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Tony Grist

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The Apophatic Tradition [Apr. 7th, 2009|10:10 am]
Tony Grist
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".
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: unbleachedbrun
2009-04-07 10:57 am (UTC)
Richard Dawkins is in the U.S. this week presenting at a conference in Arizona called the Origins Symposium, where he's talking about what Darwin got right and what he got wrong. Apparently the interesting part of the symposium has been a discussion of what preceded DNA in the evolutionary process. Stephen Hawking and his daughter presented, too, to give an astrophysicist's perspective on the beginnings of time.

I remember when a similar symposium was held in Italy and John Paul II encouraged the dialogue, but warned Catholics not to question what happened before the "big bang", implying that the big bang was the "God moment" of creation.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-04-07 11:30 am (UTC)
It may be pointless to ask what happened before the Big Bang, but I don't see any harm in it.
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[User Picture]From: haikujaguar
2009-04-07 12:50 pm (UTC)
This was a cool post. So I linked it. :D
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-04-07 01:03 pm (UTC)
Excellent! :)
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[User Picture]From: methodius
2009-04-07 02:20 pm (UTC)

Apophatic theology and the new athesism

My apophatic response to the new atheism is here Notes from underground: Consciousness of absurdity and the absurdity of consciousness.

And my take on the apophatic tradition is here so I won't retype a lot of stuff. But yes, apophatic theology has been neglected in the West.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-04-07 02:57 pm (UTC)

Re: Apophatic theology and the new athesism

I particularly like that characterization of missionary Christianity as "classroom religion".

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[User Picture]From: sovay
2009-04-07 04:16 pm (UTC)
"Apophatic". It seems like I never came across that word before.

It's one of the words I love. Like katabasis.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-04-07 04:48 pm (UTC)
The Greeks always had a word for it :)
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2009-04-07 04:42 pm (UTC)
One of the things my husband noticed before he wrote his book on polytheism is that atheist arguments almost always are aimed squarely at the single vast omnipotent god of desert monotheist religions. If you stop defining deity as single and omnipotent, a lot of the arguments for atheism dry up and blow away.

I like apophaticism as a means of discussing the One that stands beyond the gods in the works of Neoplatonic writers. It's also not a bad place to start in describing how, when you make deeper contact with them, the gods stop being these quite comprehensible personalities and patterns and instead show themselves as vast and complex beyond imagination or description. They're content to wear costumes for us to see and speak to because that works, but they aren't the costumes.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-04-07 06:19 pm (UTC)
I agree. Sometimes the whole Dawkins thing strikes me as a little, local quarrel- a family quarrel, in fact. I wonder whether he and his allies realise that there is more to religion than the soft targets he mainly attacks.

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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2009-04-07 07:01 pm (UTC)
I've tried to mention to atheists of my acquaintance that polytheistic religions don't hold the beliefs that they object to --- but the most common response seems to be a sort of colonialist "Oh, well, polytheism, that's something those primitive (ie non-white) people on other continents believe in. Nobody civilized believes in polytheistic religions."

I guess that makes me uncivilized, then. Better uncivilized than a patronizing wanker, IMO. ;)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-04-08 08:41 am (UTC)
The new atheism is very parochial. It defines religion in terms of the reactionary fundamentalism of small town America- and seems largely oblivious to all its many other faces.

I know- from experience- that polytheism can represent a very subtle approach to the mystery of the divine.
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[User Picture]From: daisytells
2009-04-07 07:09 pm (UTC)
That's what my Buddhist former son-in-law says. Interesting...
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-04-08 08:41 am (UTC)
Buddhism is essentially apophatic.
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[User Picture]From: baritonejeff
2009-04-07 09:17 pm (UTC)
I learned something today. Thank you! :)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-04-08 08:43 am (UTC)
My pleasure :)
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[User Picture]From: wolfshift
2009-04-08 01:37 am (UTC)
I encountered the word in Karen Armstrong's A History of God, and it's one of the concepts that has most strongly influenced my spiritual perspective in the last couple of years. When God is defined by positive attributes -- God is loving, or is wrathful -- most people seem to go from that to projecting very human qualities even onto what they claim is an ineffable deity. And it's a short step from there to using that crude idol of God as an excuse for all manner of horrible behaviour.

One of the things I like about Sufism, and the Orthodox tradition in Christianity, is the emphasis on apophasis. (Sorry, I didn't mean to put two such similar Greek words so close together!) When one's theology isn't occupied with what boils down to an old man in the clouds, there's more room left for the Mystery.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-04-08 08:55 am (UTC)
Unfortunately it's much easier to think of God as an angry old man than as an empty space. Buddhism- which started out as essentially apophatic- quickly broke up into all manner of demon-haunted sects.

Apophasis always has been- and perhaps always will be- "caviar to the general".
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