Thursday, May 17, 2012

Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model: Notes for a Quantum Theology

[This paper was published in Literature and Theology, Vol. 9, December 1993, pp. 325-353, three years after I sent it to them...]


In Werner Herzog’s beautiful and terrible film, ‘Lessons of Darkness,’ there is a scene set against the surreal planes of a concrete courtyard in which a small Kuwaiti child squirms suspiciously as his mother tells their story.  During the Iraqi invasion, his parents were roused in the night and taken to their son’s room where he was snatched from his bed and thrown to the floor.  An Iraqi soldier placed his boot on the child’s head and stood on him with his full weight, removing it only at the mother’s plea.  Later, after torture, the father was shot in front of his family.   The child has spoken only once since these events to say, ‘Mummy, I don’t ever want to learn to talk.’  As she repeated these words, he looked at the camera for the first time:  his face was a glimpse into the abyss.
The Gulf War and its aftermath unsparingly reveal the failure of theology, set adrift from its contemplative roots, from the reciprocal kenosis of the human person with divine Love, whose laws are most clearly revealed in the ecology of a primordial landscape and the interior wilderness of apophatic prayer.[i]  It is equally alienated from cultic praxis, which is the ritualisation of human integration with apophasis.  The Kuwaiti child’s perception of the debasement of language and his commitment to its integrity in the face of unspeakable and incontrovertible truth once again forces an appraisal of theology’s contemporary irrelevance and ineffectuality.
Theology in recent years has become uneasy, and rightly so.  There is a sense that it is talking only to itself, that it has lost its direction, that it refers to nothing.  There is a certain truth in these charges, due, in part, to prevailing attitudes that dismiss praxis and paradigm shifts, and cling to the ‘dying bride of German rationalism’ like Linus to his blanket, to a scientism that most scientists have long since abandoned.  It has so far failed to make the transition from a Newtonian to an Einstinian view of the universe -- a view that admits multidimensionality, and the accuracy and rigour of paradox as descriptor.[ii]   Paradoxically, this view is closer to the insights of ancient religions than many of the theological and religious trends that have predominated since Nicea.  The entire situation has been complicated by the search for the ‘essence’ of Christianity and the ‘common core’ of religious experience or so-called mysticism.[iii]
This theoretical paper[iv] cannot hope to do more than point to some of the specific problems that theology needs to address, many of which are inextricably linked with literary criticism;  and, perhaps more important, to suggest that there are significant consistent and observable corollaries, an ineluctable integration, among the theology-religion-psychology-apophasis cluster, which may be seen by superimposing them on an ancient paradigm.   It necessarily proceeds by a series of paradoxes, and it may be a frustrating read for those who have no experience of the discipline of apophasis or one-pointed meditation, just as reading about calculus is frustrating for one who does not know algebra.

[i] In this article I am using ‘apophatic’ in its widest sense of imageless and wordless, and in its sense of making a leap (one might say a ‘quantum leap’) see O. Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, London: New City, 1993, p. 38.
[ii] That is, the shift from a photographic to a holographic perspective, from a two or three dimensional mechanical universe, where cause, effect, and entropy reign supreme and can be analysed systematically by a mythical objective observer using a ‘cartesian grid’, to a multidimensional universe -- twenty-two dimensions according to one version of super-string theory -- a universe that is contingent, chaotic, relational and interactive, where all time exists in every moment, and motion and all space exists at each point of time, where particles are said to make decisions, quarks and forces are spoken of in terms of flavours and colours, and indeterminacy is the rule of order;  where paradox is the normal descriptor, the observer is part of what is observed, and the whole is an ‘implicate order’ , to use David Bohm’s phrase from Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: ARK, 1980, p. 177, or Julian of Norwich’s insight in Chapter 5 of the Long Text.
[iii] I am thinking particularly of the work of the Alistair Hardy Institute, and the philosophical debate stimulated by the work of Stephen Katz, et. al.
[iv] Which necessarily makes methodological concessions in order to try to establish a bridge. Thus the somewhat clinical tone of its approach.


Anonymous Susan Law said...

Seems that in the Literature and Theology Journal archives your piece is now listed as contained in Volume 7 Issue 4 December 1993. The URL for the full article is

Some of your blog readers might want to read the full text. I certainly do.

5:47 pm, May 20, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thanks Susan. I'm planning to post the rest of it here over the next few weeks.

6:27 pm, May 20, 2012  

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