The English Mystics

By Gerald William Bullett | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
THE CAMBRIDGE PLATONISTS

ANY extravagances have been committed in the name of mysticism; but if, with such things in mind, we are still tempted to regard that too ambiguous word as a synonym for frenzy and irrationalism, a visit to the University of Cambridge any time during the middle and late years of this same seventeenth century should finally dispose of the idea. Whichcote's use of 'mystical' in the pejorative sense, when he declares the Christian religion to be 'not mystical, symbolical, enigmatical, emblematical', is by no means inconsistent with the fact that there is a strong vein of what we now call mysticism running through the thought of the so-called Cambridge Platonists, whose spiritual father he was. This becomes crystal clear when he goes on to say what religion, in his judgment, is. It is 'unclothed, unbodied, intellectual, rational, spiritual'. What this passage amounts to, translated into present-day language, is that religion is not fanciful, fantastical, and theoretical, but an actual spiritual experience susceptible of rational interpretation.

Whichcote subscribed heartily to the cardinal points of Christian doctrine, and defended them stoutly; but his emphasis is always on the spirit of religion, and the sweetness and light that are its fruits, rather than on theological niceties and abstractions. He wrote nothing for publication, and the sermons as we have them, though no doubt faithfully recording his line of thought, almost certainly do not give a true idea of his actual preaching. He was a teacher and preacher first and last, not a writer; and his best, his most telling

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