Apophatic, Papophatic, or just plain Fishy
There is a long tradition of apophatic theology in Christianity, and, I shouldn’t wonder, in other religions as well. The word comes from the Greek ἀπόφασις (apophasis) from the verb ἀπόφημι (apophemi), which means ‘to deny’. Apophatic theology, therefore, is negative theology, and is based on the thought that, in the end, God is unknowable and incomprehensible. That being the case, however, one would have thought that it would be better just to suspend judgement. That would be the counsel of reason, at any rate. People have believed, or half believed, for centuries perhaps, that there is some kind of a sea monster in Loch Ness, something like Grendel, perhaps, in Beowulf, and others have believed in the Himalayan “Abominable Snowman” or Yeti, or, in the North American Rocky Mountains, the so-called “Big Foot.” The existence of these creatures has never been confirmed by undoubted evidence. It seems, in consequence, better to think of them as mythical instead of real, until such evidence comes along, and most of us give them no thought at all. If it makes sense to take the usual religious route, and have faith in their existence, despite the lack of evidence, on the strength of the claim that negative existential statements can never be disproved, then the number of such beings would be countless, and people would still believe pointlessly in fairies, trolls and gremlins, and many other imaginary beings as well. Why should we suppose that there is a god at all, if we find it pointless to believe in Yetis and Big Foots and Loch Ness monsters?
I was going to ignore this, but Ophelia’s post on the comments of Kevin Smith in the Ottawa Citizen, and one of the commenters having linked to a Guardian op-ed, perhaps it is worthwhile after all. I just find it hard to understand why anyone would take the incomprehensibility of God a reasonable place for faith to find a foothold. First though, to Kevin Smith, the one disbeliever amongst a group of religious believers who comment on questions put to “religious experts” in the Ottawa Citizen. There is a Jew, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Roman Catholic, an Anglican, a Pentecostal, a Bahá’í, and then, of course, Kevin Smith, who is not a religious expert at all. Given the question: “How can we explain the tragedy of the Newtown shootings?” each of the experts has a go. Rabbi Rueven Bulka says that
[i]t is an emotional cry with no possible answer, just possible responses. These are responses that deal mainly with going forward, which we hope and pray the families, in due time, will be able to embrace.
There is no answer. The Anglican says the same, and so, in various ways, do most of the others, though some try their hand at sociological or other explanations. But for the tragedy itself there is no answer. It is incomprehensible. As Kevin Smith says, in response to those who suggested that it was an expression of God’s wrath for having been banished from American public schools:
How cruel to the grieving families that these self-serving defenders of their faith dare make excuses for a God who doesn’t care, or who is not there. He is never anywhere.
This is a problem that the others needed to face, and did not. All they can fall back on is their desperate cries about the incomprehensibility of such evil.
As religious believers, however, their noses should have been held to the grindstone. They need to face the fact that, for all the horrors that have happened and continue to happen, there is no religious answer to be given. One of the outstanding problems of the religions is that the gods that they severally believe in — at least, that is, those religions that believe in a god or gods — never put in an appearance, except in outlandish miracles, which are obviously figments of the imagination, and things go on just as we should expect them to go if there were no god. Of course, there are those, like the woman who escaped virtually unscathed when a small plane crashed into her house, killing all on board, who think that their own survival shows that God is good. Jerry Coyne’s mordant comment on the woman’s narcissism is, as usual, right on the money:
Truly, this wanton evocation of “miracles” makes me ill. If one looks at stuff like this or the Newtown shootings objectively, it is absolute proof that people’s common conception of God as omnipotent, merciful, and loving is just wrong. Undeserved suffering is, in my mind, the strongest evidence we have that the Abrahamic conception of God cannot be true.
As Kevin Smith said, this kind of thing is clear evidence that what people believe in is a “God who doesn’t care, or who is not there. He is never anywhere.” Why should one person’s luck translate into God’s goodness, when in the same accident three other people were killed? What does that say, not only about God, but about the person who thinks that God was good to her? What kind of a god is it that plays the lottery with people’s lives?
And this leads me to the article in the Guardian that I have been so carefully avoiding over the last few days. I would return to it, every so often, and consider commenting on it, and then dismissed the thought as pointless. Believers never seem to get the point about apophatic theology, that it is really not theology at all. It is a claim that there can be no theology (or knowledge of God), because God is incomprehensible. But how is this different from not believing in a god at all, or from there being none? And this brings us, at last, to the Guardian piece: “God is unknowable – stop looking for him, and you will find faith.” The article is written by David Bryant, a retired Anglican priest. His argument, if you can call it that, is much of the same old, same old. Here’s the heart of it:
Faith is not the progressive unearthing of God’s nature but a recognition that he/she is fundamentally unknowable. The signpost points not to growing certainty but towards increasing non-knowing.
And what we have to do, says the retired vicar, is to stop thinking that we know anything at all about God, and we will find faith. Faith is, after all, and has been, all along, believing without evidence. But just think, says the good vicar, how this simplifies our lives:
This redirectioning of the spiritual path has fruitful offshoots. We no longer have to ask why God orders the world in such an unsatisfactory way, allowing cancer cells and war to proliferate. Nor do we have to bombard him with prayer in order to achieve our desired ends. Such dialogue is only sustainable if you posit a personal being.
In other words, the whole point of prayer, and if prayer, then worship, is completely lost, and, though he seems not to notice it, so is the point of believing in a god. God simply drops out as irrelevant to any of our present concerns.
Bryant wouldn’t have said this before he retired, I suspect, for, by saying it, he would have talked himself out of a job. For all that is left, he suggests, is a Quaker like silence before the mystery of the unknowable. Here he is in full throat:
Instead of ranting at the arbitrariness and high-handed conduct of the God we have invented, it is now possible to rest in a cloud of unknowing which gives us time and space in which to reflect on the fundamental questions of life. Why am I here? How can I best deport myself in this bewildering world?
What if David Bryant had said this to his congregation of a Sunday morning? Would they have been content to lapse into silence, or would they have gone on with the rest of the liturgy? Or would they have walked out in protest?
I think that they would inevitably ask the question: If all that is left is being silently puzzled about the mystery of existence, then what are we doing here, pouring out our hearts to God? Why are we celebrating something that Christians have, for centuries, claimed to know, that God sent his son Jesus to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification? All very well speaking about a Quakerish silence in the Guardian, but to say it to a roomful of pious Anglicans would rather take the wind out of the liturgical sails. The divine afflatus would suddenly turn into a dead calm, and David Bryant, I shouldn’t wonder, would somewhere turn up, as if with an albatross around his neck, trying to buttonhole the next person who came along in order to tell us how
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
For once he has said that it is incomprehensible, after all, is there really anything more to be said? Well, certainly, there may be philosophical things to say, perhaps even, at some points, scientific things. John Holt explores some of these questions in his recent book, Why does the World Exist? But there isn’t much traction for faith here. A hidden god, or an incomprehensible god is, after all, an absence of god, who, as Kevin Smith says, is never anywhere. Apophatic theology is really a form of agnosticism. It is, in a Pickwickian sense, belief in a god or gods, but is really a reverent incomprehension in the face of mystery. We can all, perhaps, acknowledge that there is some mystery that there is life on earth, and that that life has developed consciousness that raises questions about its own existence, but that doesn’t leave us with a great deal more to say, at least in a religious key.
There is, as I suggested in my title, something a bit fishy about suggesting that apophatic theology is a way to faith. Indeed, David Bryant really suggests that it is anything but. Listen:
Persist and the rewards are immense. There is an exhilarating sense of newfound freedom. It releases us from the burden of kowtowing to the dictates of a holy book and it relieves us of the intellectual difficulties of accepting the dogmatic assertions of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. We are liberated and can follow our own spiritual path.
How is this different from a generous humanism? We admit that we do not know, and that, even if there were a god, we could not comprehend it. All we can do is live our lives with all the questions that life raises, trying to discover what is, for us, the best way to live, and doing what we can to make the lives of others less infected with an unwarranted certainty about things which are simply beyond our understanding, trying to solve our problems, and answer our questions, one at a time, without holy books, supposed religious experts, doctrine, dogma or religiously prescribed morality. Just imagine: no religion! Just a humanly serious conversation about how best to live, without that intrusive interloper whose incomprehensibility is really only an absence dressed up in worn out clothes.
Thanks to Ophelia Benson in particular, and to the mysterious cipher who linked to David Bryant’s article in the Guardian.