How Not to Speak of God - loving the ineffable

Saturday, February 09, 2008

I'm reading through Peter Rollins "How Not to Speak of God". He begins the book by talking about how all of our reflections and thoughts about God in themselves can never really capture who God is, and that while we can acknowledge the reality of God, we need to recognize that we ourselves are limited. God is bigger and more profoundly real than any of our attempts to express or understand. In this, Rollins draws upon the teachings of mystics and their idea that union with the God is found in entering into a "cloud of unknowing," finding God in the dark.

What concerns me here is that in some mystical writings there is a sense of dread, distance, and emptiness that strikes me as abusive and life-sucking. So I am led to ask: how can we approach God in humility and need, not as ones who are devalued and torn down, but in the wide open way that children trust with helpless abandon? The idea of being born again that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John conveyed this kind of childlike dependent stance. The term "born again" was not original to Jesus, but one common at the time. It meant one who was brand new at something, unexperienced. Church historian Homersham Cox in his "First Century of Christianity" writes,

This phrase "born again" was very common, and was applied in a variety of circumstances to persons who commenced a new career in life. The bridegroom on his marriage, the chief of the academy on his promotion, the king on his enthronement were figuratively said to be newly born. Proselytes are constantly spoken of in the Talmud as new creatures. "If any one become a proselyte he is like a child new born." (p. 274)

In essence, the term "born again" here that Jesus uses is a parallel idea to his teaching that one must "become as a little child" before they can enter into the Kingdom. This was such an affront to Nicodemus because it meant that he would, as an established Jewish leader, need to strip himself of all knowledge, authority, and right and become as one who knew nothing, becoming helpless - a needy dependent child.

The thing that is liberating about this image of becoming a new born baby is that it implies along with dependency a beloved embrace of intimacy with God as Abba Father. It implies being able, in the foolishness of childhood to exclaim at the top of our lungs "I love you Daddy!" The picture the Gospels give us here is of children running to him, interrupting the important meeting of the grow-ups and jumping in his lap, and in that sloppy dirty embrace being welcomed and defended.

Of course as adults this should not mean that we act irresponsibly. We don't need to underplay our ability to make God look good. We should act as intelligently as we are able, using all of our ability, character, and resources. But in that we can find a way as adults to become like little children in how we love the ineffable God - in humility recognizing our limitations and need. That's the paradoxical challenge of learning how to be "as a new born child" while still being a responsible moral adult. How can we learn to speak with the bold trust of a child, while knowing that our feeble words an acts are always just that? Because ultimately it is not about us trying to express or capture truth, it is about loving and being loved by the one who is Truth. We know we cannot have a monopoly on truth, but through childlike loving dependency... maybe Truth can have a monopoly on us.

Rollins insists that transcendence is not a contradiction to immanence, and that in encountering God intimately we also encounter and are overcome by God's hugeness - like an overloaded circuit. I want to agree and underscore this point of his, and at the same time affirm that the converse is also true: not only can we in acknowledging God's transcendence still dare to speak in terms of intimacy with God, but in fact it is precisely in that place of helpless dependent intimacy that we encounter the transcendent God. Rollins is down on "fundamentalist certainty", which he understands as an idolatrous certainty in our own human formulations of who God is. I agree, but there is another kind of certainty: relational certainty. This
is a certainty not based in ourselves, but in relationally being known by God. It says in devotion and trust "I know my redeemer lives". Rollins again speaks of the contrast between the Greek concept of knowing facts vis a vis the Hebrew idea of knowing in a relational sense. This Hebrew knowing is one of trust, a "knowing" synonymous with being loved - "known in a biblical sense" if you will.

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At 6:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Derek

I hope you don't think that I'm picking on you, but I think you're trying to bypass one of the more important points that Rollins is trying to make.

It seems to me that Peter Rollins has revived the paradoxical relationship between kataphatic theology (applying conceptual ideas to God, either abstract or metaphorical) & apophatic theology (acknowledging that God is beyond any concepts we may try to apply to him)in an accessible fashion for postmodern evangelical christianity.

Apophatic theology & spirituality are an integral (if sometimes unacknowledged) part of the Orthodox & Roman Catholic traditions, but fell out of favor with the Protestant churches. I think the reasons for this are complex, but maybe it is primarily because the reformers placed so much emphasis on intellectual & emotional conversion, & acceptance of propositions of faith. Thus the emphasis on being born again, or saved by accepting Jesus as personal savior, & the discarding of emphasis on practices such as liturgical prayer & the sacraments.

The authors of apophatic mystical works such as the Cloud of Unknowing, St John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul, or St Dionysious' Mystical Theology were for all monastics, who were schooled in devotional kataphatic practices such as psalmody, & practicing the liturgical hours of prayer. Maybe it requires a strong foundation in the practice of devotion to God to be able to bear surrendering all concepts we have pasted onto God.

You write, "What concerns me here is that in some mystical writings there is a sense of dread, distance, and emptiness that strikes me as abusive and life-sucking." You seem to be implying that this is some form of excessive, masochistic asceticism. The term Dark Night of the Soul has fallen into common use & been trivialized in our time. But John of the Cross was trying to make a profound point; that a deeper experience of communion with God is only possible after undergoing a sometimes painful purification. He did not see this as the result of any effort on our part, but as a grace that God bestows on us.

I believe you are correct in stating that we need to approach God in childlike humility. But are we to stay children & never mature? All too often evangelicals fall into fundamentalism & vehemently deny that there is anything deeper than the initial conversion experience of being born again or saved.

Peter Rollins is advocating a return to the paradoxical truth that the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ remains the God who cannot be caged in any concept. I believe this is sorely needed if the emerging church scene hopes to truly overcome the limitations of our conceptual straightjackets.

These are a few basic works of apophatic spirituality that are easily available I would recommend:

Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross - translation by Mirabai Starr

The Cloud of Unknowing & The Book of Privy Counsel - edited by William Johnston

Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton


At 9:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joseph,

I actually like what Rollins has to say and find myself agreeing with most of it. I consider myself to be a mystic, and have read quite a few works by the mystics including all of the ones you mentioned. I am also familiar with the idea of apophatic theology in a profoundly experiential way because I had a dark night of the soul myself. Not in the popular sense of the word, but the good old fashioned St John of the Cross kind. At the time no one I knew could really help me until I stumbled upon the book by St John of the Cross and found him describing exactly what I was going through. So I am familiar with and sympathetic to mystical theology - both theologically and experientially. It basically picked up in my life and took me beyond my initial born again expereince teaching me how to live in relationship with God after being born.

When I speak of "becoming like a child" I do not mean being immature, but as you say "surrendering all concepts we have pasted onto God" - being utterly dependent, surrendering, dying. I would say that this idea of dependency is at the heart of all mysticism from Dionysious to Eckhart. That can as you say be painful just as being born is, but what I want to stress is that it leads to joy, life, and light (just as birth does).

On a theological level I also very much get what Rollins is saying about the limitations of knowledge to capture the indescribable wow of God, as well as the importance of art in worship. As an artist and theologian that is one of my major focuses in fact. There are things you can "say" through art that are trans-rational, allowing you to speak of the unspeakable in the messy and beautiful way that only art can.

I think my problem is that in addition to the points an author is making in a book, in each work the spirit of the author also comes through, and Rollins strikes me as someone who is... well... depressed. It's just a vibe I had throughout the whole book and that really came across in the extremely depressing services described at Icon. A theory I have is that often people who are ill can come up with some brilliant insights into life. Its true of artists and true of theologians. Wesley was obsessed with performance and that illness led him to uncovering great insights into sanctification. Luther was obsessed with guilt and that led him to rediscover the message of grace. So as much as Rollins fits into that pattern I want to acknowledge the heights he is reaching and add my "amen" while at the same time not following him into a joylessness.

Incidentally, have you read "Christianarchy" by Dave Andrews? He makes essentially the same point as Rollins. Its one of my favorite books. There's a bit about it on his website here:

At 5:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that many people on the path back to GOD get caught up along the way with semantics, sub-branches of rigid philosophies and other dogmatic pursuits... instead of surrendering directly to the living, present, universal godhead that is available in every microsecond. People who might have even convinced themselves that they are in GOD's service somehow avoid the direct communion in favor of intellectual debate. Apophatic vs. Kataphatic is somewhat interesting for sure, but in practice it is always both.

I stumbled across this new One-Sentence Religion site, and I think that it states my current belief and practice better than any more mumbo jumbo that I could spew. Check it out:


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