“The Way that can be spoken about is not the way.”[i]
Henri de Lubac was perhaps the most important Catholic theologian in the three decades before Vatican II. He was one of a small group who backed every theological statement with a vast knowledge of the writings of the early church and the early medievals.
His first important book, Catholicisme, was published in 1938. In it he develops what might be called an idealistic notion of Catholicism, but which he insists is historical. He calls Catholicism “the religion.”[ii]
The worth of this strong notion of Catholicism is that it gives him grounds to criticize the Catholic Church of his time. For instance, he says it is a “Church that considers throne and altar inseparable, that preaches almsgiving instead of social justice.”[iii] He also argues that the defensive position taken during the Counter-Reformation resulted “ in a professional, convulsive constriction in theology.”[iv] These criticisms finally led to his being relieved of his teaching position and refused permission to publish. However, as Vatican II was being organized, he was called on as a consultant and was eventually named a Cardinal.
Though his contribution to theology in the 20th century was enormous, I am troubled by the argument made – and here I am citing Balthazar’s account – to establish the validity of his very strong notion of Catholicism:
Since the God of creation and the God of redemption are one and the same, since mankind as created forms a unity as well, God’s intention in the redemption of the world in Christ can once again intend mankind only as a whole.[v]
On what basis does he assert that mankind forms a unity? It sounds for all the world like Kant, telling us that every human is entitled to equal respect. But that would mean that his notion of Catholicism is equally abstract and metaphysical. The counterargument – one that draws much more from history - is that humans are vastly diverse: different moralities, different cultures, different religious approaches to God. Because he insists that Catholicism is a historical phenomenon, I can only conclude that he is suggesting that humanity is historically a unity.
In that case I take his argument to be essentially “modern”. By that I mean a cultural viewpoint that assumes that the scientific (or in this case the historical) methods used to come to a conclusion are better than any previous methods. Moderns, in other words, were convinced of their superiority, since history is always progressing. But I have a further suspicion. His notion of Catholicism is also euro-centric. An important element of modern culture was the easy assumption that those in the industrialized world – who were also the imperialists – were superior to the “less advanced” countries and so history could legitimately be written from their point of view. Who else but a European could have argued that the Creator’s intention is that mankind should form a unity that is embodied by a European organization – the Roman Catholic Church - (no matter what its historical and theological roots)?
At the heart of my concern, then, is the shift by a notable theologian from “creation” to “redemption”, which means arguing from a perceived design in history to a claim to understand the redemptive mystery of a loving God.
My concern seemed an appropriate reason to explore negative theology. Negative theology is not an exercise in denial. It is, rather, an admission at crucial moments that we simply do not know. It is sometimes called apophatic theology, from a Greek word which means “unsayable.”
In these few pages I explore two books. One, by Karen Armstrong,[vi] is an historical overview, calm, patient and clear. Armstrong at her best. The other, by William Franke, a professor of world literature and philosophy of religion, is much more academic, yet argumentative, passionate, demanding. Let me start with an overview of Armstrong’s.
Right from the beginning she distinguishes between logos and mythos. The truth of myth, she tells us, comes to us not by thought but by constant, disciplined practice. She cites an early Chinese sage that such practice enables a person “to step outside the prism of ego and experience the sacred.” This transcendent dimension of life is, she tells us, is not “simply an external reality ‘out there’ but is identical with the deepest level of their being.” [xiii] People often speak of seeking God not “out there” but in the depths of their own consciousness.
She makes it clear that the book is rebutting the various “new atheists” who have caught the public’s notice in the past fifteen years; from the beginning she notes that on the one hand, they are debunking only a fundamentalist version of Christianity – an attack she agrees with – but on the other hand she ascribes their popularity to the fact that many people are “bewildered and even angered by the God concept they have inherited.” [xvi] Her theme is to trace the history of this modern God concept and criticize it from the viewpoint of apophasis. Her understanding of “modern” - as in “the modern God concept” - is much like the notion of modernity I sketched above. She builds a very interesting historical argument that is quite the contrary to de Lubac’s.
Like Franke, she locates the beginning of apophatic theology in the writings of Denys the Areopagite (or pseudo-Dionysus). Writing in the years before and after 500, he was wrestling with the compatibility of the Christian tradition and the thinking of the neo-Platonists. In the platonic view, we humans “participate” in God’s being. But how can we - created finite individuals - grasp the transcendent Being who, as Aquinas would later say, is subsistent Being itself? His answer:
…God is known by knowledge and by unknowing; of [God] there is understanding, reason…opinion, imagination…and many things, but [God] is not understood, nothing can be said of [God], [God] cannot be named. 
How can it be, that God can be known and not be known? Franke dives right into that conundrum. But more on him later. Let us continue following Armstrong’s quiet, perceptive walk through history.
The best of the medieval theologians, Thomas Aquinas, saw the point of apothasis. “Man’s utmost knowledge is to know that we do not know [God]. … For then alone do we know God truly when we believe that [God] is far above all that man can possible think of God.”  Indeed, Armstrong remarks, the reduction of talk to silence is really what theology is about.
It seems generally agreed that one generation after Aquinas there was an important shift in thinking. Aquinas argued that we could use words like “existence” or “wisdom” or “goodness” about God only analogically, not univocally. Aquinas had been worried that if our knowledge of God were univocal, then we would be in a position to project our own ideas on to God – and this would be idolatrous. Scotus rejected this cautionary note. He was –so I was taught when young – a nominalist. Now I realize that this meant he was a forerunner of Descartes, arguing that when we know something, we have a clear and distinct idea of it; we can name it authoritatively and we can decide how broadly we can apply it. This shift, Armstrong tells us, introduces modern thinking and, as she unfolds the tale, the “modern God”.
Her approach to the historical question of God and science surprised me. For years I kept hearing about the “God of the gaps”. Science, we were assured, could answer almost all our questions about reality; God’s function was, on this view, to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. I had found this approach reinforced by Keith Thomas in his Religion and the Decline of Magic. Thomas gives graphic details of how people in the 16th and 17th centuries turned to astrology, witchcraft and other magical forces as well as to prayer in their quest for an explanation of and a handle on the bad things that life brings. Evidently, science has been much more satisfactory in dealing with these issues. God was squeezed out, having been left with little to do.
Armstrong sees history quite differently. The early scientists were, she argues, not trying to attack religion; their approach to science was rooted in faith. But, disenchanted by the constant quarreling and dogmatizing on the part of the suddenly proliferating churches, “they developed a secular theology written by and for laymen because their discoveries made them think differently about God.”  For instance, while noting that Descartes was brought up a pious Catholic, Armstrong tells us
[his] philosophy was profoundly irreligious: his God, a clear idea in his mind, was well on the way to becoming an idol, and his meditation on the thinking self did not result in kenosis but in the triumphant assertion of the ego. 
We should note the kenosis is a Greek word for “self emptying.” It gained theological currency since St. Paul, his letter to the Philippians, tells us that Christ emptied himself. The negative theologians use it just as Armstrong does here, to suggest that as we approach God, we find ourselves empty – hence speechless.
Similarly Newton, thinking of himself as a Christian, argued that the motions that he analyzed so brilliantly in his new physics of gravity must have originally “required a divine power to impress them.” Armstrong’s comment:
At a stroke, Newton overturned centuries of Christian tradition. Hitherto, leading theologians had argued that the creation could tell us nothing about God; indeed it proved to us that God was unknowable. …But Newton had no doubt that his Universal Mechanics could explain all God’s attributes. …A study of the universe proved that the God who created it must have intelligence, perfection, eternity, infinity, omniscience, and omnipotence. …God had been reduced to a scientific explanation and given a clearly definable function in the cosmos. 
We can now see, when we compare that last sentence with what we were told in our first days in catechism, just how penetrating is Armstrong’s analysis of the “modern God concept.” And how important an apophatic approach is.
What these scientists had begun became known as Deism. The existence of a far-off God was affirmed; but it became “a sublime but useless truth.” Armstrong cites Diderot: “It is very important to not mistake hemlock for parsley but to believe or not to believe in God is not important at all.” 
Armstrong detects a political resonance in this stance. ”The symbolism of God’s dramatic abdication in favor of Reason linked the idea of atheism with revolutionary change.”  On the other hand, she also recounts the history of the rise of fundamentalist Christianity in the U.S. Ironically, in the U.S., populist democracy has for about two centuries been linked with fundamentalism, while “cultural elites” tend to be considered irreligious.
The Romantics – poets such as Keats and Shelley - in both Germany and England “revived a spirituality that had been submerged in the scientific age.” In the early 1800s, William Paley’s Natural Theology, which first spelled out the argument from design, received popular support in England. But through the 19th century the philosophers, especially in Germany, articulated “the modern compulsion to reject recent orthodoxy.” 
It was, however, Darwin who undercut the argument from design: if indeed there had been a divine plan “it had been cruel, callously prodigal, and wasteful.”  Fundamentalists in the U.S. still insist on a literal reading of the Old Testament and reject Darwin out of hand. But there also emerged an explicit and polemical atheist literature that argued, among other things, that belief itself was immoral since it rejected scientific evidence.  I began this paper by calling Armstrong’s writing “calm”; her summary of the results of the modern approach to God is, however, quite passionate:
By making “God” a purely notional truth attainable by the rational and scientific intellect, without ritual, prayer or ethical commitment, men and women had killed it for themselves. …Europeans were beginning to experience religion as tenuous, arbitrary, and lifeless. The unthinkable had happened: everything that the symbol of God had pointed to – absolute goodness, beauty, order, peace, truthfulness, justice – was being slowly but surely eliminated from European culture. 
…The First World War revealed the self-destructive nihilism that, despite its colossal attainments, lurked at the heart of modern Western civilization. 
But the story does not end here. While not everyone agrees, there is much evidence to suggest that we are leaving modernity behind and are entering a post-modern age. Armstrong points in that direction. In a chapter entitled “Unknowing” she tells us “Newton’s grand certainties had been replaced by a system [quantum mechanics] ambiguous, shifting, and indeterminate. …Unknowing seemed built into the human condition. …Scientists were beginning to sound like apophatic theologians.” [264-5]
There is also an ethical dimension to the demise of modernity. “Auschwitz was a dark epiphany, providing us with a terrible vision of what life is like when all sense of the sacred is lost and the human being – whoever he or she may be – is no longer revered as an inviolable mystery.”  For many, God died at Auschwitz.
But others follow the author of the Book of Job and recognize that “God is greater than human beings can conceive, and that his ways are not our ways. God may be incomprehensible, but people have the option of putting their trust in this ineffable God and affirming a meaning, even in the midst of meaninglessness. …A modern theology must look unflinchingly into the heart of a great darkness and be prepared, perhaps, to enter into the cloud of unknowing.” 
Armstrong discusses those theologians who, after 1945, faced that cloud of unknowing. She also discusses – and dismisses – the continued assertions of the fundamentalists.
She ends by reviewing two contemporary apophatic theologians. Gianni Vattimo believes that modernity is over. He builds a case for “weak thought.” Freedom no longer lies in the perfect knowledge of and conformity to the necessary structure of reality but in an appreciation of multiple discourses and the historicity, contingency, and finitude of all religious ethical, and political values – including our own.”  John D. Caputo urges atheists and theists alike to abandon the modern appetite for certainty. God, he suggests, is “the desire beyond desire.” “Of its very nature, desire is located in the space between what exists and what does not; it addresses all that we are and are not, everything we know and what we do not know.“  So the question is not whether God – or desire – exists. The question is what do we desire. We pray for what is to come, not for what exists.
In her Epilogue, Armstrong suggests again that the purpose of religion is not to provide us with answers, but “to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously, with the realities for which there were no easy explanations…. Religion is a practical discipline and its insights …are derived from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle….” You have, she says, to “engage with a symbol imaginatively, become ritually and ethically involved with it, and allow it to effect a profound change in you.”
While Armstrong writes as a theologically literate historian, William Franke writes primarily as a philosopher.[vii] His approach is to confront the conundrum of knowing and at the same time not knowing. Already in his preface he spells out the tension:
Indeed, theology, particularly negative theology, has long tended to question and to relativize the capabilities of human language to truly convey the real. And yet realist language is not necessarily shown thereby to be simply erroneous, or even outmoded. Language remains, after all, expressive of an orientation to a real world within which it effectively works and articulates and objectifies all things, including itself. But the sense of that reality is affected: it becomes a relation to something else beyond itself that language cannot encompass.” 
Language is a necessity in our quest to get from day to day. For many, who lead an “unexamined life.” the obvious utility of language is enough. But Franke points us to two limits of language, one at the beginning of the human quest and one at the outer edge.
Let us begin at the beginning. We are capable of language because we are conscious subjects. But the root of language is beyond words. No human individual can be grasped or described by words. While we eagerly earn to speak words, and as we grow to adulthood try to articulate who we are and why we make some choices rather than others, the wellspring of our consciousness - the self - remains beyond speech. So, for instance, two spouses, after years of living together and exchanging insights, might be able to give a fairly rich psychological or sociological profile of the other, but must remain mute before the mystery of the interior life of the spouse.
Buber demonstrated a hundred years ago that no-one can say “I” without learning to say “thou”. But learning to say “thou” does not enable a person to fully articulate just who the other person is. Indeed summing up the mystery of the personhood of the other only sheds light on the ineffability of one’s own personhood.
Franke suggests that this very ineffability of the self pushes us to keep searching for adequate language. “This unsayability is, arguably, what “humanizes” persons and their understandings, what grants them the possibility of relations to singular individuals having some kind of whole and unique meaning that cannot be articulated….” However, he also notes that the unsayability of the subject can also dehumanize an interpersonal relationship by allowing one person to treat the other as a means to his/her personal goals.
But Franke – just as Armstrong – argues that focusing on the ineffability of the individual gives us grounds to live by a fundamental morality that is at odds with modernity. It leads us “toward something beyond a field of calculable objects, toward the truly and uniquely human.”  Armstrong invoked the historical symbolism of Auschwitz to make this same point. There is an absolute moral inviolability of each human person, and this inviolability is rooted in ineffability.
Reflections on the outer edge of what humans explore and try to articulate lead us to other ineffable mysteries. There are two mysteries at the outer edge of the human universe: death and God.
What can we say about death? Utter silence surrounds it. Humans are “mortal” – that is, they are aware they are going to die and they react in fear, even terror.
My own sense is that the roots of this terror lie in the fact that the loving relationships which we build are meant to be unconditioned and so we want them to last forever. But death stands in the way. We have no clear idea of how we might continue our loving relationships; we can only hope that they will overcome death. Indeed, the heart of Christianity is that “love is stronger than death.” But that hope, powerful though it is, is mute.
We cannot deal with death – even apophatically – without grappling with the mystery of God. In the last paragraph I focused on a person’s loss of someone very close to stress the unsayability of the mystery of death. But as Christians we have been enjoined to love all humans. Armstrong used the historical metaphor of Auschwitz to bring out the central importance of treating everyone as inviolable and worthy of respect. Franke argues that this is possible only if we leave ourselves completely open to the mystery of an ineffable God.
…we are obliged, by the energy and élan of thought itself, not to stop at any finite configuration but always to expand our horizon to include whatever Other should present itself. This infinite outward opening is uncompletable for us. It can never be at a final endpoint, but we must imagine that it is complete absolutely in God – if all things are to be related together and not remain insuperably strangers to one another. [53-4]
This last remark about strangers leads us back to the tension between modernity and negative theology. We live in a society that has accepted as normative the founding proposition of economics, namely that each of us has the right (and indeed the duty) to weigh all our relationships with others in the light of their long-term “utility” for our own particular goals and purposes. This had become a norm in modern society and it seems to be even more strictly observed in post-modern society. If, as Christians, we feel called to compassion, to respect other people as free and self-determining persons, then, Franke argues, we must dedicate ourselves to an uncompletable, infinitely outward opening. To decide that there are legitimate reasons to restrict our horizon is to move towards a world of people who are insuperably strangers.
Franke is arguing that we ought to live in a world of untrammeled pluralism. Each person we meet has the right to pursue their own dreams, to follow their own light; we are called to accommodate ourselves to this swirl of movements and points of view. So we live – and ought to live – in a world where different cultures pursue their different goals and values; in a world where different religions have worked out different ways to God; in a world where people with different strengths and orientations pursue very different forms of art and commerce; in a world where different people explore different sexual orientations; in a world where different people have different approaches to democracy; in a world where there are liberals and conservatives. And yet, Franke argues, this richly diverse world is the only one that has unity – the unity of love, or, to use Armstrong’s word, compassion. To draw the line anywhere on what is tolerable (aside, of course, from the restrictions laid out in a democratically constituted criminal law) is to take a step toward Auschwitz.
Franke draws on a phrase first coined by Gregory of Nyssa (a bishop in the 4th century). He translates it as “…a never resolved tension to be one with God.“ Then he points to the moral catastrophe that I have just outlined.
Otherwise reality would not be one or at least projectable as one. And God would not be experienced. The world would consist in individuals who are not just presented as independent and as psychologically estranged but who, much more fundamentally, are ontologically and irreducibly separate and alien.
We have turned 180 degrees from the “natural created order” of de Lubac and von Balthazar, and their reading of the mind of the redemptive God. According to Franke, we would live in a world of sterile solitude unless we leave ourselves always open to an encounter with an ineffable God.
Franke and Armstrong both characterize modern culture as the quest to restrict reality to what is comprehensible and sayable. Both focus on post-modern thinkers to find ways to make the ineffable available to post-modern pilgrims. While Armstrong gives the reader a broad picture of this shift, Franke concentrates on two small groups of theologians, to argue that their differences can be resolved when each is corrected by the insights of apopathic theology. While Franke’s examples are much narrower and more technical, he – I think you will agree – effectively confronts us with the stark demands of apopathic thinking.
What in negative theology is called “God” transcends every finite consciousness and can never become present to consciousness, perhaps because God already is presence and consciousness in their absolute infinity, in a way that is immediately lost a soon as these and any other term including “divinity”, focus and define and thereby delimit God.
After this exploration of the ineffable mystery of God, we should ask if there is anything we can say about God. For instance, is it legitimate to reflect on the unfolding universe (as Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have done) and come to any conclusions about God? I am reminded of the quarrel between two palaeontolgists (Simon Conway Morris[viii] and Stephen Jay Gould[ix]) over the larger meaning of the Cambrian (505 million years ago) explosion of species that they researched on the Burgess Shale. Gould argued that the sudden flowering and quick disappearance of so many species showed that all evolution was sheer chance. Conway Morris replied that if everything happened by chance, then people were free to use and abuse everything around us; if, on the other hand, evolution was part of creation, then we owed the Creator and creation our deep gratitude and the duty of caring for it all.
While neither Armstrong nor Franke discuss questions of “creation,” I would suggest that Conway Morris’s approach converges with theirs. Despite their very different styles, they seem to me to be in substantial agreement about what we can know about God. They both focus on the ethical implications of our knowledge of God: to know God is to recognize the absolute inviolability of our fellow human beings and to feel called to compassion. Not to know God is to live in a world of sterile solitude. Conway Morris approaches his completely different question with the same frame of mind: the question of God is inextricably tied with a person’s ethical stance.
This essay is meant to provoke discussion. Please send me your thoughts at email@example.com and I will sort them and post them, without using your name.
[i] Traditional Taoist saying.
[ii] I am citing Hans Urs von Balthazar, The Theology of Henri de Lubac. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991 (p. 28) who is citing de Lubac,Catholicisme (p. 256).
[iii] Balthazar p. 32.
[iv] Balthazar p. 30.
[v] Balthazar p. 36.
[vi] Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. Toronto: Knopf, 2009. While discussing this book I cite page numbers in square brackets.
[vii] William Franke, A Philosophy of the Unsayable. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre
Dame Press, 2014. As I discuss this book I cite page numbers in square brackets.
[viii] Simon Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation:The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals, 1999.
[ix] Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. 1989.