Louise Nelstrop is a College Lecturer in Theology at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford University and a Tutor in Theology at Glasgow University. Her research focuses on medieval theology and mysticism, particularly the English Mystics. She has edited a number of essay collections that explore the taxonomy of mysticism for Routledge (Contemporary Theological Explorations in Christian Mysticism series). Most recently, Mysticism in the French Tradition: Eruptions from France, with B.B. Onishi (Routledge, 2015). She has also written an introduction to Christian Mysticism, Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Perspectives with K. Magill and B.B. Onishi (Routledge, 2009) and published a number of articles on the English Mystics. She is co-convenor of the Mystical Theology Network.
1. What is your definition of mysticism?
I research medieval mysticism, particularly how it manifests in England in the 14th and 15th centuries. The term ‘mysticism’ was not used in this period. Some authors used ‘contemplation’, but even where this term is not used either, the authors that I work on are exploring what it means to know God and whether or not experiencing God is important for that.
2. What made you choose that field of study?
I have always found the period extremely fascinating. Ideas of identity are shifting and experience is taking on a new importance. It’s right on the cusp of the modern era and the Reformation; a period of huge social change. There are dynamic discussions in the mystical literature about the place of images within worship, how one relates to God, and what the best Christian life is, all being explored and questioned in the vernacular. My interest in the field more generally is also fuelled by the way in which the subject brings together theology, philosophy and literature.
3. What mystics/and or mystic works have impacted on you intellectually and personally?
Some of the mystics that I work on are a little bizarre and I am not sure how much I would want to emulate their spirituality in all its aspects. What I do find particularly appealing though is the emphasis they place on the role that our humanity within spirituality and Christian faith. Even when they are trying to draw the readers’ attention solely to God and away from themselves, and perhaps because of this, the come across as very human and strangely accessible (despite the paradoxical language in which they often engage). Their writing is anything but a cold distant theology; it is lived and ever present to them. I guess it is this that has impacted on me both personally and intellectually.
4. What is the point of studying mysticism in today’s Western world?
Interest in study of mysticism is growing, particularly outside of academia. Many people today feel that spirituality and mysticism are essential to their lives. They are less sure about religion. The mystics that I study however, hold all three together – indeed, for them ‘mysticism’ would be unimaginable without Christianity. Often my students have been pleasantly surprised to discover that Christianity has a mystical side which they thought only existed within Asian religions. There is a need, I feel, to draw people’s attention to the rich spiritual traditions that Christianity also holds.
5. What role do studies of mysticism play in today’s universities and research centers?
I think that academic interest in mysticism is growing but it is still something of a minority subject within theology in the UK. There are now several universities that run undergraduate courses on mysticism – such as Glasgow and Oxford universities. The number of graduate students who are working on mystical authors also seem to be increasing. Mysticism is, I think, becoming topical once more, in part due to a renewed interest it in within Continental Philosophy.
6. Which books would you recommend to those interested in finding out more about mysticism?
Bernard McGinn has done more than anyone else in the English-speaking world to revitalise interest in mysticism. His series on the History of Christian Mysticism, The Presence of God is the best place for anyone who wants an overview of mystical writers up to and including the Reformation. Six volumes have now been published (the most recent on the Reformation) and more soon will be in press. Another important book that I ask my undergraduates to read is Andrew Louth’s, The Origins of Christian Mysticism (Oxford: OUP, 1981). For those who want a more complex philosophical exploration and are interested in theories of mysticism, I suggest Denys Turner’s, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: CUP, 1998).
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