Bernard McGinn is the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor emeritus at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where he taught for thirty-four years before retiring in 2003. Prof. McGinn is a former President of the Medieval Academy of America and has written extensively on medieval theology, especially on the history of apocalypticism and spirituality and mysticism. His major current project is a seven- volume history of Christian mysticism under the general title The Presence of God five volumes of which have been published between 1991 and 2012.
1) What is your definition of mysticism?
“Mysticism” is a modern word for what the Christian tradition previously called “mystical theology” (a life-style, not an academic discourse), or “contemplation.” I prefer to speak of the “mystical element,” which is a part of a concrete religion, such as Christianity or Judaism. I have described this elsewhere as follows: “…that part, or element, of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of what the mystics themselves describe as a direct and transformative presence of God” (Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, xiv).
2) What made you choose that field of study?
Even in my theological studies more than fifty years ago I was interested in and reading the mystics, although they did not feature in my theology classes. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation (1970) on a twelfth-century Cistercian mystical author named Isaac of Stella. In my teaching career, especially from the 1980s on, I found more and more doctoral students becoming interested in mysticism and this naturally fit in with my own research and teaching. In the United States, several major publishing projects dealing with mysticism (the Cistercian Fathers and Studies Series, the Classics of Western Spirituality) were begun in the 1970s and have demonstrated the wide appeal of mystical authors and topics.
3) What mystics and/or mystic works have had an impact on you intellectually and personally?
A few years ago someone asked me what mystics I was interested, and I answered, “All of them.” Since I’m engaged in writing a multi-volume history of mysticism, this is not an exaggeration. Obviously, I find some mystics more interesting and more personally rewarding than others. I’ve done a good deal of writing on Meister Eckhart, and, in some ways at least, I find him perhaps the most fascinating of the Christian mystics. I also very much appreciate Gregory of Nyssa, John Scottus Eriugena, Bernard and the other Cistercians, and a number of the late medieval mystical women. Most recently, I have been writing and speaking on Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who always repay careful and appreciative study.
4) What is the point of studying mysticism in today’s Western world?
A friend of mine once described mysticism as “the champagne of religion,” a phrase I’m happy to appropriate. I think that mysticism is essential for understanding religion, especially for the ecumenical possibilities of religious traditions in a world where narrow fundamentalist views of religion have been growing stronger. Even for people who may not have any religious commitment of their own, a study of the great mystics can reveal something about human creativity and genius. One does not need to be a painter or a musician to appreciate a Leonardo da Vinci, or a Johann Sebastian Bach.
5) What role do studies of mysticism play in today’s universities and research centers?
The role of mysticism in academia varies greatly from country to country, of course, but it seems to me to be growing. In the US, for example, there was little teaching of mysticism fifty years ago. This has changed quite dramatically in recent decades. Almost all religious studies programs, theology departments, and the like, both in religious schools and in private or state schools, will have courses on spirituality and mysticism. I have been fortunate enough to lecture on mysticism on five continents over the past three decades, and I’ve found considerable academic interest in mysticism on all five.
6) Which books would you recommend to those interested in finding out more about mysticism?
I’ll prescind from mentioning any of my own books, and I’ll mention only books in English. On an introductory level, I think of Dennis Tamburello, Ordinary Mysticism (Paulist Press, 1996), and William Harmless, Mystics (Oxford, 2008). A somewhat more advanced work is Mark McIntosh, Mystical Theology. The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Blackwell, 1998). Among the more difficult and challenging works, three of my favorites are: Friedrich von Hügel, The Mystical Element of Religion, 2 vols. (first published in 1908, but still in print); Joseph Maréchal, Studies in the Psychology of the Mystics (1927, translating the first volume of the 2 vol. French original); and Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable. Volume One (Chicago, 1992, from the French original of 1982).
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