Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Apophatic Theology & Practice: The Unsettling and Grounding of Faith (and Doubt)

Now Reading: Oliver Davies and Denys Turner (eds.), Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation, (Cambridge: 2002).

In the first essay to this anthology, Denys Turner advances the claim that "an authentically apophatic theology destabilises more radically than any atheistic denial can, even Nietzsche's" (13).

The point of apophatic theology (that is, negative theology) is obedience to the first commandment: "You are to have no other gods before me".  To construct an image of God with propositions or metaphors is just as harmful to the creature's relationship to the Creator as to construct an image of God with wood or gold.  Apophatic theology functions by the denial of each and every image or conception of God we have.  Here there is no distinction between "good" and "bad" images--all images must be torn down, let we mistake a representation of God for Godself, and commit idolatry.

But why do we persist in making and using visible and tangible icons?  We use them to ground our experience of God: to bring God down to earth where we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell God.  We do this because it reassures us.  A God we can handle is a God that is real--or so we tell ourselves.  Apophatic theology denies the reality of those images, metaphors, ritual elements, creedal assertions that make us feel comfortable with God and that make God seem real to us.  And to be denied these things is, typically, to feel threatened, to be scared.

It seems to us that one who comes denying the reality of our representations of God is denying the reality of Godself.  Some self-proclaimed mystic or learned academic theologian who comes along and tells us that God is not a Father, not a Mother, not Word, not Spirit, not a Creator, not a King, not a Judge, and so on, sounds to us very much like s/he is urging us to wake up from a childhood religious fantasy and become mature atheists.  Perhaps those of us in conservative evangelical churches especially would be inclined to condemn such a person for propagating dangerous philosophies and corrupting our youth.  Exile (or hemlock) would seem a fitting punishment.

As threatened as we might feel, however, the apophatic theologian is no more an atheist than Socrates, and no more an enemy of the faith community than Gideon.  Still, if we let ourselves be persuaded (as I think we should) to participate in tearing down our own idols, we will find ourselves left standing in the middle of a pile of rubble, where our security and understanding used to be.  This is not a pleasant experience.

Apophatic theology, it may be admitted, serves an important purpose by taking away from us temptations to idolatry.  But, with what does apophatic theology leave us?

It does not leave us with atheism. Because atheism eschews and ridicules as meaningless or simply false cataphatic (that is, positive) theological assertions, whereas apophatic theology does (or ought to) welcome cataphatic theology as a much-needed partner.

Their need for one another should be mutual, in fact, if both are properly understood.  Apophasis needs cataphasis because without the affirmation--say, that the Trinity is a divine community, or that Christ is the perfect manifestation of God--the negation is idle, or pointless.  The point of theological negation is to demolish idols, to keep us from being taken in by faulty representations of God.  Without serious representations of God, there is no real use for negation.
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(Let me put it this way: the announcement that God is not a red plastic whale™ is unprofitable silliness, unless someone were, in all seriousness, to advance the red plastic whale™ as an icon that tells us something about what God is like.)  

Cataphasis, in turn, needs apophasis, to keep us from falling into idolatry (otherwise we might be singing praise choruses to the red plastic whale™--heaven forfend!).  To employ a more serious example, without the apophatic theologian to tell us that God is not a father (despite Jesus' cataphatic statement in Matthew 7 / Luke 11), we might (perhaps) fall into the sin of idolizing male fertility.

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Turner claims, interestingly, that "all talk about God is tainted with ultimate failure", but he says that this is quite different from the claim (which he denies) that "we can make no true affirmative statements about God".  Cataphatic theological statements, Turner says, fall short "not of truth, but of God" (16n).  Again, this is to be contrasted with atheism, which might be understood as a kind of theological "error theory".  

Taking the perspective of apophatic theology seriously, then, does not in fact deprive us of our affirmations of God - it does, however, keep us from making these affirmations into idols, or confusing our theology with the proper object of our worship.  

What does it mean to say that our theological affirmations fall short of God, but do not (necessarily) fall short of truth?  Here's my idea of this: If we say, "God is not a father, but neither is God a non-father", I think we are not so much asserting a logical contradiction as we are highlighting that "father" and "non-father" are not true complementary predicates.  (That is, it is not the case that everything has to be one or the other).  Neither predicate properly applies to God (at least, not univocally, but perhaps analogically).

This is starting to sound a bit too theoretical.  It isn't - it's existential; it's part of my lived experience of faith.  At least, when I hear people who know lots more than I do about this sort of thing, it rings true, and I am trying it on for size, to see if it helps me make sense of this aspect of my faith experience.

I like using written prayers, and scripture, in both corporate and private worship.  And I like reading the words of a song while singing it with a congregation.  (Words, for me, are often a tangible reality that I use to connect to God - a literal icon).  One experience I often have while reciting something in worship is a sense of: "Whoa! This is pretty incredible! So, I'm supposed to believe this, huh?" - or something like that.  I experience a slight distance between myself and the words I am speaking.  I speak them, not without sincerity, but with enough doubt, skepticism, and lack of comprehension, to make the recitation a conscious act of faith.  It's like the words are the community or the tradition or Godself daring me to live into the reality represented by the words.  To believe, in the pragmatic sense (i.e., in the sense of willingness to act on a live hypothesis and to experience the results).  Sometimes the distance, the sense of doubt, is greater than other times.

The perspective of apophatic theology can shed some light on this religious experience, I think.  It is proper to doubt any and all words that try to represent theological realities - it is normal for there to seem to be something off about any representation of God's nature and actions.

So for me, it isn't so much that the introduction of the apophatic perspective is unsettling, as it is that it names (perhaps) an unsettling I already experience regularly.

Some of my friends who practice contemplative, centering, waiting, or silent prayer - something I have never practiced consistently - talk about how on the spiritual journey as traditionally understood (so I gather) by contemplative Christian mystics one reaches a stage of "darkness" (that is, the opposite of illumination) in which one's conceptions of God are gone and one is left to find God in the silence - apart from words, understanding, poor attempts at conceptual comprehension.  Faith is rooted in this experience of God, and not in the variability of human conceptions of God.

 This is an apophatic experience.  This is apophatic theology in practice, as a spiritual discipline (or set of disciplines).

And so, I wonder: if apophatic theology is unsettling--if it "destabilizes" faith "more radically than any atheistic denial" ... can apophatic practice ground and stabilize faith anew?

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It is worth considering - and experimenting with.  (And it helps that while my University Church circle has been talking about and reading about apophatic theology in the last month or so, a sermon preached at Toledo Mennonite Church urged us to think of prayer as an apophatic connection to God and to practice this more).

Although, my critical question for this tradition of the mystical journey through the "dark night of sense" (and so on) persists: Is this honestly transcending human conceptions, or is this just supplying another set of human conceptions?  It seems to me that the conception of the dark night of sense, and the conception of finding God in the silence, are just as much conceptions as are their cataphatic relatives.

So, right now there are three directions I want to take in further pursuit of all of this apophasis stuff.

1)  I plan, as I said, to experiment with apophatic spiritual disciplines this Lent, especially contemplative prayer.  I want to find out what it is like, experientially, to find God in the silence, apart from words.  (A different concept, I think, than listening for the voice of God).

2)  I still have a lot of learning and reading to do in this anthology, especially about how apophatic theology ties in with Incarnation and special revelation.  

3)  I also want to explore here on the blog, definitely, the ramifications of an apophatic perspective--even something as simple (and most definitely orthodox) as the notion that all language about God is analogical--for notions of inerrancy and biblical interpretation.

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