Mystical Theology and Continental Philosophy

Interchange in the Wake of God

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Simon D. Podmore, David Lewin, Duane Williams
Contemporary Theological Explorations in Mysticism
  • New York, NY: 
    , June
     274 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A common thread coheres the essays in Mystical Theology and Continental Philosophy: Interchange in the Wake of God: an awareness and questioning of the fragility of the conjunction between mystical theology and continental philosophy. Are mystical theology and continental philosophy able to work together, to learn from each other, or must they remain at odds with each other? This conjunction at times makes for an uneasy discussion when it strikes an evaluative tone that prefers one disciplinary approach over another, typically privileging mystical theology. It is at its best when engaged in a critical dialogue across disciplines, when seeking to improve one’s own discipline through the heuristics of the other. In these two senses, it accurately reflects the tensions within the state of the field while simultaneously contributing to its development.

David Lewin, Simon D. Podmore, and Duane Williams have organized the fourteen essays in this volume under four categories. The first section, titled “Receiving Mystical Tradition in Post/modernity,” asks how mystical thought might contribute to current understandings of the world. Oliver Davies discusses the manner in which mystical texts model a form of presence that increases the “intimate hyper-communication” of human social life. Agata Bielik-Robson’s critical interpretation of the history of ideas highlights the kabbalistic and theosophic impulses that undergird the “modern metaphysics of finitude” and arise in the wake of Hegel’s declaration of the death of God. Joseph Milne explores the impact of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutical method on the devotional and contemplative methods of the medieval, mystical exegete. In this first section, the authors emphasize the possible positive contributions of mystical theology to an improved understanding of humanity and post/modernity.

The second section, titled “Apophasis and Continental Philosophy,” challenges the adoption of apophatic language by postmodern philosophers from their mystical theologian forebears. Maria Exall critiques Jacques Derrida’s critical interpretation of the Dionysian tradition of apophatacism with an eye toward developing a “this-worldly” centered mysticism as a source of renewed political activism. Miroslav Griško offers an Eastern Orthodox rendering of the epistemology of apophatic language that counters the post-modern metaphysics/language of apophatacism and the death of God/Being. Rico G. Monge calls into question the coherency of Jean-Luc Marion’s recent (theological) turn to the phenomenology of love and Augustine’s Confessions. The authors of the second session call into question the viability of post-modern renderings of apophatacism while providing counter-arguments from the tradition of mystical theology.

The third section, “Revisiting Eckhart through Heidegger,” traces the impact of Meister Eckhart’s mystical thought, notably his notion of life without a why, on the philosophical thought of Martin Heidegger. George Pattison reevaluates the role of mystical and scholastic theology for Heidegger’s oeuvre through his abandoned early lectures on mysticism. Duane Williams emphasizes the mystical orientation of Heidegger’s reformulation of the “what” of philosophy by reading Eckhart’s “life without why” alongside Heidegger’s critique of Leibniz’s “principle of sufficient reason.” Christopher M. Wojtulewicz similarly probes a connection between Heidegger’s critique of the principle of sufficient reason and Eckhart’s notion of principium through the commonalities of their respective speculative grammars and the relation inherent between language and reality. David Lewin explores models of “attention” from Heidegger and Eckhart in order to critique current models of attention and human agency at work in educational theory and practice. These essays contribute to the well-established hermeneutic pathway of emphasizing the mystical and theological aspects of Heidegger’s thought.

The final section, “Re-readings and New Boundaries,” ingeniously re-engages well-worn territory in the work of Søren Kierkegaard and the less-worn work of Nicholas of Cusa while pushing the disciplinary boundaries that typically separate mystical theology and continental philosophy in the works of Gilles Deleuze and Slavoj Žižek. Simon D. Podmore appropriates Eckhart’s notion of a mystical union with God as a desert of silence in order to disrupt the standing of self and other, including Kierkegaard’s notion of God as Wholly Other and Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of alterity and the face of the Other. Steven Shakespeare draws out the commonalities between Kierkegaard and Cusa’s phrasing of the paradoxical nature of the infinite that deconstructs the transcendent separation of the infinite from the finite in favor of an infinite immanent becoming. Alex Dubilet problematizes Deleuze’s characterization of theology as the realm of transcendence/oppression and philosophy as the realm of immanence/freedom, arguing that Eckhart’s theology also articulates a radical, and potentially liberating, immanence. Marika Rose similarly challenges the self-imposed narratives of the boundaries between theology and philosophy by tracing the convergence and intersections of theology and philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite and Slavoj Žižek that have resulted in new, generative directions for theology and philosophy. In this final section, the authors break out of the traditional dialogues that have typically encumbered or structured encounters between mystical theologians and continental philosophers in favor of bold possibilities that spring forth from their collision.

As the title of the collection suggests, the authors knowingly embrace and wrestle with the retrieval of mystical thought in a postmodern and postsecular age. The collection’s subtitle, “Interchange in the Wake of God,” alludes to the theological impulse behind the retrieval of mystical thought. God may have passed by, but God remains present through absence. The mystic—that is, the apophatic theologian—is assumed to be precisely positioned to speak to this interchange of divine absence and presence in order to “recover the subsistence of our being” (10). One may initially question the value or necessity of such a theological recovery for continental philosophy. All told, it is a collection worth the time of any scholar who finds themselves at the intersection of mystical theology and continental philosophy whether in search of a new ground or not.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason Blakeburn is a doctoral student in Philosophy and Religion at McGill University in Montréal, Quebec.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Lewin is lecturer in education at Strathclyde University. His recent publications include articles in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, Ethics and Education, and the European Journal of Special Educational Needs. He is co-editor of New Perspectives in Philosophy of Education (Bloomsbury, 2014) and has recently published a monograph for Routledge entitled Educational Philosophy for a Post-Secular Age

Simon D. Podmore is senior lecturer in systematic theology at Liverpool Hope University and co-convenor, with Louise Nelstrop, of the Mystical Theology Network. He is author of Kierkegaard and the Self Before God: Anatomy of the Abyss (Indiana University Press, 2011) and Struggling With God: Kierkegaard and the Temptation of Spiritual Trial (James Clarke & Co., 2013). He is currently writing a monograph entitled Dark Night of the Holy, exploring a theological account of the Negative Numinous in Mystical Theology. 

Duane Williams is senior lecturer in the theology, philosophy, and religious studies department at Liverpool Hope University. He is editor of the journal Medieval Mystical Theology, a trustee of the Eckhart Society, and a co-facilitator of the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion. He is the author of the monograph The Linguistic Christ, and is to soon publish a new monograph titled Language and Being: Heidegger's Linguistics.


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