VIII Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model .....
The Exegesis of Silence
It is no accident that the flattening of theology has taken place in direct proportion to the growth and intensity of environmental noise, not only audible sounds but disturbances of the atmosphere such as microwaves and electricity. Silence is now commonly thought of as the relative absence of perceptible noise. To be sure, there is still some gesturing towards silence as a context for apophasis or as the synapse of communication, and the Swanwick Declaration of 1987, perhaps with some unconscious exasperation, states that it is only in silence that strangers become pilgrims together. But even this understanding of silence is vulnerable to the inchoate reverberations of ‘poor little talkative Christianity’ echoing through sealed ecclesiastical structures, evoking the terror of a Mrs. Moore in the Marabar cave.[i]
There is also ‘the post-structuralist commonplace that language constructs the reality it seems merely to refer to; therefore all texts are fictions (some more useful than others), whether they acknowledge it or not.’[ii] But the complete silence of a suspended self-consciousness is the one reality that language cannot construct,[iii] and while there are important parallels between deconstructive theory and negative theology, deconstructionist notions of God are notoriously unsophisticated and self-conscious.[iv] Silence as mere anti-noise cannot provide multidimensionality.
A similar paradox occurs in painting. When the art of perspective was rediscovered in the 14th century, multidimensionality of representation was lost, and religious art, like the doctrine that was its cultural context, ceased to have the transparency and multivalence of icons, and took on the opacity of image that arises from the illusion of control over three dimensions. This paradox is startlingly revealed to the visitor to rooms 54 and 55 of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, or by any collection of medieval art that is exhibited chronologically.
That is to say, the experience of infinite dimensionality associated with the contemplation of icons that draws the viewer into the picture was sacrificed for an illusion of dimensionality that is merely visual and situated in time, and keeps the viewer at a distance. There is a sense with these paintings that whatever landscape is out of sight will be just as cluttered as that at which the viewer is looking. To put this another way: the icon is a catalyst for the suspension of self-consciousness, and icon painters attest to the need for purification of self-consciousness as a prerequisite for their task, while the paintings that rediscover perspective are reflexive, seeming all too often to advertise the cleverness of their creators.[v]
There are exceptions, of course: ‘The Magdalene Reading’ by Rogier van der Weyden is one, and there are some profoundly contemplative portraits with non-figurative or apophatic backgrounds such as the ‘Portrait of a Lady’ attributed to his school, and, later, much of Rembrandt’s work, particularly his ‘Portrait of an Old Woman Reading’, or the 19th century portrait by Ingres of Louis-François Bertin. But in general, what seems to emerge in painting is not so much naturalism as stereotype and caricature, and this same statement might be made about much theology after Thomas Gallus.[vi] By contrast, the writings of Julian of Norwich recall the importance of multidimensional perspective precisely as it relates to the transfiguration of perception, and her theologizing confutes the trends of her day in art and theology alike.
But to return to silence: what is needed to restore multidimensionality to Christian theology is not recognition of the restful qualities of anti-noise, but rather an exegesis of silence. Space precludes more than gesturing in the direction of some of the areas that need exploration.
There are at least as many kinds of silence as there are human beings living in time. Along with this infinite diversity of silence, some of which is subject to human manipulation, there is a complete silence common to all humanity, a gift that language can neither create nor intrude upon. This silence, the complete suspension of self-consciousness, cannot be achieved in any sense or grasped by any means. To use the words ‘achieve’ or ‘grasp’ in regard to this sort of silence is a contradiction, for the methodology for becoming available to silence and its completeness is ungrasping,[vii] and its bestowal is entirely gratuitous.
An example of a good theological exposition of this point that is flawed by language disconnected from the insights of praxis -- the word ‘grasp’ in this context -- is Ross Thompson's:
'...metaphysical versions of transcendence that are not rooted in the experience of immanence belittle God. They open up an ontological space that is vulnerable to all-too-human projections and wish-fulfillment. The tyrant God, the punishing and rewarding super-daddy in the sky, Blake's "old nobodaddy aloft", readily steps in to occupy this "transcendence" as his mighty throne. But the feminists are right to unmask him as the phallus writ large. For the next step in the argument that God is beyond you and high above your working out, is always that this transcendent God has revealed himself through his Scripture, his Church, his preacher: you must abdicate your reason and submit to Authority.
'By contrast, ontological immanence and the (mainly) epistemological transcendence that it implies, plunge us into the dark night of unknowing, and purge us of such all-too-human nightmares and dreams; and plunge and purge Scripture, Church and preacher along with us....' [viii]
[i] E.M. Forster, A Passage to India, (London, Penguin, 1989), p. 161.
[ii] David Lodge in his review of Lawrence in Love by John Worthen, in The New York Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, 13 February, 1992, p. 27.
[iii] I include non-verbal signs in this use of ‘language’. In the Oliver Sacks article cited above, there are some interesting conjectures about the role of language and interior silence.
[iv] We are equally reminded by Marius Buning that ‘Given Derida’s axiomatic position on “différence” (or undecidability) as the infinite interplay between presence and absence, and on the “trace” as the sign that ‘erases itself in presenting itself’, his point [that he is not a negative theologian] is well taken, although one may wonder whether Meister Eckhart’s bold “theology of negation”, and in particular his notion of detachment, is not closer to the praxis of deconstuction than Professor Derrida seems willing to admit.’ From his review of Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory ed. S. Budick and W. Iser, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989 in the Journal of Literature and Theology, Vol. 5, No. 4, December, 1991 p. 408.
[v] Robert Lentz’s ‘icons’ are not icons at all but paintings that echo iconic conventions. Their provocative subjectmatter and presentation are necessarily reflexive.
[vi] For an account of the roots of linearity, see “Visions of the Self in Late Medieval Christianity: Some Cross-Disciplinary Reflections” by Sarah Coakley, in Philosophy, Religion and the Spiritual Life -- Papers of the Royal Institute of Philsophy Conference, Liverpool, 1991, ed. M. McGhee, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992).
[vii] See, for example, Gregory of Nyssa’s Sixth Homily on the Song of Songs; see Martin Laird, OSA, ‘The Epektasis of Man and the Presence of God in Gregory of Nyssa’s In Canticum Canticorum, Oratio VI,’ unpublished S.T.L. thesis, Rome, Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum.
[viii] ‘Immanence Unknown’, p. 23.