Tag Archives: mystery

Abusing the Apophatic: The Turn To Mystery As a Cop-Out

losskyIn our postmodern culture, talk of “mystery” is all the rage among religious folk.  Can’t explain something? Mystery.  Don’t like historic Christian teaching but still want to sound like you’re in continuity with the Tradition? Mystery it is.

The problem is that this is an abuse, a mischaracterization of the apophatic way (sometimes called “negative theology”) on that which which twists a valued mystical tradition into a cover for all kinds of bullshit.

Friends, please hear me out: stop using the apophatic as a cop-out.

Don’t believe me that this is a problem? I could cite my own personal experience, but we are all aware (I hope) that individual experience is just about the worst possible resource for knowledge in the Christian life.  To be sure, I’ve been in numerous conversations where my interlocutor attempted to dodge the particularities of Christian teaching by giving a nod to mystery and to the apophatic way. Let’s look instead two examples, in which I have added the emphases to highlight today’s topic.

Exhibit A

A piece by Gene Marshall over at ProgressiveChristianity.org mentions mystery several times. He goes so far as to reduce God to capital-M ‘Mystery,’ like so:

At the same time, “God,” as used in the Bible, points to an actual experience, an actual encounter with, how shall we say it, the Ground of our Being; the Mystery, Depth, and Greatness of our lives; Final Reality; Reality as a Whole; the Mystery that will not go away.

Drawing on the existentialism of Tillich and others, Marshall avoids anything particular about God by the apophatic turn.

Exhibit B

I generally try to avoid quoting comments, but in this instance it just fits too perfectly (I also mean nothing personal by this, as I have no idea who this particular commenter is).  Once again, in a discussion about Christian doctrine, the commenter uses the apophatic turn to stay in the realm of generic, personal-experience deity:

If you believe that God exist as three distinct persons and one of those persons incarnated as a human being in first century Palestine, good for you. It maybe right. Seems like you are 100% sure that Nicene Creed is the true doctrine about God and I am glad to hear that. Personally I cannot bring myself to believe that. I am agnostic about it. I am not an atheist. I believe that being similar to understanding of God most likely exist, more similar to understanding in Advaita Vedanta, Stoicism, Peripateticism and Process theology. But I maybe wrong. I am more of fan of apophatic theology.

Note here that “apophatic” has little content save being against the Nicene Creed and similar to a variety of non-Christian faiths and Process theology.  Further note how similar the above comments sound to that of Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor fighting to keep her credentials because everyone else knows she’s an atheist while she maintains she’s evolved into a higher, non-theistic conception of the divine. Read: poppycock.

The Truth: The End of the Apophatic is the Holy Trinity

The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?
The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?

What’s truly sad is that apophatic theology is a valued part of Christian teaching, particularly in the East.  While the vast majority of Christians today have domesticated the transcendent, attempting to pull God down to our level and make the Divine only a friend, or a healer, a get-out-of-jail-free card or a cosmic soup of affirmation, the apophatic tradition at its best reminds us to keep silent before the incomprehensibility of our Maker.

Oh, Mystery there is: the One whom we love is too holy for words and, as Israel attests, the ‘I AM’ whose name is too holy to pronounce and too grand to scribble, this God, our God cannot be named by our limited imaginations, tamed by our feeble intellect, claimed for our puny projects.

But Christians, you see, revel not just in mystery but also in paradox.  This unutterable God has made Godself known to us in a particular way.  The goal of the apophatic, the Mystery that we claim as Christians, is named not by our own fatuous grasping but by God’s gracious condescension His creatures.  The great Russian Orthodox scholar-priest Vladimir Lossky thus reflects,

“This is the end of the endless way; the limit of the limitless ascent; Incomprehensibility reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for his incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons; the incomprehensible Nature is incomprehensible inasmuch as it is the Nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; God, incomprehensible because Trinity yet manifesting Himself as Trinity. Here apophaticism finds its fulfillment in the revelation of the Holy Trinity as primordial fact, ultimate reality, first datum which cannot be deduced, explained or discovered by way of any other truth; for there is nothing which is prior to it. Apophatic thought, renouncing every support, finds its support in God, whose incomprehensibility appears as Trinity. Here thought gains a stability which cannot be shaken; theology finds its foundation; ignorance passes into knowledge.”

In God’s nature or substance, that “stuff” (if you’ll forgive the vulgar imprecision) of which God is, God is utterly unknowable because God is outside and above and beyond us.  But in God’s hypostases, the Tri-Personal God has made himself known to us.  The Mystery has given us a glimpse; not a full view everything, of course, for that would be like asking to stare at the sun when it is one block away.

But what we can know about this God, what God has revealed to us in Scripture, through the teaching of Apostles, Saints, and Doctors of the Church, and most especially through life of Jesus, we gladly and happily confess as the Most Blessed Trinity.

Ignorance passes into knowledge, and theology has its foundation.

To misappropriate the apophatic as an excuse to feign ignorance of God is not only wrong according to every possible standard of Christian truth, it is tragic.  The Mystery at the heart of all reality has opened a door, as it were, and given us a glimpse inside.

Who are we to shut it?

Source: Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 63-64 (emphasis added).
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Heresy Always Simplifies

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I recently finished Ross Douthat’s masterful tome Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Whether one is Christian or not, it is worth a read. His thesis: one of America’s great present maladies is not too much religion, nor too little, but (ahem) bad religion. Specifically, psuedo-Christian heresies like prosperity preaching, “God within” faux spirituality, and uncritical nationalism.  But he begins by stating a positive case: once Christian communions that were ascendent in the US had a strong, orthodox consensus around central dogmas such as the Trinity and incarnation of Christ – dogmas which defy an easy rationalism.

“What defines this consensus, above all – what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta – is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God surpasses all our understanding.” (10)

Throughout its long history, the Church constantly chose the side of mystery and paradox. Jesus? He was fully human and fully divine, not one or the other.  Did Jesus suffer on the cross, or is God truly impassible? Yes – to both.  Should we harmonize the gospels to make one, clear-cut narrative that smooths all the rough edges between them? In this and all other cases, the Church decided that the more complicated path was also the true path.

“The great Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith. Heretics are often stereotyped as wild mystics, but they’re just as likely to be problem solvers and logic choppers, well-intentioned seekers after a more reasonable version of Christian faith than orthodoxy supplies. They tend to see themselves, not irrationally, as rescuers rather than enemies of Christianity – saving the faith from self-contradiction and cultural irrelevance.” (11-12)

So it may be understandable that we want a faith, want a deity, that is easy to comprehend, reducible to bumper-stickers and theo-nuggets. There could be some appeal to “updating” Christian doctrine so it is more relevant, more pedagogically palatable or accessible to the faculties of reason. But the end result would be something other than “the faith that was once  for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)  Such dogma would be simple, but it would be simply heresy.