In the study of theology, if one studies long enough, it’s likely that they will come across a method of study called, “Via Negativa.”
Via Negativa is the Latin for, “The Negative Way.” It’s a type of theological thinking that attempts to describe God by negation— to speak only in terms of what may not be said about God.
The Irish theologian and philosopher, John Scotus Erigena defined Via Negativa as such:
“We do not know what God is. God does not know what God is because God is not any created thing. Literally God is not, because God transcends being.” - John Scotus Erigena
When he says, “God is not anything,” and, “God is not,” Erigena doesn’t mean that there is no God. Instead, he means that God cannot be said to exist in the way that other things exist. He’s using negative language to emphasize that God is something “other.”
This way of thinking is a struggle for those of us in living here in the west, because we pride ourselves (especially those of us who are Evangelical) in knowing who and what God is, and how to explain God in simple terms so that our friends and neighbors can understand what we believe.
Though this way of thinking about God is useful in smalltalk, it falls horribly short when it comes to discussing the deeper things. It makes the Divine something cheap— something that can be read off of an index card— when in truth, we can’t even explain a grain of salt in such with such simplicity.
Think about your life for a second. Think back over the years that you have lived on this earth. Do you remember when you were in grade school? High school? What about college? Think of all that you wanted to do and be in this life that, for some reason just never materialized for you.
I think back over my own life, look at where I am today, and I can’t draw any sort of line between the various stages of chaos and disorder that have caused me to arrive where I did. I never planned to be where I am. In fact, growing up in a pastor’s home, becoming a pastor was the one thing in my life that I said I would never do. Yet, now that I am, I realize that there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing with my life.
Had I gotten everything that I wanted when I wanted it and how I wanted it, I’d be something else. Life is strange like that. We are taught at a very young age to set our sights and pursue our dreams, but in all the setting and pursuing our lives seem to drift off course. We are pointed at something, but we never reach it.
Realizing that we arrive where we are supposed to arrive, not with determination, skill, or a carefully crafted plan, but because of chaos and disorder, is so important for us to learn and own. This is grace at work in us.
Do you really want what you think you want? Could it be that getting everything that you want in this life would turn you into something that you would detest in the long run?
All of the avoidance and the padding that we build into the construct of our lives and our routines to keep us from experiencing the smallest bit of dissatisfaction— could that be why we are so unfulfilled in the deepest parts of us?
In 1934 John O’Hara published his first novel, titled, “An Appointment In Samarra.” The book title is borrowed from on an old Mesopotamian tale about a merchant’s servant who is trying to avoid Death, a character in the story.
The tale goes like this:
A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant down to the marketplace for provisions. Soon afterward, the servant came home, white as a ghost and trembling. He told the merchant that he saw Death in the marketplace and that she made a threatening gesture toward him.
Borrowing the merchant’s horse, the servant fled at great speed to Samarra (a city about 75 miles away) where he knew Death would never find him.
The merchant, intrigued by the story of his servant went down to the marketplace to question Death about why she made the threatening gesture toward his servant. Death replied, “That was not a threatening gesture that I made. On the contrary, I was startled to see him in Baghdad, for I knew that I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
We all have all have appointments with things that we are trying to avoid. And the harder that we try to avoid them, we put ourselves right in their path.
What are you avoiding in your life today? What are you terrified of?
Instead of running from it, maybe you need to run toward it, embrace it, and learn from it.
In order to discover God you have to stop clinging entirely. Why does one cling to God? For safety, of course. You want to save something; you want to save yourself. I don’t care what you mean by saved, whether it means just feeling happy, or that life is meaningful, or that there is somebody up there who cares. If you do not cling to one god, you cling to another: the state, money, sex, yourself, power. These are all false gods. But there has to come a time when clinging stops; only then does the time of faith begin. People who hold on to God do not have any faith at all, because real faith lies in not holding on to anything.
In the Christian tradition this nonclinging is called the cloud of unknowing. There is a book about it written by a fourteenth-century British monk. He got it from a man called Dionysius the Areopagite, who had assumed the name of Saint Paul’s Athenian convert, a Syrian monk living in the sixth century. Meister Eckehart, Saint Thomas Aquinas, John Scotus Erigena, and many other great medieval theologians studied Dionysius the Areopagite. His book was The Theologica Mystica, in which he explained that, in order to come to full union with God, you must give up every conception of God whatsoever. And he enumerates the concepts that must be given up: don’t think that God is a oneness or a threeness or a unity or a spirit or any kind of anything that the human mind can conceive. He is beyond all that.
This is called apophatic theology, a Greek term that contrasts with catophatic. When you speak catophatically you say what God is like. Dionysius also wrote a book of catophatic theology called The Divine Names. Catophatic theology tells what God is like according to analogy. He is like a father. We do not say God is a cosmic male parent but that he is, in some respect, like a father. This is the catophatic method. The apophatic method says what God is not. All those theologians who followed Dionysius said that the highest way of talking about God is in negative terms, just as, to use Dionysius’s own image, when a sculptor makes a figure he does it entirely by removing stone, by taking away. In that same spirit, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “Because God, by His infinity, exceeds every idea to which the human mind can reach, the best way to speak of Him is by removal.” That is, removing from our view of God every inadequate concept. This is what the Hindus refer to as neti neti, saying of the Brahman of the supreme reality, “It is not this, it is not this.”
This intellectual operation of destroying concepts must go hand in hand with the psychological operation of ceasing to cling to any image whatsoever. Simply cease to cling, because there is no need to. There is no need to cling because when you were born you were kicked off a precipice. There was a big explosion, and you are falling, and a lot of other things are falling with you, including some pretty large lumps of rock, of which one is called the earth. It will not help you to cling to the rocks, when they are falling, too. It may give you an illusion of safety, but everything is falling, and falling apart. The ancients said, in the words of Heracleitus, “All is transient, all flows.” You cannot cling to anything; it is like grabbing at smoke with a nonexistent hand. Clinging only makes people anxious.
When you come to the realization that you cannot cling to anything, that there is nothing to cling to, there transpires a change of consciousness that we can call either faith or letting go. In Sanskrit they put it this way: — tat tvam asi, — meaning literally “That are thou,” or as we would say, “You are it.” And if you are God, then you cannot have an idea of God any more than you can chew your own teeth. You do not need any idea of God. The sun does not need to shine on itself. Knives do not need to cut themselves. All the things you see on the outside are states of the nervous system in the brain. When the Zen master suddenly discovered that carrying a pail with water in it was a miracle, he realized there isn’t anything except God. If you really know that, you don’t need to have a religion. You can have one, because it is a free world, but you don’t need one. All religion—any outward manifestation of religion—is pure gravy after that realization. It is like a man with lots of money making some more; it is quite unnecessary.
According to the very best theologians, it was never necessary for God to create the world; it did not add anything to Him. He did not have to do it, was under no compulsion. He did it out of what Dionysius the Areopagite called—to anglicize it—super fullness, or, in other words, for kicks. We do not like using that kind of language in connection with God, but it is completely contemporary and exactly right. That is what the Bible says, only it puts it in a more sedate way. It says, “His majesty did it for his pleasure.” That is the way you talk about somebody who is the king. As Queen Victoria said, “We are not amused.”
It says in the Book of Proverbs that the divine wisdom speaks as an attribute of God, but standing aside from God, in a sort of primitive polytheism. The goddess Wisdom says that in the beginning of the world her delight was to play before the divine presence, and especially to play with the sons of men. The word in Hebrew is “play,” but in the King James translation it is “rejoice,” because that is a more sedate word. You may rejoice in church, but not play. You may not have fun in church, but you may rejoice. Do you see the difference? The point of the matter is that there was no reason to make the world, and it was done just to make celestial whoopee. Alleluia. That is why the angels are laughing. Only when you hear it in church, everybody has forgotten what alleluia means. Alleluia is like bird’s song. Bird song is not about anything, it is just for kicks. Why do you sing? Why do you like dancing? What is music for? For kicks. That is what alleluia is. When nothing is being clung to, one gets to the point where everything blows up. That is what is meant in Zen by satori, “sudden awakening.” You suddenly see, “Good heavens, what was I making all that fuss about?” Because here we are. This, right here, is what we have been looking for all the time. It was right here.
Many little children know from the beginning what life is all about, only they haven’t got the words to tell us. That is the whole problem with child psychology. What child psychologists are looking for ideally is an articulate baby who can explain what it is like to be a baby, but they will never find one. By the time you teach a child to speak, you mess it up. You give it language, but it can’t think big thoughts with this funny, limited language, especially using the words children are started out with. Then finally, when they’ve got the poor child completely hypnotized, they tell it the most preposterous things. They tell it that it must be free. They say, “You, child, are an independent agent, and you are responsible. Therefore we command you to love us. We require that you do something which will please us, and that you do it voluntarily.” And no wonder people are mixed up!
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