Tag Archives: Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

The Darkness of God

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism by Denys Turner.

Denys Turner The Darkness of God

This 1995 monograph is by Denys Turner, then on the faculty of the University of Bristol, now holding an endowed chair for Historical Theology at Yale. He characterizes it as “An essay in the philosophical history of some theological metaphors … of ‘interiority’, of ‘ascent’, of ‘light and darkness’ and of ‘oneness with God,’” and his primary materials range from Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius to Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross.

Turner proposes an understanding of mysticism at odds with 20th-century formulations, and founded in the etic sense of late antique and medieval Christian usage, in which (he maintains) the mystical per se was directly opposed to the reduction of God to “experiences.” He designates as “experientialism” the positivist, psychologizing approach to religious experience characteristic of (and limited to) modern thought, that results from (or corresponds to) the fragmentation of religious knowledge in the later middle ages. The Darkness of God suggests a greater kinship between the old mystical theology and deconstructivist philosophy, than between the former and its experientialist—and all too often anti-intellectual—progeny in modern “mysticism.”

I really enjoyed the book because of Turner’s challenge to commonplace formulations in the field of the history of mysticism, and because of his impressive job in making sense out of some extremely challenging primary materials. However, I’m not entirely sold on his meta-narrative of the ruination of mystical philosophy. His desire to make “experientialism” into a (relatively) late development leads him to neglect the medieval affective tradition that is exemplified in the work of Bernard of Clairvaux. It may be that Turner could argue that such works are not really “mystical,” but he doesn’t even make the effort, and leaves a wide and important hole in his historical treatment.

To be fair, Turner is more of a philosopher than an historian. Contemporary mystics and magicians willing to give serious intellectual consideration to the limits of rationality, the nature of experience, and the ultimate goals of mystical understanding should be able to benefit from this difficult but engaging book. [via]