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Does experiencing a mystical vision of Jesus confer authority upon the recipient such that other Christians should submit to the vision’s content or subsequent assertions by its recipient? This was one of the leading questions from Dr. Christina Van Dyke’s presentation this spring titled “Love’s Authority: Medieval Women Contemplatives and the Power of Mystical Union.” Van Dyke is a professor of philosophy and gender studies at Calvin College. A recent project of Van Dyke has sent her digging into the writings of Christian women who experienced visions of Christ between the 12th and 14th centuries. Her paper took the seminar’s attendees through quotations of seventeen medieval Christian women who spanned diverse geographic locations, religious orders, and educational levels. They included: Hildegard of Bingen (c.1098-1179), Mechtild of Magdeburg (c.1208-c.1282/94), Marguerite of Oingt (c.1240-1310), Angela of Foligno (c.1248-1309), Margaret Ebner (c. 1291-1351), and Catherine of Siena (c. 1347-1380). What they all had in common, in addition to undergoing mystical experiences of God was that, in contrast to apophatic mystics, these women were, as Van Dyke labels them, affective mystics.
Van Dyke framed her paper by suggesting that, in this era, Christian women did not “do philosophy.” They certainly were not invited to comment authoritatively on scripture or philosophical issues. Many were illiterate. It was typical for female Christians to announce their lowliness and ignorance before daring to comment publicly about spiritual things. Any reception of such comments would likely flow from the mercy of others rather than any recognized possession of authority by these Christian women. Exceptions to trends always exist, and Van Dyke’s paper presented one such class of exceptions. There were women who purportedly underwent profound experiences which they interpreted as visions from a loving God (or loving mystical union with God). Not surprisingly they took themselves, or at least the content of their visions, to be endowed with heightened authority as a result. Recall Van Dyke’s title, “Love’s Authority…”
Van Dyke’s presentation of these women did not center around an argument or, as some papers do, seek feedback on the parts of an argument in the making. Instead, Van Dyke exposited each of the quotes while pointing out certain commonalities between them. Overall, she asked what attendees made of these women’s claims to authority based on mystical experiences of God’s love. This request was made more difficult by an additional request of Van Dyke’s, viz., that attendees be willing to listen more and refrain from hastily applying traditional analytic classifications of love or mystical experience upon the content of the quotations.
This type of presentation is not faulty by any means, but it does change the nature of feedback one can give. If I had any criticism of the paper it would be that future presentations should set more specific goals for reflection on such quotes (see my levels below). Furthermore, the nature of the “authority” that was being claimed by these women was not fully clear to me. Claims to authority in religious contexts is a fascinating topic that I don’t engage here. I would however encourage those interested in AT work to give it more thought. That being said, I suggest we could engage these mystics (or others) in terms of three levels of investigation.
Level One: It seems wise to begin by building familiarity through observation and appreciation of these fascinating quotations. Sustained and patient observation, in domains new to ourselves, is a wise starting place for hermeneutical work. We might ask if any commonalities in phenomenological language can be detected. Likewise, what are the differences? What background information can we employ to aid ourselves in making sense of certain terminology used by these mystics? An example finding from this level of engagement (it turned up during the Q&A) is that Christian mystics cannot be classed as falling solely into the apophatic or affective traditions. Some women had both sorts of mystical experiences. Additionally, these women were not claiming to receive anything on par with Scripture. Instead, they were claiming to receive some knowledge from God that would aid in understanding Scripture or the Christian experience.
William Alston, in the first chapter of Perceiving God, explains that, because mystical experiences of God are impossible to reproduce, developing a language consistently to describe the accompanying phenomenology is very difficulty. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article “Phenomenology of Religion” points out that, in Christianity, such experiences are common enough that some very general categories have at least been suggested. Nelson Pike is cited on this point. “…tradition has commonly distinguished three varieties of experience of God: those associated with the ‘prayer of quiet,’ the ‘prayer of union,’ and ‘rapture,’ in order of increasing intimacy of acquaintance with God. And each of these phases of the spiritual life, it has been said, is to be associated with its own distinctive phenomenology.” Might the “affective mystics” cited out of Van Dyke’s larger project require additional categories (for non-apophatic experiences) – which, like Pike’s other categories, likewise display increasing levels of intimacy or acquaintance with God?
Level Two: Here I can imagine our analysis progressing from a descriptive project to one of epistemic rights and duties. All of us are within our epistemic rights to ask how these women knew their experiences were veridical. And by ‘veridical’ I do not mean that that they are correct in knowing that they underwent the experiences in their full intensity (I don’t have reason to doubt that many people are appeared to mystically). Instead, I mean whether they were within their epistemic rights to believe the content of those experiences (e.g., that it was an encounter with God). Most importantly, if the church (local or universal) is to take the content of these visions as authoritative (note Van Dyke’s reminder that these quotes are all about derived authority) then how do others know these visions were veridical?
Here an entire class of philosophical work can be brought in to engage these quotations. Alston, Swinburne, Plantinga and others have written on whether religious experience should be treated as veridical until some defeater for veridicality is encountered. Others have argued that mystical experiences of all religions are part of a shared human encounter with some noumenal dimension of reality (e.g., Hick). Non-theists, as we would expect, argue that these are merely psychological events. Both Van Dyke and related SEP articles (E.g. the articles on Religious Experience and/or Mysticism) suggest that accompanying changes in behavior or harmony with received doctrinal positions were taken to lend warrant to the content of these visions. An article cataloging such confirmatory resources would be quite interesting.
Level Three: If we suspect these experiences to be veridical, what do they declare about God and how might their content aid in our theological development? Since Van Dyke’s citations were largely “meta” in nature (i.e., the women were speaking about the nature of their experiences) the paper did not provide much theological content to focus on. Nevertheless, once careful observation is done (Level One) followed by analysis of what is said (Level Two) it seems that some appropriation or retrieval could begin (Level Three).
By contrast, we could engage this third level of analysis from the opposite direction. If visions contain content that might contradict Scripture, this may count as a defeater for taking them as veridical. Visions, ecstatic experiences, and supernatural encounters were ancient news by the time the Medieval church came of age. Yahweh had long before provided Israel with rules by which to test the claims of prophets. Deuteronomy 13:1-11 made the theological content of a vision the final test of authority, even if something miraculous accompanied it. In Deuteronomy 18:21-22, the failure of some part of a prophecy to materialize was to be taken as proof of non-veridicality.
 See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology-religion/
 I have a hard time distinguishing between a prophet and someone who claims to have a vision from God (or unitive experience with God) accompanied by claims that it grants them authority to speak on theological or Scriptural issues. This is even more the case if heightened epistemological faculties are said to have resulted from the experience as was the case with these quotations.
Jesse Gentile is a new PhD student at Fuller seminary studying systematic theology. He has interests in theological anthropology, epistemology, ethics, technology and pretty much everything else. Jesse is the father of two awesome elementary school kids and is the husband of Ella (who works as a wills and trust attorney). He regularly does itinerant preaching among plymouth brethren assemblies throughout the U.S. Jesse hold’s degrees in Biblical Studies, Philosophy, and Instructional Design.