MYSTICAL THEOLOGY AND THE LITURGICAL CONSUMMATION OF PHILOSOPHY
A comparison of the theological perspectives of Mark McIntosh and Catherine Pickstock
In recent years Blackwell publishers have brought out a number of attractively presented works by young theologians, in their series ‘Challenges in Contemporary Theology’. In this essay I would like to examine two contributions to that series: Mystical Theology by Mark McIntosh, and After Writing, by Catherine Pickstock, looking at how each writer talks about religious experience and the knowledge of God. For McIntosh, the medieval era saw a division between spirituality and theology which impoverished both, and his work is concerned to articulate a position, deeply Trinitarian, from which a reconciliation might proceed. Catherine Pickstock, whilst also concerned with the damage caused by intellectual developments in the middle ages, advances the thesis that ‘liturgical language is the only language that makes sense’ and that ‘the event of transubstantiation in the Eucharist is the condition of possibility for all human meaning’. As such, it would seem that McIntosh is the more theoretical work, whilst Pickstock is more concerned with the practice of faith. My intention in this paper is to show that, in fact, the reverse is the case, and that it is the perspective of McIntosh that most fruitfully opens up the possibility of theological investigation of mystical texts and speech. I will begin my paper by expounding the overall argument of each work in turn, before ending the paper with some remarks giving my own perspective on this issue.
The argument of Mystical Theology
McIntosh’s purpose in writing his work is explicitly to foster a reunion of theology and spirituality. McIntosh locates the source for the division between spirituality and theology in the late medieval turn to experience, which he associates (ironically) with Bernard of Clairvaux. This turn to experience led to a shift from a concern with the divine, as mediated through the teaching of the mystics, to a concern with what the mystics themselves experienced, which McIntosh calls experientialism. He writes: ‘Mystical writers again and again warn against paying much attention to religious feelings or preoccupation with various experiential states. Such writers do this by using imagery of withdrawal, darkness, inner abandonment and so on. But their interpreters very often mistake this imagery for a kind of literal report of, or prescription for, actual religious experience. The language of negativity in spiritual texts, intended as a critique of all religious experience, is read as encouragement to pursue the achievement of negative experiences. If a mystic said for example that, “Darkness is the only way to God”, the experientialist interpreter takes this to mean that one must seek some inner state of ‘darkness’ rather than hearing it as a warning against reliance on particular beliefs, aspiration, feeling, or idols of any kind whatsoever in the encounter with the living God.’
McIntosh’s contention is that this turn to existentialist interpretation encouraged the divorce between theology and spirituality. For McIntosh, spirituality without theology is disorientated, deprived ‘of some stable communal goal and reference, and hence render[ed] susceptible to the idols, compulsions, or fears of the individual…every spiritual consciousness must be contextualized and appraised in terms of its context’. Whereas theology without spirituality (which is the primary concern of his book) becomes abstract and ‘may not only lose contact with important sources of religious reflection but may also lose the proper skills for speaking of the doctrines of Christianity – doctrines conceived not simply as propositions for analysis but as living mysteries to be encountered’. Ultimately, for McIntosh, ‘when theology is divorced from spirituality it is likely to begin talking about a different god, a deity who depends on theological performance for vitality and verisimilitude’
The correct way to proceed with theology is through a reconciliation of both spirituality and academic theology, which McIntosh describes as mystical theology. He points out that for writers such as Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa ‘love and knowledge are at the highest levels utterly coinherent’. This is to be achieved through the path of contemplation. McIntosh refers approvingly to the understanding of Richard of St. Victor, ‘contemplation is a free and clear vision of the mind fixed upon the manifestation of wisdom in suspended wonder’.
Three aspects of this understanding are brought out: firstly, contemplation is enhanced lucidity, not a tentative exploration through an intellectual fog; secondly, intellect is fully engaged in contemplation, but only as part of a wider apprehension; and thirdly, the focus is on something outside the individual, an external wisdom, which the contemplative seeks to participate in. Contemplation should seek to enable Christian believers to develop and move forward on their path to God – as such it is unavoidably confessional and doctrinal, for doctrine, correctly understood, is ‘a language for describing and participating in this encounter with God, as an itinerary giving an indication of the major landmarks along the journey.’ McIntosh argues that ‘the inherent momentum of theology is towards contemplation, and …this is no abdication of academic rigour or the critical function; the most rigorous and critical turn theology takes may flow from the passionate desire to know the living truth’ . Therefore, ‘theology as a form of knowing and speaking of God must in some manner follow this path itself’, that is, be transformed by love.
McIntosh then spends time considering how to interpret mystical texts, where he briefly considers questions of meaning. The texts bequeathed to the Christian tradition by the mystical writers are to be considered, following Ricoeur, as ‘meaning events’, whereby ‘The patterns of the mystical text draw its readers into a play of meaning that re-structures the readers’perceptions’ . ‘In the interaction of text and reader, the reader’s process of understanding is drawn out of its usual opposition of self and other and the analysis of the other as a manipulable object for the controlling self’. McIntosh explicitly parallels the experience of reading a mystical text with the experience of Jesus’s life, which ‘might well be seen as the matrix and categorical framework for the unfolding event of Christian mystical speech – including the drive towards meaning and understanding’. ‘The meaningfulness of mystical texts, is, in other words, less like the meaningfulness of propositions and more like the call to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus into the apophasis of Gethsemane and Golgotha’. This leads to the reinforcing of McIntosh’s earlier conclusion, where he sought to show ‘the inherent integrity of ‘Christian spirituality and theology, and the degree to which the mystical journey underlies and even generates whatever is most truthful in theological perceptivity’
The remainder of McIntosh’s work is a development from this starting point. He considers the perspectives of Rahner and von Balthasar on the division between spirituality and theology, and his argument culminates in a section of systematic theology, where he considers questions of Trinitarian theology, Christology and anthropology. As an interim conclusion, I would wish to emphasise the distinction that McIntosh draws between the style of contemporary academic theology (where ‘my theological exposition of God may have all the liveliness of a laboratory specimen’) and the poetic and lucid writing of the mystics (where mystical texts ‘are linguistic performances, and it is the very patterning of their language which allows them to draw the reader into a new perceptivity’).
The Argument of After Writing
Pickstock begins her thesis with an examination of the Phaedrus, a mid to late Platonic dialogue. The argument is conducted through an analysis and rejection of the Derridean interpretation of this work, that is, Pickstock contends against Derrida that Plato assumed that language was primarily doxological in character, ‘ultimately concerned with praise of the divine’, and therefore liturgical. According to this view, Socrates ‘attacks sophistry not on the grounds of its linguistic mediation of truth, but because of its undoxological motivation’. Sophism is therefore identified with the ‘practices of demythologisers... who are concerned only with superficial matters rather than substantive content’. Through Part 1 of the book Pickstock traces a line of descent from this sophistry through to modern secularism, showing how, for example, the Cartesian elevation of rationality, with all its consequences, owes its origin to ‘the beginnings of a technocratic, manipulative, dogmatically rationalist, anti-erotic, anti-corporeal and homogenising society undergirded by secularity and pure immanence’, against which Socrates contended. According to Pickstock it is this move away from a transcendent understanding of language which prepares the way for secular modernism: ‘“sophistic” immanentism is the ultimate foundation of these illusions’.
Pickstock’s argument then proceeds through a ‘transition’ where she argues that the liturgical polity was ‘sundered from within by an excess piety’, principally through the work of Duns Scotus (d. 1308). For Pickstock, Scotus is something of a bête noir, who reintroduces sophistic thinking into the medieval West. The following characteristics of Scotist thought, as presented by Pickstock, are key:
a) the primacy of rationality: ‘And since the “possible”, as distinct from the “actual” is by definition only realised in thought, or in some prior or virtual realm, the place given to the “possible” by Scotus inaugurates the logical basis for privileging epistemology over ontology, and the rational over the actual, thereby opening the way for modern metaphysics’
b)the elevation of divine sovereignty: ‘The supremacy of God’s will, according to Duns Scotus, is such that it can realise all possibilities, even those which contradict the actual necessities of the particular created order in which we live’;
c) the consequent change in our understanding of the miraculous: ‘Scotus’ departure from analogia entis, which distances God from the world, precipitates a necessary preparedness to undergo at any moment a radically discontinuous and arbitrary alteration caused by God, whose presence in the world is now viewed more ontically, in terms of a willingness to intervene. The miraculous is no longer to be found in the analogical resemblances of the physical order, but in the possible radical discontinuities of that order’.
The second part of Pickstock’s work is concerned with liturgy, for ‘the human subject is constituted (or fully central to itself) only in the dispossessing act of praise’, and as such, the nature of the liturgy is crucial for the formation of our human and Christian nature. Pickstock argues that the reforms of Vatican II made fundamental mistakes in understanding the Eucharistic liturgy, and fell short of what was needed if liturgy is to stand out against the sophistic culture dominant in the contemporary West. She writes, ‘A successful liturgical revision would have to involve a revolutionary re-invention of language and practice which would challenge the structures of our modern world, and only thereby restore real language and action as liturgy’. Pickstock therefore engages in a detailed analysis of the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Liturgy, with a view to showing that many of the ‘accretions’ and ‘additions’ found in the Latin Mass actually functioned to emphasise spiritual truths, for example the sense of time as something which returns cyclically, as opposed to being ‘spatialised’ and linear. This can be seen as the primary aim of her work: to show how the Latin mass expresses a non-sophistic understanding of reality, such that it becomes possible ‘to restore meaning to language …and the optimum site of this restoration is the integration of word and action in the event of the Eucharist.’ Pickstock has repudiated the postmodern account of signs (Part one) and now articulates a theological conception of signification: ‘the theological sign includes and repeats the mystery it receives and to which it is offered, and as such, it reveals the nature of that divine mystery as gift, relationality, and perpetuity. Such a sign is not a terminal product which stops at its own signification…This sign disseminates the tradition into which it is born, for it is configured as a history, a ritual, a liturgy, a narrative, a desire, and a community’ Consequently, for Pickstock, ‘The words of Consecration “This is my body” therefore, far from being problematic in their meaning, are the only words which certainly have meaning, and lend this meaning to all other words’. It is here that liturgy consummates philosophy, for the meaning which philosophy strives towards can only be found in the drama and action of the Eucharistic feast.
At this point it is necessary to bring McIntosh and Pickstock into a closer dialogue, in order to concentrate on the relevance of their work for understanding how it is possible to talk about God. A number of correspondences suggest themselves:
a) Firstly, both McIntosh and Pickstock agree that the late medieval period saw a decline or corruption in Western Christianity. McIntosh explores that corruption through the turn to experience, Pickstock through the development of Scotist thought (drawing on de Lubac, amongst others);
b) Secondly, it would seem plausible to consider Scotist thought as a prime example of the type of academic thought which McIntosh is concerned to criticise, which gave rise to the concern with propositional adequacy rather than devotional fruitfulness. There is therefore a common distaste for the analytical mode of understanding in both writers.
c) Thirdly, both McIntosh and Pickstock see theological understanding as determined by membership of the church community; that is, it is impossible to understand religious speech apart from participation within the life of the community. For Pickstock this extends throughout the wider life of the community, which she sees as being formed in the Eucharist, whereas McIntosh sees it more in terms of a pattern of discipleship.
There are also some ways in which each author is able to ‘correct’ the account of the other in important ways. Pickstock’s emphasis upon the liturgy as the location of meaning and the foundation for Christian understanding could usefully be incorporated into McIntosh’s account. McIntosh, despite his protestations concentrates primarily on the individual context; not, to be sure, on the experience of the individual, but on the understanding and development of the individual as they learn from mystical texts. More importantly, however, McIntosh stands as a corrective to Pickstock in terms of the clarity with which he presents his case. This is a substantive point as much as a stylistic one. McIntosh emphasises the lucidity of contemplation as the goal of theological endeavour, and he implicitly argues for integrity between the medium of religious teaching and the message which that teaching is intending to convey – hence the discussion of poetics and hermeneutics. This is a position which would seem harmonious with the stance which Pickstock takes in her work, where the form of the liturgy has importance apart from any ‘content’ which might be conveyed through it.
Yet it seems to me that there is still a residual ‘Scotist’ tendency in the argument of After Writing. This is betrayed first through the method of her argument which is characterised by obscure vocabulary and dense argumentation – ‘The only cohesion obtained for the persons and the events of Salvation History with our own “event” of proclamation now relies upon pre-established knowledge and the implicature of temporal iconicity whereby one infers the unified chronicity of the fabula from the sequential position of events in the text’. There is also a flavour of academic intimidation and confrontation (‘One must indeed, fervently join forces with scholars like Henri de Lubac…’) which, whilst not academically problematic, is open to criticism from a point of view such as McIntosh’s, which stresses the integrity of theology with its spiritual roots. Most fundamental, however, is the way in which Pickstock’s argument is grounded within a particular academic debate, and that the success or otherwise of her argument in favour of liturgical reform seems to depend upon a view of language. Pickstock’s argument is that ‘only a realistic construal of the event of the Eucharist allows us to ground a view of language which does not evacuate the body, and does not give way to necrophilia’ - as such she gives the view of language a role in grounding the rejection of necrophilia. Consequently the foundation of her position lies with an intellectual and propositional point. She has advanced a theory of meaning (signification) and on the basis of this she builds her justification of liturgy. The roots of this perspective, with Pickstock, lie in her adherence to Platonism. Her argument is that Plato operated with a doxological view of language, and that a recovery of this is essential for the health of Christian society. Pickstock even goes so far as to say that ‘Plato will already have anticipated or hinted at’ the answers that Christianity can offer, and this is why liturgy ‘consummates’ philosophy, for it brings it to completion. As such, it is surely an example of ‘theological performance’ which McIntosh so rightly criticises.
The impact of working from this foundation can be seen by examining Pickstock’s thesis that outside the mass there can be no meaning. This can be understood as saying 1) the mass exemplifies the deepest meaning of Christianity, but also 2) non-Christian liturgy (and non-Christian language) is meaningless. It would appear that Pickstock is arguing for the latter, but her work is structured so that this is presented as a philosophical claim, not a religious (or theological) claim. As such it is a claim which lies open to severe questioning. Pickstock is arguing from a confessional position, and as such there is a further distinction that can be made between her perspective and that of McIntosh. For McIntosh remains open to insights from non-Christian traditions, seeing them as ‘likely to become some of the most significant dialogue partners in Christianity’s future’. Pickstock’s position precludes such conversation from ever beginning, and as such her outlook is itself guilty of the ‘totalising’ impulse which she so rightly castigates in Scotist thought.
This essay has been concerned with how it is possible to talk about God – how religious experience, whether through that of the mystics (McIntosh) or through the liturgy (Pickstock), can shape our understanding of religious truth. McIntosh argues that the experience of reading a mystical text interrogates our understandings, and opens up the possibilities of seeing the world differently, they ‘re-structure’ our understanding. Mystical texts are therefore less descriptive of a religious event than precipitative of a religious event. For Pickstock, liturgy has a similar role – we are shaped by the liturgy itself and any language that we speak is ultimately referred back to the drama of the eucharistic liturgy, and the re-narration of the founding story of Christ. However, for Pickstock, this understanding is dependent upon a particular intellectual approach to the truth, and in fact, it is through the path of the intellect that we come to be aware of the truth. She writes: ‘only the dialectician, who holds steadfastly to the good, is in a position to differentiate and to discern the true from the false’. Pickstock elevates rationality and dialectics into an idol, making intellectual insight the foundation for spiritual insight, and as such, from a perspective like McIntosh’s, her work is profoundly unmystical. The project of finding a liturgical consummation for philosophy seems intrinsically to raise philosophical endeavours to an inappropriate level, for consummation requires some level of commonality between the partners, and, if McIntosh is correct, then the consummation required is between spirituality and theology – philosophy is not invited into the conversation.
I am persuaded by McIntosh’s account of mystical theology – that our understanding of God needs to be integrated with spiritual insights if it is to be intellectually fruitful. I do not think that it is possible to prove the truth of Christianity; that endeavour in itself places reason in an idolatrous position. Consequently it seems to me that the academic process, when developed apart from spiritual nurturing, is intrinsically inimical to the aim of explaining Christianity, a point well made by McIntosh. The apparatus of scholarship - marshalling argument and evidence, establishing sources, being judicious and reserved in what can be said – seems, when applied to theological investigations, to implicitly depend upon the idea that Christianity can be proved, as if, were we only to be careful enough and scholarly enough then we would be able to establish Christianity on a firm foundation. This is to search for certainty in the wrong place. This form of academic theology depends upon a distancing from the material being discussed, a distancing which has its roots in scientific methods. Yet as McIntosh clearly argues, drawing on the traditional perspective of the church, ‘love and knowledge are at the highest levels utterly coinherent’, and he quotes Augustine approvingly, ‘The soul wants to know God more and more because it loves him, and loves him because it knows that he is supreme Truth and Beauty. Love and knowledge of God are united in the kind of knowledge we have of God, namely wisdom, sapientia.’ It seems to me that this love must be for not only the source of wisdom itself, which gives rise to whatever insights might be conveyed, but also for those to whom a writer wishes to convey those insights. As such the language used is of first importance. As McIntosh puts it, mystical language (which is the only theological language with final validity) ‘is describing in a simple or direct sense neither God nor the mystic’s experiences but evoking an interpretive framework within which the readers of the text may come to recognize and participate in their own encounters with God.’ To my mind, McIntosh succeeds in this most important of theological tasks, while Pickstock, although not without important insights, falls short.
I should say, to be precise, ‘by predominantly young theologians’ – one of the best works in the series is by Rowan Williams, On
Mystical Theology, Mark A
McIntosh, Blackwell, 1998
After Writing, Catherine Pickstock,
Mystical Theology, pp 65-69. I say ironically, as this would be the last thing that Bernard would have wished to see – a point that McIntosh makes.
Mark McIntosh, Mystical Theology,
Blackwell Publishers, 1998, p 23.
Mystical Theology, p14.
Mystical Theology, p15.
Mystical Theology, p70.
Mystical Theology p11. McIntosh himself is taking this quotation from Louth, Theology and Spirituality, Fairacres Oxford: SLG Press, 1978
Mystical Theology, p40.
Mystical Theology, p33.
Mystical Theology, p29.
Mystical Theology, p131.
Mystical Theology, p132.
Mystical Theology, p132.
Mystical Theology, p135.
Mystical Theology, p136.
Mystical Theology, p15.
Mystical Theology, p142.
After Writing, p37.
After Writing, p5.
After Writing p48.
After Writing p49.
After Writing, p127
After Writing, p132.
After Writing, pp131-132.
After Writing, p177.
After Writing pp175-176 give a summary.
After Writing, p171.
After Writing p 253.
After Writing, p267.
After Writing, p263, my emphasis.
For example Mystical Theology, p7, ‘Spirituality in this early Christian sense is inherently mutual, communal, practical and oriented towards the God who makes self known precisely in this new pattern of life called church’.
After Writing, p206, footnote 96.
After Writing, p172.
After Writing, pxv
After Writing, p270
Mystical Theology, p15.
Mystical Theology, p5.
After Writing, p17.
Mystical Theology, p70.
Mystical Theology, p124.