Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"Ignorance is the Best Knowledge" Part 1

I want to talk about some big things. But first, I want to talk about some really small things.

You and everything around you is a pulsing frenzy of atoms. Electrons whirling around a nucleus of protons and neutrons. If you're like me, as soon as you hear the word atom, you immediately call to mind an image like this:

It may surprise you to find out that the above isn't what atoms look like. The orbits electrons take around the nucleus aren't what planets do around a star. The electrons, when depicted graphically, merely represent where the electrons might be in a given, random moment in time. It's their potential location if this random moment and state could be isolated and measured by a conscious observer. But in reality, the electrons are in every place around the nucleus at once. They are in what's referred to as superposition, the almost nonsense state of subatomic things that us macroscopic things can't really comprehend. Not at all because it's moving "really fast", an electron surrounds the nucleus in every state simultaneously, forming more of a cloud/shell than a Jimmy Neutron logo.

Add to this that we haven't and likely never will see a real atom, because they are smaller (about 10,000x smaller) than a wavelength of light. So, that leaves us measuring their affect on their surroundings like one makes predictions about you by your B.O. and your footprints. It also leaves us using complicated math to speak of function and interaction, while using metaphoric representations (such as the cartoon above) to allow us to have any sort of meaningful discussion about them.

This means that the reality you are experiencing and have learned to intuitively understand is, at a fundamental level, unseeable and largely incomprehensible. And yet here we all are, sitting on and wearing and eating and blogging on atoms.

God is a man. (Exodus 15:3)     
God is not a man. (Numbers 23:19)

God has arms and hands and a face to look into. (Psalm 89:13, Isaiah 62:8,  Gen 32:30)     
No one has seen God, and God has no form. (John 3:5-8, 4:24, 1 John  4:12)        

Faithful people spend much time describing God and trying to make intelligible, transferable statements about God. Especially when it comes to reinforcing ideas about God that shape how we interact with the world, or to encourage and remind people about what it means to have God in their lives, or even to sound doctrine about God, we speak of what God is. This is called the cataphatic way. Cataphatic theology talks about what God is. We affirm that God is light. God is holy. God is good and powerful. God is big and strong. And so on.

But after a while, in a theology that's predominately, or exclusively cataphatic, a problem can sneak in long before we ever recognize it as a problem. 

And that problem is simply this: We've defined God.

Perhaps you've not yet recognized this as a problem. (This, I might argue, is a second problem...)

Defining God is a problem because defined gods are contained, tamed gods. As atoms aren't truly as the cartoons depict, God is not actually contained in our explanations. The drawing is meant to help us grasp nearly incomprehensible. But it's representative, not definitive. To understand the drawing of an atom has very little if anything to do with pinning down real atoms. This has nothing to do with atoms existing or not based on our level of comprehension or agreement. It goes to our ability to actually know what it is we're describing with our little brains. 
In the same way, descriptions of an indescribable God are meant to give us some sort of handle to grab onto. But actual depictions aren't possible. This doesn't mean there isn't a God; it simply means we're left with metaphors and footprints. If we forget this necessary fact of mystery and faith, our metaphors and descriptions cement the representations as hard reality. We're then led to assume infinite mystery has been solved by finite minds. Worse, when the metaphor ceases to add up or whet our appetites to seek and engage the Eternal Mystery behind the representation, we think that what's behind the representation is also as limited or empty. Or even as made up as the drawing. God is then confused with the illustration, and idolatry once again proves not to be so much an offense to God but to the very faith we so long to have.

This has driven many in the faith, for millennia, to approach God and discussions about God in ways that shock our culture's desire for concrete afFIRMation and certainty.

“That which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions—our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once known and unknown.” (Tertullian Apologeticus, § 17)

"For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God, to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge." (Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, "Catechetical Homilies, VI §2")

"[Comprehending God's knowledge, location and ability are...] too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain." (David, Psalm 139:5-6)

Our teaching style at Crosspointe largely reflects an acknowledgement of these ancient, ideas. For many faith communities in Western Society, much effort is put into the cataphatic tradition. To tell people what God is like and to give definition and substance to our faith. In my estimate, most of the scripture, and Christian faith, interacts and converses about God this way. (That's my impression, not something I've actually surveyed.) 

For a growing number of churches like Crosspointe, while a place for cataphatic theology is reserved, the apophatic way- the mystic's way- has come to the fore. This is a way of learning and speaking of God by negating and respectfully dismantling the metaphors insofar as they've been confused with God. Not because there comes a moment where a church has to check a box and choose, but because over time it begins to become clear that the metaphors and analogies can inadvertently become the point. Like a road sign that suddenly becomes the destination. Like pictures of atoms becoming confused with the unfathomably small atoms that comprise the simplistic picture. It's uncomfortable admitting we don't really know things. The discomfort that comes with divine mystery seems to be soothed by making doctrine out of the descriptors. But, God becomes a solved puzzle rather than ultimate, eternal enigma. 

It's important to note that apophatic approaches to God aren't meant to be antagonistic or contrarian. Saying "nuh-uh" and to all statements about God isn't the thrust of the mystic's way. It's when a cataphatic, affirming statement about God begins to become definitive and exclusive (like I recently heard the often said "God is good and cannot be in the presence of sin!") that the apophatic way tries to offer a humble negation to in order to keep God out of our doctrinal "control"; (I offered a, "Let's remember that God being 'good' is based on our limited, relativized understanding of good and bad. And God may be in the presence of whatever God wishes because what disgusts and offends us doesn't likely do so to the almighty.") This is key- the apophatic way in many respects offers humble ignorance as a counterbalance to zealous certainty within faith.

Much of the baggage so many have with faith is rooted in specific, concrete statements about God becoming the litmus test for their faith. I was once scolded by a sincere Christian brother for having the audacity to say I doubted Jesus literally sits at the right hand of the father, as each word in this beautiful illustration breaks down if affirmed as literal. I survived his indignation just fine, but can imagine a different outcome if he'd been my pastor and I the new and eager convert. Then I'd have experienced what people experience every day at the hands of those who confuse the drawing for the atom: A concrete verdict of allowable thoughts about a God that, outside of these cataphatic affirmations, is too dangerously and uncomfortably "other" for our minds to comprehend.

Though bolstered in our post-modern desire to question everything and unstitch the cloth our pre-enlightment brothers and sisters insisted was a seamless garment, apophatic negating is nothing new. Not for Christian faith generally and probably not for you and I. In other words, if you're a thinker, you've already dabbled in the apophatic way of the mystics:

Perhaps you've been asked by a child how big God is, or how old God is. Maybe you've asked questions pertaining to God's beard length and gender. We're often faced with a decision on how far we're willing to take the cataphatic way in thinking of God, which is largely comprised of analogy to the human experience. (I'll take this opportunity to reference one of my favorite $25 words, anthropomorphism.) We find ourselves in these moments responding something like, "Well, God doesn't really have size, because that communicates a boundary. And age assumes a beginning. And frankly, God doesn't have a beard although Michelangelo bestowed upon him a dandy. And I just referenced God as 'him', but God isn't male, because gender is determined by sex organs and..." 

At this point, some of us recognize an unsettling sense of unanchored mystery; "WELL THEN, WHAT IS HE..SHE...IT?"

Breathe deep and don't panic. 
Welcome to the other side of encountering the remaining sober about what is and is not.

Perhaps now we can begin to appreciate a voice emanating from a burning shrub telling Moses it was God, and this God's name is the confusingly simple, "I am what I am". Or the voice that that came as a whisper to Elijah in the cave after taking time to negate where and what God wasn't. Or Jesus, who came to teach us what God is like, having exclusive ability to do so, telling Nicodemus that God was like unpredictable wind. Perhaps God is easier to worship the more we disallow our drawings to play comfy stand-ins for the eternally mind-blowing. Perhaps loosing our firm footing is good for our souls.

Yes, this all raises numerous other questions about what it means to "know God", or for Jesus to show us what the Father is like, and whether we can relate to something if we're also wondering if that something can truly be known. And a host of other questions I'm sure. I'll think out loud about those things, and the benefits and drawbacks of both affirming and negating as a practice in future posts. For now, enjoy the mystery. Embrace a sacred ignorance and allow yourself the freedom to live in what the mystics referred to as The Cloud of Unknowing. I believe the space acknowledged by unknowing is the space the God of reality dwells. When we fill those spaces in with our resolved affirmations, there's no place for anyone but ourselves.

“Can you find out the deep things of God?
    Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?
It is higher than heaven—what can you do?
    Deeper than Sheol—what can you know?"

-Job 11:7-8 

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