Excessive Love: Exploring Immanence as the Conceptual Condition for Reading Hadwijch of Brabant – Univocity in the Medieval Period

I. Introduction

II.  Univocity in the Medieval Period

In his recent book After Life, Eugene Thacker tracks a conceptual trajectory starting with Aristotle’s distinction (or problem of distinguishing) between Life and living. Aristotle is unable to articulate this ontology of life fully because “it is as if, in proposing a concept of the principle-of-life, Aristotle is forced to think ‘life’ in terms other-than-life.”[1] This is a fundamental question of mediation that continued to play out in the medieval period taking up questions of how to speak about the relation or non-relation between Creator and creature or God and nature/humanity. Thacker goes on to outline the various theologies and philosophies that approached this relation that was deemed both necessary and problematic.

Thacker begins by introducing neoplatonism. In this model (deriving from Plontinus) the transcendent One (Life/Creator) emanates the Many (living creatures/nature). The Creator is wholly unaffected by creation residing above the creatures, though in its spiritual or theological forms there are ways in which creatures (or more accurately their Souls) are able to re-trace their steps and find union with the Creator, though this union never alters the transcendent position of the Creator. So while positing the soul as a sort of mediator the God/nature or the Life/living relation remains directly unthinkable (we remain forced to think God with something other-than-god). Two schools of medieval thought emerged wrestling with this continued problem.[2]

  • Positive (kataphatic) theology – Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas are used as notable examples. In this mode the transcendent divine, while inaccessible by human means, eventually pours forth in the excessive or overwhelming imagery of light or radiation. Talking about God in this mode meant filling all the partial attributes that are accessible in nature lifting them to a divine status. Human is x and God is the perfect x.
  • Negative (apophatic) theology – In contrast to positive theology, thinkers like Pseudo-Dionysius and John Scottus Eriugena relay on the imagery of darkness and nothingness to indicate the gap between nature and the transcendent divine. Talking about God in this mode meant emptying language of anything associated with nature and in attempting the soul reside in that darkness / absence / nothingness. Human is x – God is not-x.

Both positive and negative theology typically worked with some understanding of analogy as mediating Creator and creature. Analogy was the compromise between the two poles of equivocity (no relation between realms) and univocity (all relation of one substance). In this way it was possible, or at least maintained, that positive theology could speak of God in nature in proportion to the relationship of cause and effect while maintaining the transcendent and unaffected otherness of God.

While theological orthodoxy maintained a hierarchy and unassailable procession of order mediated by analogy there remained elements or traces of univocity later referred to as pantheism that, as developed in the work of Deleuze, began to influence the emerging concept of immanence.


[1] Thacker, After Life, 20-21.

[2] Thacker introduces this distinction in 37-40.

Excessive Love: Exploring Immanence as the Conceptual Condition for Reading Hadwijch of Brabant – Introduction

It is unexceptional to comment that mystical accounts in the medieval period produced something of significant difference to established or at least majority expressions of faith or theology. While preserved and revered by some, these expressions were often met with derision (if not persecution).1  This sort of reaction can be said generally of the movement but also specifically of the notable rise in accounts by women.2 While scholarship has moved some way past the easy modern dismissal of all things medieval there remains significant opportunity around the extent to which we can think or conceptualize the accounts of medieval woman mystics.3

The purpose of these posts is to articulate a conceptual framework for reading and understanding the conditions of thought in the works of Hadewijch of Brabant. Hadewijch was a 13th century Dutch beguine whose work is characterized by an extreme (perhaps exhaustive) notion of Love as that which informs and pervades all of life. While increased attention has been given to Hadewijch in recent times her work has not been brought into conversation with the concepts of Gilles Deleuze. It is particular elements of Deleuze’s thoughts on immanence that I will employ for reading Hadewijch.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to navigate the debates of how Deleuze is understood and deployed. Further, I am not interested in demonstrating an accurate reading of Deleuze as such or in total. Rather, I intend to direct my engagement primarily through the recent work and focus of Daniel Colucciello Barber and Eugene Thacker.4 While there has been some recent work published on the intersection of Deleuze and medievalism in general5 (as well as some engagement with mysticism specifically)6 I have come across no work that has considered the relationship between Deleuzian immanence and Hadewijch in particular or female mystics more generally.

I will continue these post by first orientating the question of immanence as it emerged in the medieval period and then how it was taken up and developed in the work of Deleuze. I will then highlight some of the elements that demonstrate how immanence can be understood in contrast to transcendence. After outlining a conceptual paradigm of immanence I will then engage the extent works of Hadewijch making notes on how her discourse relates to some of the key elements of immanence. I am not interested in suggesting or defending a position situating Hadewijch as a cause or practitioner of immanence. My interest is more basic in expanding the conceptual tools for engaging religious texts and thought and the extent to which Hadewich’s work resonates with such a framework. The bulk of this series consists of orienting the reader to the concept of immanence as it relates to the western medieval tradition and my engagement with Hadewijch should be considered an exploration with a more extensive treatment laying beyond the scope of the present work.


[1] Already by the 16th century Michael de Certeau notes a sustained attack on these accounts calling them ‘gibberish,’ full of ‘strange absurdities,’ The Mystic Fable, trans. Michael B. Smith (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 108-09.

[2] Luce Irigaray notes that the extent to which men enter this ‘madness’ it is by following ‘her’ lead. See Luce Irigaray Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 191.

[3] For a recent account of scholarship and conceptual approaches to religious medieval texts by women see Patricia Daily, Promised Bodies: Time, Language, and Corporeality in Medieval Women’s Mystical Texts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 2-5.

[4] See Daniel Colucciello Barber, On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-secularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014). Eugene Thacker, After Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[5] See Peter Hallward, “‘Everything is Real’: Deleuze and Creative Univocity,” New Formations 49 (2003): 61-74 and Daniel W. Smith, “The Doctrine of Univocity: Deleuze’s Ontology of Immanence,” Deleuze and Religion, ed. Mary Bryden (New York: Routledge, 2001).

[6] See Patrice Haynes, “Immanence, Transcendence and Thinking Life with Deleuze and Eckhart,” Medieval Mystical Theology 22.1 (2013): 5-26 and Eugene Thacker, “Wayless abyss: Mysticism, mediation and divine nothingness,” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 3.1 (2012): 80-96.

Excessive Love: Exploring Immanence as the Conceptual Condition for Reading Hadwijch of Brabant

In the hopes of further promoting and engaging the work of Daniel Colucciello Barber I am offering a series of posts that reflect the work I did in a recent grad seminary on the religious writings of several medieval women. I will structure the posts as follows,

I. Introduction
II. Univocity in the Medieval Period
III. The Trajectory of Univocity to Immanence
IV. The Conceptual Paradigm of Immanence in Deleuze
V. Concepts and Excess in Hadewijch’s Complete Works
VI. Conclusion

To begin, here is an abstract of the paper.

It remains commonplace to acknowledge that mystics in general and women mystics in particular do not fit well into established categories of thought or reason. While significant work has been done in the area of conceptualizing medieval mystical accounts by women (such as focusing on the role of the body, performance, and paradox) there remains further unexplored possibilities. This paper will explore one such possibility. I will outline a conceptual understanding of immanence based on theoretical models developed from the work of Gilles Deleuze. I will use this outline to explore the work Hadewijch, a 13th century mystic. Key to this framework will be tracing the trajectory of immanence as it came out of the medieval period in the form of univocity. Without trying to position Hadewijch as some sort of cause or practitioner immanence I will demonstrate the various congruencies that her work, particularly as it culminates in her notion of love, displays in relation to immanence. Hadewijch can be read, in part, as attempting to perform the substance of love. While this demonstration may not (and as will be shown cannot) ‘justify’ immanence according to other conceptual frameworks based on a prior transcendent unity it does build an increasingly robust case precisely for questioning such conceptual traditions that have caricatured and rejected the mystical accounts of medieval women.

Beard warfare

Sorry Rudy.

Beards are back. They have been back for a while. Doing absolutely no research I would say that beards hit a low point in the 80s. In the 80s men were cresting as vigorous entrepreneurs and financial sharks. Beards just got in the way. And contrary to the hair of the 60s and 70s, which was a reaction to the veneer of the 50s clean-cut family, the beards of the 21st century are a grasping at manhood. There is a perceived vacuum in what it means to be a man. We have been stripped of our assertions to power and dominance by those pesky feminists and queer folk. And men, abhoring a vacuum, will find something to stick into said vacuum.

I have been reading Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE), an early church father. I have quite enjoyed his writings. His theological works have a sense of literary flare and are even characterized by some openness to reflecting on and valuing traditions outside the church. His practical works have in some ways been more enjoyable for the simply reason that they are so particular. Here Clement writes as a pious person par excellence. Clement abhors the luxury of a good sauce, he counsels in the ways of belching quietly, he cautions on the abuses of ointments, etc. It is easy to dismiss these writings, interesting as they are. However, they do also address class distinctions and for Clement all these practices are caught up in difference that the Gospel makes.

The difference of the Gospel ends with gender ordering. Here the natural order and rigid hierarchy of the sexes must be imposed and the luxurious possibility of effeminacy in Rome must be opposed. And it is in the maintenance of hair that one finds the most specific area of expression.

To shave is womanly and to potentially confuse the genders. In truth, unless you saw them naked, you would suppose them to be women. God made women to be soft (though interestingly chewing tobacco is also a sign of being effeminate).

For God wished women to be smooth, and rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane; but has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him, as an attribute of manhood, with shaggy breasts,—a sign this of strength and rule. So also cocks, which fight in defence of the hens, he has decked with combs, as it were helmets; and so high a value does God set on these locks.

And here Clement starts to climax,

This, then, the mark of the man, the beard, by which he is seen to be a man, is older than Eve, and is the token of the superior nature. In this God deemed it right that he should excel, and dispersed hair over man’s whole body. Whatever smoothness and softness was in him He abstracted from his side when He formed the woman Eve, physically receptive, his partner in parentage, his help in household management, while he (for he had parted with all smoothness) remained a man, and shows himself man. And to him has been assigned action, as to her suffering; for what is shaggy is drier and warmer than what is smooth. Wherefore males have both more hair and more heat than females, animals that are entire than the emasculated, perfect than imperfect. It is therefore impious to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness.

Is it possible to re-introduce the beard simply as an addition to the diversified cultural expressions of gender? Or is this an ancient, almost primal re-assertion of male dominance ready to run ravage over the weak and effeminate? We must be wary.

Review of Peter Blum’s For a Church to Come

For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought. By Peter C. Blum. Herald Press, 2013, 177 pages.

For a Church to Come is a collection of essays by Peter Blum, professor of philosophy and culture at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Rather than simply outline or summarize the contents of this book, I want to engage what I think is at stake in this project. Reflecting on Blum’s book I found the sub-title increasingly suggestive. I wondered where theology might be found in relationship to theory and thought. Blum characterizes postmodern theory in the idea that any form, meaning, or expression cannot be finally or fully known in its totality. When the church attempts to delineate and clarify all of its boundaries and concepts then it has repressed the ambiguous, multiple, and created meaning that comes with human expressions; it has denied the way we influence and are influenced by what the church would call ‘the secular’ world. In this account the church is not so much a messianic community but a community that holds a messianic expectation, or, in more yoderian language (to introduce Anabaptist thought), it is a community of patience.

So, again, where might theology be found? Most of the time what the church means by theology can be clarified as confessional theology, which basically means privileging the knowledge and resources of a particular community (i.e. creeds and confessions of faith) According to Blum’s essays the danger of a binding confessional theology is when it is ‘specially protected’ in its ability to account for God, reality, and practice. This privileging and protecting can keep the church from forming mutual relationships (where the church might actually learn from others). If this is how we understand or practice theology, then I agree with Blum’s subtitle and it is right to leave this sort of theology out of his experiments for a church to come.

Blum’s experiments represent one example of opening our theology to voices outside our confession. To be clear though, these experiments are not aimless speculations thrown out into the void of relativism (as postmodernism can still be caricatured). Blum’s experiments are oriented concretely and particularly. They are, however, not guided by a traditional confessional theology, they are guided rather in the face of the other. Emmanuel Levinas is a central thinker in Blum’s book and it is Levinas’s understanding of the face of the ‘other’ that can both provide orientation for ethics but also openness for the dynamic nature of human experience.

As Blum points out our obligation to (love) the other is infinite, never fulfilled. In a sense this obligation is impossible; impossible for our categories to be complete enough, for our theology to be big enough, for our ethics to be decisive enough. But this awareness does not absolve us from the obligation. These essays are an attempt to honour this obligation. The essays challenge our definition of the family and the boundaries of the church but does not escape into the myth of purity, they break down our theological boundaries but does not succumb to some limp relativism, they acknowledge the pervasiveness of violence but does not forsake the call to peace.

Some questions remain lingering after reading this book. The major question I have is how far we can continue with a traditional or orthodox understanding of God’s transcendence in light of these experiments. Confessional theology usually relies on transcendence (a God beyond us and inaccessible, except for ‘special’ revelation) as a way of securing its boundaries. By employing Levinas Blum is able to still use the language of transcendence but introduce strong elements of immanence (what is important is accessible without ‘special’ revelation from beyond; i.e. in the face of our neighbour). I am concerned Blum is looking to have it both ways and I think the church would be better served to have the implication of these approaches more clearly spelled out. This, however, is not a criticism of the book so much as a picking up of its challenge and questions.

Much of what is within Blum’s book can and should be considered theology. If, however, our theology continues to be given a special status, removed from our engagement with our neighbour, we might do well to set it aside for a while. The question remains whether we would actually allow the face of our neighbour to shape our theology. This indeed remains a question for a church to come.

Academigod is dead

[I started this reflection before I read two recent posts on the academy here and here. The post was then edited in light of some of the points they made.]

About a week ago on Facebook I posted the course description of a class I was hoping to take this Fall. Taking the course was contingent on me getting accepted as an Occasional Student in a grad program at the U of Manitoba. I did not get accepted. Now perhaps I should have had my doubts. On paper I don’t look particularly good, with poor educational institutions on my transcripts and increasingly distant academic references, no recent and ‘serious’ work to produce. Of course I also applied way too late which might have had something to do with it. In any event I have tried now on three separate occasions to work on a PhD program. All three attempts have failed, all for differing reasons (finances, life, outright rejection). I could take this rejection and craft it into a ‘boot-strap-pulling’ type story where I persevere and I am guessing there would much merit and formation that would happen in such a pursuit (and who knows I may end up doing this). But what am I chasing here? While I would like the option of teaching it is not really something I want to pursue actively.

This rejection, like most rejections, has created a space for reflection and this is what has come to me. The reality is that other than a brief period around high school focusing on competitive sports the academic institution has been the site of highest evaluation for my life, higher than economics and higher even, I think, than religion (though it did not start out this way religion became a way of framing an orientation to education). School has from the beginning, from the very beginning, represented this site of evaluation, the omnipotent eye, the judgment seat from which salvation and damnation are accepted as true. I say that this was the case from the very beginning because it is literally my first memory of school. I can still remember what I assume was the first day of school. The image is that of a gymnasium with various stations at which kids are involved in tasks. I was unconsciously able to understand these as evaluations (which I am sure they were; seeing what sort of ‘special needs’ some of the kids might have) because the focal image of this memory is a kid walking across a balance beam raised about six inches off the ground. School established the categories of success and failure.

I have always come back to school or academics as a standard of approval. And despite making some bad choices in terms of academic institutions I had enough momentum that I probably could have carried out and completed a solid PhD program about a decade ago. So while I used to be able to enjoy some of the momentum that young and committed academics receive this is simply not the case anymore (and has not been for a while). The problem is that the compulsion remains and I am becoming tired of the compulsion. I am tired of a pursuit that always leaves me feeling outside the realm of sacred evaluators, outside the rights of true gnosis. But on the other side I am fearful of apathy or complacency. I am fearful of going through the motions of life and losing vitality. Ultimately, though, reflecting on this process I am increasingly aware of how I have bowed to this god, how I have groveled, how it has puffed me up and how it has made me feel inadequate. I never really felt the need to make my biological father feel proud (not in the way I hear it from others anyway). But school has been my father. I can point to mentors, father figures, who I looked up to in college and seminary.

To be clear, I am still by and large a fan of the academic process. Without a doubt I will continue with many academic pursuits. But I need now to acknowledge my lineage, to pronounce the name of my father. The academic institution has established a grid of evaluation, it has intervened with a law. This latest rejection has come more clearly as another scolding, a putting in my place below other siblings. In theology there is renewed attention on exploring the death of the Christian god, but this, I think, is to miss the point in my own scenario. The strings are still being pulled by another. This god is pleased with the dance made around the dead Christian god. It is time to speak more clearly of the need to proclaim the death of this father, of this god.

So what lies ahead? I guess it is what lies ahead for anyone who encounters or acknowledges their dead god. What lies ahead is the daily allowing of disorientation left by the vacancy and the daily practice of paying attention to what surrounds this vacancy and producing tentative evaluations; of feeling and describing what influences us and acknowledging what we influence; of living without a determined eschatology. I still seek and perform many of the practices found in universities of course and will probably be happy to be more involved in the future. I will still look to academics for many aspects of my formation. But my orientation has to change. I have been placed outside the grid of academic evaluation (found wanting by its scales). I have hit my ceiling (again and again). I have experienced a fraction of the rejection, pressure, and anxiety that so many others have faced. Now is the time to live with or without it, as not a god. That what is being sought and what is being encountered is incidental to the institution.

A question on the duration of orthodoxy and heresy

There is a tradition in which Christian orthodoxy is heralded by its ability to position and explain later movements and expressions. One of the more recent forms is how Orthodoxy can help us understand modernity as a sort of parody or parasite of traditional orthodox Christianity. The other common line is how earlier heresiology is still able to account for so many contemporary Christian distortions, that orthodox has tremendous explanatory power.

I have been sporadically reading through Iranaeus’s Against Heresies and to be honest it does have a fairly strong explanatory power. It can account for any number of current liberal, new agey, esoteric, intellectual, or even scientific expressions of faith. This ability is typically considered a strength of orthodoxy, that is has a prior position of observation and validity. However, does this not point to the veracity and non-instituitional sustainability of particular heresies? Now I know this can lead to the argument that just because something endures does not mean it is worth enduring. Sure. I never said that there would be no discernment involved. Should it not be worth considering how it is that certain forms can endure, mutate, and be dispersed without the aid of centralizing and potentially violent forms discursive structuring? If there is to be a theological model of divine participation wouldn’t this be a better place to look?