In the early 20th century, eminent scholars like William James and Evelyn Underhill helped popularize the study of Christian mysticism with their breakthrough books on the subject. Monumental here were James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (first published in 1902) and Underhill’s Mysticism (first published in 1911), works that tackled the mysteries behind the supernatural experience of God in an intelligent and insightful way.
Today the study of Christian mysticism is making a strong re-emergence in the academic world as well, becoming a subject that some of the most esteemed scholars from the most renowned universities in the country are writing about.
Two highly anticipated, academic books dealing with Christian mysticism will be released in November while a third one has just been released this past week. The editors and authors of these works represent such institutions as Harvard, Georgetown, and the University of Chicago, displaying that the study of Christian mysticism is, once again, gaining greater credibility in the Ivory tower.
The new work that came out last week is the Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism, which is edited by Amy Hollywood and Patricia Z. Beckman. I’m very familiar with Amy Hollywood’s work, a professor at Harvard Divinity School whose scholarship focuses on such diverse disciplines as Christian mysticism, psychoanalysis, and French intellectual thought. I once encountered Dr. Hollywood at a talk she gave two years ago at Yale, and know that she’s been working on the Cambridge Companion for a while now.
Another important academic work that will be released soon – in November – is the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, which is edited by Julia A. Lamm, a scholar of religion and theology at Georgetown University.
Both companions include a number of essays by scholars writing on major historical, theological, and spiritual developments that Christian mystical thought and practices have developed throughout the centuries.
Yet, perhaps most interesting is a third book on Christian mysticsm that will come out later this year, also very soon in November. This is Bernard McGinn’s The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism: 1350-1550. The book covers the lives and writings of such mystics like Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, and the Flemish mystic (and priest) Jan Ruysbroeck, to name a few.
McGinn, who for many years taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has established himself in the last two decades as the most renowned historian on Christian mysticism in the world. In this field, he has no equal.
With the extremely ambitious, original, and noble goal of trying to author and publish a multivolume history of Christian mysticism that spans from the foundations of the faith to the present day, Professor McGinn has already given the scholarly world four thick volumes in this series; thus alongside the fifth that will soon be out, they have included:
My personal favorite in the series has been volume three, which gets into the rich history of medieval Franciscan mysticism and numerous women mystics of the late Middle Ages known as beguines.
Notice how multi-layered and rich the history of mysticism in the Christian tradition is: while Professor McGinn, a most gifted and capable historian, has already completed five volumes, he has yet to even reach the great Spanish mystics of the 16th century with his work. Thus, his work — while spanning fifteen centuries of Christian history already – has yet to reach the sublime period, in religious renewal and mystical literature, of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius of Loyola: all mystics key to the Catholic Reformation (or “Counter-Reformation”).
For someone who’s studying for a Ph.D. in spirituality and who’s fascinated with the field of Christian mysticism, it is a great joy for me to see how seriously the academic world is beginning to take this all-too-important subject.
It appears that the lively flourishing of mystical literature that early 20th century scholarship saw, through the pioneering works of James, Underhill, and others, is being reawakened for a new century by a new generation of academics ready to give the study of Christian mysticism the debt and the integrity that it deserves.