The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Negativity in Western Christian Mysticism) Paperback – 5 Nov 1998
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'… insightful, provocative, and polemical.' Journal of Religion
'… a very fine book indeed, beautifully produced by CUP.' Church of England Newspaper
'… passionate, eloquent, and daring.' The Friend
'… important, challenging, well-argued and convincing.' The Heythrop Journal
'… one of the finest books I have read in a long time.' The Expository Times
Denys Turner argues that the distinctiveness and contemporary relevance of medieval mysticism lies in its rejection of 'mystical experience', and locates the mystical within the grasp of the everyday.
Top customer reviews
I have to agree with 'Origen's' review that this is not a book for the beginner, but for anyone who wants to think deeply about mysticism 'The Darkness of God' is a book that will eventually need to be tackled; it is one of those books which represents a marker point in the field. Whether one agrees with Turner or not, anyone discussing mysticism post Turner must have a position on his thesis . In a sense William James' 'The Varities of Religious Experience' of 1902 was a similar book. Ever since James it has been a commonplace to assume that mysticism is about the 'experience' of something, and the debate has focused on what that 'something' might be.Turner turns that whole argument on its head by taking the reader from the apophatic roots of the patristic period, through Eckhart and the 'cloud of unknowing' metaphors common in the medieval period. He argues persuasively that this is a continuous tradition whose language seeks to place 'God' beyond all naming and knowing. He argues that this tradition was interrupted by developments in Western thinking during the Modern period which was characterised by an increasing move toward individualism. One of the side effects of this was to propose personal experience (or lack of it) as one of the objects to be found if we are to verify religious claims.
It would however be quite wrong to see Turner as a spoilsport for all things mystical. What he is trying to say is that to base one's engagement with the Christian mystical tradition on a fundamental misreading really only serves to trivialise it. He is inviting us to see that a true understanding (as he argues it) is actually more challenging and has inevitable implications for the living of an authentically Christian spirituality.
In our age of privatised spirituality, where mysteries are conventionally thought to unveil themselves in the context of sustained contemplation or meditation, the writings of the medieval Christian mystics are accepted as natural forerunners. Professor Turner counters not only that our modern appropriation of these writers is historically suspect in that it does not obviously do justice to their original motivations, but that the vision of 'spirituality' as a privatised and internalised phenomenon which we assume them to have held was something the Christian mystics actually sought to critique! In my opinion, his argument carries a great deal of weight and it is to the author's credit that he expresses himself very eruditely and eloquently throughout - never becoming polemical, and remaining aware of the sophisticated nature of his material and of the meticulousness his arguments require, but always being trenchant and clear.
This book is a must read text for those whose religious or 'spiritual' lives have been touched in some way by any of the medieval Christian mystics - especially Denys the Areopagite, Augustine, John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart - as well as for those who wish to explore further the nature of 'spirituality' and 'mysticism' in the Christian tradition. It is, I should add, not a text to be recommended for the uninitiated but for educated laypeople, students, and academics.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Although well worthy of a five-star rating, the book is not without flaws. The author's distracting use of inclusive language pronouns, and his utterly juvenile justification for this should have been edited out. Also and more importantly, he clearly must check himself against the tendency to see post-Dionysian authors with a more "voluntarist" bent as crypto-anti-intellectuals, and he is not always successful in resisting the urge. He convincingly argues that Thomas Gallus and Giles of Rome are out to "replace" the Dionysian intellectualism with a voluntarism that is only a half-step away, if that, from anti-intellectualism, but he knows that this was not true of Bonaventure and John of the Cross, and still he occasionally lapses into speaking of them as if they were of the same ilk as Gallus and Giles. Moreover, it does not occur to him at all that Dionysius' approach might have been overly intellectualist, saying next to nothing about love and the affect, and so was always in need of a supplemental voluntarist element, which is indeed supplied by Bonaventure and the Cloud author. Turner tends to see any deviations from Dionysius as deformations or promoting of deformations, but in a line from Bonaventure to the Cloud to John of the Cross we really have not deformation but development. Deformations and perversions there are, of course, and in abundance -- these have produced the modern impasse and our own inability to read well these authors, which is Turner's main thesis and absolutely correct -- but not all change and modifications are to be lamented or viewed with suspicion and regret.
That being said, the book is not just helpful but necessary to an understanding of the ancient and medieval essays into mystical theology that a lot of us are very interested in. It is worth not just one reading but two or three, and I found a second reading, undertaken immediately after my first finishing the book, to be immensely helpful in understanding the authors Turner discusses, in seeing the cogency and relevance of Turner's main thesis, and in beginning to wrestle with the doubts that arise about some of Turner's ideas about the trajectory of mystical thought in the Christian West.
Turner's thesis is that the contemporary understanding of these metaphors, which assumes that this language points to experience, is so different from the medieval understanding, which rejected "experientialism," that it doesn't make sense to speak of a single "mystical tradition" encompassing both. I'm not sure I finally bought the argument, but I enjoyed the ride. Turner explores lots of interesting issues along the way, e.g., the use of paradoxical language in theology; systematic "vs." mystical theology; the unknowability of the self; the ascetic practice of detachment; and John of the Cross's "dark nights" in relation to depression.
I would not recommend this book unless you have some background in theology and philosophy and have read at least a few of the authors Turner discusses. Turner writes well, but the book is dense and academic. I'm not sure I would have read the whole thing if it hadn't been assigned reading for one of my doctoral courses, but I'm glad I did. I now have a much better understanding of the Neoplatonic tradition in Christianity and of how the various famous mystics are connected with one another, and Turner provides lots of food for thought about the Western Christian mystical tradition.
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