Academic journal article Cithara

The Franciscan Tradition, Bonaventure, and the Doctrine of the Spiritual Senses in Medieval and Contemporary Theology

Academic journal article Cithara

The Franciscan Tradition, Bonaventure, and the Doctrine of the Spiritual Senses in Medieval and Contemporary Theology

Article excerpt

The Franciscan Tradition, Bonaventure, and the Doctrine of the Spiritual Senses in Medieval and Contemporary Theology A review article of The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity. Edited by P. Gavrilyuk and S. Coakley. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014. Pp. XV, 338. $45.79; and Balthasar on the Spiritual Senses: Perceiving Splendour. By M. Mclnroy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. Pp. xii, 217. $99.00.

Most armchair academics who write about mysticism and in particular about the "spiritual senses" (henceforth SpS) that are supposedly operational during mystical experiences have a very vague idea of what they are writing about since they personally have not even come close to mystical experience. This causes profound confusion about the subject matter. The confusion (which the authors of the books reviewed here acknowledge) is exacerbated by the fact that ancient and medieval authors use the term in various senses: metaphorically, "analogically," or even literally. As critics acknowledge, it is not always clear which sense is operational within a particular context. Metaphorical use seems to be the most common; analogical use is more rare but is applied by some authors who develop some sort of an "epistemology" of the SpS; and finally, in some cases the experiences referred to can be literal descriptions (something entirely missing in the reviewed books). For example, the most ancient and advanced meditation tradition of Hinduism reports that during deep states of meditation seasoned practitioners actually experience sweet tastes, sweet fragrances, and hear "unstruck" (anāhata) sounds, in addition to having visual experiences of lights, etc. Similar experiences are reported by Eastern Orthodox hesychasts and by some Western mystics. (These are clearly not mere phantasies: in scientific terms, one could account for these experiences by hypothesizing that certain intense mental focus activates olfactory, gustatory, auditory, or visual circuits in the brain independently from the presence of physical stimuli, as during stroke.) Finally, when we come to contemporary theological aesthetics, such as that of H.U. von Balthasar, another sense of the SpS is added, which does not quite coincide with any of the above-e.g., when von Balthasar speaks of seeing Christ's form in biblical texts "through the eyes of faith": a type of intratextual interpretation of texts read-as well as real events and the physical world experienced-in terms of a tradition. This sort of interpretation technique or skill, even though it might become natural and automatic, is hardly a "sense" in the aforesaid metaphorical, analogical, or literal usages of the term SpS by the authors of reviewed literature. Although von Balthasar develops this type of interpretive perception in the most systematic fashion, it can certainly be found in modern authors before von Balthasar (such as Metropolitan Filaret [Drozdov] of Moscow in the nineteenth century), and in its partial or rudimentary form also in medieval and Patristic texts, even though there it may not be technically called a "spiritual sense."

Given the theme of the current commemorative issue of Cithara, this review will be selective. It begins with discussing select essays from the Gavrilyuk/Coakley collection that are directly relevant to the medieval, and specifically Franciscan contribution to the doctrine of the SpS, with a focus on Bonaventūre and his intellectual predecessors: Augustine, pseudoDionysius, and Alexander of Hales. It continues with a review of select material from Mclnroy's book on von Balthasar, who can be viewed as a successor of Bonaventūre in this area, and focuses on the use of Bonaventūre and the Franciscan tradition by von Balthasar, whose doctrine of the SpS is greatly indebted to Bonaventūre. It concludes with some general observations.

The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity

To start with some general observations that concern the collection as a whole, the analysis of Patristic and medieval texts in the collection is generally of high quality, but not without occasional problems. …

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