- The Other Side of Nothingness: Toward a Theology of Radical Openness
The central thesis of The Other Side of Nothingness is that apophatic mystical experience offers Christians a theology of humility sensitive to religious pluralism, which in turn is a means of overcoming the "pains of spiritual oppression" caused by religious intolerance and doctrinal imperialism. The book's argument is that "mystical consciousness" overturns the dogmatic truth claims of "conventional theology" by preparing the self for the experience of radical openness to "divinity," however "divinity" is theologically named in the "conventional theology" of humanity's religious traditions. The book's author, Beverly J.Lanzetta, draws on a variety of Christian mystical texts to support her claims: Meister Eckhart, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Teresa of Avila, Bonaventure, and the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing. She also makes comparative references to Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi traditions, along with contemporary writers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Howard Thurman, and Dorothy Day to illustrate her claim that apophatic mystical experience—the experience of the utter [End Page 306] annihilation of the self—draws the mystic to a place beyond a tradition's historical and normative self-understanding to new dimensions of the Sacred and, sometimes, to new "revelatory paradigms." The revelatory paradigm Lanzetta believes she has discovered in the evidence she cites is that "the divine nature itself is pluralistic, non-absolute, and is continually the source of new religious traditions," by which she means something similar to what John Cobb calls "creative transformation." For her, this is the antidote to religious imperialism and the exclusivism of conventional theology, meaning "non-mystical theology," which she argues is the source of religions fanaticism in all religions traditions, particularly in Christianity.
There is much to admire about Lanzetta's take on mysticism and its importance for undercutting theological absolutism of the sort one encounters in the Christian Right or in certain radical movements within contemporary Islam. Her analyses of the mystical texts she cites to support her arguments are carefully crafted and accurately express the theologies of the Christian mystics who are the foci of her own theological reflection. Her writing style is elegant and clearly expresses the passion with which she embraces her views. I especially liked her focus on kenotic Christology in her description of the "Apophatic Christ" who "bears the generosity of speech and teaches an ethic of radical openness," which Lanzetta claims is also an openness to truths found outside Christian tradition. "All are called not to his name, his ministry, or even to his person, but are called to sustain the tension between the saying and the unsaying, and between the living and the dying, in which God's nonviolent heart yearns for unconcealment" (p. 90). Indeed, this is the heart of Christian mystical experience of Christ, particularly attested to in the writings of Maguerite Porete and Hildegard von Bingen. Yet kenotic Christologies are also found in nonmystical theology, which Lanzetta tends to lump together pejoratively under her category "conventional theology." Consequently, as much as I admire this book and agree with its essential conclusions—but for different reasons—my trouble with this work originates in Lanzetta's assertion of a hard dualism between mystical theology and "ordinary theology," a dualism that undermines her arguments and conclusions. My concern is threefold.
First, mystical experience is primarily a matter of consciousness in the sense that something previously unknown and unexperienced is suddenly "there." This unanticipated presence is as real to the mystic's perspective as everyday experiences are, which is why mystics so often speak of being empowered to "see" or "touch" or "taste" what has been up to now imperceptible. If the experience is apophatic in structure—a usually brief moment of awareness in which all subject-object duality is overcome so that the mystic isn't aware of a self separated from what the self experiences or even that there is an "experience happening"—the mystic is neither thinking, feeling, or interpreting. That is...