"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

God is Not a Tuna Melt

God is a not a tuna melt. God is good. Which of these statements is truer?

In fancy-pants terms, one statement reflects an approach called "apophatic theology" and the other "kataphatic theology." In other words, speaking about God by negative or positive affirmation: what God is not and what God is. Many Christian theologians seem to have had their “pet topics” or some kind of major theme in their work for which they are remembered. Pseudo-Dionysius is one such early theologian (5th-6th century); he explored this dialectic between negative and positive speech in talking about God.

While Pseudo-Dionysius saw the value in talking about God positively—actually saying something substantial about God—he also seemed to realize the inadequacy of words to really capture the divine. Thus, to say God is love, for example, is to describe God in human terms with our limited conceptions of what love really is. For P-D, God is beyond description and the more we really discover God the more speechless we become. To say God is "goodness" diminishes who God is because our notions of goodness are so finite, so small.

P-D seemed more at home talking about what God isn’t. For example, God is not a tuna melt. It’s hard to disagree with that, right? Or, God is not hate. Most of us would agree with that, at least in theory. Though if you think actions are the truest indicator of what people actually believe and then consider the amount of hate—or if “hate” is too harsh a word then harm, exclusion, condemnation, or disrespect—that some religious people seem to possess...perhaps such a person wouldn’t really affirm that God is not hate.

Somewhere I heard apophatic theology compared to sculpting. You might consider that, in looking at a stone block, there is something profoundly beautiful underneath it all, inside. But to see the thing of beauty, you must first carve away everything that is not the thing of beauty.

I mention this concept not just as to highlight its novelty, as if this is just a “fun” but ultimately invaluable exercise in playing with words. I think the striking message from P-D is humility. Specifically, humility in our expressions of belief, our assertions about God and God’s will. I do believe God wants to be known, and that trying to describe God is a good thing. Saying God is not a tuna melt doesn’t tell us much (though I won’t confirm or deny sightings of Jesus in grilled cheese sandwiches).

But there’s something to be said about describing God with reverence, knowing our words are inadequate and that who God is may not be graspable and where God can and can't be found is not always obvious. I'm not suggesting we don't try to talk about God; just that we talk about God with a keen awareness of our smallness.

And in the same way, there’s something to be said about how we describe what we think God is doing or what God wants. Maybe you have encountered someone who has claimed God’s will on a particular matter, and maybe you’ve been suspicious. Well, maybe you shouldn’t be suspicious, because maybe they know what they’ve experienced and you don’t.

Or maybe you should be suspicious, because sometimes I suspect people are anxious about and uncomfortable with not knowing, with not being in control of their lives or a situation, and so decide to validate their experience by assuming a certain flutter of emotion is God’s voice or that a certain “sign” signifies the direction of God.

I believe a lot of people who claim to know God's will are on to something and should act with a certain confidence on such intuitions; I also believe a lot of people who claim to know God's will are deceiving themselves (or others). "God's will" can too easily be used as a weapon rather than a source of peace.

Talking positively about and seeking to describe God helps us communicate with each other, helps us explore the divine nature, helps us figure out what we are to do and how we are to be. That’s all important. But there’s a place for doing it all with a deep humility…maybe even a readiness to be surprised.

So God is not a tuna melt. Good. I think I've just inched closer to a fuller understanding of the divine.


Jeff Borden said...

Isn't apophatic prayer much more than speaking of what God is not? My training has taught me that apophatic prayer is the highest or most advanced form of prayer. ...it is prayer without form, simply because any "form" or description of God in prayer is weak at best. Therefore, it seems to me, even speaking of what God is not, can be kataphatic because will still stir imagery and imagination.

Matt Boswell said...

I think you're right, Jeff...I don't know much about apophatic prayer, but your description makes it seem like a more practical, experiential expression of the concept of apophasis. It sounds to me like apophatic theology and apophatic prayer have similar goals: discouraging over-defining the divine, humility, and openness.