Friday, November 12, 2010

Dogma and Truth

Over the past few months, I have had an experience in preaching and teaching at church that is a little hard to express. But, I am going to try. Because, I find myself drifting in and out of meaningful speech and interaction, and I am beginning to get a feeling for what is going on. As I am preaching, I will be honestly speaking, and then I drift back into traditional, doctrinal language, and the sense of meaning disappears for me. I don't know what happens for those listening to me.

I am not saying that all traditional speech is meaningless, because sometimes the old language, the old creed is very, very meaningful, and says it so much better than contemporary language can. But, there is just this stock of trite, worn out religious phrases that just kill my soul when I say them, and may be numbing the souls of those I am speaking to or with.

Dogma and truth. Orthodox teaching and present experience. How are they related?

I think what really bothers me is when I start taking up this attitude as a preacher (I rarely do this as a teacher) that I have some sort of special knowledge of God or that I can tell people just what the Lord intends. I am not saying I do that a lot, but I fall into as it seems to be the expectation of Protestant preachers. The best preaching I do is when I feel "undone" by the truth of God and humbled to a pile of ashes and unable to do anything but connect with the humanity of others and the deep mystery of our Holy God. I will have to say that there are a few times when I do feel a clear, positive voice and message to assure others of God's goodness and justice, and I don't mind voicing that. But, so much other preaching is just play acting in church. We gather before a mystery on Sundays for worship. A mystery that has brought all that is into being. We gather before the mystery of God who has taken interest in our plight for some reason, and even chosen to bear it with us. There is not a whole lot else to claim to know beyond that. But, there are praises to sing, and prayers to be said, without presumption and there are cries for help to be expressed as well.

I keep remembering what the Quakers taught, at least in their early days, which was that a person should not get caught up in "notions (thoughts about religion and God)," but should stick close to their genuine experience of the Holy. They used to say: "Stay low in the Seed." The Seed meant for them the inner Christ, which they believed was planted in every human being. You had to be very still to hear this inner teacher. You had to be very humble or the inner Christ wouldn't speak. And, when you had heard a true inner word, you were very careful to not speak beyond what you had experienced, and you were very careful to not speak it unless it was truly called for.

The Quakers were more afraid of speaking bullshit than failing to speak about God. That really seems the opposite of Protestant Christianity. Most of Protestantism is more afraid of not speaking about God, and very little worried about speaking bullshit about God.

Post from Russian Orthodox Website: Cataphatic and Apophatic Theology

The following in bold was printed on the website for The Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britian and Ireland


When discussing the names of God, we inevitably conclude that not one of them can give us a complete idea of who He is. To speak of the attributes of God is to discover that their sum total is not God. God transcends any name. If we call Him being, He transcends being, He is supra-being. If we ascribe to Him righteousness and justice, in His love He transcends all justice. If we call Him love, He is much more than human love: He is supra-love. God transcends all attributes that we are capable of ascribing to Him, be it omniscience, omnipresence or immutability.

Ultimately we arrive at the conclusion that we can say nothing about God affirmatively: all discussion about Him remains incomplete, partial and limited. Finally we come to realize that we cannot say what God is , but rather what He is not . This manner of speaking about God has received the name of apophatic (negative) theology, as opposed to cataphatic (affirmative) theology.

The traditional image of Moses ascending Mount Sinai to God, surrounded in darkness, inspired both St Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite to speak about the divine darkness as a symbol of God's incomprehensibility. To enter the divine darkness is to go beyond the confines of being as understood by the intellect. Moses encountered God but the Israelites remained at the foot of the mountain, that is, within the confines of a cataphatic knowledge of God. Only Moses could enter the darkness; having separated himself from all things, he could encounter God, Who is outside of everything, Who is there where there is nothing . Cataphatically we can say that God is Light, but in doing so we liken God to sensible light. And if it is said about Christ transfigured on Mount Tabor that 'his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light' (Matt.17:2), then the cataphatic notion of 'light' is used here symbolically, since this is the uncreated light of the Divinity that transcends all human concepts of light. Apophatically we can call the Divine light, the supra-light or darkness. Thus the darkness of Sinai and the light of Tabor are one and the same.

In our understanding of God we often rely upon cataphatic notions since these are easier and more accessible to the mind. But cataphatic knowledge has its limits. The way of negation corresponds to the spiritual ascent into the Divine abyss where words fall silent, where reason fades, where all human knowledge and comprehension cease, where God is . It is not by speculative knowledge but in the depths of prayerful silence that the soul can encounter God, Who is 'beyond everything' and Who reveals Himself to her as in-comprehensible, in-accessible, in-visible, yet at the same time as living and close to her - as God the Person.
Web Address:

Now, a couple of comments from me. First, I think these words about the relationship between apophatic and cataphatic theology are deeply important, and I think that the priority given apophatic theology is very, very important. One thing I noticed though, was that as the point was being made that God is "beyond all names," the masculine pronoun (capitalized) is maintained throughout. Seems like the apophatic theology still has some work to do. One writer on the apophatic tradition of Western Christian Theology has suggested that a proper cataphatic theology uses such a variety of names for God that everytime one image is put up, it is knocked down by another, giving way to the 'unknowing' of faith. This writer, Denys Turner, suggests by example in his writing that the feminine and masculine names/images ultimately give way to a name beyond names that bursts the bonds of language and certainly the category of gender language.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Radical Negative Epistemology of the Apostle Paul: To know nothing, but Jesus Christ and him crucified

"I decided to know nothing among you, but Jesus Christ and him crucified." 1 Cor. 2:5

Paul knew many different things as we know many different things, so what did he mean when he said, "I decided to know nothing among you?" Does he say these words to describe a particular stance or position about knowledge that he took in relation to the Corinthians and their conflicts? Or, is Paul describing a normative way of knowing, a way of knowing that applies to all who share the faith of Christ? I believe Paul is doing both: describing the particular position he has been pushed into by the Corinthian challenge, but also affirming that he has discovered in this time of necessity the way of knowing for all those who want to share the faith of Christ. I believe Paul has discovered a way of true understanding amidst the competing interests and allegiances of life.

"I decided to know nothing among you, but Jesus Christ and him crucified." Paul says: "I decided to know." Paul could have demonstrated his knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and the law, displayed his visionary experiences of faith. He could have told about the miracle working powers God had given him. But, Paul was afraid to trust in these ways and humbled himself to being a witness to the true way of life - the way of Jesus, the one who was crucified.

Paul could have debated philosophies, shown evidences of his superior intellect, but he was wary of all this. And, so he made a clear decision in his soul - to give way to speaking of Jesus' way, the way of complete love and obedience to the living God. Love of God and people; obedience to God's ways and will above all - the cross. Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Paul meant for his life, his deeds, his words be transparent to the crucified Jesus. That people might forget Paul and remember Jesus Christ and him crucified.

But, why does Paul focus his eyes and heart on the crucified Jesus? Why not speak of the Risen Lord here?

I think it is because you can get carried away with talk about Jesus' resurrection and victory and forget the way of Jesus and that way is a way of ultimate and costly love and obedience. Jesus asked/begged of God, that the cup of suffering and humiliation pass, but then knew it could not. So, he said: "Not my will, but thy will be done."

And, until we have have come before God and experienced something like this, some deep experience about how much love and obedience cost, until we have felt this urge to flee and then felt even deeper the resolve to obey out of love - until we have really said in the depths of our being: "Not my will, but thy will be done," in a particular crisis of life . . . until then, we might be believing, but when we pass through this test in faith, we begin to know - we become a disciple, one who is walking on the way of faith, the way of the crucified Lord.

Paul had experienced this way, been humbled and amazed by this way. And, it was his touchstone with reality and truth. He was going to stay close to this way. He would stay humble in knowing of Christ's faith.

In a religious culture that speaks the name of Jesus loudly and celebrates Jesus' victory, it is a radical way of believing to "know only Jesus Christ and him crucifed." In a triumphalist religious culture that knows about all parts of life and can tell you what to do about everything, it is a radical way of knowing to say: "I decided to know none of this, except Jesus Christ and him crucified."

In a religious culture that encourages you to become something, it is a radical stance to vow to become nothing so that Jesus might be known in his suffering.

In a wider church that celebrates the Risen and Exalted Jesus, it is a radical thing to proclaim the executed Jesus as the revelation of God's glory and power.

It is a way that denounces the strong, and encourages the weak - a way that puts to shame the wisdom of human beings and celebrates the shocking way of God that makes no sense in the world.

It is a way that finds Jesus present with the imprisoned and abandoned, but absent from the powerful and esteemed.

And, this is the way of Jesus, the glory and revelation of God on earth. The way Paul has experienced and the way he holds to in life. It is like Paul knows that any stepping away from this narrow way could lead to delusion and disaster.

The Quakers have a saying: "Stay low in the Seed." They mean what Paul means here. When you have a true experience of God - when the Christ has moved within your soul, stay close to that and don't move beyond it by either forgetting or saying more about it than you should. There is a reverent humility in faith that keeps us close to the crucified Jesus.

"Where you there when they crucified my Lord? Where you there when they crucified my Lord?" the spiritual goes. Let your faith , your way of knowing, stay in this holy song, for the feeling and reality of faith is in this spiritual. Stay in these words and don't go beyond them.

This is the way of life - the seed that brings new life. Be humble in this way of Jesus - let the way of Jesus become known in your living and your refusing to trust in any way of knowing or loving or living than the way of Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

This is the way of truth and life and salvation in this world and the next. This is the way of unity for the entire human race. There is no other way that is strong enough to draw together all the disparate parts of humanity. And, it is a way that goes through the crucified Jesus.

For those who will come to know God in this suffering of Jesus, God wills to be known. For those who would come to know God through the ways of victory and power, God simply withdraws in his wonderful humility.

The humble God cannot be known by arrogant humans, and this true God will not be remade in the image of arrogant humans, but graciously seeks to refashion us in the image of our humble God, an image that is born in our hearts when we embrace the crucified Jesus as the truth and glory of the living God. Amen.

The Problem with Compliments

Jesus' response to the young man who called him "good teacher" was first to recoil from being called "good." Jesus quickly replied: "There is no one good but God." There is something in us when we are in touch with reality that has the same reaction to a very strong compliment from another. For Jesus, I think it was that he was simply doing what he was supposed to do and didn't think that set him up for any prizes, awards or honors. I can't help but think that Jesus was the most surprised of all when God exalted him as God did. And, that is exactly why God exalted him. And, Jesus remains humble, unassuming as he identifies with the lowly because he is truly the Messiah of God, the reflection and being of God, united to human flesh.

When someone understands us, they know our weaknesses and perhaps have suffered because of them. When a person understands us like that and comes to appreciate us and pays us a compliment, I guess it is safe to accept it and say: "thank you," because you can trust the whole thing is not a sham. When someone really knows us very little and pays us a big compliment, beware - they are either trying to pull one over on you or you have pulled one over on them.

I remember what my Dad said to me one time: "If someone is complimenting you a lot, you better watch out - they're probably trying to get something off of you."

What to expect from other people

There might be a few people in life from whom you deserve good will, and there might be a few people in life from whom you deserve ill will; but, from most everyone else you deserve neither good will nor ill will. If you don't expect good will or ill will from relative strangers, you are more likely to receive good will and less likely to receive ill will. Often an open, somewhat tentative approach to people brings out the best in them. It might even be a good approach to try with those we are close to. Maybe we aren't particularly deserving of their good will or ill will either - just a little understanding.

What we really deserve from each other and owe to each other is a chance. To give each other a chance - if you do that things tend to work out. An unassuming attitude, a waiting openness towards a new moment in time. Where that is present, there is always the chance that something very good will happen between one person and another.