Lester L. Field, Jr.

title.none: Kessler and Sheppard, eds., Mystics (Lester L. Field, Jr.)

identifier.other: baj9928.0407.002 04.07.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lester L. Field, Jr., University of Mississippi,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Kessler, Michael, and Christian Sheppard, eds. Mystics: Presence and Aporia. Series: Religion and Postmodernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 254. ISBN: $21.00 0-226-43210-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.07.02

Kessler, Michael, and Christian Sheppard, eds. Mystics: Presence and Aporia. Series: Religion and Postmodernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 254. ISBN: $21.00 0-226-43210-6.

Reviewed by:

Lester L. Field, Jr.
University of Mississippi

This latest installment of Religion and Postmodernism, lives up to--and, in some respects, exceeds--the high expectations that now generally accompany each new volume. Ranging from lucid to dazzling, the book's ten essays, between the editors' able preface and David Tracy's elliptical afterword, are as follows: Jean-Luc Marion, "Introduction: What Do We Mean by 'Mystic'?" trans. Gareth Gollrad, 1-7; Alexander Golitzin, "'Suddenly, Christ': The Place of Negative Theology in the Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagites," 8-37; Jean-Luc Marion, "Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy," 38-74; François Meltzer, "Between Mysticisms: The Trial of Joan of Arc," 75-89; Bernard McGinn, "Unitrinium Seu Triunum: Nicholas of Cusa's Trinitarian Mysticism," 90-117; Susan Schreiner, "Unmasking the Angel of Light: The Problem of Deception in Martin Luther and Teresa of Avila," 118-37; Regina Schwartz, "From Ritual to Poetry: Herbert's Mystical Eucharist," 138-60; Amy Hollywood, "Mysticism and Catastrophe in George Bataille's Atheological Summa," 161-87; Kevin Hart, "The Experience of Nonexperience," 188-206; and Thomas A. Carlson, "Locating the Mystical Subject," 207-244. Given the disparate and prolix character of this material and the principal interests of the present journal, this review focuses on the essays that pertain to the "medieval."

Mistakes generally fall under the rubric of misprints or diction: "Nazianzus" for "Nazianzen or "of Nazianzus" (12), "well-know" for "well-known" (41), Seyn for Sein (67), superimposed letters in Oeuvres (70, 72),"holy Spirit" for "Holy Spirit" (118), "laid" for "lay" (123), "[experiencia] of." for "[experiencia]." (124), "As did Luther" for "Like Luther" (125, 130), gegebenheit for Gegebenheit (139), "may really grateful" for "may be really grateful" (157), "Schriener" for "Schreiner" (158), "Gallimared" for "Gallimard" (158 n. 1). "J Scanlon" for "J. Scanlon" (159 n. 5), "1999" for "1992" (160 n. 28), "that he is" for "that He is" (212), "771B" for "771B-C" (234 n. 44), and "or mysticism" for "on mysticism" (239).

Some slips in diction concerning "accuracy" (42, 68, 73, 78, 182, 184, 201) jar current awareness of interpretive frameworks, culturally mediated perspectives, and the historicity of all truths as propositional. Unlike normative "truth" or "error," which evoke the very conventions that give them meaning, lexical echoes of positivistic "accuracy" seem strangely dissonant in a sophisticated postmodern work, especially one about mysticism. As Hart puts it, the "translation from experience to text can never be satisfying" (194). At best, then, "accuracy," rhetorically masks an authoritarian move to ward off contestation of a truth, always a linguistic claim. At worst, the use of "accuracy" presupposes a metalinguistic rationality that reduces linguistically irreducible signifier and referent to self-evident absolute beyond any semantic schema. In either case, "accuracy" begs the question: "accurate" by what measure?

The book's sometimes evanescent unity often seems a function of the title's intentional ambiguity. Mystics designates people claiming extraordinary (a)theological experiences. Conversely, by a quirk in an English translation of the seventeenth-century la mystique as "mystics" and le mystique as "the mystical"--a quirk that the editors treat as normative (vii-ix)--"mystics was also a science, a way of describing and explaining" what now generally falls under the rubric of "mysticism." As Marion and Hart note (1, 192-94), "mystic" also responds to totalizing positivistic--and specifically Kantian--denunciation of the term, which, rehabilitated here, provides yet another measure, even an "extreme case," of positivistic obsolescence since the "turn to language."

Mystics nonetheless comes perilously close to pitfalls of historiography that has displaced positivistic historicism. Even heuristically, "mystics"--no less than "mysticism"--sometimes seems to function as a "final cause" that teleologically directs premodern self-understandings toward an analytical category of modern invention. While the best cultural histories and histories of ideas avoid this pitfall, this book's "different intention" attempts an intriguing, if not always successful, "dual opposition," between the "popular" category and its "proper" uses. All understandings remain functions of their referents, but the mystical experience--paradoxically, by definition--remains ineffable. At issue is not so much a pseudo-problematic and positivistically constructed "lack of objectivity" as the really problematic or phenomenological lack of any conceptually constituted "object."

Though kataphasis and apophasis remain historically and phenomenologically interdependent, apophasis not only exposes the limitations of all language but also suggests the indescribably real outside any linguistically inscribed reality. As Marion notes (2-3), the problem hardly just pertains to distinguishing the referent "God" from (the non)being outside language. Since the very definitions and assumptions that inform the finite concept spill over or saturate it, Marion describes such significations as "saturated phenomena." Inasmuch as language constructs history, for example, it re-presents physical events, otherwise inarticulate and unarticulated. Since no one can (re)constitute "such a phenomenon," Marion notes (5), "we have to interpret it." Implicit in the book's conception and explicit, even trenchant, in Hart's essay (198, 200-202), is a critique of Denys Turner's Darkness of God. Demonstrating rationalistic conventions of negative theology, Turner argued that historical apophasis, or its discursive objective of aporia, phenomenologically contradicts extraordinary "experience."

Since prevalent consensus even regards Pseudo-Dionysius as a Neoplatonist with little Christian self-identity, Golitzin's rich documentation and rigorous argument place Dionysian theology within specifically Syriac environments, emphatically Christian and often ascetic. Given these theological contexts and the immediate, historical, and enduring reception of the Dionysian corpus, the burden of proof now rests on the (former) consensus. The individual communicant's self-identity, even an ascetic's in self-denial, pertained to the catholic communion, so that the "mysticism" of individuals derived from, even internalized, the "mysticism" of the liturgy, which, in the sacraments (mysteria), provided the foundational paradigm of all mystic communion with God.

By divine and cataphatic condescension, the Celestial Hierarchy sacramentally and iconically corresponded to the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. Likely introducing the Dionysian corpus, the Celestial Hierarchy thus introduced the rational and apophatic ascent of the Mystical Theology and Divine Names. On the one hand, Dionysius coined "hierarchy" to designate the "Church at worship" (15). On the other hand, God departed "from His own being" as mystics departed from theirs, so that their knowledge of God pertained to "unknowing" (agnosia), always passive and ultimately "suffering divine things" (pathon ta theia in Divine Names 2.9). "Suddenly," then, and in a way that resonated with Syrian Christianity, the mysterion of the Incarnation and so the eucharist joined apophasis and kataphasis, time and eternity, humanity and God.

Here "miraculous" (18) to describe the metabole of the eucharistic elements errs: the Greek "change" referred to their new, graced, and divine reality after the epiclesis--not to their appearance or physical structure. Since common misuse of "miraculous" to describe later Latin transubstantiatio presupposes a similar confusion of accidents and substance, one mistake likely derives from the other. Despite or because of divine mediation--iconic, sacramental, ultimately Incarnational--Dionysius's God transcended all appearances or concepts, even those that had the warrant of His own revelation. Even the names, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," seemed icons--not wood, not paint, not even words, but images of the invisible God.

Marion's brilliant re-evaluation of Thomas Aquinas likewise sheds a new and definitive light on Thomism. Put differently, Marion demolishes consensus that Thomas had defined God, positively and unreservedly, as the supreme ontological entity and so, by the same predication, also as supremely ontological. Despite formal denials by Etienne Gilson, the old consensus functionally treated or allowed Thomistic metaphysics as "onto-theo-logy." Stripping Thomism of interpretive veneers applied by its scholastic successors, Marion exposes the original by recourse to the very categories that facilitated Heidegger's devastating critique of all metaphysics as "onto-theo-logy."

By this critique, metaphysics could not distinguish between Being (the Thomistic esse, the Heideggerian Sein als Grund) and beings or entities. Since metaphysics represented being (ens) as entity (Seienes als gegrundet), asserting "God" in or as Being pertained to the same totalizing ontology: even the act of being (actus essendi) remained an entity of onto-theo-logical construction. Since the problem remained one of ontological foundations, conceptual (Grundung) and causal (Begrundung), God's (id)entity remained metaphysically grounded as concept or in cause.

Marion's luminous erudition--historical, philological, and phenomenological--not only affirms that Thomistic metaphysics had emerged from Thomistic theology but also demonstrates that metaphysica did not fully account for theologia, because no knowing (scientia) could account for nature of God's existence. Since God's name in Exodus 3:14 led not to metaphysics, as Gilson asserted, but rather to divinely ordained analogy between God and esse, Thomas's theology escapes Heidegger's critique of metaphysics as well as the ontological reduction of the divine.

Citing Dionysius, Thomas knew "mystical theology," but neither Dionysius nor Thomas regarded themselves or anyone else as a mystic. Since "mystic," as Melzer notes (75), did "not become a substantive...until the seventeenth century," the term likewise hardly pertained to Joan of Arc's self-understanding. Though seventeenth-century usage co-opted such terms as "contemplative" and "spiritual"--both still current in the fifteenth century--even these self-understandings eluded Joan's, so that Joan's "mysticism" either assumes facts not in evidence or presupposes the phenomenological validity of a modern category.

Meltzer even sees Joan as a precursor to the mystical shift from exegesis, liturgy, and hermeneutics to personal experience. As Certeau observed, however, that shift occurred in the next two centuries, and Joan never claimed "experience"--her own or otherwise, in her defense or as a concession. Nor did she claim, as Meltzer does (76, 82-84), "that her experience should stand as a means to secret knowledge of the divine" or "a private relationship to God," especially under the rubric occulta. Even if one uses "experience" heuristically as a description, rather than historically as an explanation, the inquisitors hardly rejected prophetic "experience" when indicting Joan as pseudo prophetissa. See Proces de condemnation martiis XXVII Marcii (Tisset 1.191).

In this respect, the inquisitors' "experience"--theologically literate, clerical, conciliarist, and anti-Valois--found Joan's incomprehensible, so that Joan had to define hers in terms comprehensible to them. With insight that corroborates the independent conclusions of Karen Sullivan's Interrogation of Joan (1999), Melzer notes that the inquisitors mugged Joan's self-understanding with their own. Added to Joan's theological acculturation, as an illiterate peasant woman who led armies--armies defined emphatically not so much as Valois but as French--there is also the problem of Joan's having to define what seemed ineffable even to her. Meltzer sensitively demonstrates this problem, but, in seeking a "voice" silently anterior to the sources, she dismisses them, ignores Tisset's critical edition, and, echoing gender and subaltern studies, meditates Joan's "voice" no less than the trials' records. Though the "voice" that Meltzer constructs does not belong to an anachronistically feminist or postcolonial Joan, it does not belong to the "real" Joan, especially with respect to the voice(s) of her revelations.

The "real" Joan died in 1431. All that remains is the referent "Joan," copied assiduously and notarized in the trial records, investigated through living witnesses in the rehabilitation, and documented copiously elsewhere. Despite almost inevitable "gaps" in transmission, these records (French and Latin) variously exposed procedural errors, canonistic objections, and post-trial forgeries. Regardless of mediation, then, these sources remain indispensable. Whether hostile, friendly, or rhetorically balanced, all writing mediates all voices, and, without it, there is no history.

Other distinctions that Meltzer historicizes seem stereotypes. The trial's text, for example (77), documents "resistance on the part of the defendant to the truth the Church seeks to uphold." Here and elsewhere, Meltzer's use of "Church" either contradicts Joan's self-understanding as a Christian communicant or conflates the clergy, even the hostile inquisitors themselves, with the Church. In either case, Meltzer ignores the national monarchies that now largely determined ecclesial identity, not just as Christendom (Christianitas) but, Christendoms, national Churches, formally still catholic, but functionally now royal. Joan's trial even provides an extreme case: inquisitors "per christianissimum dominum nostrum Francorum et Anglie regem" act "in regno Francie heretice pravitatis." See Proces martis XXVII Marcii (Tisset 1.191).

Even more startling, with the Council of Constance--rather than ancient, continuous, and pervasive ecclesiastical consensus--Meltzer's "Church... becomes the sole mediator between God and man," and, more crudely, "laypeople become inferior to the clergy" (80-81). The concomitant argument that Joan bypassed the Church as mediator of revelation similarly presupposes that revelation, even by ecclesiastical self-understanding, could ever be anything less than direct, if divine, or anything more then mediated, if understood. Nor was the mediation of the Church--that is, all Christians--over Christians but as Christians. Always autonomous (cf. 84), but never independent or self-sufficient, communicants remained theologically accountable to one another as members of the body of Christ. Joan even questioned Pierre Cauchon's status as her judge and did her duty in warning him of God's punishment! See Proces mercurii XIV Marcii (Tisset 1.147-48).

A contemporary of Joan and a (former) conciliarist, Nicholas of Cusa, developed a theology "mystical" in a traditionally apophatic sense, especially in two treatises on docta ignorantia concerning the unity in the Trinity or the triune Unity, "indistinctly distinct" beyond number and mode of being. Since such thought plays a major, though neglected role, in the work of the prolific Nicholas, McGinn's magisterial essay focuses on "the process of mystical transformation," that is, the "consciousness of the present/absent God" (91). With profound trinitarian debt to Augustine and Thierry of Chartres (and so Dionysius), Nicholas reapplied God's unifying enfolding (conplicans) and peculiarizing unfolding (explicans) to a negative trinitarianism, beyond God, unity, trinity, or other distinction, and so--by a debt to Meister Eckhart--to the same ground as the human soul. This negation plumbed the mind to raise self-knowledge, individuated in otherness, to the otherness of Absolute Unity--to knowing self as "image of God."

Nicholas "made an effort to be subject to a rapture" (De visione 17.80; McGinn 100-101). Subverting Turner's distinctions between first-order "experience" of God and second-order "experience" of negating His attributes, such evidence, Hart suggests, also subverts the heuristic utility of "experience" as an analytical category: before the twelfth century, Western mystics rarely invoked peritia or experientia and never as essential to the via negativa, which seemed "biblical rather than personal." Experiences now called "mystical" pertained to others, who hardly regarded them as extraordinary. Though Byzantine grafting of peira onto apophasis--rarely by Pseudo-Dionysius but often by Pseudo-Macarius--prefigured Western usage, the graft supplemented ancient traditions and differed significantly from later Western ones (195-96, 198, 201-202, 204 n. 35, 205-206 n. 53).

How present usage governs the "phenomenon" or the "history" deserves further enquiry. Echoing Blanchot's "experience of non-experience," recent French historiography has even re-inscribed medieval liturgical experience as non-experience. Even as Mystics presupposes a unity, essays (188-244) distinguish premodern "mystical" and postmodern "limit experiences," medieval "soul" and modern "self." Conversely, even in modernity, the "certitude" of Luther and Teresa, Herbert's poetic "transubstantiation," and Bataille's "self-laceration"--no less than medieval "mysticism"--suggest the constitutive ambiguities of all discourse. Although other scholarship, notably McGinn's, continues to address such questions, it now has to confront the status quaestionis forged in Mystics. Its thoughtful examination of nonpredicative language not only requires the attention of all who grasp the interdependence of phenomenology and history but also serves a mindful warning to those increasingly few phenomenologists and historians who do not.