to treat all three traditions in a single volume, even one of considerable size. Since the third tradition, that of speculative mysticism, was chronologically later than the other two, not originating until the latter part of the thirteenth century, McGinn found it necessary to postpone its treatment until the following volume of this history. Although the mystical teaching initiated by the German Dominicans certainly had links to aspects of the mystical life and literature of early fourteenth-century women, the two central strands or traditions treated in this study can, on the whole, be understood independently of the study of Eckhart, his predecessors, and followers.

Hence, in this volume entitled THE FLOWERING OF MYSTICISM: Men and Women in the New Mysticism (1200-1350), the reader will not find Meister Eckhart or his predecessors (among whom Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas must be numbered, at least in some respects). Nor will one find chapters devoted to his followers, such as Henry Suso and John Tauler among the Dominicans, and even the great John Ruusbroec, who, despite his independence of mind, was touched by Eckhart’s thought. The important male mystics who lived and wrote between 1300 and 1350 will appear in the next volume, to be entitled CONTINUITY AND CHANGE IN WESTERN MYSTICISM. This fourth volume will overlap chronologically with the present book in its first part, but extend well beyond it through the late medieval and early modem periods. Volume 4 of THE PRESENCE OF GOD will also consider the ongoing contribution of women mystics in the late Middle Ages, not only well known names like Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich but also many who are lesser known. Nor did the history of Franciscan mysticism end with 1350; the tradition carried forward, among both male and female Franciscans. These too will be treated in the next volume.

The subtitle of this volume expresses what McGinn have come to see as central to the creation of the new mysticism of the period after 1200. In responding to reactions to the first two volumes in this history (at least those that accept the modern construct of "mysticism" as a tool for making sense of this aspect of the Christian past), he has at times been taken to task for neglecting the role of women. The historical theologian, however, is limited not to what should have been and what even may have been but does not survive, but only to what the evidence actually conveys to us. While recent scholarship has done much to recover the history of women before 1200, the evidence for a major contribution by women to mysticism prior to the thirteenth century is so far lacking. It is in the decades immediately after 1200 that we witness the beginnings of a flood of writing about and by women mystics that was to reach epic proportions by the end of the century.

The treatment of the women mystics of the later Middle Ages, both in this volume and promised in the next, reflects a different perspective from that of many of their recent investigators and supporters. Without the contributions of contemporary feminist scholarship, the history of medieval thought would probably not have come to a deeper appreciation of most of these women, especially those whose stories have been all too easily dismissed as impossible and extreme. Even the women mystics who were themselves authors have left us writings that are often difficult to decipher by historians of theology more habituated to linear, scholastic modes of thinking. Despite the many ways in which he has profited from feminist scholarship on medieval women mystics, however, THE FLOWERING OF MYSTICISM is written not from a feminist perspective but from that of a historical theologian attempting to do justice to the full range of late medieval mysticism. From this perspective it does not seem fruitful, or even possible, to identify a single "women’s mysticism" in the later Middle Ages. There are, to be sure, mystical themes and practices that were pioneered by women, and there are significant differences in how women used language to express their sense of the mystery of God. But rarely, if ever, do we find an aspect of the new mysticism that belongs to women alone. Even more significant is the amazing variety that characterized the women, again notwithstanding the many themes they shared in conveying their message about how to attain loving union with God. It seems far more important to celebrate the diversity of the contribution of women than to search for an elusive unity.

Along with this emphasis on difference, three other aspects of the role of women in the flowering of mysticism have emerged more clearly to the author as this volume was being written. The first is the way in which the impossible task of expressing how God encounters humans in some direct way encouraged mystics to question the gender roles and ways of understanding and expressing them that characterized medieval society. Beginning with Caroline Walker Bynum’s research of two decades ago down through much recent literature represented in his copious notes, scholars have come to recognize the gender malleability by which mysticism challenged medieval society and continues to challenge us as well. Once again, however, we should note that this quest to modify, to transmute, and even to transcend gender was by no means restricted to women.

A second aspect concerns the variety of genres and perspectives in the evidence at our disposal. While hagiography played a role in the development of Christian mysticism before 1200 (think of Athanasius’s Life of Antony, or Gregory the Great’s presentation of Benedict in the second book of the Dialogues), this complex genre becomes much more important in the era of the new mysticism. A good deal of the evidence for the contribution of women is to be found in the lives written about them by their male clerical confessors and guides, though as the period wore on women also began to compose vitae about other holy women. The fourteenth century saw the development of what some scholars have termed "autohagiographies," that is, narratives in which an author presents aspects of her or his own life as a model of suffering in imitation of Christ’s passion and the reception of "divine consolations." All hagiography is didactic, intended not so much to give a historical account of a life as to teach a lesson about how to live. The male-authored lives of holy women tell us how men wanted to present the message contained in the lives of these women, something that was often not quite the same as what the women thought about themselves, or how they formulated their own teaching, whether in hagiographical form or not. It is not that there is no relation between the two perspectives, but rather that we always need to be sensitive to both the variety of viewpoints and the interchanges between men and women present in the evidence at our disposal.

It is precisely because of this interchange that McGinn has appealed to the model of conversation as a helpful way of understanding the complexity of the roles of men and women in the new mysticism. Conversation as encounter, as dialogue, as interchange of horizons which opens up the conversation partners to change and adaptation seems to me not only evident in the mystical texts of the time but also significant in the creation of the new forms of religious life that formed the historical matrix of the new mysticism. THE FLOWERING OF MYSTICISM should help us to overhear these conversations, perhaps even to take a part in them, as we continue to learn from this amazing era.

The limits that hamper attempts to overhear these conversations are many and serious. All our efforts will be unsatisfactory in many ways. What we can recover is always partial, but some participation is better than none. The mystical quest for deeper contact with God of its very nature involves failure, both in attainment and in expression. Augustine of Hippo, who was read and admired by almost all the mystics studied in this volume, knew this well. In his Enarrations on the Psalms he put it this way: Let human voices keep silent, let human thoughts take their rest; they reach out to incomprehensible things not as if they could take them in their grasp, but only to share in them; and share in them we shall.

THE PRESENCE OF GOD: A History of Western Christian Mysticism

THE FOUNDATIONS OF MYSTICISM: Origins to the Fifth Century by Bernard McGinn ($24.95, papercover; 494 pages, Crossroad, ISBN: 0-8245-1404-1)

THE GROWTH OF MYSTICISM: Gregory the Great through the 12th Century by Bernard McGinn ($24.95, papercover; 630 pages, bibliography, index, Crossroad ISBN: 0-8245-1450-5)

THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF APOCALYPTICISM by Bernard McGinn (Editor), John Joseph Collins (Editor), Stephen J. Stein (Editor) ($285.00, hardcover, 1500 pages, Continuum Pub Group; ISBN: 0826410871)

Review pending. This reference work will redefine the way intertestamental studies are interpreted for the next century.

MEISTER ECKHART AND THE BEGUINE MYSTICS: Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porte
Bernard McGinn ($19.95, paper; 166 pages,
Chiron Pubns; ISBN: 0826409296)

Beguine mysticism has come under renewed scrutiny with the growing interest in women's religion. As members of certain Roman Catholic religious communities for women, the Beguines were prominent in northwestern Europe from the 12th to the 14th century. They differed from ordinary nuns in that most did not take permanent vows, promising only to do good works and not to marry as long as they lived in the community. The first communities of Beguines were organized about 1170 by the revivalist priest Lambert le Bgue in Lige, Belgium. The foundation of such groups reflected the general flowering of the religious life among the laity in the towns of northern Europe during the later Middle Ages.
The communities of Beguines also served as refuges for women left widowed or unmarried by the participation of large numbers of men in the Crusades. The members frequently lived in individual apartments in a large, separately enclosed section of town called the Beguinage. They dressed in distinctive costumes and spent their days in prayer, education, care of the sick, and work such as weaving. At first, the Beguinages received women from all social classes, but gradually many of the establishments were transformed into poor houses for destitute girls and widows. Some of the Beguines were assimilated into other religious orders, and a few still remain in Belgium. The heritage of spiritual prayer and rigorous contemplative prayer was also an important aspect of the Beguine heritage. The relationship of some of these women mystics' works, only recently recovered and opens to study, shows important links to the Rhineland mysticism of Meister Eckhart. This collection of essays explores some parts of this mystical and protofeminist legacy.

WOMEN AND SPIRITUAL EQUALITY IN CHRISTIAN TRADITION by Patricia Ranft ($39.95, hardcover, 288 pages St, Martins Press ISBN: 0312159110)

WOMEN AND SPIRITUAL EQUALITY IN CHRISTIAN TRADITION challenges the common assumption in contemporary discourse that Christianity is exclusively misogynist by documenting the influential presence of a long, strong and positive tradition based on women’s spiritual equality. In some ways this title helps to fill in the gaps in the record for ealier centuries claimed by McGinn in his most recent study of mysticism, THE FLOWERING OF MYSTICISM. In chronological order, references and images of women in church writings and lay culture are explored, as well as the actual lives of women and their vitae Patricia Ranft shows how the accumulated evidence provides persuasive date that this positive tradition coexisted with the more notorious misogynist tradition. For a millennium and a half Ranft reveals, Christianity possessed the lone voice in society that posited women’s equality in any aspect. She argues that without knowledge of this tradition, our understanding of the history of Western women is significantly incomplete. WOMEN AND SPIRITUAL EQUALITY IN CHRISTIAN TRADITION is the first lengthy study to document such a tradition and it gives long overdue life to the previously muted voices of women’s equality in Western society’s discourse on women. Well written and engaging, it fills a significant gap in the areas of ecclesiastical and women’s history.

Patricia Ranft is Professor of History at Central Michigan University. She has published extensively on medieval and ecclesiastical history. Her Women and Religious Life in Premodern Europe (St. Martin's Press, 1996) was a History Book Club selection.

University of Notre Dame Press Inaugurates New Series:
Studies in Spirituality and Theology

The Soul as Virgin Wife
Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart
by Amy Hollywood
University of Notre Dame Press
$32.95, cloth; 360 pages, bibliography, index
ISBN 0-268-01753-0

Angelic Wisdom
The Cherubim and the Grace of Contemplation in Richard of St. Victor
by Steven Chase
University of Notre Dame Press
$32.95, cloth; 320 pages, bibliography, index
ISBN 0-268-00644-X

These two volumes inaugurate a new series from the University of Notre dame press, "Studies in Spirituality and theology." If they are representative of the caliber of work to be published, then we are fortunate indeed to have this new series that is breathing contemporary relevance into the great figures of Western Christian spiritual history.

One of the major contributions to scholarship in the last 20 years has been the firm recovery and analysis of women's voices and experience in the mystical encounter. Hollywood takes on a difficult subject that has been the object of centuries of ridicule. The importance of the symbolic and relational role of the soul as virgin wife, of Martha, the virgin and wife is central to the meaning of the feminine in Western Christendom, especially in its contemplative traditions.

Hollywood explores how two Beguinal spiritual writers, Mechthild of Magdeburg and Marguerite Porete various creative works arising out of their mystical experience, interweave with Meister Eckhart, the great Rhineland mystic. It is often noted that the erotic and image rich mysticism of Mechthild is on the face of it, in opposition to the radically apophatic, anti-image language of Eckhart.

Hollywood shows how actually they are deeply united in creative paradox, a paradoxicality that challenges the sexual common places of its time. All three writers claim a union in God without distinction of divine from soul. This liberation of body is linked to the divine freedom. Both Mechthild and Porete carry on an explicit dialectical mysticism of presence and absence, immanence and transcendence, all and nothing.

Hollywood's work has achieved a major theoretical reading of Beguine mysticism, one that brings them into contemporary relevance well beyond mere historic curiosity and to the universal mystical assertion of the supreme freedom in union with God.

Balance and insight grace this carefully written account of the nature of contemplative wisdom as the ground for encounter with the divine. Richard of St. Victor was a major guide to the contemplative life in the High Middle Ages. His view of practical contemplation and degrees of mystical vision set the tone for later scholastic developments. Chase structures his careful study upon the six degrees of contemplative prayer as analogous to the six wings of the cherubim from the foundational vision of St. Francis.

The devotional and anagogic symbolism of Richard sets forth various functions of how we mediate the consciousness of the immediate presence of God. This mystical theology is silent about Christ. Chase offers an explanation based upon the apophatic, negative way theology as opposed to the cataphatic encounter with incarnate God. This work will be great fodder for mystics worth their salt.

Power Gender and Christian Mysticism
by Grace M. Jantzen
Cambridge University Press
$64.95, hardcover; 384 pages; illustrated
ISBN 0-521-47376-4

$18.95, paper; 384 pages; illustrated
ISBN 0-521-47926-6

In this ambitious study Jantzen surveys the major trends in Christian mysticism with a biting sensitivity to gender issues in ideology and theology. Taking issue with the modern common core theorists, Jantzen argues for a healthy religious pluralism, even protest, in mystical formulations. The idea of mysticism as a private intense experience is a modern construct deriving from Friedrich Schleiermacher and William James who constructed their views of from a piecemeal appropriation of mystical statements out of biographical and cultural context.

Jantzen's approach to the history of mysticism is deconstructionist but without the fancy jargon. She shows how what is called mysticism has gone through a series of cultural constructions, for example from initiatory experience based in ritual or as a method to inner meaning of scripture. In the high Middle Ages Jantzen shows how mysticism became the basis of authority for visionary women as Julian of Norwich, Hadewijch, and Hildegard of Bingen. We are also shown how the masculine constructions of the mystical as in the author of the Cloud of Unknowing created definitions of mysticism that castigated the authority of women's experience. Each renewed construction of the mystical is viewed as a power struggle in the gender wars. As women have been marginalized, their source of mystical experience, has been denied or reshaped to make them honorary males or witches.

Jantzen marshals a mighty amount of evidence to make her central points. She ranges freely from Greek philosophy through the entire Western mystical tradition to German philosophy, William James, contemporary writings upon mysticism and the more recent deconstructionists. This work offers an important contribution to understanding the nature of the history of mysticism as impacted by gender and social power struggles.

Jantzen's project is influenced by Foucault. She endeavors to implement an archaeological or genealogical inquiry into how Christian mysticism is 'constructed'. But rather than focusing upon one instance, bolstered with details and rigorous analysis, she parleys a number of telling examples from distinct points in history, all of them as viewed through a hermeneutics of suspicion. Jantzen considers institutions that claim to be about practices and beliefs but are actually about who has power.

One could say that this work portrays a succession of historical sketches about the social construction of meanings of mysticism that is written up by one who has no passion for mysticism. Jantzen equivocates about how far the social construction of mysticism as the arbitrator of the object of mysticism.

She has a number of hermeneutical approaches conflated, some more adroitly integrated than others. Her evaluation of the relevance of mysticism per se is vague. Her historical approach is so broad that it must rely upon mostly secondary, though authoritative, sources than sound scholarship should trust. For generalists this study does offer many exciting possibilities and implications for understanding the meaning of mysticism in a historical perspective. Also her agenda is explicitly feminist that goes some of the way to amend for the oversights of Hollenback's tome, definitely one of the most sustained historical and comparative studies of mysticism to appear in years.


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