… alongside the great attempts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to find in mysticism an ecumenism of spirit – a kind of synchronic mysticism – there is also an attempt to define a kind of diachronic mysticism, a mysticism that stretches throughout the ages, a mysticism that has a tradition. What this endeavour seeks to establish is a kind of canon of Christian mystical literature – a literature manifesting that kind of likeness Zaehner mentioned – reaching back to the beginnings (Jesus or Adam?). What are the criteria of this canon, we might ask? (We are not asking an abstract question or a question to those now dead. Bernard McGinn’s attempt to write a massive ‘History of Western Christian Mysticism’, called The Presence of God, depends on the existence of such a canon.) It seems to me that the criteria are both negative and positive: negatively, all is excluded that is doctrinal or narrowly liturgical; positively, there is a search for material that is experiential. The result is, it seems to me, entirely eclectic, and frequently misconceived.
Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 211-212.
While the development of the concept of mysticism represents the fragmentation and breakdown of tradition and a move from reliance on tradition towards finding authority in inward experience, it nevertheless “needed to feel that it represented a tradition”. (211) Hence the development of a canon of Christian mysticism.
However, following Denys Turner, Father Louth argues that such a development is only possible by misconstruing much of the literature prior to the later Middle Ages. Regarding the imagery of negativity and darkness, Turner had argued that whereas such imagery was originally used in an ontological and epistemological way, it now comes to be interpreted experientially “and the earlier literature, once it is included in the ‘canon’, is subjected to such an interpretation.” (212) Louth continues:
…what we are doing is privileging a very small period of recent history, an element, I would argue, in an attempt to get behind historical and religious traditions, experienced as being oppressive, though, instead of doing this by attacking tradition as such – which was the enterprise initially of the Reformation, and more thoroughly of the Enlightenment – it is done by discovering – or, I would say, inventing – a tradition that is deeper and partially obscured. It is indeed a modern gnosticism. One needs to recall, too, that such tradition-making is a well-documented phenomenon in post-Enlightenment history … (212)
Thus Louth argues that Christian mysticism is not a settled concept but the name for a religious strategy that originated in early modern (or late medieval) Europe. It is a strategy that may have parallels in other religions, but we shall not discover that simply by looking at the “mystical writings” of other religions, as if there is an “essence” religions that can be isolated.
‘Comparative mysticism’ is too easy, and unhistorical: it simply lulls us into thinking that we can regard as fundamentally significant (‘mystical’ has never lost the connotation of what really matters, what is ultimately powerful) what appeals to the individualized consciousness of the West – religious literature that aspires to the form of poetry, devoid of dogmatic content or ritual expression. (213)