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Posted February 5, 2004

This book is for the very serious reader

Book: Mystics: Presence and Aporia
Edited by Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, pp.254

An excerpt from the Jacket:

When we speak of mystics, we normally think of people who have confessed extraordinary experiences of divine presence. But mystics can also refer to the ways that people describe and explained such phenomena – ways that challenge our normal modes of thinking and believing. And the study of mystics can show problems inherent in experience and language – now to speak and think about what affects but likes beyond language or thought.

Mystics presents a collection of bracing essays by prominent scholars that consider both the idea of mystics and mysticism. The contributors offer detailed discussions of a variety of mystics from history, including Dionysius the Areopagite, Thomas Aquinas, Joan of Arc, Nicholas of Cusa, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, and George Herbert. Essays on mysticism in George Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and contemporary technology bring the volume inton the twenty-first century.

An excerpt from the Book:

Portrayed in theological words, this issue may be summed up, according to the Greek fathers, in the fact that God is invisible, unspeakable, uncircumscribable, and incomprehensible. Yet the experience of not being able to comprehend, see, or think God can be taken seriously as a positive experience. We can be confronted to something completely outside of our reach and nevertheless present as such, as absent. Such is the meaning of an epistemological rule, which can be found everywhere in the tradition of philosophy and theology, for instance, in Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses 2:163: “What we have to see is the very fact not to see.” We must see, in this experience, the very impossibility of seeing. This is repeated with the same word in the Mystical Theology 1.2 by Dionysius. And even Thomas Aquinas argues that “the ultimate point of human knowledge about God is to know that we don’t know God.” This was assumed, strangely enough, even by Descartes; when answering Gassendi, who contended that Descartes defines God by the infinite because he could not even give any definition of infinity. Descartes pointed out taht God may be incomprehensible, as incomprehensibility is the ratio formalis, the very core and a quasi definition of the infinite. So incomprehensibility is a real knowledge fitting exactly what is at stake: the infinite, that is, God. And let us recall Wittgenstein: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” But there are different ways to keep silent. We may keep silent in such a way that we refuse to think about a thing, refrain from thinking it, and take it to be kept outside in the horizon of our thought. But there is another way to remain silent, which is to worship, to take a thing so seriously that we have only one way to speak about it, which is precisely to keep silent.

What is new now in our situation of philosophy, which amounts to a large extent to the “end of metaphysics,” is this: we, after the “death of God,” can no more take for granted that our metaphysical concepts may outline the ultimate possible pattern of the intellectual and real world. In our situation of crisis, we should not avoid the hypothesis that, in case of God, we could question our set of concepts and consider the impossibility of any knowledge of God, not as failure of our inquiry but as a positive opportunity for questioning metaphysical concepts. We no longer have unshaken confidence in our metaphysical concepts, an the impossibility of knowing God according to them looks perhaps less as an evidence of God being out of the picture than as the suggestion that our metaphysical concepts can and should be questioned. So there is another way to be silent than simply giving up speaking about God.

. . . It is precisely these kinds of paradoxes . . . that the contributions collected here attempt to address and describe. These paradoxes are not always, or even often, strictly religious or spiritual phenomena. In some cases, they involve purely historical, artistic, philosophical, or literary problems. However, they all share a common trait ---- none of them present the characteristics of the object: predictability and clear evidence (production), a relation to other similar phenomena and subjection to the conditions of our experience (reproduction). On the contrary, they are given as unpredictable, intolerable, absolute, and unfathomable and are phenomenalized according to these forms of givenness. Certainly, in a number of these essays, one could point to the emphasis placed on what one may be tempted to refer to as “negative theology.” However, we should not let ourselves be deceived here. First of all, in Christian theology, strictly speaking, there is no negative theology in and of itself. There is only one “negative way,” and it is inseparable from the “affirmative way: that precedes it (one denies only after having affirmed everything that can be legitimately predicted of God), and there is, moreover, a “way of eminence,” which, far from returning to the affirmative predication, generally liberates itself from all predication. This involves surpassing the predicative uses of language in moving toward another usage — praise, for example, and prayer in general. Furthermore, philosophy today knows how to describe effectively nonpredicative uses of language in such a say that “mystic” can rightfully reassume its proper place within a broader, more open logic. Second, we should not be taken in because the majority of the essays collected here have no confessional intentions or any ambitions to advance an orthodox position. All of them, however, do obstinately want to bring to light the rationality of facts and doctrines that objectifying rationality will not let us touch. In effect, the stakes here involve the limits of efforts, which we intend to push back, if at all possible. In fact, these efforts to concentrate on illustrating a superior kind of rationalism, which metaphysics itself is perhaps unable to conceive, within the limits of the a prioris that it continuously seeks to verify (and through which it no doubt seeks reassurance.) We must never despair of reason. Reason never consists in stimatizing the unthinkable only to be more intent on excluding it. Rather, we must have faith in reason to make thinkable what, without the patient labor of the concept, would have remained unthinkable. There is always more to think, on earth and in heaven, which is something that philosophy is quite willing to admit. These essays undoubtedly have no other ambition than striving to ascertain this.

Table of Contents:

Introduction: What do we mean by “Mystic”?, Jean-Luc Marion

“Suddenly, Christ”: The place of negative theology in the mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagites, Alexander Golitzin

Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy, Jean-Luc Marion

Between mysticisms: The trial of Joan of Arc, Fracoise Meltzer

Unitrinum Seu Triuum: Nicholas of Cusa’s Trinitarian mysticism, Bernard McGinn

Unmasking the Angel of Light: The problem of deception in Martin Luther and Teresa of Avila, Susan Schreiner

From ritual to poetry: Herbert’s Mystical Eucharist, Regina M. Schwartz