The Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology
- ISBN: 9780198722380
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: March 2020
The Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology, edited by Edward Howells and the late Mark McIntosh, is the third companion or handbook to the Christian mystical tradition published in the last ten years, after Amy Hollywood and Patricia Beckman’s The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Julia Lamm’s The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). The three projects have brought together eighty-four scholars of mysticism, with thirteen being involved in at least two of the volumes; only two scholars—Howells and Charlotte Radler—contribute to all three.
Distinguishing itself from its predecessors, the Oxford Handbook focuses not on mysticism but on mystical theology, which commits to “engage with a very long-standing discipline . . . that has . . . played a crucial role in the theological life of the Christian community” (2). Building particularly on the work of Denys Turner, Michael Sells and Bernard McGinn, Howells and McIntosh note that “mystical theology is mystical per se not because it deals with the experiential . . . but because it deals with what is ‘hidden’, beyond what mortal eyes can see and tongues can speak” (3).
The core theme running throughout this volume is, therefore, that mysticism is theology, that is, a legitimate mode of God-talk. The book consists of thirty-three chapters divided into four parts: “Understanding Mystical Theology,” “Sources, Contexts, and Practices,” “Key Patterns of Mystical Thought,” and “Mysticism and Theology.”
Dealing with historical context in “The Genealogy of Mystical Traditions”, McGinn divides his genealogies into patristic, medieval and early modern mysticism, then further dividing into more specific categories within this framework, essentially providing a helpful summary of the ground covered in McGinn’s magisterial multi volume series The Presence of God (Crossroad, 1991-2021). One minor error made by McGinn is his claim that Angela of Foligno’s entire corpus was “the product of a collaboration between the illiterate woman and her Franciscan confessor known only as Brother A.” (7); while Brother A. helped produce the so-called Memoriale, the Instructiones were written by a range of Angela’s followers.
In line with its focus on mystical theology, the volume considers doctrines, forms, and expressions of Christian theology. While many topics are covered elsewhere, this volume’s contributions provide scholarly innovations. For example, Louise Nelstrop’s “Erotic and Nuptial Imagery” goes far beyond a summary of existing scholarship and provides and impressive and lucid account of this tradition. Nelstrop helpfully accounts for the historical development of erotic expressions of mystical theology in the early and medieval church, before moving beyond existing scholarship and providing useful critiques of Turner and Alexandra Barratt to argue for the relevance of medieval theologies of love for 21st-century theology.
Two particularly welcome chapters are those on “Mystical Poetics” (by Alexander J. B. Hampton) and “Theosis” (by Aristotle Papanikolaou). Theopoetics (a mode of theology engaged with the construction and reception of poetry) is an emerging field in various theological subdisciplines and Hampton brings together several strands of mystical theology to examine what they have to offer this new field. While theosis (becoming God, or becoming what God is) is by no means a new field of study, over the last decade it has moved into an almost ubiquitous position within the study of Christian theology, and the theological-historical study of mysticism has paved the way for this.
Several chapters concern topics that, while familiar to scholars of mysticism, have not been drawn together in such rich and cohesive ways before. For example, while it is no secret that many mystics cartographically depict their journeys to (or into) God, Boyd Taylor Coolman’s “Spiritual Itineraries” is the first to treat this topic on its own, and does so masterfully, with Taylor Coolman impressively drawing together varied case studies with his notion that the Christian spiritual life is one characterized by itinerancy.
It is also welcome that linguistic modes of talking about God are treated in two separate chapters by David Albertson on cataphatic theology (theological discourses using affirmative language), and Cyril O’Regan on apophaticism (theological discourses involving the negation of language) in mystical texts. While the influence of Turner and Sells rightly emphasizes the importance of the apophatic in mystical texts, it has often led to the view that cataphatic theology can only be mystical if it is negated (i.e., if it is an initial component of what Sells calls apophatic discourse). The inclusion of Albertson’s chapter counters this view and emphasizes that both cataphatic and apophatic theologies can be legitimately described as mystical.
The case studies used are wide-ranging, although several theologians and texts are frequently employed; for example, Bonaventure’s 1259 Itinerarium Mentis in Deum is employed in nine chapters. However, such repetition is minimal and perhaps required in such a volume which will be primarily read in individual chapters. While the inclusion of modern texts is welcome, the vast majority of case studies are pre-modern, and McGinn’s “The Genealogy of Mystical Traditions” makes no comment on the last three centuries of church history.
The volume is cohesive in terms of material, perspective and goals, and this shared enterprise is helped by the collaborative nature of the project, with many contributors having met to help shape each other’s chapters and the volume as a whole. The enterprise and contribution of this volume is complemented by the inclusion of many leading scholars of the mystical traditions, including some who have established themselves in such a position in the years since the release of the Cambridge Companion and the Wiley-Blackwell Companion.
The Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology is simultaneously rigorous, innovative and accessible. It is easily recommended for undergraduate and postgraduate courses as well as for scholars in adjoining fields and even experienced mysticism scholars. While much has been written about Christian mystical theology in the last thirty years, this volume is a welcome addition, moving far beyond summaries and providing many innovative insights that will help to shape the field in years to come. Its consistent quality and cohesive nature are a testament to the work of Howells, McIntosh and their contributors.
Michael Hahn is a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto.Michael HahnDate Of Review:February 16, 2022