XV Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model...
Theology’s loss of contact with its incarnational referents in the constants of human experience has led to the establishment of doctrines based on a so-called natural law that has little to do with the way the creation is made; to the establishment of ecclesial structures that can neither be justified nor sustained; to transmitting language it no longer understands and which is becoming increasingly debased, and imagery both misapplied and rendered vacuous in the contemporary world.
There is great value in the ancient treasure of Christianity for the present world, but only if it is restored to its function as a way of transfiguration for every aspect of the creation, beginning with the individual human heart. Within the apophatic tradition, the paradox of vulnerability and power and the laws governing the human psyche are richly revealed, and the awakening of human aspiration to the truth of the self entails reverence for the Otherness of all creation, and a socio-environmental contract that provides for an optimal balance between order and freedom. Grace builds on the dynamics of nature and is reciprocal with it; the God who indwells the creation is revealed at its centre, which is Otherness.
The possibility of recovering Christianity’s theological psychology and restoring the relational cluster of [2012 praxis]-theology-religion-psychology-apophasis suggests wide-ranging implications, of which there is space to mention but a few. First, there is no need to fracture theology and religion into mutually dismissive factions. These factions arise from a) the dismantling of descriptor paradoxes into premises, which are contradictory and b) political power struggles masking under the guise of theology and ecclesiastical polity.[i]
Once the fundamental descriptor paradoxes of the reciprocal indwelling of the divine and human from which religion emerges are recovered, there is no contradiction between reason and revelation; they are complementary. There is no contradiction between the ‘authority’ of scripture and the modern claims of biblical criticism. Scripture’s authority arises from the fact that it preserves the descriptor paradoxes and parables intact, which may be mined far more richly than the banal literalism extracted by those who most vociferously claim biblical authority. And this banality is rightly challenged. The virgin birth, for example, is not a story of miraculous membranes but refers to the tradition of single-heartedness preserved in Syriac (semitic) Christianity that harks back to the reciprocal singleness of heart symbolized by the empty mercy seat in the holy of holies, the self-conscious ritualisation of a primordial wilderness.
Equally, the resurrection is not ‘a conjuring trick with bones’ but new life beyond imagining which is given to those who enter their full likeness to God by mirroring the divine kenosis, by relinquishing the material illusions of the super-ego that pass for life and by entering the silence from which this new life emerges. Fear of death and questions about life after death become category mistakes because death is restored to its proper integration with life and is repeatedly encountered in the jouissance of the kenotic, ekstasis, the suspension of self-consciousness in its infinite manifestations. Without the multidimensionality of death, all of life becomes flattened. From this repeated entry into silence emerges the full richness of life.
With awareness of the dynamics of self-consciousness, it becomes starkly evident that what happens in the book of Acts is already a betrayal of the Gospel because the introduction of ordained leaders re-[2012 establishes] the very layer of self-consciousness which it has been Jesus’ mission to suspend. This is not to say that Christianity does not need leadership; it does mean that what leadership there is must be self-effacing in order to enable the union of the believer with the God whose image the worshipper reflects. But present institutional structures and theology of ministry confuse spiritual discipline with secular obedience, and attract many people who perceive an opportunity for ego enhancement, however this is masked as ‘vocation’. Their preparation for ministry does not train them in genuine discernment and apophatic praxis, nor does it reflect the kenotic ideal, much less provide them with the skills to sustain this ideal in themselves and to enable it in others.
All of this does not mean a drive to uniformity, which would be undesirable even if it were possible; nor does it mean the elimination of diversity of styles of worship: all are needed because members of the community are at different stages of maturity in their relationship with God. It does offer the possibility of enabling contemporary Christians to re-examine together the theological psychology that lies at the roots of the precious inheritance that is transmitted through the paradoxes and parables on which Christianity is founded, and to find a more harmonious way forward.
But this can only happen if theological and religious factions will give up scorching the earth with their presumptuous and irrelevant debates, which all too often cloak the lust for power and self-aggrandizement. They must learn the humility and wisdom of earlier theologians such as John the Solitary,[ii] and accede to the leading of a four-year-old child who remains mute in Kuwait.
[i] See my Pillars of Flame for an extended exposition.
[ii] ‘How long shall I be in the world of the voice and not in the world of the word? For everything that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I be voice and not silence, when shall I depart from the voice, no longer remaining in things which the voice proclaims? When shall I become word in an awareness of hidden things, when shall I be raised up to silence, to something which neither voice nor word can bring.’ Quoted in ‘John the Solitary, On Prayer’ by S. P. Brock, The Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, Vol. XXX, part 1, 1979, p. 87.