Apophatic Theology and Christian Agnosticism
by Elias Blum
A few years ago I discovered an excellent little book called ‘After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life’, written by Mark Vernon, a philosopher and former Church of England priest.
Mark Vernon sets out an approach to spirituality that reconciles a scientific, realist, understanding of how the universe works with deep-but-silent theology of the divine which is rooted in a mystical Christian ethical and aesthetic tradition.
With the help of works like this (and others by Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong and Richard Holloway), I have been able, without unbearable internal tension, to reject most of the ‘fact-claims’ of (evangelical, biblical-literalist, creedalist) Christianity, and yet to maintain a commitment to the ‘value-claims’ of the (loving, transformative, restorative, incarnational) Christian ethic.
I would not necessarily define myself as a Christian Agnostic. In the words of Psalm 34, I have ‘tasted and seen’ too much to remain unconvinced of the reality and goodness of God. Yet I find agnosticism a useful position to take with regard to many of the claims made by religious about God – including the claims of the Bible and of Christian tradition.
I am agnostic, for example, about prayer. I do not know how prayer works. I do not know whether, we, in human language, can meaningfully communicate with the Divine. It seems utterly absurd and inexplicable to me, yet also very uncanny. I’ve prayed for the sick and seen them get well. I have seen the power of the Holy Spirit demonstrated in mighty ways in my own life, and I know it was not simply a stage show or an illusion, because I was the one praying and working in the Spirit. I’ve even had a ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’ moment, when I was being mugged by a man with a hammer. As I prayed for him I felt the power of the Holy Spirt upon us. He fell to his knees, turned to Jesus and pleaded for forgiveness. I gave him my pocket bible, and then he gave me back the bag and camera that he had stolen from me just a while before. It was remarkable. And I’m still praying for that man even as I write these words.
I cannot understand or account for any of this. I know every logical fallacy. I know the danger of basing any conclusions on self-selecting samples and small numbers. I know how ‘confirmation bias’, subjective perceptions and anecdotal evidence can mislead us. But I don’t know what happens when we pray. Maybe God hears and responds. Maybe we have a latent, but entirely natural, capacity for telepathic, sympathetic, psychosomatic healing – or, to put is less strongly, a tendency to be highly suggestible. Maybe it is all just a strange coincidence.
Perhaps one day our understanding of the human mind will reveal that we have greater degrees of interconnectedness than we have hitherto realised, and that not only is our physical well-being interlaced with our mental state, but our mental state is interlaced with that of others, so that the thoughts of one can influence the well-being of another. I am not in a position to confirm or deny – or even suggest how we might test – that interesting hypothesis. Either way, until the explanation is clear, I remain agnostic about what happens when we pray.
I’m very comfortable not knowing. In fact, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with those who claim to know, one way or the other, with too much certainty.
Vernon’s vision of Christian Agnosticism is rooted in ‘apophatic’ theology. To do apophatic theology is to talk about God and God’s attributes through negation. It says what God is not. God is not a Man-in-the-Sky. God is not a Book. God is not a Creed. God is not a form of words, or a religious system. God is not (go on, I’ll say it, even if it will annoy the trinitarians) a radical Jewish martyred prophet known as Jesus. On the basis of that approach we can reject the ultimacy of all that is Not-God. The God that is really God is much godder than all that.
There’s a wonderful song by the band Gungor called ‘God is not a man’, the lyrics of which express this approach wonderfully. “God is not a man, not even a white man.”
I like the apophatic way. It fits well with a spirituality which is at once sceptically Unitarian and mystically Universalist. if we are to have a clear, rational, liberal and inclusive faith, then the tearing down of idols, the rejection of all false fact claims, the avoidance of speculative divisions, and the denial of ultimacy to all that is Not-God, is important. But is not, by itself, enough to sustain us as we seek, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to follow the Way of Jesus and to build the Kingdom of God. Just as, after the explusion of a tyrant in a revolution, we must at once move to establish a well-ordered republic, lest the false liberty of mere license bind us again in chains, so likewise, having expelled the falsehoods of all tyrannical creeds from our midst, we must move at once to reclaim the gospel of Jesus.
In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we are very clear about what we stand against. We stand against fundamentalism, literalism, irrationalism, bigotry, superstition, hatred, legalism, condemnation, angry misogynistic Sky Gods, and all that has ruined, poisoned and degraded religion over the course of human history. In this respect, Unitarian Universalism is ‘apophatic’ to the core. But perhaps need to be clearer and more positive about what we stand for. Not just liberalism, but radicalism. Not just a refusal to worship the deified, mythological Jesus, but willingness to follow the Way of the human, historical Jesus. Not just the denial of the trinity, but the proclamation of the divine unity. Not just the absence of eternal punishment, but the glorious hope of universal salvation and universal reconciliation. Not just the rejection of Empire, but the embrace of the Kingdom. Not just the tearing down of Babylon, but the building of the New Jerusalem. Not just honest and sceptical doubt, but open and trusting faith. Not just Not-God, but God.