Logia for April 2019: “Undressing” Philosophical Theology – Lessons from Mechthild of Magdeburg by Amber L. Griffioen

Each month Blogos features an article created in partnership with the Logos Institute’s Logia initiative. This month’s Logia post is by Amber L. Griffioen. More information about Logia and additional articles are available here.

In Book I, §44 of her allegorical masterpiece, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, 13th-century German theologian Mechthild of Magdeburg presents the reader with a dialogue in which the soul, depicted as a woman of noble birth, longs to dance with her youthful suitor and potential bridegroom (a.k.a. Christ) in the garden. Her male chamberlains, the five senses, instruct her to dress herself in the traditional female virtues – the “chemise of gentle humility”, the “white dress of sincere chastity”, and the “mantle of good reputation” – before entering the garden to search for her lover, and she obliges.

Yet after hearing the song of the “birds of holy knowledge” and dancing “a splendid dance of praise” with the personifications of the theological virtues she has summoned to her side, the bride’s own tune begins to change. When her overly-sensitive[1] chamberlains try to get her to “cool down” from the heat of the dance of knowledge, she rebukes them. In response to their “helpful” suggestions that she stop and refresh herself with chastity, confession, apostolic wisdom, martyrdom, and “holy austerity”, the soul notes that she has already suffered enough in her life and has been “martyred so many a day”. She claims that she has already attained the requisite theological wisdom for the journey and that this wisdom will be her sole (and soul-) guide. She even rejects her stewards’ sensual offer to suckle from the “supernatural milk” of the Virgin, asserting that nursing is for babies and that she is a “grown-up bride” who requires an adult lover. “Leave me be,” she tells them. “You understand not what I mean. I will drink for a while the unmingled wine!”

The senses, still playing the role of paternalistic bodyguard, warn that without them the soul will surely go blind and will not be able to “survive for even a moment” in the fire of the “divine breath”. But the soul is not to be dissuaded. She calmly replies that “a fish in water cannot drown” and that she is created with all that she needs to encounter the Divine: “God has made all creatures to live according to their nature,” she tells them. “How, then, am I supposed to resist my own?” She wonders aloud whether her guardians might not have ulterior motives – “Perhaps you don’t even want me to experience him?” – but nevertheless patronizingly assures them that, despite taking leave of her senses for the time being, she will still have use for them when she returns from her rendezvous.

The soul then enters into the “hidden bedchamber of the pure Godhead”, where she is instructed by her bridegroom to take off her clothes. When asked for an explanation, Christ tells her, “You are so completely en-natured in me that nothing more must come between us”. She should thus “set aside her fear and shame and every external virtue” and instead feel the “noble longing” and “unending [groundless] desire” that is most internal to her. Christ then “gives himself to her, and she gives herself to him” in mutual love, and there arises a “holy stillness” and intimacy that both desire.

*  *  *  *  *

OK, so why am I giving the SparkNotes version of a story that, to the average reader, might look like nothing more than a piece of 13th-century Jesus fan fiction? Well, in addition to being quite the medieval page turner, I think Mechthild’s story can provide the occasion for a few reflections on what the inclusion of women and minority voices can mean for philosophical theology as a discipline.[2] If one thinks, as I do, that theology is a dynamic, living discipline, then it is worth asking how such inclusion might transform the discipline in ways that both speak to our present concerns while remaining grounded in its history.

Let’s begin with Mechthild herself. Those who have heard of the Beguine author may have been surprised to see me characterize her in the opening paragraph as a theologian. True, Mechthild probably did not know much Latin beyond the liturgy, meaning that even if she had access to theological and philosophical sources, she could not have read most of them without assistance. She certainly did not enjoy the kind of scholastic theological training that would have been available to her medieval male contemporaries (including Thomas Aquinas, whose Aristotelian views on women as defective and misbegotten babymakers, incapable by virtue of their sex to represent the image of Christ, don’t exactly hold up as well as much of his other theology[3]). Instead, Mechthild’s work is usually classified under the heading of ‘mysticism’, since the entire work is an expression of her religious visions, her continuing sense of God’s presence, and what she has learned from reflecting on her revelations.[4] But the term also unfairly serves to push thinkers like Mechthild to the margins of Christian thought and to largely exclude them from the domain of the “serious”, the “systematic”, and the “philosophical”.[5] This marginalization is exacerbated by the fact that Mechthild wrote in the vernacular Middle Low German and employed diverse non-scholastic literary genres like courtly-love poetry, allegorical dialogue, hymns and prayers, and first-personal testimony.

Yet Mechthild’s contemplative work displays significant theological erudition and philosophical nuance, and although The Flowing Light of the Godhead is not structured like a scholastic summa or a quaestiones disputatae, it is another kind of theological and rhetorical treatise – an extended, intimate reflection on the nature of the Trinity, the Incarnation, Christian eschatology, and the relationship of human beings to the Divine. It might look to us today like a harlequin romance written for randy Christian noblewomen, but the fact that The Flowing Light was translated into both Latin and Middle High German and distributed throughout Germany and beyond indicates that her work was taken to have value for both scholastic and monastic readers. Indeed, Mechthild’s vernacular text is encoded in a rich theological symbolism – one with which medieval readers would have been familiar. In fact, the trope of the soul as female (represented simultaneously as sister, mother, and bride of Christ) was a symbolic with which devout men and women were invited to identify. Even Mechthild’s overt erotic imagery was not overly unorthodox for the period (although it does seem to have been edited into a PG-13 version for the Latin translation).

At the same time, despite Mechthild’s continuity with the theological and literary traditions of her day, there is also a subversiveness to her work. Like many female (and quite a few male) authors of the period, Mechthild repeatedly emphasizes the importance of humility and her own human wretchedness. But she also claims for herself religious authority, insofar as it is the Flowing Light of Godhead itself that speaks directly through her. (One wonders what kinds of debates she might spark if she were writing today.) Mechthild presents herself both as her own person and as the vessel of divine illumination: Her personal voice is at the same time God’s voice; her words express the Holy Wisdom of the divine Logos. And if we look at what she is doing in §44, we see in the words she puts into the female mouth of the personified soul a “demand [for] the direct apprehension of God without any mediation”,[6] even that of the church, the apostles, or the Virgin Mary herself, as suggested to her by the ever-dominating (male) voices of the physical world. Moreover, although the soul must initially adorn herself in the righteous “undergarments” of humility, purity, and respectability, she is told by Christ himself to throw these “external virtues” off, in order to become one with her Beloved and the “Secret Word” that he embodies. In this sense, the female soul, through illumination and the demand for knowledge, becomes free of the restrictions imposed on her by the world in the secret chamber of the Divine. This is more than a demand for knowledge: It is an affirmation that the true nature of the human soul – even that of a woman – lies beyond these extrinsic virtues in the love of God and is not bound by them. For similar (purportedly antinomian) ideas, another Beguine, Marguerite Porete, would be burned at the stake less than 20 years after Mechthild’s death.

*  *  *  *  *

So what does all this mean for philosophical theology? First, from the standpoint of the historical philosophical and theological canons, recovering – and, in some contexts, strategically centering – figures like Mechthild and her contemplative contemporaries can complicate the way we think about the history of Christian thought. It can also provide occasions for interrogating ideas about what kinds of texts belong to “theology proper” and which kinds of persons count as “genuine theologians”. It can bring other perspectives into theological focus and create opportunities for students and scholars to find new voices with which they can identify and on whom they can draw for inspiration. It can also remind us that not all theology is systematic theology as we know it – or, perhaps better put, that theological ‘systematicity’ might not always look the way we’ve been trained to expect it to look. Moreover, if it is at least part of “analytic and exegetical theology” to reflectively interpret and understand the meaning of Scripture, the doctrines of the Church, and the nature of God in ways that promote and cultivate love for the Divine and our fellow human beings,[7] then the addition of historical contemplative literature and vernacular theology gives us an extended set of hermeneutical tools to do so.

Mechthild’s work can also remind us that philosophical theology – analytic or otherwise – is not, and should not be, detached from the religious life and the perspectives that inform it. As feminist philosophers of religion have discussed at length, there is no abstract, neutral “view from nowhere” that will simply deliver us an impartial understanding of what aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari potest [that than which nothing greater can be conceived] might be, and many of our divine imaginings – even in analytic theology – might turn out to reveal as much about us as fallible and biased human beings as they do about God.[8] It is thus perhaps hasty and irresponsible of Christian theology to assume that the God of classical theism or perfect-being theology is (or ought to be) the only imagining of the Divine in the game. Instead, if we think it important to develop a philosophical theology that truly confesses the catholicity of the church – and to pursue the aim of genuine religious understanding as opposed to merely defending the rationality of a particular version of Christian theistic belief – we need to aim at an objectivity that is not impersonal and monotonic but instead perspectival and polyphonic. We need what José Medina has called resistant imaginings to create the necessary “epistemic friction” to be able to walk forward in faith, instead of remaining stuck in modes of imagining God that may do more epistemic and moral harm than good for all concerned.[9]

By reading and taking seriously historical and contemporary perspectives from women, gender and sexual minorities, persons of color, refugee and migrant populations, and other communities often marginalized in “mainstream” theological discourse—by centering and making visible feminist, queer, liberation, and protest theologies and liturgies—by reflecting on what these perspectives can reveal about the way we construe both ourselves and the Divine—by inviting and including and (ahem) hiring members of underrepresented groups in academic contexts… These are just a few ways the discipline of philosophical theology can better promote the common pursuit of a fides quaerens intellectum et caritatem – a faith that seeks understanding and love. Perhaps, then, to borrow an idea from Karl Rahner, the theology of the future will be “mystagogical”,[10] insofar as it will strive to both understand and respect the epistemic and social situatedness of our fellow human beings in their particularity, while at the same time cultivating the kind of “noble longing” and “unceasing desire” with which we can give ourselves over to each other – and thereby to the Body of Christ – in mutual, transformative love.

 

 

Amber Griffioen works on topics in philosophy of religion, value theory, and history of philosophy at the University of Konstanz. She has conducted extended research stays in Iran to study comparative mysticism and in South Africa to work on bridging the gap between Analytic and Continental philosophical theology. She also engages in research and teaching in moral psychology and the ethics of belief, Islamic philosophy, social philosophy, and philosophy of sport. She is a committed umpire voluntarist and baseball evangelist who actively advocates for the abolition of the designated hitter and the K-zone box. When not debating the finer points of theology or baseball, she can be found running road races, biking the Bodensee, or hiking the Alps with her husband.

 

 

[1] Pun intended.

[2] Even today, some women readers may also recognize in Mechthild’s allegory elements of their own experience in the earnest pursuit of religious knowledge.

[3] For more on St. Thomas’ views on women, see Prudence Allen (1997): The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C.-A.D. 1250 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans) 385-407. For an interesting feminist reappropriation of Thomas’ conception of the common good, see Susanne M. DeCrane (2004): Aquinas, Feminism, and the Common Good (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press).

[4] See Frank Tobin’s (1998) introduction to his translation of the Flowing Light of the Godhead (Mawah, NJ: Paulist Press), 11.

[5] For a genealogy of the term ‘mysticism’ and its relation to power and exclusion, see Grace Jantzen (1994): “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics,” Hypatia 9(4): 186–206. In this vein, Christina Van Dyke often designates the women thinkers she works on as ‘contemplatives’ instead of ‘mystics’ and the tradition in which they write as ‘contemplative philosophy’. This seems perhaps a better term to classify this form of philosophical theology than Bernard McGinn’s “vernacular theology”.

[6] Amy Hollywood (2001): The Soul as Virgin Wife. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press), 71.

[7] Bernard McGinn reminds us that “the great scholastic masters, such as Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, would have been horrified at the thought that the scientific scholastic mode of theological appropriation was not finally intended to increase love for God”. In Bernard McGinn, ed. (1997): Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics. Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete (New York: Bloomsbury), 8.

[8] See, for example, Pamela Sue Anderson (2005): “What’s Wrong with the God’s Eye Point of View: A Constructive Feminist Critique of the Ideal Observer Theory,” in Harriet A. Harris, Christopher J. Insole (eds.): Faith and Philosophical Analysis: The Impact of Analytical Philosophy on the Philosophy of Religion (Burlington, VT: Ashgate), 85–99; and Grace Jantzen (1999): Becoming Divine: Toward a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press).

[9] See José Medina (2013): The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[10] See Karl Rahner (1988): “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” in Theological Investigations VII (New York: Crossroad Publishing).