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Tag Archives: apophatic theology
Let’s go back now to a series that I’ve begun last winter but left unfinished, about fallibility of language (find part I and part II here, as well as the apophatic interlude featuring our Friend Rollins) in which we were looking at the way in which language fails us sometimes. This was not (as you would expect from a postmodern like me) from a postmodern viewpoint, but I started from the thought of G.K. Chesterton and mostly from the classical Orthodox tradition, on which I was reading a quite good book, and the church fathers.
I have been writing about the fallibility of language, and about how difficult it is to speak about God, as a created being. One of the most important things here is that we as Christians are in the first place not just expected to know about God (which requires human language) but after all and more important, we are to know God Himself. Christianity is not a gnostic sect in which we are saved by mere knowledge, but a restored relationship with the Source of all Creation (‘God’) through Christ… And relationality entails a completely different sort of ‘knowing’ than academic publishing!
I could say a lot about this, but other people have said much more intelligent things about this subject than I’ll ever do. I do know that in certain protestant circles knowledge of God by any form of ‘personal experience’ is frowned upon, while other traditions, from the Charismatics and Quakers to the Eastern Orthodox, see it as normative in very different ways. Surely, not only experience is important,without wisdom and guidance we don’t even know what we’re following, so we need reason, tradition, scripture and experience or are in problems. But experience is in no way unimportant here. Let’s for example go back to the Orthodox tradition, where speaking about God is considered to be utterly impossible by one who has not experienced God:
Personal experience is requisite to any valid talk about God, from an Orthodox perspective. Such mystical experience of God in the divine energies not only draws us to God, it also confirms within us the appropriateness of both positive and negative theology. We must speak about God because we are Christian; but we must also rise above these concepts, because God is transcendent. Personal experience of God draws us into union with him about whom theology speaks. Without that experience, any such talk about God is vacuous and presumptuous, according to Orthodoxy. (Payton, Light from the East, p 84)
We have to notice here that the goal surely is not just to talk of God, or to be able to make money by writing books about God; He is the Ultimate Reality… And the goal of our life is to be united to Him, and outside of Him we or anything else cannot even exist…
I got a gut feeling that the more we experience of God, the less we will be able to talk about it and the less intellectual systems we will be able to proclaim with absolute modern certainty… Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest minds of the middle ages, wasn’t able to write anymore after a mystical experience with Christ. When they asked him to resume his writing works, he said that he couldn’t because ‘”all that I have written seems like straw to me”
And this leaves us not with less, but with even more problems in speaking about God, and the paradox of Peter Rollins:
“That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking”
Which might make it quite complicating, but who did ever say that it was easy??? It isn’t, and I have a long Way to go here, and maybe not much right to say anything about God… Who just IS beyond all we can say or understand…
What’s your experience here?
I’ve been talking about apophatic theology, and the limits of language earlier, and the idea will come back in some future posts. Apophatic or negative theology is a very important way of doing theology in the Eastern Orthodox church and some church fathers. The basic idea is that God the Creator does not exist like we do, and is not bound to words and ideas that are derived from what we know as created beings in Creation, so the only way to speak of God is to say what God is not…
Another tradition that is very suspicious of the preciseness of language, when speaking about anything actually, not just God, would be postmodernist continental philosophy, which is quite popular in certain parts of the emerging church. So here is for you the guy with the coolest accent and the weirdest background music in postmodern christianity, Peter Rollins himself.
And no, whatever the description on youtube says, he could actually not be further away from classical christian liberalism, and fits more between old orthodox mystic apophatic negative theology and postmodern linguistic deconstructionism… Both thought systems that couldn’t be removed further from the rationalist roots of the original Christian liberalism… And yes, some of his stuff here is just semantic wordplay probably… Some atheists would object to his definition of atheism probably, but I see where he’s coming from.
What do you think? Is Pete making sense here? Or is he just talking heresy or plain nonsense to you?