Volume 33 - Issue 1
Why Should Thoughtful Evangelicals Read the Medieval Mystics?
In a recent class on the medieval church, I did my traditional two hours on medieval mystics, covering
such personages as Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich.
I also included Thomas Aquinas to make the point that mysticism, at least in a medieval context,
does not exclude solid theological discussion, biblical exegesis, and propositional truth. Anyone who has
read Aquinas’s prayers can scarcely doubt that this was a man with a deep knowledge of the transcendent
mystery of God and of the fragility and inadequacy of his own language to express that.
Indeed, that is an important connection to make today. We live in a time when mysticism has become really rather trendy for a whole variety of reasons. When language is so often under suspicion as being something manipulative and deceptive, the symbolic and apocalyptic genres used by medieval mystics exert a certain appeal-genres that apparently place so much stock in the creative and/or emotional response of readers to the texts. Further, in a cosmos of consumerised commodities, where everything seems to be reduced to a mere cash transaction, the desire for mystery and transcendence is potentially satisfied by the very otherness of the mystics’ writings. Like the increasingly fabulous special effects of movies, or the intricate, kaleidoscopic plots of fantasy novels, these works strike a chord with some basic elements of the human craving for something more than the mundane, the banal, and the easily accessible. Finally, there is the whole notion of religious experience, as something separable from or prior to religious belief, that has opened up a place for mysticism within the modern religious marketplace. Whether this comes as a result of the tradition of analysis of religious experience pioneered by men like William James or Rudolph Otto, or writers such as Aldous Huxley and Herman Hesse, or through the pop culture impact of stars from The Beatles, with their interest in TM, to Madonna and her fascination with the Kabbalah, is irrelevant: for many, mystical experience is more important than dogmatic belief (whether theological or philosophical) and, indeed, frequently stands in opposition to the very notion of the possibility of such dogmas.
In such a world, the medieval mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich have proved popular. Their highly symbolic and visionary manner of expression appeals to a world tired of propositions. Their emphasis upon experience appeals to a world where experience is the hallmark of authenticity. Their frequent and positive allusions to the natural world (particularly the case with Hildegard) appeals to a world where environmental issues have come to the forefront of ethical discourse. And, of course, the fact that both Hildegard and Julian were women adds to their significance, making them obvious candidates for anyone who wants to focus on the role of women theologians in the medieval church and find there precedent for something similar today. Indeed, one could hardly do better than zoom in on the writings of these two ladies if one were looking for precedential figures for so much of the mystical experientialism which seems to underlie certain strands of modern evangelicalism.
Now, anyone who has read anything I have written or ever heard me speak will know that I have little sympathy with much of this stuff. I am committed to theological propositions, to truth, and, while I am, as it happens, something of an amateur environmentalist, I do not see that as an integral part of my theology, being more of a Lutheran Two-Kingdoms man than a Christian culture warrior. And, needless to say, I am no feminist nor ever likely to be plausibly accused of being one. Nevertheless, Ithink the medieval mystics should form a staple of the literary diet of all thoughtful Christians. Why? Well, several reasons spring to mind:
First, there is a sense of God’s holiness and transcendence in these works that is significantly absent from much modern writing and thinking about God. Of course, such can be misplaced—there are right notions of God’s transcendence and holiness and wrong notions of the same; but I would dare to say that a wrong notion of such is better than no notion at all. We live in a casual age when we stroll flippantly in and out of God’s presence. The mystics did not do so. Indeed, what makes them mystics is their sensitivity to their very smallness and insignificance before the vastness of God who, in himself, is unknowable and who has chosen to reveal himself in the fragile forms of human words and human flesh. If the theology often leaves much to be desired, it would seem that the answer is not to reject the ambition of the mystics but to combine this ambition with appropriate theology. For example, our theology should be shot through with reflection, for example, on the law of God in all of its terrifying demands upon us and on the mysterious—and sometimes disturbing—passages of the Old Testament that underscore that God’s ways are not our ways. The loss of a sense of God’s mysterious and awesome holiness surely lies at the root of much of today’s shambolic theology. Medieval mysticism is a sharp corrective to this, a reminder that when we have dealings with God, we should be aware that we tread on holy ground.
Second, for the medieval mystics, experience is not a separate category of religious life that can be isolated from the larger doctrinal concerns of the church. On the contrary, it is ineradicably doctrinal and connected to distinct beliefs. Take, for example, the mystical devotion to the Mass. Now, as an evangelical, I certainly want to protest the theology that underlies the Mass: the real presence of the whole Christ according to both natures is unbiblical; and the sacrificial connotations of the whole thing are equally unacceptable. But the point is that the mystical/experiential/affective dimension of devotion to the Mass presupposes doctrine. The Mass is not some noumenal thing that defies linguistic definition. It is precisely because it is defined and understood in a certain way that the medievals related to it as they did and came to offer their mystical reflections upon it. Today’s mystics, whether of the pagan or Christian kind, too often fail to make this connection. They buy in to the trendy soundbites about language, propositions, and truth, and offer a form of mystical experience that, in effect, stands prior to, and is more basic and real than, linguistic expression. In so doing, they therefore reverse the relationship of truth to experience.
Third, medieval mysticism is sometimes closer to our theology than we realize. Much of Christian mysticism has been preoccupied not so much with experience as with apophaticism. This is theology that speaks about God by denying things about him, so-called negative theology. By definition, this kind of theology cannot be ‘experienced’ in any usual sense of the word. Conservative evangelicals, of course, will often instinctively react against this idea. After all, has God not revealed himself to us so that we might know him in a positive way? Well, yes; but when you reflect upon the standard language of orthodox Christian theology, it is interesting how many words that we think are positive affirmations about God are, more properly, denials about him. Infinite means without limits. Simple means without parts or composition. Impassible and immutable mean without suffering or change. We are tricked into thinking that our theology makes assertions about God; but in fact we often stand in the same linguistic and conceptual tradition as the mystics, building our idea of God by statements that are really negative.
Given all this, I hope the case for reading the medieval mystics is clear. But there is one more significant reason why they are useful to contemporary evangelicals. When I look at the editions of Hildegard and Julian and Thomas on my bookshelf, I am struck by the publisher’s mark: they are published by Penguin. Now, as far as I know, Penguin does not publish Luther or Calvin or Warfield or Stott or Packer. These latter are published by specialist presses that serve the narrow evangelical community. That’s because few, if anyone, outside of that narrow constituency reads these authors. To be published by Penguin, however, a lot of people must be buying and reading them. In other words, in an age that craves for transcendence and mystery to lift it above the banality of a bankrupt consumerism, these authors seem to have struck a chord. You can bet your life that most who read them do not read them aright: they are looking for precisely the kind of contentless, mystical experientialism that I have argued above they do not actually represent; in other words, the reception of these works in our culture involves a deep subversion of the piety and theology that they originally represented. But that is not the point: these are the books that many read and that shape their spiritual aspirations and provide the grid through which they will critique contemporary church life. If you are doing your job properly, these are the kind of people with whom you will be striking up conversations, inviting to church, talking about spiritual things. An acquaintance with the medieval mystics will not just enhance your knowledge of the Middle Ages; it may also equip you better to reach out to the lost souls of the current generation.