Negating the Negation

We live in this world of light.

This is true on a very literal level.  When I have been camping (especially those times I have been ill-prepared!)  I learn this new appreciation for our modern conveniences.  But also, I think we have lost something.

Because we also live in this world of darkness.  And I would suggest that how easy it is to flip a switch and bathe a room with exactly as much light as you want– this has lead to us living in denial of that truth– we also live in darkness.

Last post I played around with two great words.  In some sense, they boil down to claims about the way the world is.  The Cataphatic claims that we live in a world of light.  The apophatic claims that we live in a world of darkness.  

Both of these statements are true.

One of the ways that this plays is out with our words.  The Cataphatic states that there are many things which are well-defined by words.  The apophatic reminds us that there are other things that are simplified, limited, and even strangled when we attempt to put them into words.  This is never more true than when it comes to describing God.

It seems like our age is one where we live near the cataphatic extreme.   Western Philosophy lead to a powerful science that leverages words, definitions, and rationality to do things that past generations never would have imagined.  Many modern churches have been impacted by this, and useful and powerful ideas have resulted.

The apophatic tradition has been fittingly, or ironically, left out in the dark.  There are three ways we ought to welcome the apophatic back, to bring balance to what we are doing.

We ought to bring the apophatic back into our traditions.  We ought to look into our past for traditions that have been marginalized. For example, the desert fathers and mothers left “mainstream” Christianity when it became the religion of the empire, and they developed some extraordinary practices which lead to an appreciation of silence and darkness.

We ought to find the folks who tend toward the apophatic among us.  Perhaps they know the word.  Perhaps it is just a feeling in them.  Either way, those who resist the tendency to make an idol of words and orthodoxy have so much to offer us.

Finally, we ought to embrace our own inner apophatic.  We have a part of ourselves that dwells in the darkness, that resists definitions, that wants to drink in the fullness of experience not altered and muted with words.

Whether in the past or the present, whether outside or inside, the apophatic has so much to teach us about the places we don’t like to go.  The handling of our pain, hurt, and sorrow has been so Cataphatic for so many of us that we are only half-healed.

There is an apophatic practice that helps us to confront the limitations of words.  This form of meditation is not one that connects with everyone.  But the people who can make it work report this to be incredibly powerful.  Here’s how it goes:

Consider very brief descriptions of God.    (Perhaps words like ‘father, strong, love, wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, warrior, lover, healer, creator…)

Begin with an affirmation:

For example, God is father.

Meditate on this truth for a minute or two.

Then, speak the negation: God is not father.

You might recognize that there are aspects of the father-image which don’t fit.  For example, God’s role as creator might be more identified with mother-figures, who bare life.  Further, all fathers are limited and flawed.  When many of us say the word ‘father’ the limitations of our own come to my mind and color our view of God.  Further, we are saying these words in English.  They are translations of ancient words from dead language.  Even when the word we use is an accurate translation, the difference in culture change the meaning.  A person today affirming God’s fatherhood would mean something quite different than a first century Jew affirming God’s fatherhood.

As you did with that first statement, sit with this reality for a minute or two.


Finally, negate the negation: God is not not-father.

This is the hard part.

In the study of logic, to say something is not-not X is to say that it is X.  But this misses so much.  When we say that God is not not-father we are agnowlodgint that our last claim: God is not father is just as mistaken as our first claim: God is father.  Because God is the definition of father and when we claim otherwise, we are missing something, we are losing something.

I have found that this requires the longest period.  If you sat with the first two affirmations for two minutes, perhaps this one will take four.

Then, new statements can be introduced: God is not strong/God is not strong/ God is not not strong.  (Strength has limits, Strength does not imply wisdom or love, it can be only physical, it can be associated with stubborness)

God is love, God is not love, God is not not love.  (Love is a force, feeling, or emotion, it does not usually have personhood, we sometimes see love as doing what is nice, not what is necessary, our love is usually conditional)

I think it will be good for you to work out the meaning and the limits of those other statements, or better yet, furnish your own to plug into the format God is _____, God is not _______ god is not not ________________.

You might find something like the insight app is useful for this meditation.  If you set the timer for the sounds to recurr every minute, you can track how long you have been engaged in the various parts.  Or perhaps you’d like to dedicate a single session to one affirmation, negation, and negation of the negation.   


Some Relevant Lessons from a Dead Language

There are some things I was struggling with tonight.

My first instinct was to get up and past it.  This is a fine thing to do.  In me, this instinct takes the shape of finding words to describe my struggles and prescribe a solution.  This is the way of well-lit paths, the way of finding the paths that had been taken before.  This is all connected to this tradition in spirituality called kataphatic.

But I checked this first instinct.  

And I decided that I might embrace the fact that the reality of my situation, just like every situation, is wider, weirder, and more nuanced than any of the words that I might use to describe it.  Rather than navigating a straight line through my struggles, so that I might efficiently head to the outside, I decided that I might spend some time in this place.

This tradition is called the apophatic.  

At the most basic, this distinction is about words.  Will we pray using words?  Will we describe God using them?  Will we find them worthy signposts of all the things going on?  If the answer is yes, then we are planting ourselves in the kataphatic tradition.  

The modern church is pretty good, I think, in this area.  America is rather Kataphatic.  I think maybe this is all our inheritance from the enlightenment.  If my experience is reliable snapshot of the big picture, then it’s probably a little too good.  

My journey into contemplative practices has been about an embrace of apophatic practices.  Before, I would have given lip service to the idea that God is bigger than our words and categories.  Now, I try to live this truth by recognizing that even smaller, finite things are not so easily catalouged, named, and explained.  

As I live this reality, embracing the full complexity of things, I come to reject the simple prescriptions and the suggested remedies to things.   I want transformation more than solutions for myself, and I value solidarity over answers from those that I love.

There is an ancient practice that I think straddles the divide between the kataphatic and the apophatic.  This practice is called Lectio Divina.  (That’s the last Latin today.  I promise.)

A perhaps oversimplified way to approach Lectio:

  1. Spend some time clearing your mind.  Watch your breath.  Make use of a mantra if that’s your thing.  Maybe ask God to ready you and speak to you.
  2. Read a chapter of the bible slowly.  Luxuriate in it.   Take it slowly.
  3. Read the chapter again.  This time, look for something that seems relevant to where you are; words that God wants to speak to you.   I find that a passage of ten syllables or less is ideal.
  4. Draw your attention to that phrase, now.  Let that verse/sentence/etc. Be your mantra, as you continue your breathing practice.
  5. Put the verse away in your mind.  Return to something like the practice you used in step 1, clearing your mind and looking after a deeper-than-words union with God.


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