Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Power of Negative Thinking

Earlier generations of American Christians had to grapple with Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, so deliciously upended by Adlai Stevenson's remark, "I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling." Lately, we've had something of the opposite problem - an excess of negative thinking, leading me to complain  half a decade back that people rediscovering negative (a.k.a. "apophatic") theology have - like the ex-fundamentalist who gets overly excited about alcohol - taken things too far, misunderstanding the (big Seminary words here) kerygmatic context of the via negativa.  I'd stick by that judgment, even if I've learned (from my wife) that the most charitable response to such unfortunate currents of thought is to ignore them.

Sadly, some folks seem to react in the opposite direction, responding to negative theology's abuse by abandoning it completely, unthinkingly regurgitating Luther's suspicion of Pseudo-Dionysios, or - perhaps most perversely - prying into the inner workings of Trinitarian life, casually cartographing where angels fear to tread, and where the Saints of old saw fit to be reverently silent.  When will we learn that negative theology, which in the Christian tradition cannot but be blazingly Christocentric, is not an academic trick, but the abolishment of all such tricks?  For Vladimir Lossky:
Negative theology is not merely a theory of ecstasy.  It is an expression of that fundamental attitude which transforms the whole of theology into a contemplation of the mysteries of revelation...  Apophaticism teaches us to see above all a negative meaning in the dogmas of the Church: it forbids us to follow natural ways of thought and to form concepts which would usurp the place of spiritual realities...  The apophatic attitude gave to the Fathers of the Church that freedom and liberality with which they employed philosophical terms without running the risk of being misunderstood or of falling into a theology of concepts.
It is frustrating to hear voiced the Eastern Christian suspicion that we Protestants can't properly study early Christian theology (or art!) without becoming Orthodox. And yet, if Orthodox Christians perceive that we study theology as academics without the accompanying liturgical rhythms and spiritual experience, they have an important point.  (Even if it goes unsaid that liturgical laxity and spiritual lifelessness are Orthodox dangers as well, and that liturgical integrity and genuine spiritual experience are not unknown among Protestants.)

Negative theology is not dressed up Buddhism.  It is the necessary anesthesia of Christian theological work - quieting the mind so that God can get on with the surgery of the soul.  What theologically inclined folk need most is not the next great book, but someone to tell them that compared to the spiritual life, mastering the most advanced theological concepts, including their Greek, Latin, Syriac or German nuances, is a piece of cake.  "Those who have been most enlightened by the Holy Spirit," writes Thomas Dubay, "are the least inclined to consider this enlightenment easy to come by."

And if you think this writer exemplifies what I'm here discussing, you just dialed the wrong blog.