Monday, October 01, 2007

Via positiva and via negativa

Before I turned my my back upon Catholicism, as a young man in my twenties, I determined to give it a fair go. I would read my way through the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, a collection of 150 small books published by Hawthorn Press in the 1950s and 60s that took up one by one the essential aspects of the Catholic faith. I started, randomly, with volume 47, What is an Angel? Oh, dear. The author, the French Dominican Oie-Raymond Regamey, began by giving all of the reasons it is so difficult for moderns to believe in angels. Well, his reasons for skepticism made perfect sense to me. When Father Regamey then began giving his "proofs" of angelic presences from scripture and tradition, it all sounded very much like the world of spooks, goblins, fairies, and woodland spirits I had read about with the historians of religion. It dawned on me -- as I rolled my eyes at the improbable propositions that Regamey was asking me to accept -- that I believed in angels only because I was born into an angel-believing Catholic milieu. As simple as that. All the folderol the good Dominican offered -- outlining in astonishing detail the kinds and categories of the angelic choirs and the various properties of pure spirits -- suddenly seemed like so much self-delusion. The Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism was really a Thirteenth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism. And that was the end of that.

But there was another series in the library, also published by a Catholic press, that began to attract my attention: the Paulist Press' Classics of Western Spirituality, a post-Vatican II project that is ecumenical in its scope, including works from the Jewish, Islamic and Protestant Christian mystical traditions. And here I found much to learn and admire. The mystics were a different breed from the theologians. They emphasized negative theology, the via negativa -- God is not this, God is not that. They rejected all metaphors for God, most especially perhaps the personal metaphor so dear to orthodox theologians. The God of the mystics is the intuited Mystery that is implicit in the creation, the Mystery that becomes ever more manifest the more we know about reality -- what Nicholas of Cusa called Learned Ignorance. All negations are true, said Cusa, and all affirmations are inadequate: "Sacred ignorance has taught us that God is ineffable."

As I read in Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, and many others of the mystics, I found a tradition that rested easily with a scientific understanding of the world. The God of the mystics is the Deus absconditus, the absconded God, of whom any metaphor is untrue, including, of course, the metaphor "whom." The language of the mystics is poetry, not theology; it springs from the (innate?) human sense that there is more to reality than meets the eye, more than we can immediately (perhaps ever) know by science. We know vastly more about the universe than did the great spiritual thinkers of an earlier time, and our language of celebration is correspondingly different, but we can learn from them the dimensions of our ignorance, and praise with them the intuited Mystery for which even the word God is a diminishment.