Academic journal article Magistra

"I Am You": Medieval Love Mysticism as a Post-Modern Theology of Relation

Academic journal article Magistra

"I Am You": Medieval Love Mysticism as a Post-Modern Theology of Relation

Article excerpt

For many contemporary theologians, the dominant models and metaphors of theology are, in Sally McFague's words, "triumphalist, monarchical, patriarchal."(1)

This is nowhere more evident than in conventional theological views of the love of God, which is depicted as perfectly disinterested, and therefore perfectly dispassionate. In the face of such views, McFague calls for a "remythologising of the relationship between God and the world." In a similar vein, Carter Heyward writes that the "`symbolic universe' constructed by the Christian Church is often a gross impediment -- heavy with meaning -- to our realizations of who we are and what we might do together." She sees her own project as a re-naming and re-imaging of key elements of this "symbolic universe" that will enable Christians to claim themselves as "sacred, proactive participants in the liberation of humanity from injustice and despair."(2)

It may be suggested that the texts of thirteenth century women mystics are engaged in just such a renaming and re-imaging, particularly around the concept of love. Suppressed, downplayed, ignored or belittled, the full subversive power of the texts of so-called "love mysticism" in re-casting conventional theology in terms of human passion and desire has rarely been recognized. Yet these 700-year-old texts, authentic expressions of medieval Christian spirituality, offer images, myths, and ways of symbolizing and representing the relationship between God and the soul, and (hence) God and the world, that are peculiarly appropriate to the post-modern moment.

In particular, their representations of a God who is passionately in love with the human, and of a human "being" that is interpenetrated with God, short-circuit the "triumphalist, monarchical, patriarchal" imagery that dominates some modes of Christian theology to vividly figure the radically open, intimately relational, and passionately dynamic God towards which many recent theologies are groping. To get to this "remythologized" mystical theology, however, readers must move past their own deep cultural fears of passion, fears which are supported by the numerous philosophical and psychological prohibitions on merging or "fusion" which relegate mystic union, along with intense experiences of human love, to the troubled realm of the pathological.

Love Mysticism

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas is at pains to emphasize that God does not love "as we love" (Q. 20, art. 2).(3) Certainly God is loving, containing "love...and joy and delight," but in God these attributes are not "passions" but "denote acts of the intellective appetite" (Q. 20, art. 1). Above all, God's love is not like human love because it contains no element of need. Because God "needs no creature outside Himself," he loves us "only on account of His goodness" (Q 20, art. 2). Such a view of divine love, as Catherine Keller explains, is partly the result of the doctrine of God's immutability, which is itself an essential part of the doctrine of God's perfection.

In philosophical and theological thought going back to Plato, Keller writes, that which is perfect cannot change: "a perfect being is eternally -- already -- all that it can be. Or in Aquinas's language, God's essence is strictly identical with God's existence: this is the meaning of the divine infinity." Being immutable, then, God is necessarily "impassionable," unable to feel: "For if God could be moved by feeling for the creatures, God would not be the purely active cause of all things, the Unmoved Mover."(4)

Keller notes that this belief has been difficult to reconcile with the equally strong theological commitment to the idea that God is love. Bringing these two characteristics, God's immutability and God's love, together (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986) 36. has caused much theological squirming: "One may read much of theological history as a conscious and convoluted attempt to compress the warming intuition that God is love into the cold, hard diamond of divine immutability. …

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