The Mystical Sources of Existentialist Thought

Being, Nothingness, Love

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George Pattison, Kate Kirkpatrick
Contemporary Theological Explorations in Mysticism
  • New York, NY: 
    , November
     222 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Is mysticism a term that illuminates the hidden theological structure and sources of existentialism? In The Mystical Sources of Existentialist Thought, George Pattison and Kate Kirkpatrick explore this question and survey a collection of influential writers in France and Germany during the twentieth century. Usually, the themes of union with God, obtaining spiritual knowledge by faith and contemplation, and the act of self-surrender are not associated with atheistic thinkers. However, the authors argue that there is a mystical resonance in the modern philosophical tradition that emphasized individual self-determination and moral perfection, which invokes theological tropes from patristic, medieval, and early-modern Christianity. The upshot is that the history of European philosophy cannot ignore its theological inheritance and remain philosophically fruitful as the love of wisdom.

Pattison and Kirkpatrick explain that by using a general term like mystical sources instead of Catholic theologians, saints, and spiritual writers—in reference to Augustine of Hippo, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, or John of the Cross—a shared genus appears that includes both atheistic and theistic existentialists. Also, the authors distinguish between the mystical experience of the Unrepresentable from an atheistic or theistic representation. The ostensible benefit of a phenomenological approach is that it unambiguously trains us to see “our life in the world as it is before we frame it” (4). Although the authors renounce an “essentialist” approach to religion, it does rear its ugly head when the authors attempt to distinguish “between experience and the structuring of experience” (56) or “disentangle the material from its scholastic colouring” (57). Nevertheless, the stated philosophical task is to identify the universal intuition of spiritual liberation in a particular cultural or religious artifact.

Like existentialists, mystics share an intelligible relationship to their own mortality, embodiment, freedom, and the desire for self-coincidence. Unlike existentialists, mystics personally expect to be delivered from despair through communion with God. For example, Søren Kierkegaard’s recovery of freedom in the love of God and neighbor is neither an instance of aesthetic-intellectual contemplation, nor reducible to a mere ethical initiative. Rather Kierkegaard emphasizes the free response of self-giving love, which he describes in ethico-religious terms as the edifying or upbuilding task and goal of life.

The authors mention Kierkegaard’s use of mirror-language (29), but miss connecting this mystical sensibility to Augustine’s theological anthropology. Instead, the authors introduce an equivocal gloss on Kierkegaard’s phrase “to be nothing in the act of adoration” to indicate that “we are entirely given over to self-annihilation in worship and adoration” (30). This covers up Kierkegaard’s shift to an analogical relation between image and object, which indicates true referral but in an inverse way. Kierkegaard’s analogical reasoning is useful for understanding his critique of Hegel’s metaphysics (31) and eschatology (33ff).

A more immanent form of mysticism emerges with Martin Buber and Martin Heidegger when the attachment to God indicates an undesirable detachment from the world. With time as the horizon of being and humanity as its measure, the Eternal God becomes sempiternally dependent upon our awareness of the world as the necessity of contingency. These mystics try to maintain an intelligible orientation toward ultimate value, yet anticipate its historical fulfillment (62). Mystical union refers to the identity of God and the soul in one living subject that is thrown from and toward indeterminate wonder (64). The authors extend this model to show how the inheritance of German Idealism becomes the point of departure for Berdyaev’s mysticism (174ff) and Tillich’s eschatology (203ff). These themes also appear in the treatment of Simone Weil and Georges Bataille, who are presented as exemplary mystics that are world-affirming and self-denying in their politics.

Chapters 3-5 further develop and extend the scope of an explicitly theological approach to Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings specifically, and French existential philosophy in general. For the authors, Sartre’s early philosophical anthropology remains indebted to a secularized view of original sin that presents the human condition as fallen without redemption. The Augustinian link can be made between Jansenism in the 17th century and the Christian philosophy debates in the early 20th century, because of the influence of Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle who had a massive influence on French literature and philosophy.

Bérulle was the confessor of Rene Descartes, who transposed Bérulle’s theological anthropology of nothingness into epistemology—swapping ‘being’ with ‘certainty’ and ‘sin’ with ‘error’—whilst retaining a grammar of privation. In this way, Descartes’ rationalism was informed by a Jansenist theology of fallen human nature, which had a great impact on the anthropology of both Malebranche and Pascal. To shore up the theological resonance of Sartre’s early writings, the authors turn to his teachers at the Sorbonne and the university curriculum that Sartre would have been exposed to in France. Sartre studied under scholars of Christian mysticism like Henri Delacroix and Jean Baruzi, and Pascal scholars like Léon Brunschvicg. Under the influence of such teachers, a secularized Augustinian strand in Sartre’s philosophy appears that retains a grammar of sin and creation without redemption. Simone de Beauvoir’s abandonment of her Catholic upbringing is also explored in this light.

The authors rightly claim that ‘to realize the possibilities given us in our being human, we need to be maximally open to all that our intellectual and religious traditions have bequeathed us’ (215). For the authors, German and French existential anthropology in the 20th century is haunted by the need for perfection and a mystical inheritance is reflected in treatments of love, mystery, and the absurd. To dissolve the secular/religious dichotomy, the authors prefer a ‘worldly or life-affirming mysticism rather than a mystical flight from the world’ (213). Moreover, the authors claim that “German Idealism provides us with the most important context for thinking together the conceptual and historical interdependence of existentialism and mysticism” (14).

However, the recent work by Edward Baring, Converts to the Real (Harvard University Press, 2019) suggests that the Neo-Scholastic inheritance of phenomenology cannot be ignored. Baring’s alternative genealogy may help further orient the impressions of mystical sources surveyed in this book. Following the section on Maurice Blondel, further consideration of authors associated with ressourcement theology is welcomed. The short-lived yet prestigious French post-war journal Dieu Vivant, and existentially engaged Thomists like Cornelio Fabro, Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Erich Przywara, and Josef Pieper all fall from view. Nevertheless, the authors must be congratulated for prompting an exciting dialogue between mysticism and existential thought.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Furnal is a Senior Researcher and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Radboud University.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George Pattison is 1640 Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow, UK, and formerly Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford.

Kate Kirkpatrick is Lecturer in Religion, Philosophy, and Culture at King’s College London.


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