Dabar [theme]

He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under His wings shalt thou find refuge: His truth is a shield and buckler
Psalms 91:4

Be it ours,when we cannot see the face of God, to trust under the shadow of His wings. C.H. Spugeon

Monday, May 19, 2008

Via Negativa


Negative theology - also known as the Via Negativa (Latin for "Negative Way") and Apophatic theology - is a theology that attempts to describe God by negation, to speak of God only in terms of what may not be said about God.
In brief, the attempt is to gain and express knowledge of God by describing what God is not (
apophasis), rather than by describing what God is. The apophatic tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, which focuses on a spontaneous or cultivated individual experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception, an experience often unmediated by the structures of traditional organized religion or learned thought and behavior.


In negative theology, it is accepted that the Divine is ineffable,(indescribable) an abstract experience that can only be recognized - that is, human beings cannot describe the essence of God; God in His essence is beyond the limits of what human beings can understand; He is transcendent in essence (ousia) and further knowledge must be sought in a direct experience of God or His indestructible energies through theoria (vision of God); and therefore all descriptions if attempted will be ultimately false and conceptualization should be avoided:
*Neither
existence nor nonexistence as we understand it applies to God, i.e., God is beyond existing or not existing. (One cannot say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; nor can we say that God is nonexistent.)
**God is
divinely simple. (One should not claim that God is one, ['One' (Greek: To Hen), the ineffable God] or three, or any type of being. All that can be said is, whatever God is, divinity is not multiple independent beings.)
***God is not ignorant. (One should not say that God is wise since that word arrogantly implies we know what "wisdom" means on a divine scale, whereas we only know what wisdom means to man.)
****Likewise, God is not
evil. (To say that God can be described by the word 'good' limits God to what good means to human beings.) Christians believe God is indeed good, but that His goodness is above and beyond our understanding of goodness and is thus only partially comprehensible to us.
*****God is not a
creation (but beyond this we do not know how God exists).The Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century said that they believed in God, but they did not believe that God exists in the same sense that everything else exists. That is to say, everything else that exists was created, but the Creator transcends even existence. The essence of God is completely unknowable; mankind can only know God through His energies.
******God is not conceptually definable in terms of
space and location.
*******God is not conceptually confinable to assumptions based on
time.
Even though the via negativa essentially rejects theological understanding as a path to God, some have sought to make it into an intellectual exercise, by describing God only in terms of what God is not. One problem noted with this approach, is that there seems to be no fixed basis on deciding what God is not. He is descriptively indeterminate in any theological or anthropomorphic term whether positive (cataphatic) or (apophatic) negative. Tertullian says, “That which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions—our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once known and unknown.” Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Homilies says: "For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge."

What we believe to be our epistemic (knowledgeable or cognitive) realities, horizons, vistas and theology are thwarted by the Black Swans that show-up in our lives. God has an intent and purpose in interjecting into life these disruptive appearances of Black Swans. As the story of life unfolds there is an opportunity for the narrative to become retrospectively heroic. In this retrospective view our understanding and knowledge of God is expanded and expanded to such a degree that we feel we can safely and assuredly predict and anticipate accurately God's motivations and actions. This becomes an issue of prideful conjecture and our desire to see our history as a predetermined, predestined outcome carefully constructed and managed by a benevolent God. This positive theology seeks to restore order, purpose and predictability into the randomness of life. This view seeks to glorify a benevolent God and to remove from the equation the aspects of justice, judgement and righteousness. In God's economy the Black Swans are the unanticipated interruptions or prophetic anomalies that disrupt and become problematic in ascertaining their purpose. These events become issues without the concrete answers to the questions that are raised by the occurrence. Our culture and society has become, if not knowledgeable at least aware of the inability of the Church and by that I mean Christians to answer the questions raised by a theology which fails to deal concisely and honestly with the ambiguity of God and the existence of Black Swans. It becomes a secondary issue in the matter of trust, in that Christians either refuse to acknowledge their ignorance or manufacture tactfully crafted narrative fallacies removing the friction from the problematic existence of the Black Swan.

So where does this leave us? How do we do theology in a faith created by a Black Swan? How are we to peer into life and the future knowing that God has, and can, act in highly disruptive and surprising ways?

We can confess that as Christians we have erred in our presentation of the knowledge we have of God; we can confess that we know O! so little of the workings of God; we can express our belief in a God of surprise and Black Swan activity; we can affirm our belief that there is no fear in perfect love; we can express our devotion to a God who expresses love even through, and with more poignancy and penetrating intent via Black Swan events; we can affirm our belief that the radical freedom and wildness of God's heart is recognized, accepted, honoured and part of His revelation of Himself.

1 comment:

Ron Baker said...

John, your last paragraph was fantastic. Right where I'm at!!