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McGinn, Bernard “Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal,” Spiritus 8 (2008) 44–63

McGinn, Bernard “Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal,” Spiritus 8 (2008) 44–63

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Published by de-k
A study of mysticism which seeks to free mysticism from theology as an intellectual enterprise, is something that would have puzzled many mystics, who insisted that they were creating theologia, that is, a true discourse about God, even if not an academic one. What we call mystical experience, the mystics themselves, following Dionysius, often called “mystical theology.”
A study of mysticism which seeks to free mysticism from theology as an intellectual enterprise, is something that would have puzzled many mystics, who insisted that they were creating theologia, that is, a true discourse about God, even if not an academic one. What we call mystical experience, the mystics themselves, following Dionysius, often called “mystical theology.”

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SPIRITUS | 8.1
44
Mystical Consciousness:A Modest Proposal
1
Bernard M
c
Ginn
ESSAYS
 
Spiritus 8 (2008): 44–63 © 2008 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
IntroductIon
The relation between mysticism and spirituality has long been a topic o dis-cussion. The links between the two are rooted in the history o the use o termslike
mysticus
and
spiritualis
in Christianity since at least the second century.
Spiritualitas
is an ancient term, rst appearing in the ourth century and basedon the requent use o 
 pneumatikos/spiritualis
in the New Testament.
2
TheGreek qualier
mystikos
and its derivatives do not occur in the New Testa-ment, but rom ca. 200 C. E. Christian authors began to use
mystikos/mysticus
 to signiy the hidden realities o their belies and practices.
3
By about 500 C.E., the mysterious author who wrote under the pseudonym Dionysius hadinvented the term mystical theology (
theologia mystikê
), although “mysticism”as a stand-alone substantive is more modern, not used beore the seventeenthcentury at the earliest.
4
These two language-elds, the mystical and the spiri-tual, became so intertwined in the course o history as to seem almost neces-sarily related, however one understands their meanings. I we take spiritualityas a broad term signiying the whole range o belies and practices by whichthe Christian church strives to live out its commitment to the Spirit present inthe Risen Christ (1 Cor. 6:14–20; 2 Cor. 3:17), then we can understand mysti-cism as the inner and hidden realization o spirituality through a transormingconsciousness o God’s immediate presence. Mysticism, or more precisely, themystical element within Christian spirituality, is the goal to which spiritualpractices aim. It is a personal appropriation, but not an individualistic one,because it is rooted in the lie o the Christian community and the grace medi-ated through that community and its sacraments and rituals. I this way o construing the relationship between spirituality and mysticism makes sense, itis clear that the investigation o the nature o mysticism, especially the role o what is usually called mystical experience, is an important part o the study o spirituality.The ollowing essay argues that mystical experience, while oten analyzedand explored, may not be the best term or discerning the meaning o mysti-cism as an integral part o spirituality. My alternative proposal is to suggestthat the notion o consciousness as developed by Bernard Lonergan in hisanalysis o human intentionality may provide a more adequate theoretical basis
 
McGinn
| Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal
45
or investigating mysticism, and also one that provides a better insight into thewritings o the mystics themselves. Ater briefy setting out some o the prob-lems concerning the use o mystical experience, Part I o the essay will lay outthe basic structure o a Lonergan-inspired theory o mystical consciousness,while Part II will illustrate this theory through a short investigation o three o the most noted Western Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas o Cusa,and St. John o the Cross.
Some ProblemS wIth myStIcal exPerIence
For more than a century, books and articles have been devoted to the analysis o mystical experience. Although the qualier
mysticus
was long used by Chris-tians, and the word
experientia
in relation to encountering God achieved impor-tance in the twelth century, “mystical experience,” to the best o my knowl-edge, was not an expression used by mystics or students o mysticism beore thenineteenth century. What we call mystical experience, the mystics themselves,ollowing Dionysius, oten called “mystical theology.” As Teresa o Avila put itin her
Lie
: “When picturing Christ in the way I have mentioned, . . . I usedunexpectedly to experience a consciousness o the presence o God o sucha kind that I could not possibly doubt that he was within me or that I wastotally enguled in him. This was in no sense a vision. I believe that it is calledmystical theology.”
5
Because many mystics, at least over the past eight centuries, have spokenabout their own “experience,” scholars have oten taken it or granted that thestudy o the mystical element in religion should take mystical experience as acentral category. But did the mystics understand
experientia
in the same way asmodern investigators? And is experience really a sel-evident term? In
Expe-rience and its Modes
(1933), the philosopher Michael Oakeshott issued thesober warning: “‘Experience,’ o all the words in the philosophic vocabulary,is the most dicult to manage; and it must be the ambition o every writerreckless enough to use the word to escape the ambiguities it contains.”
6
Alltoo many writers who treat mystical experience seem to take experience as anunproblematic word, one scarcely in need o analysis because everyone knowswhat it means. Many writers on mysticism use mystical experience as theequivalent o a special orm o eeling and/or perception, one that is commonacross all religions and that exists independently o the theological construc-tions in which the mystics try to present it to others.
7
From this perspective,the study o mysticism seeks to ree mysticism rom theology as an intellectualenterprise, something that would have puzzled St. Teresa and many othermystics, who insisted that they were creating
theologia
, that is, a true discourseabout God, even i not an academic one.

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