McGinn Talks Mysticism and The Works of John of The Cross

Bernard McGinn, a professor at the University of Chicago, discussed his upcoming book Mysticism in the Reformation as a part of the Lowell Humanities Series on Wednesday night. His upcoming work kept the audience engaged, but it was his previous work, The Foundations of Mysticism, that drew the crowd there in the first place.

McGinn’s work on mysticism, Christianity, and the interconnectedness between the two has led many to follow his work since the 1990s. For decades, McGinn has studied Christian mysticism and the consciousness of the spiritual presence of God. During his presentation, he discussed the poet and prose writer, John of The Cross, and the influence of the Bible on John’s work. McGinn began his talk about the origins of mysticism.

“Origen, the father of Christian mysticism, thought of the mind’s journey to God as taking place within the act of reading, meditating upon, and contemplating the meaning of the Bible,” McGinn said.

This core foundation of mysticism was woven throughout the rest of McGinn’s argument about John of the Cross, as he contended that John was not denouncing the Bible, as many thought, but was instead being a “strong reader” and interpreting the Bible in new and spiritual ways.

McGinn pointed out that John was suspicious of taking the Bible at face value. He explained that after God’s promise to save Jacob in Egypt, Jacob died. This was unexpected to many since they took God’s promise literally, and this incident went against their faith in the literal interpretation of the Bible. John of the Cross, however, warned the people of this.

“Historically a promise was made, historically on a literal level it was not fulfilled, and that makes [John’s] point that you shouldn’t interpret them on a literal level historically,” McGinn said.

McGinn emphasized John’s respect for history and how he interpreted it in a way most would not, which is how his work results in mystic views. He further explained the mystic’s respect for the Bible, joined with a spiritual interpretation, referencing John’s works on the importance of experience.

“The book of experience does not replace the book of the Bible, rather…[John] is inviting his readers to place themselves as it were both within and between the two books, in an intertextual situation, which makes use of both books in a mutually illuminating way to further the soul’s progress,” McGinn said.

John of The Cross went a step further when he said that God actually insists the Bible is read spiritually, according to McGinn.

“God does indeed communicate spiritual goods to us by means of the senses, but his intention—his divine intention—is to gradually wean souls to a spiritual communion with him,” McGinn said.

McGinn ended his talk by referencing critics who find John’s work “deeply disappointing” in that it does not adhere to the “true” meaning of the Bible. He accuses the critics of misreading John.

“John never intended his explanations to substitute for or exhaust the meanings of his poems,” he said. “He realized that the poems had an inherent surplus that would always allow new significations to be drawn from them for the spiritual profit of later readers.”     

John of the Cross’s and McGinn’s works are unique in that they enhance the Bible in a way some may consider denouncing it. McGinn’s final words end on a positive note about the future examination of Christian mysticism and specifically the further study of John The Cross.

“In the Christian mystical discourse … there remains fountains of inexhaustible meaning and examples of profound mystical wisdom,” he said. “And today, we’re still being invited to draw water from these deep wells.”