Saint Teresa of Avila is best known in her ecstatic state, as captured in marble by the sculptor Gian Bernini — her arched back, her body caught in an orgasmic wave, the moan from her parted lips almost audible. She felt the presence of God as an erotic power, the connection between the divine and the mortal as an energy unlike any other. This chaste 16th-century nun wrote about her soul being penetrated by the arrow of the angel, “so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish it to cease, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.”

Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Goldstein. 304 pages. Schocken. $22. Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. 432 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28. How… More…