The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition by Andrew Louth (review)

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to DenysThe Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a fine piece of introduction and analysis of what may, rather then ‘mystical’, more precisely be considered the contemplative strand of Christianity as it took on and then adapted (or at times rejected) the Platonic inheritance. The 2006 edition is definitely to be preferred, for in this edition Louth closes with a very challenging Afterword wherein he confronts the very concept of mysticism. We all think we know what the word means, but probably we don’t.

After chapters on Plato, Philo, and Plotinus, Louth discusses Origen; ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ which includes Athanasius (who raises an anti-‘mystical’ challenge to Platonism) and Gregory of Nyssa; ‘The Monastic Contribution’ which considers Evagrius of Pontus (the rich but problematic Origenist/Platonist), the Macarian Homilies, and Diadochus of Photiki who brings out strands in both of the other two in this chapter; Augustine of Hippo’s contribution; then Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whom he refers to as ‘Denys’).

Living in a post-Carmelite age whose understanding of Christian ‘mysticism’ is indelibly marked by the late medieval and early modern inheritance, Chapter 9 is an important discussion of St John of the Cross and the patristic inheritance. Louth argues that there is, indeed, some difference, but more often of style and perspective than content. The final chapter is ‘The Mystical Life and the Mystical Body’. This final chapter reminds us of a chief difference between ancient Christian ‘mysticism’ and the philosophers, for the ancient Christians always thought in terms of the Christian community, the liturgy, and the communion of saints, rather than Plotinus flight of the alone to the Alone.

In each of the ancient philosophers or patristic authors analysed, Louth gives us a run-through of what we may consider his ‘mystical’ teaching, looking both at their reception and at their challenge of Platonist ideas. It is a helpful book in many ways, although one is reminded that most of the praktike of the contemplative tradition in Christianity is the pursuit of moral virtue and askesis rather than the delineation of particular psychological practices as taught by the baptised Buddhism of Anthony de Mello, S.J., in Sadhana. I would have liked to have seen more on Diadochus and the Jesus Prayer, since the Jesus Prayer is the heart of so much of what we may consider Eastern Orthodox ‘mysticism’ today.

In the end, I recommend this book. At times it is challenging to read. At times, since it is introductory, it feels not quite deep enough. But overall, it gives you some idea of the landscape of these authors and this strand, as well as questions to take with you on your own journey into the broad literature of Christian spirituality.

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The Unknowability of the Trinity in Ps-Dionysius

Following on from yesterday’s post about the dangers of overreliance on logic and Aristotelian philosophy as we do theology, here is a quotation I’ve found in Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, in his chapter about Pseudo-Dionysius (or ‘Denys’ as Louth calls him, flourished c. 500). ‘Cataphatic’ theology is when we make positive statements about God, the kind of theology we tend to do in academia, and ‘apophatic’ theology is the pathway of negation, where we assert that we can only explain God by negative comparison. That is to say, God is infinite, timelessimmortal, whereas we are finite, timebound, and mortal. In apophatic theology, you make the cataphatic assertions of Trinitarian dogma, and then realise that you are already entering into the cloud of unknowing, for who can truly express the homoousion of three persons?

The quotation is from Vladimir Lossky, and the internal quotation is Ps-D’s On the Divine Names:

This is why the revelation of the Holy Trinity, which is the summit of cataphatic theology, belongs also to apophatic theology, for ‘if we learn from the Scriptures that the Father is the source of divinity, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the divine progeny, the divine seeds, so to say, and flowers and lights that transcend being, we can neither say nor understand what that is.’ (DN II. 7)

The passage is from Lossky’s article, ‘La notion des “analogies” chez le Pseudo‐Denys l’Aréopagite’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge, 5 (1930), 279–309, at p. 283. Cited by Louth on page 161.