Book Preview: Mysticism vs Rationality

This blog post discusses elements of Chapter 4 of my forthcoming book due out in April 2019. You can find out more about the monograph here.

One of the most substantial discussions of mysticism in seventeenth century England concerned its apparent incompatibility with reason and rationality. These debates were especially common in the early Restoration period in England, during which some Church of England apologists looked to rationality as an additional basis of faith. Theologians and preachers like Edward Stillingfleet and John Tillotson, both of whom had much to say about mysticism, were typical of a wider intellectual exploration of the limits of ‘rational religion’ in Restoration England which was spawned, at least in part, from the anxieties of a generation to bury the ‘irrational’ sectarianism of the Interregnum.

Many of these figures relied on the work of an earlier theologian, William Chillingworth, whose defence of Protestantism proved highly influential. Chillingworth argued that each man should use his own rational faculties to judge the meaning of scriptural passages. He called this ‘right reason’ which was written in the hearts of all men by God. Reason and rationality, Chillingworth insisted, ‘can never lead any man to error’.

William Chillingworth, 18th-century engraving by Francis Kyte

Theologians like Stillingfleet continued this attempt to present the Church of England as rational and unified in sound doctrine. As well as relying on Scripture and the writings of the early Church Fathers, he argued the Church of England also harnessed the power of reason in its teachings and doctrines. Positioning the national Church in such a way allowed Stillingfleet to attack Catholics as superstitious; he looked to evidence of infighting in Catholic circles (such as that of the Blackloists) to provide evidence that even ‘moderate and rational men of their own side’ had started to disown superstitious and irrational doctrines such as papal supremacy and infallibility.

It was in this realm of discussion that mysticism emerged as a prime example of the irrational and superstitious beliefs of Catholics. Stillingfleet took particular delight in attacking the writings of figures treasured in Catholic circles. One such example was Julian of Norwich, whose writings were published by the Benedictine Serenus Cressy in 1670. Stillingfleet viewed the work as proof that enthusiasm and fanaticism were endemic in the Catholic Church, and that writings of mysticism used as evidence of Catholic doctrine were nothing more than melancholy in disguise. While Catholics praised these ‘Fanatick Revelations of distempered brains’, Protestants rejected them in favour of rationality and sound judgement as sources of doctrine. Stillingfleet even went as far as to state that the ‘highest Enthusiasts’ and fanatics of Protestantism, such as Hendrik Niclaes or Jacob Boehme, had never written with the extravagance that Julian of Norwich had.

This derision became so bad that Protestant apologists compared Catholics to Julian as an insult. Tillotson, for example, mocked the Catholic controversialist John Sergeant by stating that ‘neither Harphius nor Rusbrochius, nor the profound Mother Julian, have any thing in their Writings more senseless and obscure than this Discourse’. This formed part of a varying spectrum of opinion on Julian of Norwich that I’ve discussed in print before.

As a result of this, mysticism was rapidly converted into a term of abuse, a derogative slur which could be used to conjure up the very worst characteristics of the Catholic faith. In an attempt to distance themselves from both Catholics and sectarians, Church of England apologists mocked and rejected mysticism to reaffirm their own position as the scripturally based, doctrinally sound and rational via media between the extremes of superstition and enthusiasm. While they achieved their aim, the reputation and validity of mysticism in England was struck with a blow that it never truly recovered from.

Chapter 4 of my monograph explores these debates in much more detail and traces the intricate role the Benedictine scholar Serenus Cressy played in Restoration politics.

Mysticism in Early Modern England is available to pre-order/buy now by following this link