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  • Whose Story Is It?The Appropriation of Medieval Mysticism
  • Elizabeth A. Dreyer (bio)

This essay arises out of twenty-five years of interpreting the texts of Christian medieval women mystics both within the academy and for a wide variety of faith communities in universities, retreat centers, and local congregations. During these twenty-five years, interest in mystical texts has broadened from believers and scholars in specific faith traditions to specialists in philology, philosophy, literary studies, psychoanalysis, history, and history of religions.1 There are even scholars with a resolutely secular stance who have become interested in medieval mysticism. This is a new development. Ordinarily, academics who voice antagonism toward religion and all forms of religious expression, have dismissed or even denigrated mysticism as an inapt subject for academic inquiry.2 These new voices have brought provocative and enriching insights to the conversation, expanding and deepening our understanding of mystical texts.

This explosion of research also invites questions about how to chart a course for fruitful and responsible conversation among voices that are at times harmonious, at times cacophonous. In the past several years, I have become uneasy with certain aspects of this retrieval of medieval mysticism, especially in the work of some feminist scholars, who give short shrift to the historical location of these texts.3 I have wondered whether there are criteria to guide the analysis and retrieval of this material. At the least, as scholarly interpreters of medieval mystical texts, we need to distinguish methodologies that honor the contexts and meaning structures of those writing the texts (to the extent that this is possible), from those approaches that are simply projections or ideological constructs.

With this question in mind, I began to examine secondary texts more systematically, and to notice typical complaints in reviews of books that treat a wide range of historical material. My goal is not to seek definitive criteria, but to raise questions, and underline the importance of attending to historical context as at least one necessary step in the interpretation and retrieval of medieval mystical texts. While I focus on Christian medieval mystical texts written by women, what follows can be applied to a wide range of historical scholarship on a variety of sacred texts and traditions. [End Page 151]

I begin by framing the question and listing some general criticism of work that seeks to retrieve medieval mysticism in light of contemporary needs and concerns. Then I address five specific problems: first, projection of contemporary agendas onto the medieval material; second, the reductionism that often results; third, a category I call "missing the point"; fourth, the role of belief; and fifth, the use of psychological categories. I conclude by arguing that openness to a wide range of interpretations of medieval mystical texts requires ongoing, self-critical awareness of criteria by which we judge how we are doing. We need to be able to know the difference between scholarship that is characterized by arrogant projections, ideological harangues, or defensive self-preoccupations, from that which is respectful, humble, and free.

Framing the Question

The very definition of a classic as a text that bears excess meaning mined throughout the centuries, points to the on-going generativity of this material. But while a text can always say more than we thought it could, is it also true that we can make it say less? Jeffrey Kripal, whose perspective on mysticism diverges quite sharply from mine, frames the question in his analysis of twentieth-century scholarship on mysticism. He sees himself as writing "within a radically pluralistic context about a deracinated, essentially 'floating' category with often only the most tenuous connections to the historical traditions." He acknowledges that this disconnect may be either "an opportunity to welcome" or an "unfortunate corruption to mourn and ultimately reject" but he is mysteriously silent about arguments on either side.4

Neil Douglas-Klotz addresses the diversity of interpretations by suggesting the use of an inter-subjective approach. When scholars acknowledge and reveal their location or perspective as fully as possible, then a variety of possible interpretations can be "valid" for specific groups or purposes. He suggests that the texts of medieval women mystics can be used legitimately as "midrash" on...


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pp. 151-172
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