April 7th, 2009

The Apophatic Tradition

Good article here about the New Atheism. What we need, says Madeline Bunting,  is a revival of the apophatic tradition.

"Apophatic".  It seems like I never came across that word before. But I must have done.  I can't have studied theology for three years without stumbling across it a few times- and I'm familiar enough with the concept. Maybe it didn't stick because of the way it chimes with apathetic. Why- it's almost a homophone.

Anyway, I'm hoping, if I keep writing it here- apophatic, apophatic, apophatic- I'll not forget it again.

Apophatic theology defines God in terms of what God is not. God is ineffable, unknowable, immortal. Another name for this way of thinking- Latin, rather than Greek- easier to remember, perhaps- is  via negativa.

The via negativa snakes through all the great religious traditions.

It's the way to the centre- to the very heart of the woods. 

Where it is so dark we can see nothing and so bright that we're blinded.
The New Atheism makes short work of the human, too human god of the religious fundamentalists. And a good thing too. But a God defined in terms of negatives is harder to dimiss than a God who has had His/Her lines coloured in. As Bunting says, "It makes the boundary between belief in God and agnosticism much more porous than commonly assumed." The apophatic God is elusive,- a mystery- enveloped in "a cloud of unknowing".

The atheist says, "I don't believe in God." The apophatic says, "I don't believe in any God that can be imagined or described".