Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Apophatic Theology, part 2

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

"...for the pseudo-Denys the way of negation is not a sort of po-faced, mechanical process, as it were, of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false...nor yet is it adequately expressed in the somewhat more contemporary partiality for austere metaphors of spiritual deserts, silences, or mystical 'dark nights'. Rather, ... the way of negation demands...that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of imagery and discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it, deserts, silences, dark nights and all." (p. 17)

One important point about apohatic theology according to Turner:

Statements about God with the logical form of negation (e.g. "God is not a Father", "God is not a King", "God is not Compassion") are not inherently superior to statements about God with the logical form of negation (e.g. "God is a Father", "God is Compassion").  Negative language no more 'captures' God in God's Godness than does affirmative language.  Negative talk about God does not lead us to apprehension or comprehension of God.

"A Pillar of Cloud" by schristia
The point (and this addresses directly one of my concerns about mystical apohpatic images and metaphors, which I mentioned at the end of my last blog entry) is not to find a special language--special in its negativity or in its religious-ness--to use to talk about God, but rather to discover that all of our attempts to grasp at God, to grasp, that is, at understanding God, whether through saying what God is or through saying what God is not, ultimately fail.

(This, I think, is what Turner means when he says that affirmative theological statements do not fail of truth, but rather fail of God).

So: if the mystic thinks s/he has a superior grasp of God than does the (cataphatic) theologian, s/he misses the point.  The point is not to grasp God at all.  The point is to learn that God is beyond our grasp.  (My friend Julian likes to say that the moral of the resurrection story is that when we put God in a box, God won't be there later when we open it looking for God.)
"Empty Box"

This doesn't mean we should give up talking about God.  It means that we should learn (and through experience, not just on the basis of being told) that our talk about God is inadequate.

But: Why talk about God once we have learned this lesson of God's ultimate incomprehensibility?  Does talk about God provide us with a way of learning about or personally knowing God?  Can our knowledge of God grow through the exercising of talking about God, despite the fact that talking negatively or affirmatively about God will never lead to comprehension of God?

To be continued...

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