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.