Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Via Negativa: How Not to Speak of God

In a sermon I preached earlier this year, I said the following:

As a minister I have discovered from people who come to me with anxieties about faith, that in virtually every situation, the problem is not that they need to believe in something. The problem is that they need to cease their belief. They believe in things that are not helpful. They believe in things that are false, at times even harmful.

These are beliefs that have been given to them by religion. Not necessarily bad religion, sometimes toxic religion, but usually not. Usually, just religion in general. This is what the Bible is. This is who God is. This is who Jesus is. Many of us come to a point in our lives when these beliefs that we have been given do not seem to be working, but they seem to be so absolute. Rather than do the obvious and change our beliefs, we think we must keep believing these things even though they seem to make less and less sense and take more and more effort to explain. We think we should believe more or pray more or sin less. We think there is something wrong with us when we struggle with our inherited beliefs.

My role as a minister, oddly enough, has been one in which I find myself helping people let go of their beliefs rather than encouraging them to believe harder or to add more beliefs to their collection. This way of letting go—this way of emptying—is a spiritual path. There comes a time when we need to give up those things that we once thought were absolute.

As we begin speaking of God, we recognize that everything we say is inadequate. Everything that we say God is, God is not. The Via Negativa is the stripping away of our idolatries. No matter how wise our conceptions or how vibrant our experience of revelation, we realize ultimately, that we "see in a glass darkly."

When we recognize that nothing can capture God, then we can appreciate the icons of God in our midst. We can appreciate scripture, tradition, stories, language, experiences, and rituals. They are pointers to God, but cannot be identified exclusively with God.

Via Negativa is a check on idolatry. For instance, we might say the Bible is God's Word. But it is also not God's Word. God cannot be limited to a book. To say as much is to worship the Bible. That is bibliolatry. When we realize that the Bible is not God's Word, then we can say it is God's Word.

The same could be said for Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God revealed. But Jesus Christ does not exhaust God.

By analogy, say you live in a bubble and have no connection with other living things. One day you are shown a rose. You ask what it is and you are told that it is a rose. You ask what that is and you are told that it is nature. You smell it. You touch it. You are pricked by its thorns.

Were you lied to when you were told that it is nature? No. It is nature. It is nature perfectly. Yet, does it exhaust nature? No. It is not nature.

The via negativa begins with the no. God is not.

Conversation has emerged about a book by Peter Rollins called How Not to Speak of God. I have not read the book. But I am reading Dwayne's World. He has been reading it and commenting on it. Here are his posts in order:

How not to speak of God, God rid me of God, and the aftermath of theology.

Dwayne includes this quote from Rollins in regards to the problem of idolatry, particularly the idolatry of our doctrines:

Indeed, this can be seen as one of the central problems with the Pharisees as represented in the New Testament, for they held so closely to their interpretation of the Messiah that when the Messiah finally appeared in a form that was different to what they expected, they rejected the Messiah in order to retain the integrity of their interpretation. link

You can read an interview with Rollins here. And this is a description of his community called Ikon. It is part of what he calls the emerging movement. Rollins embraces what he calls "heretical orthodoxy." In his interview he describes what he means:

In many respects the idea of ‘heretical orthodoxy’ strikes at the heart of my intellectual project to date. I have become increasingly concerned that much of the contemporary church has taken a wrong turn by embracing the Enlightenment influenced idea that theology is that which speaks of God i.e. theology is that which makes claims about the nature and essence of God. In light of this, orthodoxy has been interpreted as ‘right belief’ and subsequently been employed as a means of identifying those who supposedly possess a correct understanding of God. In this way the orthodox individual stands in contrast to the heretic i.e. to one who holds wrong beliefs about God. In a nutshell I argue that this idea of orthodoxy is both
fundamentally flawed deeply dangerous. In opposition to this dominant view I put forward the idea that orthodoxy, if it is to remain true to the biblical narrative, must be understood as ‘believing in the right way’. This Hebraic rereading of orthodoxy is no mere reversal of the first reading (for the opposite of right belief is simply wrong belief) but rather places it on a fundamentally different level. When orthodoxy is reinterpreted in this manner it no longer needs to exist in opposition to heresy, but can actually embrace it. In heretical orthodoxy we can thus affirm the long lost mystical insight that God is received but never conceived (i.e. that we will always fall short of understanding the God we are in relationship with) and that the mark of this reception is not the manifestation of some doctrinal system that supposedly defines God, but rather is made manifest in the life of one who helps to transform the world in Christ-like love.

I like that phrase, heretical orthodoxy, and I like what he means by it.



  1. Perhaps one helpful preparation for talking about God is talking to God.

    Since you seem to be rather agnostic about most things pertaining to God, let me just give you one simple pointer: Whatever you do, don't pray to the false "god" Krishna.

    The true God really hates that.

    "O Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry
    with your people’s prayers?"
    Psalm 80:4 (NRSV)

  2. OK, Chris, I'll bite.

    True Gods and False Gods. What is your basis for saying your god is true and someone else's is false?

  3. inner avatar told me?

    In all seriousness, I don't claim that "my god" is true and everyone else's is false. Instead, I claim that the God who self-reveals in the Christian Bible is the one, true, living God.

    I believe this claim to be Biblical.

    I believe this claim to be rational.

    I believe this claim to be verifiable by many evidences.

    What is your epistemology? Where does truth find its ultimate hinge for you?

    If you answer that question, I'll have an idea of how to frame my thoughts in a way that makes sense to you.


  4. Give it to me rationally.

    Compare the Bhagavad Gita and the Protestant Bible.

    Why is the Bible's view of God true and the Bhagavad Gita's view of God false?


  5. Okay, the rational route it is. Let's make this a dialogue as much as possible. That way, neither we nor any audience that might stumble upon this will be lost in loquacious circumlocutions.

    I can prove that the God of the Bible is the one true and living God in a rational manner so long as you and I can agree that rational arguments even make sense. Rationality is, in essence, making choices between alternatives. Everyone has certain criteria, or presuppositions, with which they navigate those choices as they weigh the alternatives.

    So, the first question I have for you is this: Does absolute truth exist?

  6. Hi Chris,

    I was gone for a few days to officiate at my niece's wedding.

    This dialogue sounds promising.

    Does absolute truth exist?

    My answer: I do not know.

    I do not know if there is such as thing as absolute truth. I am not sure exactly what that phrase even means.

    Some physicists talk about the Unified Theory of Everything. I am not sure if that is to be equated with absolute truth or not.

    I do not know, but that does not mean that absolute truth cannot be known. I know of no one who knows it but that does not mean that no one knows it. I am sure I do not know it.

    To say for certain as to whether there is or there is not absolute truth, I cannot say.

    Also, it seems possible that absolute truth changes. The Universe is certainly different than it was 15 billion years ago. Did truth evolve with it?

    Again, along hazy answer to your original question with my final answer being: I don't know. : )


  7. John,

    Glad you had a nice vacation. Thanks for coming back ready to "jump in."

    You said that you aren't sure if there is such a thing as absolute truth. However, your blog is filled with absolute claims. For instance, in the via negativa post, you say (and I agree) that "Jesus Christ is God revealed." That is a statement you declare with certainty. But what is the source of your certainty?

    Similarly, you claimed that "[e]verything we say God is, God is not." On what basis do you claim this to be so?

    You also claim that the universe is "certainly different than it was 15 billion years ago." Again, I ask: on what rational basis do you make this claim.

    Ever since I started reading your blog, I've had a sneaking suspicion that either your epistemology isn't clear (in se) or it isn't clear to you. In your reply, you claim to be agnostic over the existence of absolute truth. However, you posit that it could change (though this would make it something other than absolute by its very definition). I'm assuming there is a reason behind your speculation (and that it isn't just bald-faced skepticism).

    A distinction here needs to be made: claiming that absolute truth exists does not logically entail absolute comprehension of absolute truth. You can claim that absolute truth exists and maintain humility in saying that you don't know its content or scope. However, it is self-contradictory to say that absolute truth can change. It cannot, if it is absolute. But our understanding of absolute truth can (and, perhaps, should) change.

    Why all the philosophy? Well, I think it would be fair to describe us both as people who are concerned with the ultimate. We both make claims about the ultimate. I am a classical theist in the maintstream of orthodox Christianity, of the Reformed persuasion. Therefore, I base my claims on an appeal to the epistemological ultimacy of revealed knowledge (accessible to all people in the Bible). Because the Bible reveals Jesus Christ to be everything that God is, and Jesus Christ is the Logos (ordering principle), then there is a logical consistency within God (because God so willed). When I make claims about God, I expect them to line up with Scripture and to be logically consistent. People who accept Scripture (whether on its testable historical claims, supernatural proofs of predictive prophecy, moral suasion, or - most surely - by the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit) and accept rules of logic can (and should) hold me accountable to them when I speak about God.

    The whole point of my asking these questions is to see where the basis for your claims about the Ultimate lies and how (or even whether) I am also accountable to it. If you and I share a basis for accountability, then it makes sense for us to seek truth together.

    I hope this post isn't too rambling.

  8. Hi Chris,

    Thanks. You made some very good points.

    Maybe I will need a definition from you of absolute truth.

    You may have caught me in some inconsistencies. I likely do make claims beyond my ability to do so.

    When I am really honest, I do not know what is absolute and what is relative (or truth clouded by my own prejudices).

    That said, I think there are things I could say that may be more truthful than other things.

    For example, if we speak of "God" and we mean something which is as absolute as we are going to get to, then, I think it would be true that everything we say about God would be relative to God and therefore not God.

    Does that mean that God is absolute truth? Maybe, maybe not. A relative absolute to us at least, yes.

    Part of the problem for me, is that claims that equate God with absolute truth usually fall short. "God" is a product of our making.

    I guess it has been my turn to ramble.

    You said: "When I make claims about God, I expect them to line up with Scripture and to be logically consistent."

    That certainly is true to the extent that God is a literary character or the central protagonist of the Bible.

    But I am not sure if God as understood as absolute truth or my preferred phrase relative absolute truth is the same as the God of the Bible.

    I'll put myself out there and rephrase your statement: When I make claims about God, I expect them to line up with reason and to be logically consistent.

    Good discussion!


  9. John,

    There's an awful lot to respond to in that post. If I skip something of moment, call me on it and I'll come back.

    First, you ask for a definition of absolute truth. Steven Robiner came up with a definition of absolute truth that I believe covers all of the bases:
    "What is absolutely true is always correct, everywhere, all the time, under any condition. An entity's ability to discern these things is irrelevant to that state of truth."

    You said something that caught my eye: 'God is a product of our making.' Are you sure you mean this? If so, then God has no absolute referent. We all shuffle off into solipsism of one sort or another, and dialogue about God is meaningless because of the inaccessability of someone else's personal experience.

    I also stated that I am accountable to the Scriptures for my thinking on who God is. You go on to say that this is in some way flawed because God is a literary character (like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn) and so the God that is in the Bible isn't the full measure of what we can know about God. I would have to ask you, then: Where do you get authoritative, reliable information about who God is?

    You said that reason and logic are two accountability structures for knowledge of God. I would have to ask what kind of God you have been able to account for by those alone. Is it a God that is personal or impersonal? If personal, is this God moral or immoral? Kind or flippant? Does this God desire and establish justice and peace, or does your God desire war and chaos and destruction? And on what logical, self-evident basis do you make those claims?

    Do you see the problems inherent in this theistic epistemology? Regarding the Bible as just a human document means that you end up being the arbiter of who God really is. And who, then, is to say that your view of God is more accurate than my view of God? Or than Hitler's view of God? Or any number of reversals?

    I want to affirm the general impulse you are operating under. Human knowledge is contingent in some ways because we are inconstant. But that does not mean that we must be left ultimately with skepticism and idiosyncracies. You don't live your life that way - it's not what you think - and it would be false to say so here. So what we need to get down to is what the core tenets of your epistemology are. If you don't believe in absolute truth, then the laws of logic are a sorry basis for constructing or testing a theology.

    Good discussion?


  10. Chris,

    We started this conversation because I wanted to challenge your view that Krishna is a false god and the god of the bible is the true god. Here is my original question:

    "Compare the Bhagavad Gita and the Protestant Bible.

    Why is the Bible's view of God true and the Bhagavad Gita's view of God false?"

    If my hesitation regarding absolute truth is a problem, then ok, for the sake of moving along I will affirm that there is absolute truth.

    So tell me about Yahweh, Jesus, and Krishna.


  11. John,

    The reason that I was being a bit painstaking over the issue of absolutes and epitsemology is because you have asked me to provide rational reasons why Christianity is true and Hinduism is false. Because I have read some highly irrational claims on your blog, and you've practically stated that mysticism is your vehicle for truth, I wanted to make sure that we were both on the same page when it came to what would constitute a rational defense of Christian exclusivism. However, like you, I'm willing to grant that we're on the same page in that regard (philosophical subtleties aside until such time as we become mired in senseless speech past one another).

    Before I begin, and to keep any poisoning of the well by claiming that I don't really know anything Hinduism, I'd like to admit that I have only done a cursory study of this 3000+ year old faith. However, I do know that the oldest Vedic material shows clear signs of a tribal animism that developed into a highly ritualized polytheism. This polytheism was later partially refuted by the monistic philosophical tradition in the Upanishads. It was also refined in the henotheistic thrust of the Bhagavad Gita.

    For Hindus, the highest of all truths is believed to be the truth of all religions. The law of non-contradiction has been granted in the acceptance of absolute truth, so this teaching cannot possibly be true. This claim alone is enough to show that Hinduism is irrational. Also, Hinduism teaches that our individual identities are part of a large, divine illusion called Maya. We do not really exist as individuals. The irrationality of the proposition can be seen by considering this question. How could anyone know if they were part of a dream? It is like two characters in your dream asking the question, "Do I exist?" How would they test such a thing?

    Everything that they would measure to find out if they were real is not real itself either, only part of the dream. How could they have true knowledge of this? To put it most simply, does Charlie Brown know he is a cartoon character? Of course not. It is a ludicrous, incoherent concept. That is why in my view Hinduism is disqualified on its face. It is obviously false that individual people can have true knowledge that they do not really exist and are just an illusion. This is a contradiction and therefore Hinduism must be false.

    Further, the concept of shruti (inspiration of their sacred texts) is logically inferior to the Christian doctrine of inspiration. The sacred Hindu texts are not historically verifiable. They speak of a reality that exists beyond the illusions of Maya (at least they do in their later parts); however, given that there is nothing testable in the provided material there is little foundation for a reasoned belief that their report of Brahman is true. The Christian scriptures, on the other hand, are verifiable by historical data (and, in fact, show themselves to be at least as historically accurate as any of their contemporary competition).

    In closing, I'd like to return to two statements you made. First, you claim to say that when you ake claims about God, you expect them to line up with reason and to be logically consistent. What is reasonably or logically necessary about your claims concerning God? In particular, I'd be interested in how you could say something like "God loves you." to someone. You've claimed that you "trust the universe" (a pantheistic if I've ever heard one). I would counter: Why? Galaxies collide, stars smashing into one another. The only justice in evolution is - as Tennyson said - "red in tooth and claw." So what rational basis is there for morality in that?

    Secondly, and this is a point of bad theology rather than thinking, you want to know about "Yahweh, Jesus, and Krishna." However, Yahweh cannot be divorced from Jesus because YHWH is the nomina sacra of the Holy Trinity. It is not the name of a semitic tribal deity (which is what I suspect you understand by the differentiation of the term).


  12. Chris,

    You have made a number of points. I would counter your claim that Hinduism believes our existence is an illusion. The Hindus I know don't seem to say that. They would say, I think, that our true selves beyond our bodies, thoughts, and emotions, are, in fact, true reality. Atman (self) is Brahman (Self). Traditional Christians say something similar when they value Eternity beyond the temporality of this existence.

    I find much of Hinduism (at least what I know of it) to be quite helpful and as such "true."

    You point out a paradox within Hindusim to render it false, "For Hindus, the highest of all truths is believed to be the truth of all religions. The law of non-contradiction has been granted in the acceptance of absolute truth, so this teaching cannot possibly be true."

    Christianity contains within it a number of paradoxes as well, such as Jesus is fully divine and fully human. The Trinity, one God, but three persons is also paradoxical.

    Paradox within religion cannot be enough to render it false, in my view.

    That the Bible is historically verifiable, I have many doubts. Jesus is as much myth as history, if not more so.

    Ultimately, I say that all religion (including Christianity and including Hinduism) is a human product, including all of its scriptures. The "truth" if that is the right word is what it says about us and how it enables us to be at peace, to live with compassion, joy, etc.