Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Confessing Mysticism

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Confessing Mysticism

Article excerpt


Reviewed by Robert Louis Wilken

FOR MANY, AUGUSTINE'S City of God seems a more difficult book than the Confessions. It is very long, and its architectonic structure demands that one hold in mind ideas from earlier chapters to negotiate the final stages of the argument. And, of course, it is filled with digressions that seem to wander off in unpredictable directions. But the Confessions is surely the more subde and challenging work, and its autobiographical style can easily lead one astray. This is especially true on a first reading. Captivated by Augustine's mesmerizing prose, the unsuspecting reader can easily become oblivious to his rhetorical strategies.

But it is not only first readers who find the Confessions baffling. Even seasoned interpreters have trouble agreeing on basic questions of interpretation-for example, on the book's unity and the relation between die final books and the "autobiographical" books one through nine. One issue of interpretation that has vexed scholars is whether, and in what sense, Augustine is a mystic. This topic was first raised in the middle of the nineteendi century, and it has been debated on and off ever since. As is often the case in scholarly debates, the positions staked out by the experts turn as much on how one understands mysticism as they do on texts from Augustine's writings.

The person who lurks behind the modern discussion of Augustine's mysticism is William James, the American philosopher and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. Like many American religious thinkers of the nineteenth century, James was suspicious of collective religious rituals and institutions. Genuine religion was thought to be a deeply personal experience, a sense of being visited by an ineffable spiritual reality. Mysticism, in this view, is an affair of the individual soul, the subjective feelings of a solitary person.

A Jamesian approach to Augustine was popularized early in the twentieth century in books such as Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism and Dean Inge's Christian Mysticism. But it gained scholarly support in the writings of distinguished Augustine scholars who were also students of the great Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. Every reader of the Confessions knows the famous passage where Augustine acknowledges his debt to the "Platonic books," by which he meant the writings of the Neoplatonists. For generations, scholars have debated Augustine's relation to late antique Platonism.

Scholarly attention came to focus on a series of texts in books seven and nine that contained "ascension narratives," presumed accounts of the soul's journey to God. Read with spectacles colored by the sanctioned pieties of our age, it seemed possible to strip the texts of their Christian features to disclose an underlying structure common to all mystics. The effect was to remove Christian theology and practice from their interpretation and to see the Platonic language as more authentic, more capable of depicting a universal religious experience.

In The Mysticism of Saint Augustine, John Peter Kenney writes on the far side of two generations of scholarly debate about Augustine's relation to Platonism. He knows the arguments about Augustine's dependence on the Neoplatonists, what he calls an "effort to move away from denominationally based analyses" (theological interpretations), but he believes that the only way beyond what has become a sterile debate is to view the Confessions from the "vantage point of a live spiritual tradition," that is to say, Catholic Christianity. His aim is to see the books of the Platonists as a "point of theological departure rather than merely a source."

This is a challenging agenda, especially when one recalls that a friend of Augustine once wrote of his great delight in reading Augustine's letters because "they speak to me of Christ, of Plato, and of Plotinus. …

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