David Russell Mosley
Feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
Today I would like to review for The Heavenly Country: An Anthology of Primary Sources, Poetry, and Critical Essays on Sophiology edited by Michael Martin and put out by Angelico Press. I must start by noting that this is a difficult book to review. It is difficult for several reasons. First of all, any time you are reviewing a book with multiple authors it can be difficult. Do you review each essay/chapter individually or the book as a whole? Well, this edited volume is even more difficult since there are around 60 different authors present in this single volume. Things are further complicated by the fact that the book, as it says in the subtitle, is made up of various different genre from spiritual and mystical texts and reflections to poetry to modern academic essays. However, what makes this book so difficult to review makes it not only a joy to read––insofar as it has variety––but also makes it useful as a kind of one stop shop, if you will allow the colloquialism, for learning about sophiology.
For my readers who may be unfamiliar with the term, sophiology is the study of Sophia, often identified as a non-hypostatic representation of the divine essence as well as a created being that perfectly mirrors the divine essence to creation and creation to the Holy Trinity. Michael Martin, the books editor, defines sophiology in the introduction, “as it is understood in this book is the theological-philosophical apprehension and perception of grace as it discloses itself (or is disclosed) in the created world in liturgy, and in religious experience” (3). Martin, who has championed a return to sophiology and poetic metaphysics in his book The Submerged Reality in this anthology has brought together foundational primary sources for sophiology, poetry he sees as being sophiological (whether the poets saw it as such or not), and a series of academic essays on the various figures and ideas presented in the first two sections of the book
It is important to note that while sophiology has been taken up by gnostics and other heretics, the goal of this text is to bring out what is best, even if it appears strange or new, from the more orthodox expressions of sophiology. Martin has collected these various texts in an effort to combat the “death of metaphysics” and “death of God” movements that have arisen at least since the Enlightenment. I will now turn my attention to the three sections of this book in turn and conclude with some final thoughts on the volume as a whole.
This section begins by having us read portions of the biblical Wisdom Books. Specifically it includes selections from Proverbs, Song of Songs, the Book of Wisdom, and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). Before I go into the other primary sources, I would like to note that even here I personally would have liked to have seen more biblical texts. Martin has certainly not exhausted the number of texts that discuss Wisdom. After the biblical texts comes a slue of European, Protestant/Non-Catholic authors ranging from the 15th/16th century with Jacob Boehme to the 20th century with William Butler Yeats. After Yeats and the Romantics the book turns to Russian and Catholic Sophiology. I will not attempt to review the contents of these authors. Not only would to do so be difficult due to sheer numbers, but due to variety of genre/content. Some of these authors like Boehme, Fludd, and Vaughan were alchemists and their alchemy is bound up in some ways with their sophiology. Others, like the Philadelphians (and those already mentioned), were mystics recording their visions and mystical experiences. I am not qualified to judge one’s alchemy and not nearly holy enough to state outright whether one’s mystical experience were genuine or not.
What I will say about this section is this: much of it is compelling and all of it is necessary if one wants to understand sophiology in general and the project of Michael Martin in particular. Nowhere else can the student of theology find in one place these sources. Martin has created with this section alone a primer for sophiology. This section serves as an excellent starting point for anyone who desires to dig deeper into the history of sophiology. What is more, Martin shows rather clearly that sophiology is not simply the provenance of alchemists and esoteric mystics or even certain strains of Russian Orthodoxy. By including the section on Catholic Sophiology, Martin shows that Sophia has made herself known there as well and not simply to marginal figures such as Valentin Tomberg but is also evident in the works of more mainstream figures like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Louis Bouyer. Although one must say that all of the figures represented here have courted trouble, if not censure or condemnation, to one degree or another.
As a brief critique of this section, the lack of patristic or medieval sources is rather glaring. Martin might, and has elsewhere, made the claim that many of the Church Fathers and Doctors were mistaken in attempting to explain all references to Wisdom as concerning only the Son or the Spirit. Nevertheless, it seems to me necessary to engage with the ancient and medieval sources as well if you want to have a rounded understanding not only of Sophia but of the kind of theology/philosophy that Martin is putting forward.