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More on Athens and Jerusalem

First published in 1981, Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys has never gone out of print. The author, an Orthodox priest and patristics scholar at the University of Durham, traces certain intellectual currents — purification, illumination, union, etc. — as they develop through the works of Plato, Philo, Plotinus, Origen, Augustine, and others. Though a pagan, Plato emphasized man’s spiritual nature and forged a philosophical vocabulary that the early Fathers would later appropriate for Christian theology. Nevertheless, Louth clearly demonstrates that patristic theology is not baptized Platonism (as some historians of religion assert). Plato, for example, held the soul to be divine by nature, and the mystical ascent to be a return or homecoming. For Christians, the soul is divinized by grace. Man is made in God’s image, but there remains an ontological gulf between creature and creator.

Later chapters examine the works of John of the Cross (16th century) in light of his patristic forebears. While some Eastern Orthodox critics judge John to be deviant from the tradition of the Fathers, Louth sees John’s doctrine as differing in “perspective rather than anything fundamental.” Indeed, Louth concludes that “these different styles [Eastern and Western] draw out different areas of mystical experience … [T]his is but evidence of a tension within a deeper unity, and suggests that East and West have much to learn from one another here.”

The final chapter considers the qualities that make Christian mysticism distinctive, particularly “The Mystical Life” lived within “the Mystical Body.” Louth argues that “Christian mystical theology is ecclesial; it is the fruit of participation in the mystery of Christ, which is inseparable from the mystery of the Church. Within the Platonic tradition the mystic is an individual, or at best the member of an intellectual elite.”

In an important new afterword, the author goes so far as to argue — against some comparative religionists, and against a position he himself had formerly held — that the phenomenon of mysticism is, in truth, something distinctively Christian.