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  • Some Aspects of Christian Mystical Rhetoric, Philosophy, and Poetry
  • Ryan J. Stark

This is an article about poets and poetic philosophers who make spirited arguments. My purpose in particular is to clarify the nature of mystical rhetoric, which needs to be distinguished from secular rhetoric (i.e., “secular” as nonspiritual). As ways of existing in language, they are ontologically incommensurable, and we should treat them as such. Mystical rhetoric is that into which Spirit enters, conveying to both writer and reader some aspect of providential kairos that cannot otherwise be attained. That is, God completes mystical inferences. God participates, illuminating the hearts of those who open themselves to grace through faith. Or, in other words, writers and readers who want to enter into numinous arguments must shelve the hermeneutics of suspicion. An overly critical stance actually diminishes the possibility of insight, even if it is well intended, much like nervous backseat driving, which—though aimed at producing safety—inevitably works against it. I am not suggesting, however, that skeptics are at a complete loss when approaching mystical rhetorical situations. Rather, they simply do not grasp the metaphysical, enchanted, or occult dimensions of the discourses at work, because they have closed themselves off to Spirit or—more commonly—have attempted to transmogrify Spirit into secular concepts, which distorts spirited language and leads to mischaracterizations of religious experience.1 In contrast, I provide a Christian approach to [End Page 260] mystical rhetoric, one that neither discounts nor sidesteps the real presence of the supernatural.

Inspired Rhetoric and Hermeneutics

Furor poeticus is a key element of mystical persuasion. The phrase literally means “poetical fury,” and the idea behind it in a Christian framework is that the Holy Spirit aids writers in creating imaginative texts (e.g., sonnets, sermons, essays, novels, blogs, etc.) or, in pernicious instances, demons aid writers.2 In either case, a mysterious force helps the author to compose. Moreover, furor touches readers or listeners, a point seldom emphasized but nonetheless central to this sublime practice of composition. Inspired writing requires inspired reading: furor poeticus needs furor lectoris.3 The Spirit aids readers in understanding mystical rhetoric, as long as those readers participate earnestly in the discourse. John Milton (1674, 7.31), for example, famously envisions such a “fit audience” in the third invocation to the Muse in Paradise Lost (i.e., the “great Argument”), where he calls on the reader for hermeneutical verve, a spirited reading to complement his enthusiastic writing. Søren Kierkegaard also writes to an audience capable of spiritually minded hermeneutics, allowing him to perform various edifying dissimulations through pseudonyms: the despairing aesthete, the unscrupulous seducer, the rigid moralist, and so forth. These inspired writers expect believing readers to contribute to their works, to complete their disputations, in fact, through spirited exegesis. Their methods of composition demand it, which is to say that writers touched by furor leave little room in their arguments for the sustainable disposition of the uninspired reader.

Cicero explains spirited rhetoric and hermeneutics in De divinatione, where Quintus talks about how inspired readers experience the same type of furor as inspired writers, seers, and prophets: “Men capable of correctly interpreting all these signs of the future seem to approach very near the divine spirit of the gods whose will they interpret, just as scholars do when they interpret the poets” (1938, 226). Scholarship, in other words, is capable of tapping into mystical energy, making the scholars as prophetic as the vates on which they write. In the second book of On Christian Doctrine (1958, 75–78), Augustine also explains the importance of mystical exegesis as a form of prophecy, where sincere readers undergo the same type of inspiration as mystical writers. For Augustine, spirited reading begins with prayer and ends with revelation. In both accounts of furor, Cicero’s and Augustine’s, [End Page 261] the inspired audience and the inspired writer together experience rapture, a divine vision or illumination, which is precisely the type of communion that occurs during mystical discourses.4

Still, the idea of seeking communion with God is potentially unsettling. The notion produces anxieties of psychosis, possession, and self-erasure. Plato famously expresses such concerns in Ion, for example...


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