some more mindless chatter about God

This entry was posted by on Wednesday, 25 October, 2006 at

Theologians, they don’t know nothing
about my soul

(Wilco)

Before wading recklessly into any kind of deep theological waters it’s worth posting a warning. Thinking and talking about God is a dangerous pursuit. We always run the risk of thinking we’ve got a handle on God. We reduce him to the level of an idea to be discussed, some kind of cosmic Sudoku puzzle to solve. We can hold him in our hand like a book and make clever observations and witty arguments.

In reality God is always Above and Beyond anything we can think or say about him. Some kind of stunned silence seems like an appropriate response when faced with the mystery of God. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad response even to the the mystery of our own lives.

There’s actually a whole tradition in the history of Christian thinking that has focused on the fact that God is always essentially Unknowable, and that we should shut up and be amazed. It’s called the apophatic tradition, and it’s been particularly influential within Eastern Orthodoxy, but is belatedly grabbing the interest of Christians in the west too. I guess many of us have got a bit heart-sick and weary of the way we fill the air with so many words, chattering endlessly about things we should tremble to speak of. (It’s not to be confused with the apathetic tradition, which is a whole other thing…)

CS Lewis wrote an incredible poem that expresses this idea beautifully. He called it “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”- a prayer to end a day of thinking clever thoughts about God:

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more

From all the victories that I seemed to score;

From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf,

At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;

From all my proofs of Thy divinity

Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead

Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,

Oh Thou fair silence, fall and set me free.

Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,

Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

Of course the quick-witted among you have noticed a fatal flaw in my line of reasoning. Am I not currently embarked on a couple of years of doing very little beyond thinking about God, talking about God, and eating obscene amounts of sushi? Or have I abandoned that plan in favour of wandering the forests and beaches of our neighbourhood in a state of stunned silence?

Well no. For one thing, the beaches of our neighbourhood are frequented by fairly ugly and very naked middle-aged men. And for another thing, I don’t think the whole business of thinking about God is doomed to failure. Being Christian means believing that God has spoken to make at least something of his mystery known. Jesus is the Logos of God who came and moved into the neighbourhood so we could see something of God’s heart, his goodness and love and beauty. Not all of it, but enough for us to be getting on with. Enough for us to live by and love by. So we are not left guessing and groping in the dark. We’re invited to embark on the dangerous adventure of thinking about God because he has made that quest possible and hopeful.

So I plan to keep risking my neck in this most extreme of sports. But the apophatic tradition stands with CS Lewis and Wilco as a warning against the constant danger of losing humility and a sense of mystery. Shut up and be amazed.

6 Responses to “some more mindless chatter about God”

  1. JM – interesting post but a bit contradictory, like you point out. I got out of it that I should shut up and be amazed at God, yet to continue reading books, having discussions and trying to increase my learning. How do you reconcile the two? Should we seek out just ‘enough for us to live by’, and if so how much is that?

    andrew

  2. We’re on a similar mad foray into the crazy land of mysticism in Maynooth at the moment. The lads at UCCF would string us up if they could hear the conversations we’re having. We’re even off reading books like How [Not] To Speak Of God which is a book that says we shouldn’t be writing books about how we know about God.

    Its influencing us more than we would have thought. It is an apparent truth but in my experience, never or very rarely explicity stated- once you go past very basic statements like God is 3 and 1, Jesus is God, God is love, everything is heresy.

    But thats ok.

    Hmm. Might take more than 3 years in Canadia to solve this one….

  3. Ah, Jayber, I just left a message which would have been up there with a Eugene Peterson Message, but I tried an overly adventurous keystroke and wiped it. C’est la vie.

    Okay, 2nd go:

    Blaise Pascal said something like, “Not the god of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham and Issac”. An alarm should sound when we start talking about a “supreme being” or suggest that this concept has any relevance to the revelation of Yahweh.

    What’s interesting is that post-Aquinas Catholicism has very much embraced the non-intervening, immutable, unknowable idea of God. In fact, Ratzinger provactively asserts in his Introduction to Christianity that Paul was consciously asserting to the Greeks that Yahweh was the God of the philosophers – the binding supreme being who orders the universe – and not a mere mythological deity; the Greeks and Romans were already very good at pretending to believe in those.

    The Reformation was in many ways a rejection of the god of natural theology as espoused by Aquinas and co, and a retrieval of the God who wrestles with Jacob and leaves him with a limp.

    It seems to me that the medieval church had allowed their logic to limit their concept of God. Just as particle physicists have had to accept that mathematical laws can be broken, so the Bible presents us with the puzzle of an unchanging God who listens to prayers.

    But there’s also the hazard that we mythologise our Gospel, filling in the sparse details in the bible with pre-story and definitive prophecy. Tom Wright is good on highlighting how pretty Gnostic ideas of Jesus’s existence pre-incarnation are widespread in Christendom today.

    We have been given stepping stones upon which we can stand with utter confidence. But in between are the deep waters of mystery, as beautiful as they are terrifying.

  4. Can we just get what Williamson just wrote tattooed on our forearms for reference when things get dodgy?

  5. jaybercrow

    Thanks for the comments. Keep them coming, even if they threaten to overshadow my posts.

    Andrew, thanks for highlighting my basic lack of coherence! I guess what I’m saying is that because God has spoken in Jesus, we are invited to speak also. So the apothatic tradition of silence can’t be the centre of our spirituality. But it does act as a vital corrective – it keeps us humble, reminding us that there is always far more that we don’t know than that we do know. And it encourages us to shut up often, stop our chattering, and allow silent space to be aware of the mystery of God and life and the world.

    David, I’m with you all the way. My only slight query is that you list “unknowable” as one of the attributes of the philosophers’ God, when surely their whole problem is claiming to know lots of things about God that no-one could possibly know? The eastern tradition largely rejected the more philosophical leanings of the western church and is still generally suspicious of anything speculative. But it is that tradition which describes God as essentially unknowable.

    Zoomtard – I always knew you and David would get along, given your shared fascination with Barth… You should check out each others’ blogs.

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