On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self

On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self

On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self

On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self

Synopsis

Do we have to conceive of ourselves as isolated individuals, inevitably distanced from other people and from whatever we might mean when we use the word "God"? On Becoming God offers an innovative approach to the history of the modern Western self by looking at human identity as something people do together rather than on their own, as a way of managing and keeping at bay the impulses and experiences associated with the word "God." The "self" is a way of doing things, or of not doing things, with "God." The book draws on phenomenology (Heidegger), gender studies (Beauvoir, Butler), and contemporary neuroscience. It surveys existing approaches to modern selfhood (Foucault, Charles Taylor) and proposes an alternative account by investigating late medieval mysticism, in particular texts written in Germany by Meister Eckhart and others. It concludes by exploring the parallel between late medieval confessors and their spiritual charges, and late-nineteenth-century psychoanalysts and their patients, in search of a vocabulary for acknowledging and nurturing our everyday commitments to others and to our spiritual longings.

Excerpt

A text that has become known as the Sister Catherine treatise, written in Strasbourg in the first part of the fourteenth century, tells of a woman who, toward the end of a journey that has been both spiritual and physical, awakens from a meditative trance to declare that she has “become God.” To a reader in the twenty-first century, a woman becoming God in fourteenth-century Strasbourg might appear to be little more than an intellectual curiosity, and this skeptical attitude is not likely to be altered by a closer inspection of the text in which the narrative appears, for it becomes clear that the status of the woman and her declaration is hard to determine. She is called Catherine because one manuscript introduces the treatise with the heading “This is Sister Catherine, Meister Eckhart’s daughter from Strasbourg.” But we don’t know if such a woman existed, or whether the text was not instead written as a mystical manual: pedagogic inspiration rather than the report of something that actually happened. in other words, the text might not be about a real person or report a real experience. Despite these difficulties, the text presents a problem for the modern reader that neither skepticism nor philological caution can completely solve. If we assume it was written in good faith (and we have no reason to assume that it wasn’t), then it is the document of a culture in which people related to certain experiences and aspirations using the idea of “becoming God.” But what would that mean?

This book ofiers one possible interpretation. But in order to write it, I have had to revise the preconceptions, both about personal identity and . . .

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