Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mortal soul -- redux

Well, Raymo, you often take contemporary religious fundamentalists to task -- creationists and those who await the Rapture, for example -- but in yesterday's post you seem to give the medieval mystics a free pass. Surely, they too were awash in superstition?

Ah, an interesting observation. Thank you for raising the point.

First, I only take fundamentalists to task when their beliefs impinge upon what I consider the common good. As when they seek to subvert public school science education, or inject apocalyptic theology into politics and foreign policy. Otherwise, to each his or her own, I say.

The medieval mystics were by and large rather private sorts, even to the extreme of sealing themselves up into tiny cells, or hiding away in convents and monasteries. Their spiritual commerce was between themselves and their God. To the extent that someone like Saint Bernard used religious demagoguery to excite passions for violent crusade, well, no free pass for him.

As for superstition: If you believed in a personal God or a 6000-year-old Earth in the 14th century, it hardly counts as superstition. Superstition is a slippery term that depends upon the prevailing world view. The Romans thought the early Christians were superstitious. After Constantine took the empire into Christianity, the Roman gods and goddesses were considered superstitions. It is natural that the medieval mystics expressed their ideas in the intellectual vernacular of their time.

I can pare away the supernaturalist theology, anthropocentric world view, and ascetic excess from the writings of the medieval mystics and what remains is something sweet and private -- a wedding of religious feeling and eroticism, an intense sensitivity to the natural world ("Must the nightingale/ Not sing her song/ When Nature tells her loving tale": Mechtild of Magdeburg), a profound awareness of mystery, and, especially, a sense of the unknowability of God.

No free pass, but certainly a deeply discounted ticket. I know I risk scientific credibility in looking back nostalgically on some of these enthusiasms of my youth, but in a world that tends to be excessively synthetic, hedonistic, and fractious, perhaps silence, attentiveness and passionate longing are virtues not to be despised.