- Jan van Ruusbroec, Mystical Theologian of the Trinity
Van Nieuwenhove, a lecturer in theology at Trinity College, Dublin, has already published five scholarly articles about the fourteenth-century mystical theologian [End Page 229] Jan van Ruusbroec since 1998. Building on much of his research in those studies, he here offers the first major study of Ruusbroec's theology in the past fifty years. After a brief overview of Ruusbroec's life and works in the opening chapter, he begins a critique (continued throughout the book) of much current Ruusbroeckian scholarship in a second chapter, entitled "Apophatic Theologian or 'Phenomenologist of the Mystical Experience'?" There follow three chapters on central aspects of Ruusbroec's theology—his trinitarian doctrine, his theological anthropology, and his Christology—and a final chapter on what Ruusbroec called the apex of Christian living, "the common life," in which one is equally ready for contemplation and for virtuous activity and is adept in both.
A particularly interesting aspect of the book, and one that the author himself acknowledges to be controversial, is his forceful criticism of most other Ruusbroec scholars. To grasp the nature of Van Niewenhove's critique, some background is in order. Although a few twentieth-century authors, such as Evelyn Underhill, valued Ruusbroec's works highly, his treatises have been relatively little studied outside the Dutch-speaking world. Within the latter realm most of the scholarship has been carried out by members of the Ruusbroec Society (Ruusbroecgenootschap), headquartered in Antwerp. A particularly prolific member of the society has been Albert Ampe, S.J., whose massive three-part study of Ruusbroec's thought was published between 1950-1957. Described by Van Nieuwenhove as "the last great Ruusbroec scholar," Ampe presents Ruusbroec as a philosophically and theologically astute follower of a Neoplatonic tradition that entered the Christian mainstream primarily through the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and Augustine, and pervaded medieval Christian thought, especially in the Germanic lands. While not denying some major deficiencies in Ampe's presentation, such as an alleged inability to grasp the dialectical nature of Neoplatonic thought, Van Nieuwenhove is basically appreciative of Ampe's achievement.
Not so as regards the next generation of scholars within the Ruusbroec Society. They, influenced largely by the work of Albert Deblaere, S.J., longtime professor of spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University, struck out on a very different path, well summarized by one of them, Paul Mommaers, when he claims in the foreword to his study of Ruusbroec, The Land Within (Franciscan Herald Press, 1975), that "what the master of mysticism in the Low Countries had provided was above all a phenomenology of the community of love . . . . [H]is language was descriptive." Instead of sharply criticizing Ampe, these scholars generally do not even refer to his writings. Mommaers treats Ruusbroec's work "primarily as a personal testimony to his own experience" and adds that "there is no need for anyone to be philosophically or theologically trained in order . . . to appreciate the language of [Ruusbroec] or to enjoy his explorations into the realm of the spirit."
One sees at once the purport of the choice Van Nieuwenhove sets before his reader with the title of his second chapter, "Apophatic Theologian or 'Phenomenologist of the Mystical Experience'?" He grants that Ruusbroec writes of the effects of divine grace and that these are often vividly described. In that sense, he does not object to the use of the term "phenomenologist," though he finds it rather vague. What Van Nieuwenhove does reject is any claim that Ruusbroec's descriptions of union between God and the human person refer to some unmediated, direct experience of God. He follows Denys Turner's claim in [End Page 230] The Darkness of God (Cambridge University Press, 1995) that texts like those of Ruusbroec or Meister Eckhart that speak of union with God should not be read in "experiential" terms, for these authors' sense of God's incomprehensibility leads them to emphasize not experience (or even "consciousness") of God...