Readings in Christian Mysticism: Late Antiquity

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Intermediate—Year

Texts commonly seen to contain mystical elements have to do with the desire on the part of the reader to know, experience, or be with God and with the author’s attempt to properly demarcate the boundaries within which these desires can be fulfilled. Christian mysticism is, therefore, perhaps best thought of as erotic theology; it concerns that aspect of theology that involves the desire for God. Recognizing this, we must also acknowledge that inherent to this theology is a profound paradox. What is desired must be conceived. It must be held in the grasp of one’s understanding in order to be attained. While this is fine for an orange or even wealth and power, it is much more problematic when the object of desire is God, the creator of the universe. Theologians in the early church developed a language of desire and specific sets of practices involving one’s lifestyle and prayer in order to resolve this paradox and fulfill his or her desire. Early Christian theologians began to ponder this paradox with a synthesis of a biblical theology of divine revelation (i.e., the revelation of God as preserved in the biblical canon, symbolized in both the revelation of YHWH on Mount Sinai and the incarnation of the Divine Logos as Jesus of Nazareth) and Platonic rhetoric with respect to the expression of a desire for the ultimate good, truth, or beauty. The mystery is informed on the one hand by the anthropology of desire set forth by Plato in, for example, the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Educated in the Hellenistic world, the early church fathers took these ideas for granted and attempted to find common ground with their Christian inheritance. We will begin our study by applying ourselves to this general background, including the phenomenon of Gnostic Christianity. We will then move on to encounter such great early Christian writers as Origen and Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Psuedo-Dionysius, and Ambrose of Milan and conclude our study with a lengthy look at what, for Western culture, is the seminal work of Augustine of Hippo.