April 29, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 15

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    Divinity School conference to explore mysticism

    By Theresa Carson
    News Office

    Today, how can human beings think about their experience of the divine? This question will be posed at Mystics: A Conference on Presence and Aporia Thursday, May 13, and Friday, May 14, at the University.

    Theologians, philosophers, literary critics and historians will discuss their work on mystics, mysticism and negative theology during the conference, organized by Divinity School students Michael Kessler and Chris Sheppard. Kessler and Sheppard promise an interdisciplinary conference about mystical experiences, encounters with the divine.

    “This is really a conference about some of those new ways of talking about God, and at the same time a retrieval of old ways––trying to extract out of pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, and others ways that can still enrich and instruct us,” said Kessler.

    “Postmodern philosophy is what all of these people have in common. They’re really interested in not only the old ways but how they relate to contemporary thinking––living debates,” Sheppard said. “This is a live topic. They’re taking questions: What does it mean that the divine could be present in the world or could be conspicuously absent in a way that makes you think about it?”

    Kessler explained that one aspect of postmodernism is to revisit age-old philosophies and rethink those ideas in light of historical consciousness and the limits of reason. Some of the topics in which the conference will be grounded are the trial of Joan of Arc; the works of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Martin Luther, Teresa of Avila and Georges Bataille; and the concept of negative theology.

    Sheppard said negative theology addresses the inability to define God. Any definition that is offered is inadequate. He compared the pursuit of knowledge of God to blind men discovering an elephant. One person explores the trunk, another feels the tail and a third knows the tusk. None grasp the whole elephant––in the same way, mystical theology recognizes it is only a partial grasp of the divine, he said.

    The conference is designed to further centuries-old dialogue about the nature of mysticism. “In this conference, you have people from different traditions––although it’s the monotheistic traditions basically––coming at it from all different angles and different methodologies,” Sheppard said.

    Kessler and Sheppard are confident they are bringing together some of the foremost thinkers in the study of mysticism. Participants include Chicago professors Arnold Davidson, Professor in Philosophy and the Divinity School; Michael Fishbane, the Nathan Cummings Professor in the Divinity School; Jean-Luc Marion, Visiting Professor in Philosophy, the Committee on Social Thought and the Divinity School; Bernard McGinn, the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor in the Divinity School; Françoise Meltzer, Professor in Comparative Literature, Romance Languages & Literatures and the Divinity School; Susan Schreiner, Associate Professor in the Divinity School; and David Tracy, the Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School.

    Speakers from other academic institutions are Thomas Carlson, University of California, Santa Barbara; Alexander Golitzen, Marquette University; Kevin Hart, Monash University, Australia; Amy Hollywood, Dartmouth University; and Regina Schwartz, Northwestern University.

    Sheppard said he hopes the conference will “elucidate the concept of the impossible, what some might call the miraculous or the mystical.” Mystical experiences are discounted because contemporary society places an emphasis on empirical data, he said.

    Science requires that we repeat experiments before experiences are deemed valid, said Sheppard. Taking mystical experiences into account “makes you question how you can look at an experience, because the modern methodologies have been focused on the simplest of things that science wants us to look at––experiences that can be repeated over and over again with ease.” Hence, mystical experiences are often dismissed as scientifically unclassifiable occurrences.

    Drawing from the work of Jean-Luc Marion, Sheppard said that perhaps the mystical can be found in ordinary experiences. Kessler quoted Pope Gregory the Great as one such example, “All men wondered to see the water turned into wine. Every day the earth’s moisture, being drawn into the root of a vine, is turned by the grape into wine, and no man wonders. Full of wonder then are all things, which men never think to wonder at.”

    Conference sessions will be held in Kent Hall, Room 107. Kent Hall is at 1020 E. 58th St. Sponsored by the Divinity School, the conference is free and open to the public. For more information, call (773) 702-7049.