Scholar Spotlight: Andrew Louth

Andrew Louth’s long and distinguished career as a scholar of Patristic and Byzantine studies means that no one article can offer a full review of his scholarship and impact. Instead, this spotlight will focus on his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, first published in 1981 and reprinted in 2007, as a work that deserves particular attention from scholars of mysticism. The work originated from a series of lectures on ‘Mystical Theology in the Fathers’ given in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oxford, which were subsequently repeated at the request of several different monastic groups. The book focused on the mystical elements present in the writings of the early Church Fathers, aiming to ‘outline the development of mystical theology in the Patristic period as far as Dionysius … in the late fifth century’. The work traced the influence of Plato and Platonic thought, while also outlining the doctrines of key figures such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius. It concluded by addressing the influence of the Fathers on early modern figures such as John of the Cross, as well as commenting on the influences of Platonism in early Christianity more generally.

The front cover of the second edition of The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (2007)

What is especially interesting about Louth’s work is the additional value it brings to scholars interested in the ways in which the conceptualization and theorization of the term ‘mysticism’ has shifted in recent decades. As we will see, the work stands testament to the fundamental shift in mysticism scholarship which occurred in the 26 years between Louth’s two editions of the book. Indeed, Louth’s preface to the second edition documents that his views on certain aspects of his work changed over time. This is especially clear in his observation that an attempt to revise the work would have ‘resulted in a very different book, and not a second edition at all’. He also makes it clear that this extended beyond stylistic changes, additional chapters or revised paragraphs. What then, was so pressing an issue that would have demanded such a revision?

The afterword to the revised edition, written in 2006, reveals that the answer lies in Louth’s original engagement with the term ‘mysticism’ itself, which he admits he ‘largely took for granted’. In the years that had passed since writing the book, Louth notes that the very Fathers he studied so diligently were now ‘raising problems about what is really meant by “mysticism”, not to mention “Christian mysticism”‘. In the afterword he admits he was ‘not entirely unaware’ of the problem of defining ‘mysticism’ when he wrote the work and that he used the term ‘because everyone else did’. He notes that much of the prevalent scholarship on mysticism at the time he wrote the book understood it to be a type of ‘universal religious phenomenon’. It was also apparent that many scholars understood mysticism to be an individualistic concern, one which ‘refers primarily to access to divine power on behalf of the individual’. Accordingly, Louth’s definition stayed close to this, describing mysticism as ‘a search for and experience of immediacy with God’ in his introduction.

Yet this understanding of mysticism had been challenged in numerous ways since Louth first wrote the book. Exploring some of the challenges will help us understand the reasons why Louth’s definition and understanding of mysticism changed in years following the first edition. We should note however that Louth’s sound scholarship on the Fathers in the first edition meant that references to his work in these later innovations were frequent, denoting the importance of his work.

Firstly, we can look to scholarship such as that of Denys Turner, a scholar whose influential The Darkness of God (1995) deserves its own spotlight in a future post. Turner’s work took issue with the ‘experiential’ focus of modern definitions of mysticism. Focusing especially on Pseudo-Dionysius, he noted that modern scholars were misreading patristic texts by applying their own understanding of mysticism as a ‘individualistic experience’ onto these writings. Pseudo-Dionysius, Turner definitively showed, was actually a proponent of ‘anti-mysticism’ if we adhered to the definition offered by early twentieth-century scholars.

Three years later in 1998 Mark A. McIntosh’s Mystical Theology posed further questions about this understanding of mysticism. His work convincingly showed that patristic and early medieval writers did not separate spirituality and theology the way in which the modern definition of mysticism suggested. Instead, it was proposed that mysticism was a largely ecclesial affair for early Christians . McIntosh noted:

For the early Christians right through Dionysius and Maximus, mystical theology takes place in the setting of the community’s participation in Christ. It means the transformation of consciousness through the hard communal praxis of spiritual growth, in mutual openness to the hidden presence of the divine in the ordinary struggles and rituals of ecclesial life [which] leads to deeper, truer communal life (p. 62).

This had little of the modern understanding of individualistic mysticism in it. Rather then, scholars were now identifying that the modern understanding of mysticism was something which emerged in the later Middle Ages and early modern period, during a time when spirituality and theology entered into a ‘spiralling mutual distrust’ and mysticism was understood to purely concern the inner life and personal experience. To write about the Church Fathers as promoting this form of mysticism was historically inaccurate, to say the least.

Another important branch of criticism came from scholars attempting to replace the perennial approach to mysticism with that of a constructivist model. Scholars such as Steven T. Katz and Hans H. Penner insisted that accounts of mystical experience had to be analysed in reference to the historical milieu they emerged from, rather than as part of some wider ahistorical ‘universal tradition’. Other scholars, building on this, took aim at the motives of those advocating such definitions of mysticism. Nicholas Watson’s important chapter ‘The Middle English Mystics’ (1999) noted that ‘the field’s priorities tend to be devotional, not historical’ (p. 543) and that many scholars constructed ‘mystical traditions’ to suit their own ends. Watson pointed to the work of David Knowles, which I have discussed in print before, as an example of a scholar using historical figures to score points in modern day contemporary debates and concerns.

Louth’s 2006 afterword reaffirmed the findings of many of the scholars we have discussed above. He admitted that ‘the more I have read the Fathers, the more the notion of the “mystical” has come to be called into question’. In the decades since he had ‘begun to realize that the mystical dimension is much more serious than our current ideas of mysticism envisage’. Like Turner and McIntosh, he insisted that the Fathers did not promote mysticism as an ‘individual quest’ but rather as part of a journey which included ‘ecclesial and sacramental dimensions’.

Equally Louth identified that the term ‘mysticism’ was not as innocuous as it seemed when he first wrote the book. Rather, he explained how it now ‘seems to me obvious that the word “mysticism” has a past, has a history; it is not at all innocent’. More importantly, the term could not be separated from ‘a whole host of religious concerns that have a history, and a history that demands to be understood’. Each modern construction of mysticism had an agenda behind it and much of the scholarship of the early twentieth century had to be regarded with deep suspicion as a result. In one particularly important and striking passage he wrote that:

For me the difficulty about the meaning of the term “mysticism” is historical: I am worried about the way the term has emerged within the Christian tradition, so that it is now freighted with meanings that affect its present-day use, not least because this history, and these meanings, are often unknown to those who use the term – and freight … with claims to a certain authority, made in particular times and particular contexts, claims that do not simply slip away when the times and contexts recede from conscious memory (p. 203).

Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition is still a necessary and important book. With a foundation of solid and rigorous scholarship, it still demands a place on any reading list concerning the mysticism of the Church Fathers. More than this however, the work stands witness to an important shift in perspective about the way we conceptualise and write about mysticism in historical and theological studies. The important changes brought about in the scholarship of Christian mysticism are felt profoundly in Louth’s 2006 afterword to the second edition, itself being proof of the changes the field had undergone since 1981. It is for that reason that Louth’s afterword, as well as the book more generally, should also be considered an important and essential statement on mysticism that should populate any reading list or module guide on the subject.