Thursday, May 25, 2006

Negative Theology or Why Theology is the Coolest Thing Ever

I thought I would take some time off from my pessimistic theology to do some negative theology...

Actually, the first rather serious theology book I ever read was Vladimir Lossky's wonderful The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, a strange introduction to theological studies if there ever was one - not only because Lossky insists on quoting Greek at length without ever translating. But the text had a profound impact on me, and it was especially the notion of negative theology that struck a chord with me. Since then this has been the norm by which I judge all theology. If it tries to speak about the unspeakable, then I'll pass, thank you very much.

Negative theology became a formulated theological principle with the enormous popularity of Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite and his writings, but was something the early fathers followed instinctively. The classic text is Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, which Gregory interprets as a story about approaching God. Gregory describes how Moses in the beginning meets God in light (the burning bush) but later in a cloud or darkness. This is interpreted as meaning that one does not proceed in knowing God to ever greater clarity, but towards greater obscurity, until one reaches darkness.

This idea is rooted in the experience of the limits of our language. Evagrios of Pontos taught that one had to labor for a long time to be able to not think in images and words about God. His ascetic practices aim at emptying the mind. This is not, however, to "surrender to the void". It is only the mind that has learned to not think about an image that can do God justice, because any image we use will become an idol.

That is why Dionysios Jr. (as one of my mentors call him) claims that positive theology has value mainly for the beginner. The beginner needs to say: God is powerful, God is Creator, God is Person. Later he or she can move on to more abstract images: God is light, God is truth, God is Love. But then one must proceed beyond this terms, because God is ever greater that what we can possible imagine, greater than what we can think into this terms. Then theology becomes negative: God is not limited, God is not mortal, God is not created. This is what the Nicene creed says: an awful lot of words beginning with "a". But according to Dionysios one has to go further. One must put all images behind oneself. Thus: God is not light, God is not truth, God is not Love.

God "is" not.

This is the path of the mystic. But one has to walk the path, one can not just pick up on what is found at the end of the path. This, in the orthodox tradition, lead to the development of the distinction between God in his energies and God in his essence. About God in his energies we can say something, because this is God revealing himself as loving, creating, saving, sanctifying. This is truly God's nature, but this is not what God "is". What God is in his essence we can not say, because that is completely beyond all human abilities.

Now, here is why I think this is incredibly important for all theology. Theology is the only human activity that has the limitations that are present in all disciplines humans undertake built into the system. All sciences and philosophies presuppose certain facts, and build upon them. The law of causality if nothing else. Theology builds on this great presupposition, but unlike all other disciplines, who try to avoid it, Theology chooses to call this presupposed fact God, and worships it.

This means that, unlike what many "fundamentalists" think, Christianity is not built on a secure ground, or fundament. Rather, it is aware of building on something which it cannot say anything about, and this makes the system open. Theology has this great "openness" right in the middle of it, it works at studying everything that surrounds it. This secures that theology never becomes a static, monolithic system. Because of this "openness" theology can adapt to the situation of living individuals, because it is itself living.

This is why negative theology has to be present in all theology.


Looney said...

Note that theology = theo + logi

Now if theology is dynamic, either the theo (God) must be changing or the logi (Man's opinion) must be changing.

Without revelation from God himself, common sense says that little can ever be known.

Personal opinion: I don't think that God chooses to reveal himself to mystics with empty heads - nor to intellectual giants. Instead ordinary people like the woman at the well seem to be his target. Then there is Jonah with his "why did you have to choose me" approach to being a prophet.

The challenge here seems to be that unless I take the path of a mystic, I can never really get a true revelation about God ... Why not reverse the challenge (negative theology at work here?). Perhaps the ascetic needs to spend more time in the Joe Sixpack role before he will get his revelation?

Rich(luthsem) said...

It's so paradoxical isn't it?
I've been accused of being across the map on my theology maybe it is a reaction of growing up fundamentalist then becoming Charismatic to Calvinist to finally being a Lutheran.
I was attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy but I'm dead set on Luther's grace centerness but then again liberation theology is attractive as well as long as it does not turn into a theology of glory.

Ben Myers said...

Interesting post, Patrik. It's nice to see you being "negative" as well as "pessimistic"!

Personally, I'm less enthusiastic about negative theology, since (for me) God's hiddenness is a predicate of God's own being, not merely an aspect of our own linguistic or epistemological limits. And if this is the case, then God's hiddenness can be known only by revelation.

Thus I think negative theology is useful to the extent that it is already grounded in revelation (as, e.g., in Luther), but not as an independent "method" of theological discourse.

Steve Blakemore said...

Glad to know that you know the apophatic tradition. Certainly it has much in common with later traditions, especially the Thomistic impulse (ala Thomas himself) to note the analogical nature of language.

I wonder, however, if you should say in your closing paragraph something other than you say. Your statement was

"Christianity is not built on a secure ground, or fundament. Rather, it is aware of building on something which it cannot say anything about, and this makes the system open. Theology has this great "openness" right in the middle of it, it works at studying everything that surrounds it."

That seems to me to be a bit of a misapplication. Rather, Christianity (by definition) is based on Christ. We "think" our way toward God based on what has been revealed to us in Christ. "if you have seen me you have seen the Father. Also, Cf John 1.

It would, I think, be better to say that Christian theology is never an accomplished task -- thinking that it is in some way is the problem of fundamentalism -- instead of saying that it is open. The exploration of Christian truth is not merely an exploration of the unfathomable. It is, rather, reflection upon on the meaning of what is fathomable, all the while acknowledging the limits of our ability to apprehend it fully. (That is what NIcea and Chalcedon were actually doing.)

HOwever, apprehending it adequately, because God has made it apprehensible, is different from understanding it completely. This latter confession keeps us both humble and confident. We are humbled by God's greatness. We are made confident in that when circumstances arise that challenge established ways of describing the One who is self-revealed in Christ and the history of Israel, we can be secure in the knowledge that God is not necessarily different than what has been revealed, simply more than can be said. But if we describe what has been revealed, then we can indeed disciver new ways to describe the personal reality of God and our relationship to God. Those ways, however, will have to be consistent with what has been made known to us in Christ and the Apostolic witness to Christ.

Patrik said...

Thanks for your comments! I think Steve has a valid point when he says that the fundament is Christ, and that it is so to speak the goal of theology that is open. But then this should be applied to the Christology as well, which I guess is what "Christology from bellow" is alla about.

But, yes, the main point is that we should approach theology with a great humbleness, ever aware that when we think we know something we have already passed into idolatry.

byron said...

...when we think we know something we have already passed into idolatry.

Depends on the weight you put on 'know'. I agree insofar as our conception of 'knowledge of God' is making a claim to exhaustive and definitive mastery of its object. But not all knowledge is like this...