Negative theology from a Christ-centred perspective

Negative theology is, somewhat ironically, on my mind this week. On the one hand I’ve been reflecting on The Mystical Theology and The Cloud of Unknowing. On the other hand I’ve been observing that, although I haven’t blogged on meditation and mysticism much this year, it has historically been a topic that’s prompted much conversation on this blog. So here’s what’s been percolating to the surface as I dwell on all this. I’ve been wondering, what does negative look like from a Christ-centred perspective?

Blogging on Mediation and Mysticism

This is an important question for me as meditation and mysticism were a primary focus of mine when I first started blogging back in October 2004. To the extent that I called my first blog Circle of Dionysius, primarily after the Pagan convert of Acts 17, but not without allusions towards the author of The Mystical Theology as well.

How things have changed. While I still meditate and still blog about meditation, my focus has shifted away from it as I’ve become far more Christ-centred in my orientation and far more explicit about my Anabaptist influences over and against the Mystic ones. The Mystical Theology is many things, but Christocentric it ain’t, so it hasn’t sat well with me.

But now I’m wondering if I’m in a position to approach mysticism again from a fresh perspective. Over the last few months I’ve been thinking more and more about meditative prayer. Now I’m thinking, what about mystery?

Mystery from a Christ-centred perspective

Theologies of mystery are the natural, negative counterpoint to theologies of revelation. Just as God has made himself known, there is also a sense in which God transcends our understanding and thus remains hidden and unknown. Where the Mystical Theology grates with me is that it leaps from the self to God with barely a mention of Christ, the mediator.

So again, what does negative look like from a Christ-centred perspective? I’ve been thinking, if Christocentric theology is characterized by movement from the particular to the universal, then really we have to begin with the unknown as it is known, through particular events, through particular people. Particularly through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

I’ll try and articulate this as best as I can, but what leaps out for me is this. The good news is, in one sense, unspeakable news, unfathomable news. The resurrection of Jesus confounds our expectations, it confounds our life experiences. We have nothing to compare the Messiah to. This is why we struggle to even recognize the resurrection as truth. In one sense, it is easier to say what the resurrection was not than what it was. The events themselves push up against the limitations of our logic, of our life experiences. God is revealed, but is still hidden in the sense that we just can’t take it all in. This is the beginning of wisdom, awe before the mystery of the God revealed in and through Jesus.

What we have here is a sort of apophatic evangelism, apocalyptic mysticism. The ascended Lord, though hidden, breaks the seals and reveals all. The Word stuns us into wordlessness. I’m not sure if that makes sense to any of you. I’m not even sure if it should. In so far as it’s understandable, maybe it’s misunderstood.

16 thoughts on “Negative theology from a Christ-centred perspective

  1. I’m not sure to what extent you’d see Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich as apophatic, but it’s certainly Christocentric mysticism.
    I don’t know if you are familiar with the UK TV series “Doctor Who”, but I find that quite helpful in thinking about Jesus. (For those of you unfamiliar with this, the Doctor looks like a human, but is in fact over 900 years old, comes from the planet Gallifrey, has 2 hearts and can regenerate). You think the Doctor is human because he looks like one, but then he says or does something that makes you stop in your tracks and remember he is in fact an alien…

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  2. Do you know what I have come to believe? That “The Word became flesh” meant that Jesus showed us in the flesh mysteries that maybe were not seen or thought about directly before. For instance, I don’t believe he was the first person to be resurrected. Resurrection was an accepted Jewish belief in one of the sects and I believe he made it a point to show us it was real. Same with healing. He showed us what already takes place but opened our eyes to it. There is always the arguments of literal versus myth (not a bad term) composition of the stories passed down to us.
    At one point he said there is nothing left to be revealed. (Which is a whole huge discussion by itself) So I think it’s all here and has been functioning already. I believe at some point the mystical is only mystery because we haven’t seen (eureka, breakthrough moment) it yet. God is very practical and interested in the best for us. It’s our finite minds that get in the way. It’s interesting to me that you don’t think Jesus was mystical, or that mysticism is not Christ centered. The way I look at it, Grace is mystery since it is a new? fulfillment of the Law (God’s law of the universe). Don’t even know if we are talking about the same thing here, but thought I would write. I don’t read many Christian mystics. I have tried, but they never grab me so to speak. And I do tend to keep it simple: either it works for me in everyday life or it doesn’t. Trial and result will determine that. More than ever I know that God is alive and only revealed through theology rather than being theology. These days I am reading about bi-polar condition and how scientists believe that faith is magical thinking and needs to be addressed. I am forever interested in what is real and what is imagined. I also like Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She is my religion and spiritual guide these days as I just cannot deal with my own church and its leaders. She mixes the beautiful Catholic practices that I love and faith and Jung psychology very well! Am reading “Failing America’s Faithful…” by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She notes that there was a direct shift in the 60s after the civil rights legislation was passed in the USA from social service in the churches to personal pureness. She believes it was so the people in the south didn’t have to extend kindness to all people. She believes that it is a poison which has permeated the Catholic Church. She was taught as a child that we find God through serving others. That’s pretty profound to me as I was never taught that. To me that’s a mystery. Recently it has hit home as I began researching illegal immigration in the USA. I kind of did a 180 as Christians came to me from the most unlikely places and reminded me that these are people and the ones I meet in everyday life I am obligated to serve if they are in need as a requirement of my following Christ. Now I will vote for reform, but in everyday life I am obligated to love. How does this help me? It has certainly taken the burden of judgment out of my heart and opened up the flow of love. It’s a relief that benefits me and hopefully them. But I never would have gotten it by reasoning. Rather I got it through action. How it all works is a mystery to me.

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  3. Yeah, Matt, I like your exploration of this topic… shows that we can grow and change over time, but still retain our “quintessence”.
    You say “if Christocentric theology is characterized by movement from the particular to the universal, then really we have to begin with the unknown as it is known, through particular events, through particular people. Particularly through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus”
    I synthesise this with the vice versa. i.e. reltionship with God is reciprocal and therefore embrace the idea the Christocentric theology also has the aspect of the Christ and the “out there” being impacted by our particularity. We know about the “out there” through particular means and our particularity makes known something to the “out there”. c.f. angels watching and gaining understanding of stuff through observation of and some kind of interaction with us.
    Bit tricky, really 🙂

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  4. Oh, and Paula, I understand your resonance with Estes. She sure “knows” (many levels of knowing) stuff that a lot of more superfically minded Western thinkers cannot even fathom, or ignorantly dismiss.
    And I appreciate your comments on releasing “the flow of Love”. Recent events and experiences in my life have further convinced me that Love is most definitely THE HIGHEST LAW and the definitive denominator. So, really any worthwhile thought or action needs to be weighed and measured by it. But it’s sure and adventure, and puzzling at times to find the necessary discernment and wisdom to recognise and apply it1
    Mysticism also must come into subjection to Love.
    Waddyareckon? 🙂

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  5. I feel you are more aware and that the more we are aware of God working in and through everything, especially within ourselves, the more God’s presence can replace prior limitations and dis-harmonies with good. Our minds will act on the new ideas that are formed and form a new, more positive belief and attitude. The deep understanding present in Christ Consciousness sees the good of God everywhere and always present. This shift in attitude brings greater freedom; peace and joy so old worries are given up, freeing the mind and replacing old ideas with the knowledge that everything we need is available and good.

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  6. Seeing God working in and through everything is sometimes easier said than done though. In the wars of this world, where is God? In the family plagued by domestic violence, where is God? When that job is lost, where is God? Sometimes we become aware in retrospect. Sometimes awareness is elusive even then. Sometimes we just have to take it on faith, knowing the faithfulness of God, knowing the incompleteness of our own knowledge.

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  7. Lucy, you asked “Mysticism also must come into subjection to Love. Waddyareckon? :)” I say, absolutely.
    “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

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  8. Paula, I suspect we may have to agree to disagree on some of that. While I vigorously affirm resurrection was an accepted belief amongst ancient Jews, by all but the Sadducees to my knowledge, by and large they expected resurrection to happen on the Day of the Lord, not before. Have you read N T Wright’s book, The Resurrection of the Son of God? That explores the historical and cultural context in extensive detail, so I’d highly recommend it if you want to dig down into the historical and cultural issues.
    Also, you said “At one point he said there is nothing left to be revealed,” but I’ve never come across that myself. What I have come across is the saying, For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17) but that would seem to leave the future wide open. Could you clarify which bits you’re referring to?
    Also, to clarify, I never said Jesus wasn’t mystical (I think he was, at least by some definitions) nor that mysticism can’t be Christ centred (I think it can be Christ centred, it’s just not always Christ centred). It needs to be understood, what I’m suggesting is far more nuanced than a simple mysticism “yes vs. no” argument.
    It’s interesting to hear of your experiences with the Catholic Church. Very different from my own. Over here the liberal / social justice streams are very prevalent. I’d even say dominant if it weren’t for a few conservatives in the upper echelons. Actually, I’m tempted to say dominant even so. As a consequence you’ve got me wondering how our different life experiences play into our different understandings.

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  9. There is a chapter in my e-book called “God is not…”. A brief quotation:
    Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship the personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to
    everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.
    Avidya, literally non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaifa, literally without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, literally without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, literally not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the literal way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

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  10. And yet, if we’re going to approach negative theology from a Christ-centred perspective, expressing what God is not and what Jesus is not must somehow be related. Essentially what I’m working towards is apophatic Christology.

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  11. Actually, a more accurate translation of Luke 17:21 would be “the kingdom of God is among you” rather than “the kingdom of God is within you.”
    WHile it is true the greek word “entos” can be interpreted as either “among” or “within”, once the context is recognized – a conversation with Pharisees, whom Jesus considered to be far from the kingdom – it become clear that “among” is the more probably intended meaning.
    Moreover, the kingdom of God is not the same as nirvana. True, it involves unity with God, but it also involves unity with one another. In this it has a political dimention many other religions lack. Moreover, the God in question is distinctly more personal and relational than that which is found in many other religions.
    Mystics of other faiths would not agree that “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.” (Hebrews 1)

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  12. I’m not sure if this connects, but thought you might find it interesting, from a text I’m editing at the moment: “After observing the ecclesiology of Vatican II, John Zizioulas comments on its christocentric emphasis and warns that if pneumatology remains as an auxiliary to christology and ecclesiology in Catholic theology, the huge gap between the goal and reality of church unity will remain. The internal problems of the Roman Catholic Church, such as the over-domination of institution and clergy, will also persist”

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