Atheism is all the rage today. That is, a kind of rejection–whether a traditional form of atheism, or the Christian rejection of certainty–is catching on. Some in the emerging church circles call for an “epistemological humility,” a theological hedging that tempers a rigid Evangelical orthodoxy. Still others, such as Peter Rollins, turn to more philosophical traditions, such as that of Hegel, which value a “negation.”
Rollins summarizes this kind of Christian A/theism in a number of places, and thus offers a helpful summary in his chapters in Church in the Present Tense. Providing a kind of archeology of modern categories through the thought of philosophers like Kant and Hegel, he states that there is a moment of negation when the ideas and values are denied. In turn then, he says, there comes a moment of double negation–that place when even the denial is denied.
Unfortunately, Peter and his philosophical partner Hegel are about 1700 years late. The desert monks spoke of a similar path, just without the seeming circularity of modern critiques of metaphysics. These spiritual masters often confronted their visitors with a clear negation of their expectations. However, negation was never the goal in and of itself. Rather, negation was always on the way toward a new affirmation.
Often these desert mystics are described as austere ascetics, hating the world and beating their bodies. A short and surface reading of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or of monastic rules would confirm such a caricature. However, a deeper reading reveals a much more affirming journey; it’s just that this journey begins by a kind of detox from more common cultural values. In other words, as Belden Lane has said in his short book Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, the monks were learning to ignore some things and love others. “You must learn to be indifferent,” he says. “about what doesn’t matter so as to give yourself in love to what is most important.” (37).
One of Belden’s examples comes from the pen of Gregory of Nyssa, especially the life of Moses. This treatise on the spiritual ascent of the Christian speaks of the need to climb in faith, just as Moses did at Mount Sinai, into the cloud where knowing vanishes. This might sound like a confirmation of the fashionable a/theistic turn of today, but there is something else to this mountain journey. Once in the cloud, the climber leaves behind words and reason, not to enter a vacuum but to be find herself loved. Beyond certainty, then, lies a moment of mystical union with God. This is a far cry from another negation. It is, rather, a moment of true affirmation.
This is not to charge Rollins, or other Christian a/theists, with a kind of nihilism. Instead, I want to reclaim the metaphysical. The critique of John Caputo and others in the light of a Derridian Deconstruction is that metaphysics is simply a way of projecting our own values and desires onto some Other that validates those values once and for all. Metaphysics, in this light, is nothing more than a tyrannical system that establishes cultures and morals without connecting them to the contingencies of real life. It brings a pronouncement from on high that cannot, dare not be questioned.
The Desert traditions of denial and affirmation, or in more traditional language Kataphatic and Apophatic theology, skirts the horrors of modern metaphysics while still leaving God to be God, and humanity to be created. In other words, it subverts our certainties with negation, but says that God meets us in love. God, then, is always beyond our categories and mores, but still active and present. In the ascetic journey, negation is always present, just not as an end in and of itself. Denial is the foundation on which our very encounter with God is built. The ascetic does not fast or remain chaste as a punishment, as is commonly thought, but to point the mind and body toward another end–union with God.
If we follow the mistaken understanding of askesis as negation, then we should be perplexed by the number of stories we have about these holy men and women. If they were truly about self-denial, ultimate negation, then why did so many people seek them out? Why do we have so many stories of Antony engaging in the needs and debates of his time? The initial negation of the ascetic project so often turns the monk back into the world. Having learned what to dismiss and what to love, the mystic then lives out the Divine love in relation to those around him. There is no pronouncement from on high, as the deconstruction philosophers would describe it. Rather, the ascetic comes into the world inviting others into love, into a right relationship with God.
As Athanasius argues in his treatise On the Incarnation, the truth is that God is God, and humanity is not. The via negative, then, is a journey into that realization. It keeps the line between creator and created, yet reveals that God continually reaches across the divide in love. Having experienced the love of God, how could one not come back down the mountain to live and speak about that love?
Rollins and others are right that there is much in contemporary theology that needs negation. Modern Protestantism has said too much already. There ought to be a season of apophatic denial in our ways of doing theology. However, Christianity as it was practiced in the desert traditions was at its core a kind of via positivia- a way of affirmation. There isn’t a negation of the negation as Hegel would have it. Rather, the denials are but a stepping stone into full affirmation of humanity in God.
It is why the infamous words of John the Evangelist ring so true- “For God so loved the world.” The incarnation is fundamentally an act of divine love, of affirmation of the whole cosmos. To enter a spiral of negation after negation is to miss the witness of Christianity. It is simply that we have lost the twin movements made clear in the desert tradition, in the works of Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius, and even the medieval text called The Cloud of Unknowing. In these traditions, affirmation and negation are the parallel journeys of ascent. Contemporary Christian theology must reclaim the apophatic and the kataphatic, the way of negation and affirmation. As writer and mystic Richard Rohr has said, in this journey we might arrive exactly where we started but with a whole new understanding.
Joshua Brockway is both an academic and a minister. Currently he serves as denominational staff in the Church of the Brethren. His work in the church focuses on the practices of discipleship and the spiritual life. In academic circles he studies monastic practice and theology of the 4th and 5th centuries. He is currently a doctoral candidate at The Catholic University of America. Josh blogs at www.collationes.wordpress.com and serves as the blog editor and book review editor Brethren Life and Thought (www.brethrenlifeandthought.org).