“Negative” theology is not enough

Experience with seminary students over several decades indicates that they turn surprisingly agnostic when the time comes to think about God, declaring that “the finite cannot comprehend the infinite,” so any ideas one might have about God are just as good as any others. Such agnosticism has its roots either in intellectual laziness or in a theological despair at ever getting things right. In either case, it is sorely mistaken. Our task is not to overcome what Bernard Meland called the “fallibility” of all our forms and symbols for God. It is to come up with ways of talking about God that are appropriate to the revelation of God attested to in the biblical witness. All ways of talking about God are arguably inadequate. Yet, some are more clearly inadequate than others. There are ways of talking about God that are more appropriate to the norms of the Christian faith than others and that are also more helpful in the face of the challenges that confront us in the death-dealing times in which we live. (Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology, p. 103).

I can understand why people emerging from religious traditions that suffer from an excess of certainty might be tempted to retreat into a purely “negative” (or “apophatic”) theology. But Williamson is right here that some “ways of talking about God . . . are more appropriate to the norms of the Christian faith than others.” For Christianity, it is more appropriate to speak of God as loving than as hateful, wise rather than ignorant, personal rather than impersonal, etc. The central belief of Christianity– that Jesus is God expressed in a human life–entails that God has a particular nature and character. In other words, the cure for bad theology isn’t no theology, it’s better theology.

Sure, there have been great saints and mystics throughout the history of the church who have stressed the unknowability of God virtually to the point of recommending utter silence. And their writings provide an indispensable reminder of the limitations of all our language about the divine.

But this apophatic reticence has always been balanced by the “kataphatic” tradition of affirming the appropriateness of at least some language about God. This tradition is particularly important in prayer and liturgy, not to mention the Bible itself. And as Williamson suggests, only if we can speak intelligibly about God can we say that certain “death-dealing” ways are contrary to God’s will or nature.

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One thought on ““Negative” theology is not enough

  1. Amen. The via negativa can be a prologue, even a necessary one—in the same way that when we are being trained to master any skill, old, casual bad habits must first be trained out of us. But saying what and how God is not—whether in the path of plain negations like immutable and impassible, or in the indirect negations of absolutes like omnipotence and omniscience—must always give way to saying what and how God is, the facts of which are the basis for our faith.

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