Textbook Spirituality

Another book review came my way today from Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, this time it was James Wetzel's review of John Peter Kenney's recent book The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Rereading the Confessions (Routledge, 2005). I almost let this one go unnoticed, since Routledge is principally a student textbooky sort of publisher, not typically a source of really high level scholarship they way Oxford or Cambridge often are, but James Wetzel is a noted authority on Augustine (presently he's at Villanova) so I thought it would be worth reading just to get his take on things. As usual, Wetzel is interesting and incisive, but I did a double-take when I read this bit:
The most famous of the three episodes -- the tolle, lege experience -- is badly book-ended by the other two, or at least it is if we are bent on thinking of extraordinary religious apprehension on the model of supersensible sensation. Kenney credits William James with having made this model so seductive to modern theorists. In the mysticism chapters of The Varieties of Religious Experience, James definitively associates mysticism with mystical experience and offers four defining criteria for the requisite experience: it is knowledge-conveying, rightly authoritative for the person experiencing it, short-lived, and passively received. Probably what is most important about mystical experience thus construed is that it sustains an experiential gulf between haves and have-nots; either one has the experience and so knows what it conveys or one is hopelessly in the dark. This model, which admits of great refinement (I think of William Alston on the logic of perceptual experience), risks making the experience of the divine akin to getting a first taste of ice cream or, dare I say it, having an orgasm, but being a supersensible matter, the experience of the divine bears a logical, not a qualitative, analogy to ordinary sense experience. In other words, to experience the divine is, on this model of mysticism, to be transported to a world apart from the ordinary, a place of unlikeness.
I'll pass over in silence the reference to orgasms, as sponge-worthy as it is for commenting purposes. Instead I'll draw attention to the notion of mystical experience as experience. Probably most folks interested in the debate between materialist empiricism and religion would like to agree that something about the mystical, or indeed even the spiritual, is "knowledge-conveying" and "rightly authoritative for the person experiencing it", but there seems to be an ambiguity here, an equivocation on the word "experience" such that it wavers between the generic and the specific. Generic in the sense of being "knowledge-conveying" but specific in the sense of verging on the empirical. I don't think the problem is cleared up much by talk of being "transported to a world apart from the ordinary, a place of unlikeness". If ever there were a more meaningless string of words, I would like to see it.

Of course, the notion of a place of unlikeness is a thoroughly Augustinian one, but it is very difficult to see how it can by anything other than a metaphor of the analogy of being. According to Wetzel, Kenney argues for a reading of Augustine through a Plotinian lens, but specifically a Plotinus who has been stripped of certain 20th century misinterpretations and restored to a more authentic (read, late antique) Neoplatonism. On Kenney's view, the traditional notion that Plotinus was the source of Augustine's concept of transcendence fails to take into account the fact that Augustine sees himself as free to think of the body as a principle of individuation, hence he can reject the Plotinian idea of God as essentially not a body. As Wetzel puts it in his review:
It is not that Augustine still harbors some lingering attachment to Manichean materialism; the point is more that his incarnational theology is inescapably a part of his theology of creation (his monotheism). If we allow that point its play, then it makes sense to pair the ascent to God in book VII with the descent to the flesh in book VIII; the two are aspects of a single contemplation. It also becomes evident what makes the vision at Ostia in book IX so singular and important: the conjunction of seeing God and being aware of the presence of another person.
In the end this book looks like it goes well beyond what I expected of a typical textbook from Routledge, and I look forward to reading the whole thing with a view to judging it on its own merits.

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