The Apophatic Road


Even though the process of religious decomposition has been quietly going on at least since the period of Reformation and Renaissance, the exact timeline of the demise of the Christianity and the bankruptcy of its plausibility structures has yet to be determined as it still unfolds before our very eyes. We are too close to the phenomenon to have a clear view of it. We cannot read a text if our eyes are glued to single letters. They say that in historical studies context is everything. However, this may not be entirely accurate. We cannot take into account everything as that would be truly impossible. There are too many things to take notice of. Yes, the context is limitless, but exactly this is the reason why no one can account for everything. It would be an utter foolishness to even try to grasp the whole background and history of things. Moreover, by stepping back too far from the text, we run the danger of losing ourselves in the forest of context. And yet, we need to draw the line somewhere and start reading and understanding the text in the view of a partial, somewhat limited, even biased context. This is what I am going to attempt to do in this post.

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon an article (see – by a British theologian David Bryant. By all measures, he is a practical atheist. Insofar as he recognizes that religion and the notion of God is being discredited by science, he is a perfectly honest chap and I applaud him for that. But instead of hanging the mantle of a theologian in the museum of classical art, he is holding on to it for his dear life. “God is unknowable”, he says, without really meaning it. He is an apophatic theologian, a metaphysical dialectician, who believes through disbelief and doubt. Certainly, a very sophisticated intellectual pose.  Perhaps, worth a copy-cat or two. But it got me thinking…

Many Western theologians and other folks spiritual ever since the beginning of the 20th century (and even earlier) have exchanged their sectarian tights for a more comfy pair of – universal – leggings in which to hide their naked asses. In the age of media and marketing the external appearance does matter, indeed. Nowadays it is deemed crucial to look smart and handsome. It does not matter what you say, just look and, even more importantly,  sound sexy. That will do. Medium is the message.  McLuhan’s advice has been thoroughly implemented by our most advanced spiritual cadres and padres. The heavy religious burden of adherence to a particular bronze-age commandment is being swapped with a more pleasant baggage of sophisticated apophatic syllogisms (i.e., 1.God is silent. 2.Yet this conspicuous silence gives evidence of his existence. 3.Eureka! God is real.). Devotion to the ineffable sacred text is replaced with fancy mystical journeys and extravagant personal quests for happiness.

In the culture of instant access many theologians have taken the seemingly unpretentious apophatic route. To name just a few – German existentialist Rudolf Bultmann in his spare time of demythologizing New Testament was building existential sand castles drawing inspiration from Heidegger, his Nazi philosophical mentor. Before that gibberish channeled out of publishing houses and lecturing halls of academia, Rudolf Otto was already flirting with the numinous side of things or the so-called great “mysterium et tremendum fascinans”. Meanwhile the late systematician Paul Tillich was busy developing schemes of transcending the frameworks of Protestant theology. Transcending this and that, he finally landed on the “ground of being” – a nebulous pigeonhole in which the encounter with the divinity takes place.

The big question of the day was how to make the outdated message of the Bible relevant for modern men. This was a great puzzle and the solution of it required even greater sophistication and intellectual acrobatics on part of theologians than ever before.
Soon, along came the whole “death of God” movement which proclaimed, to the puzzlement of many, that the theistic vision of the world should be discarded in the dust heaps of history. The old, white and long-bearded jolly good fellow on the cloud was pronounced dead. Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, who wrote the bestseller “Honest to God”, claimed to be a witness of this dreadful event.
At the same time inside the walls of monasteries many monks became pioneers of spiritual discoveries. Sensing the Zeitgeist, they swiftly turned their coats and immersed themselves wholly into the world as if they really belonged and as if they were mere mortals after all. They engaged in everything what the world had to offer – from the most hideous forms of self-deception to the most comforting and liberating pseido-scientific hogwash of the day. From Asia to Africa, from East to West, monastics experimented daily with the latest cultural commodities on the global market of ideas. Benedictines (such as John Main, Bede Griffith, Henri Le Saux), Jesuits (such as Hugo Lassalle, Teilhard de Chardin) and Trappists (Thomas Merton) were leading the way. They showed their comrades the secret of acquiring the rare skill of eating one’s cake and having it too. The valuable technique of riding two horses at the same time was intensively learned and mastered. Christianity was now deemed compatible with everything previously thought wicked, vile and sinful. Anything goes. Let us celebrate and give thanks to the Lord!
This trend has significantly accelerated in our times. Countless Christian enthusiasts and visionaries would have been burned to ashes at the stake of the Inquisition 500 years ago for the things they proclaim to believe in or for the things they actually practice today. Deviancy from the “party-line” and the eccentric megalomania, inspired largely by the rebel scientists and radical freethinkers of the past, has increasingly grown into a popular movement and become the common sense of our age. Sociologist Peter Berger labeled this modern phenomenon as an “heretical imperative”, which steadily confronts and disturbs the religious mind. Pluralism and democracy sooner or later pave the way for secularism and further fragmentation, mutation, hybridization and sophistication of religious landscape.

Non-conformism towards the traditional orthodox lingo of the Church and its normative matrix is highly in demand among spiritual folks. Blind obedience to the learned theologians of the past is being ridiculed, if not openly mocked. An inner Gnosis and a personal experience of the supernatural is sought as an alibi for maintaining one’s religiosity. It’s hard to give up a bad habit, if one has nurtured it for decades. The habit has become one’s second nature. Too many strings are attached to it. One’s prestige, one’s reputation and one’s social standing, one’s friends and family, one’s colleagues at work, even one’s income, and yes… one’s own sanity perhaps as well, all these components are intertwined with one’s religious predisposition. To alter one’s religious identity is to alter one’s whole life. Is it not asking to swallow the bullet? But even if the intellect is convinced and willing, the heart is stubborn and weak. Old habits of behavior die hard – if at all- and perhaps are bound to return with vengeance in an upgraded form.

While the development of the self and one’s inner spiritual qualities (whatever that may mean!) is being preached from the pulpits, the age old Christian mantra – that God in the naked and brutish appearance of a dubious and obscure charismatic Jew died for our sins – finds itself on the brink of extinction.
For someone like David Bryant, a retired Anglican vicar, (or for that matter any other religious zealot) after all the long years of passionate faith, eager kneeling and spirited hallelujahs to admit that: “I was wrong. I was deluded.” is virtually to ask him to declare the horrifying and spectacular meaninglessness of his whole life. Such a turnaround is unlikely to happen. A more likely scenario is to continue living like before, trapping oneself in the perplexed state of cognitive dissonance. As George Orwell would have put it: “The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.”

Philosopher Maarten Boudry in his PhD dissertation “Here Be Dragons” made a similar point: “…when people explain away unwelcome evidence, they do so in a way that allows them to uphold an illusion of objectivity.”


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