17 September 2005

mcginn on augustine's influence

I apologize for the paucity of blogging this week. My migraine at the beginning of the week ended putting me behind a day on most things in a week already filled with various meetings and events. I was planning on blogging last night but ended up going to hear Bill Mallonee at the Mad Donkey coffeehouse.

At any rate, I wanted to give a brief synopsis of Bernard McGinn's talk at Villanova on Wednesday, which concerned the influence of Augustine on medieval mysticism. While I can't do justice to McGinn's talk (which, in some respects, covered too much in too little time), I wanted to give a sketch of what he had to say.

McGinn began with the question of whether or not Augustine was a “mystic.” After all, Augustine wouldn’t have even been familiar with the terms “mystic” or “mysticism.” In this context, McGinn distinguished between modern phenomenological accounts of mysticism, which tend toward individualistic interiority, divorced from the contexts of community and Scripture and the like that would be typical of Christian mysticism.

There are a few points in the Confessions, particularly in Books 7 and 9, that suggest that Augustine personally knew of something like mystical experience. In Confessions 7.10, Augustine speaks of entering into his inmost parts and gaining glimpse of the immutable light. And at the end of 9, he records the "vision at Ostia," in connection with his mother Monica, which really is not a "vision," but an experience that occured mostly through hearing and silence, feeling and touching.

In Confessions, Book 10.27, Augustine describes God’s action on the inner senses (hearing, illumination, smelling divine sweetness, being touched by God, etc.). He distinguishes later between meditation/memory and glimpses of something more, a brief awareness of loving affection.

After Confessions, when Augustine writes about this sort of thing he doesn’t write in the first person, but through the exposition of Scripture, making mention of various kinds of experience and awareness of God in connection with biblical passages.

So, McGinn asked, do we have access to Augustine’s own mystical experiences?

Though this sort of survey is interesting, McGinn wanted to take a wider approach to the question of Augustine and mysticism, including his meditations on the Psalms as mediating an awareness of God from within the totus Christus, as well as Augustine's suggestions about the soul as an image of the Trinity.

But one can also argue for Augustine's place as a mystic, McGinn suggested, from his reception by subsequent tradition as such: “By your fruits you shall know them.” The transformative effects of Augustine's own experience of God come to be passed along within a tradition. And that to is a witness to Augustine as a mystical writer.

McGinn asserted that the story of western mysticism is deeply indebted to Augustine. But that raises of the questions of “which Augustine” left his mark and “how” Augustine was used. Augustine, after all, went through many stages, developments, reversals, and so within his own theological journey. Moreover, the early medieval mystical texts of Pseudo-Augustine came to be attributed to the Bishop of Hippo, but how and why and what does that tell about how the genuine Augustine was regarded?

Confessions, of course, are central for later history of mysticism, but also Augustine's letters, work on the Psalms, De Trinitate,
De vera religione
, and a number of other works.

To get some sense of Augustine's influence, McGinn examined the structural role of Augustine in the development of the thought of four prominent medieval mystical theologians: Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, Bonaventure, and Meister Eckhart. McGinn moved through each of these theologians quickly, noting ways in which Augustine's is apparent in their theology.

In the case of Bernard, McGinn argued that his theological anthropology draws heavily upon Augustine, especially in Bernard's On Grace and Free Choice, with its emphasis on the inability of the fallen will to make any move towards God apart from grace. As such the work functions as a sort of extended meditative commentary on Romans, examining the relation of grace and freedom and salvation, using Augustine's well-known motif of the fourfold state (from On Grace and Correction).

While Bernard gives his own definition of “free choice,” it nonetheless remains deeply Augustinian. For Bernard, there are three sorts of freedom: [1] freedom from necessity; [2] freedom from sin; and [3] freedom from misery (delight in the good). McGinn suggested that hese correspond approximately to Augustine's image of God (in the case of [1]) and likeness of God (in the cases of [2] and [3]). While God's image remains intact in a state of sin, human likeness to God is interrupted and lost. Mystical consciousness fits in with [3] for Bernard and is tied to the progressive restoration of likeness unto God.

McGinn began his overview of William of St. Thierry by nothing that William is interested also in theological anthropology and is even more deeply Augustinian, drawing also upon the categories of image and likeness, love and participation. William particularly develops Augustine's doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the love between the Father and Son. His Spirit-centered mysticism remains explicitly trinitarian, meditating upon the Augustinian image/analogy to the Trinity found in the triad of memory, understanding, and will.

For William, McGinn noted, the image of God is participation in God. While similitude with God is lost in the fall, that likeness is progressively resotory in salvation, bringing humanity to the perfecting participation, deification, and maturation for which they were created. And all of this, for William, is always to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, which participation in God through the Spirit is the gift (donum) given to humanity. In mystical experience, it is the Spirit himself who becomes the reality of our seeing and rejoicing in God just as the Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and Son. Thus, in giving the Spirit, God gives himself, not just an effect of grace as virtue is. Thus for William, McGinn suggests, our likeness to God in the highest degree is a matter of being taking up into the oneness of God in the Spirit.

From William, McGinn turned to Bonaventure. Bonaventure cites Augustine constantly as an authority in both theology and philosophy throughout his works, particularly The Mind’s Journey into God. Illumination remains the most prominent Augustinian theme in Bernand. In Chapter 2 of the Mind's Journey, Bernard uses Aristotelian terminology to express Augustinian content with regard to illumination. In Chapter 3, the triad of knowledge, intellect, and will, building upon Augustine, is seen to constitute human likeness to God. But, as Bonaventure continues, McGinn explained, he becomes increasingly (Pseudo-)Dionysian, though some of that trend comes from the influence of Pseudo-Augustine so Bernard, at the very least, thought it was Augustinian.

McGinn finished his lecture with an all-too-brief glance at Meister Eckhart who, apparently steeped in Augustine, cites him more than any other figure. Eckhard's Augustine, however, remains a selective Augustine, rarely drawing upon any of Augustine's anti-Pelagian treatises. Moreover, Eckhard tends to recast what he reads in Augustine within his own theological project and, at times, openly disagrees with Augustine.

The most interesting examples of Eckhart's use of Augustine, McGinn suggests, are where he uses Augustine against Augustine, especially with regard to both the relation of time and eternity and the distincton between humanity being "in the image" and "to the image" of God (imago dei et ad imaginem dei). With regard to this last point, Eckhart portrays Christ as the true consubstantial image of the Father. But we too are created "to the image" of God (so that our imaging of God is an image of the Trinity) and as the image of God. In the end, pushing the analogy between humanity and Christ's imaging of God, Eckhart seems to suggest that the soul has aspect that is of one being with and is the same as God. Though he is building upon Augustine here, Augustine would almost certainly reject Eckhart's conclusion.

I really have very few comments on McGinn's lecture. Despite my fondness for figures such as Julian of Norwich, I don't find the category of "mysticism" particularly helpful theologically, though the directions that McGinn seems to want to take it in (which move away from individualistic and phenomenological approaches) seemed preferable to some treatments I've heard (and McGinn is one of the foremost authorities on the topic). I found his discussion of William of St. Thierry very interesting and may take this as an opportunity to look further into William's thought.