Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Darkness and silence


Doug Christie is a man of faith. He is not adverse to using words like Other and Holy One and God, confident of their referent. But he is my kind of man of faith, never straying too far from that fine line between skepticism and belief.
Silence. Stillness. Emptiness. Darkness. Desert. These are among the images that the apophatic tradition employed to grapple with the question of how the Divine is encountered in the space beyond images, beyond language, even beyond the Word…For Christian contemplatives, this apparent negation of the Word was both necessary and challenging. There was an abiding conviction that the divine mystery –- the presence of which the Word was believed to mediate and make present -– was so immense and vast that no image, no language could ever encompass or express it; hence the need to fall silent and enter what Gregory of Nyssa and others called "the divine darkness." But there remained the question of how to attend to and cherish the incarnate Word alive at the heart of the world if that Word ultimately recedes into darkness and silence. What kind of silence is this? And what knowledge of the Word, and the world, is possible in such silence?
And here, of course, is the paradox of faith, at least for the man or woman of faith who follows in Christie's apophatic tradition (God is not this, God is not that…). To affirm that God escapes or transcends any human image or language is to fall into darkness and silence. And yet Christie has written a very big book –- and a very good book it is –- affirming not only faith, but the efficacy of faith for saving the world.

Christie not only evokes the Christian monastic tradition, which I have always been attracted to, he also draws upon many of the same secular sources that I have evoked here –- Thoreau, Darwin, Annie Dillard, Loren Eisely, Mary Oliver, Rilke, and so on. What's not to like?

For the religious naturalist, darkness and silence are not the paradox, they are the resolution. The apophatic tradition ends in effective negation (God is not this, God is not that, God is not). Not only do we fall silent in the face of the Word, the Word itself dissolves into silence. We too walk a fine line; not between skepticism and faith, but between skepticism and cynicism. We try to stay firmly on the side of skepticism, open to whatever winds of wisdom blow our way, and as for knowledge of the world, we cherish the scientific way of knowing -– tentative, partial, evolving.

I would gladly accompany Doug to a monastic retreat. While he would –- on the evidence of his book -– hope to catch a glimmer of the Divine or a whisper of the eternal Word, I would be content with the darkness and silence itself, as qualities facilitating attention to the here and now. I suspect we would not be so far apart.