The Apophatic Ordinary III
A person who has diligently pursued the way of the poor and received the gift of radical loss of self-consciousness and the sense of rebirth of language as well as life that accompanies it, finds theological conversation with someone who has not received this gift, and is speaking from a tradition of discourse alone, difficult, if not impossible. There may be more reasons than interior silence and avoiding ordination that led desert monks to flee bishops who, contrary to claims that the “whole teaching” had been passed on, would examine them for “orthodoxy”.
For a person who has received this radical loss of self-consciousness even once, most theological debate, particularly as it is carried on today, seems entirely beside the point. The question, for example, whether God “exists” or whether this existence can be inferred from so-called mystical or religious experience is entirely pointless, a non question, a question of the wrong order. Further, for such a person, it is evident that the refusal of contemporary theology to allow for and engage the rigor of paradox has led to the death of symbols and liturgy, for at heart, Christianity rests on paradox, paradox that is able to embrace and hold in relationship the seeming contradictions of life in the chaotic (i.e., random and open in the sense of chaos mathematics) continuum of space-time, a system that is thrown into contradiction with itself whenever this paradox is “resolved” into linear systems. Problems in nonlinear systems cannot be solved. “Nonlinearity means that the act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules.”(16) The contradictions then imposed on the faithful are presented, ironically, as “paradox” to be accepted on “faith”, when in fact, what is being presented is true contradiction.
Space limitations prohibit enumerating the many controversies,(17) and the quantities of blood spilt, in which those who have practiced the way of the poor have been persecuted by those who are ignorant but hold power,(18) or who have been too frightened or slothful, to learn to be accessible to the radical loss of self-consciousness. Today's futile arguments over tradition are among them, and include the entire spectrum from rigidly conservative to woolly liberal. The “dead religion of a living people”, to paraphrase Jaroslav Pelikan's apocryphal remark, that results from these arguments, brings us to the last definition of apophatic, which is death.
The foundational paradox of Christianity has to do with life arising from death, and the Letter to the Hebrews(19) informs us that the fear of death means enslavement to the Accuser. It is a commonplace today that attitudes toward death determine perception and behaviour, and that perception and what is perceived are interactive. It is also a commonplace among those who practice the way of the poor that the requisite letting go of images and ideas is death indeed and requires an equally radical faith, for the way of the poor is not a technique, and there is no guarantee that the ultimate gift will be given. But resultant shifts in perspective are radical, permanent, and transforming, as New Testament and other sources attest.
Theology today has something on the tip of its tongue which it cannot remember: it is the apophatic background called death. If theology does not remember death, if it does not employ the paradox of intention, if it will not learn to engage paradox on its own terms, as it searches the writings and traditions, then it will continue towards a dead end from which there is escape. For too long the word “experience” (much less the loss of experience) has been an unmentionable referent in theological discourse, and paradox a mere challenge for linear resolution.
Today's religious and theological controversies seem far removed from any understanding of apophatic, particularly as we face planetary questions concerning famine, war and the continuation of life. This remoteness appears to stem in part from theologizing that has ignored even the paradox necessary to concentration in its most ordinary sense, but, more importantly, its perceptions suffer from the consequences of its choices, the cramped issues on which it has chosen to concentrate, which can safely be controlled. These choices are determined by theology's fear of the reversal of language, that if it began to listen in a wider context, its talktiveness, by which it appears to define itself, would die. This is indeed very likely, but far from the dead end of language, which paradoxically lies in its talkativeness, it might discover not only the fulfillment, but also the regeneration of language.
Theology appears to have forgotten the paradox at the heart of Christianity, which provides a shift in concentration and a consequent shift in the perception of death in all its forms, a paradox that appears often to have been embodied in a profoundly silent and radical loss of self-consciousness that was and is still today interpreted as encounter with the Referrent from whom theology originally took its life.
(16) James Glieck, Chaos (New York, 1987), p. 24.
(17) The controversy over whether God suffers and what is meant by "immovable", for example.
(18) "It is this sensation of absolute annihilation of the individual,tasted by the mystics of all times, which Gerson, as a supporter of a moderate and prudent mysticism, could not tolerate. A female visionary told him that in the contemplation of God her mind had been annihilated, really annihilated, and then created anew. 'How do you know?', he asked her. 'I experienced it,' she had answered. The logical absurdity of this reply had sufficed himto prove the reprehensible nature of these fancies.
"It was dangerous to let such sensations express themselves by explicit formulas; the Church could only tolerate them in the form of images. Catherine of Siena might say that her heart had been changed into the heart of Christ. But Marguerite Poret , an adherent of the sect of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who also believed that her soul had been annihilated in God, was burnt at Paris." The Waning of the Middle Ages, by J. Huizinga, (London: Penguin, 1987).
(19) Heb. 2: 14-15.