Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The Terror Of History: Part 1

Great Course:  The Terror Of History:  Mystics, Heretics, And Witches In The Western Tradition:  Part 1, taught by Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz

Although I do not consider myself a particularly mystical person, quite the opposite, for a variety of reasons I have found myself to be a student of mysticism and esoteric religion and its influence on culture [1].  This course gives a good reason why this is the case, and as such it is one that I definitely found interesting and worthwhile.  Thankfully, this part of the course does not really talk about witches and how they were viewed in society, and so it is likely to be the part of this course that I enjoy the most.  Even for someone who is not particularly mystical themselves, this course is useful in that it shows a social historian of a skeptical bent doing his best to give full credit and place to the role of religion in history, something that is not often done.  Additionally, it is clear that this instructor has a great deal of sympathy for those who are judged as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church and a certain degree of interest as well in social and political phenomena that demonstrate which people fall over the thin line that separates an orthodox mystic like an Augustine or Francis of Assisi from a heterodox mystic, something that is of interest to all whose intellectual explorations put them in harm’s way with regards to civil and religious authorities.

The professor begins this course by discussing the terror of history and how people try to keep it at bay through ignoring it by immersing themselves in the material world or trying to transcend it through union with God or creation.  Then two lectures are spent giving the political and economic (first) and the religious and cultural (second) contexts of mysticism, and how some movements are primarily elite and others primarily mass movements, and how many movements are only known by the writings of their opponents.  Three lectures follow which give a general overview of mysticism in the Western tradition as a result of a supposed divide between the head and the heart, after which there are lectures that discuss some of the most prominent mystics of the twelfth and thirteenth century, some of whom (like Francis of Assisi and Dante, are very familiar to many of us).  Then the author discusses some of the unique qualities of Jewish mysticism, especially in the Zohar, and mysticism in early modern Europe and some of its most notable qualities, especially a heightened degree of sensuality in the works of St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.  Four lectures close this part of the course on heresies related to the millennium and the feeling among the Catholic hierarchy that their church was under attack and their response with the inquisition, ending with a discussion of views of the millennium in 16th century Europe at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

While I greatly enjoyed this course, I must admit that I did not approve of everything this professor said.  For one, there are aspects of mysticism that many people are likely to find very troubling and that ought to be taken with a great deal of caution.  In addition to the general caution that one should have about taking mystics and their claims at face value, especially because mysticism was often a way for women to gain power and influence in religious circles that they were denied, and we can expect this sort of thing to be abused as a result, there are a few errors that the instructor makes that are more serious.  For one, the professor appears to conflate the biblical teaching on the Day of the Lord and the Great Tribulation along with the millennium and with the new heavens and the new earth and final judgment, all of which are quite distinct and take place over a long time.  Additionally, the author demonstrates his ignorance of scripture when he claims that parts of Genesis were taken verbatim from the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Even so, the professor does at least try to give proper credit to religion and to close readings of scripture, even if he is not particularly knowledgeable in such areas, and points should be given for effort, I think.  Hopefully the next part of this course is at least close to as enjoyable as this one is.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The Terror Of History: Part 1

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Buddhism: Part 1 | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Make Your Voice Heard In Heaven | Edge Induced Cohesion

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