Andrea Hollingsworth Interview

Andrea Hollingsworth was a resident fellow at CTI for the 2013-2014 Inquiry on Religious Experience and Moral Identity. Professor Hollingsworth is currently Visiting Researcher at Boston University School of Theology where, in July 2015, she will be installed as Assistant Professor of Theology. Her research interests lie at the intersection of Christian spirituality, historical and philosophical theology, and the psychology of human relationships, emotions, and development. She has held teaching posts in religious studies and theology at Loyola University Chicago and Berry College (Rome, GA). She is co-author of The Holy Spirit (Eerdmans, 2008), and her articles have appeared in such journals as Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, Modern Theology, and the European Journal for Philosophy of Religion.

Josh Mauldin: As a resident member of the 2013-14 CTI Inquiry on Religious Experience and Moral Identity, your project was focused on interpreting Nicholas of Cusa’s mystical theology in light of contemporary neuropsychological research—especially in the areas of sociality and emotion. How did you come to be interested in this set of issues?

Andrea Hollingsworth: Having formerly trained and worked as a psychotherapist, I’ve long been interested in studying scientifically processes by which selves are formed and transformed. Now that I am a theologian, I’m increasingly convinced that acquiring a full understanding of such processes (especially their relational aspects) holds potential to deepen and refine understandings of God. It is the mystics who seem most attuned to the theological import of change dynamics, and so I have long been drawn to them. Nicholas of Cusa’s little book, De visione Dei (1453), is a wonderful case study in the “coincidence” of human selving and divine disclosure—both of which are, for Cusa, relational to the core. As well, Cusa’s metaphysic, which is at once apophatic and empirical, serves as an ideal philosophical backdrop for the integration of theology and science.

JM: I’d be interested to hear about how the interdisciplinary atmosphere of CTI influenced your research project. How did the conversation between scholars of theology and the human sciences shape your research during and after the year at CTI?

AH: I cannot emphasize enough how enriching and challenging it was to begin my complicated project whilst surrounded by experts in fields so directly relevant to it. I am still reaping the benefits of the many insights, suggestions, questions, encouragements, and reading recommendations that emerged through conversation with my colleagues. The methodological issues that had to be addressed before I could make real headway on my project were immense. First, I had to justify a psychologically tuned reading of a classic mystical text without falling into the traps of psychohistory (viz., “Cusa on the couch”).

Second, I had to set up a hermeneutical framework that would allow me to surface phenomenological features of the text so that these features could be interpreted with a view to science. And I had to do this in a way that would enrich rather than muffle/muddle the ideational aspects of the text. Third, I had to make some decisions on which bodies of neuropsychological literature would and would not be helpful to me. And fourth, I had to think more deeply about the final aim of the project: what theological fruit will be borne of this venture? I made immense headway on all these difficult issues during my year at CTI. Much of that progress is due to the fact that I was surrounded by colleagues who, collectively, constituted a chorus of expertise in nearly all of the disciplines bearing on my project.

JM: How do you see your time at CTI shaping the future trajectory of your scholarly work in research and teaching?

AH: There are several topics that I explored during my time at CTI that I expect to occupy my writing and teaching for the foreseeable future. First, I will continue to forge new, interdisciplinary pathways in the study of Christian mystical thought. Second, I will continue to work on developing a method of interpreting mystical texts that is relevant to both the scientific study of religion as well as to theology and philosophy. Third, I will continue to probe psychobiological processes by which persons develop and heal—especially processes involving contemplative practice and/or second-person relationality. Fourth, I will continue to work on marrying apophatic dialectics with empirical investigation for the purposes of better knowing, naming, and loving God (or, to use Cusa’s term, the Absolute).

JM: What do you see as some of the most exciting areas of research in theology at the present moment?

AH: Very recent theology is taking a decisively realist turn, and I find this exciting. Self-congratulatory wallowings in Kantian nescience and its derivatives (e.g., ceaseless language games, ensconced subjective experiences, endless interpretations) seem to be on the decline. Instead we are finding theologians returning to the material, the empirical, the bodily, the neural, and even (gasp!) the ontological. This is happening in diverse theological camps, and seemingly all at once. To cite just a few examples, there is a radically orthodox realism (see, e.g., Hoff, The Analogical Turn, Eerdmans 2013), a pragmatic realism (see, e.g., Neville, Ultimates, SUNY 2013), a theopoetic realism (see, e.g., Caputo, The Insistence of God, IUP 2013), and a contemplative realism (see, e.g., Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self, CUP 2013).

This realist turn constitutes an important moment for theology. It represents a critical uptake and re-appropriation of a premodern-like wisdom—a wisdom which, in the words of Oliver Davies, affirmed a “continuity between the empirical knowledge we have of the creation and the transcendent knowledge we have of the Creator.” Yet, if theology is to avoid the over-reaches, totalizations, and literalist ontological absurdities that made Kantian nescience so prevalent (and, arguably, needed) in the first place, it will be critical to see to it that this new realism is shot through with a robust apophaticism. This is probably one reason why Nicholas of Cusa, with his mystical-empirical approach to thinking God and creation, is so popular right now in contemporary theology.

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