The dazzling darkness

The dazzling darkness

~And Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was (Exod. 20.21).

“Apophaticism” is a strange word by any stretch of the imagination.

In theology, it refers to our inability to put God into speech. The true God is transcendent. He is mysterious. And because he is not an object in creation—like a beetle or a bag of marbles—all attempts to define and explain him exhaustively must fall short.

Like trying to pin a living tiger to the cardboard matting of one’s bug collection.

This is so, because, as T.S. Eliot wrote:

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish

So while we cannot do justice to what God IS, we can say some things about what God is NOT—while leaving space for mystery. This is apophasis.

As most acknowledge, this apophatic approach should be balanced by “cataphasis,” which refers to what can be said of God. This includes the reality that God is love, that he is holy, and many other things besides.

Yet while all these cataphatic claims are true, the apophatic tradition emphasizes that there are shadowlands as well—blank spaces on our maps. And at these points, our knowledge bumps against the veil of the infinite—or what Sarah Coakley of Cambridge calls “the dazzling darkness.”

I’ve been thinking of this recently because the Scottish Journal of Theology has just published an article of mine in which I engage with both Coakley and N.T. Wright regarding Paul, apophasis, the Holy Spirit, and the mystical tradition (see here).

I won’t attempt to duplicate that here, but I would like to ask a couple questions about the promise and the pitfalls of a more “apophatic” faith.  First, the promise.

THE PROMISE

One virtue of apophaticism is that some use of it is manifestly biblical.

Paul, for instance, glories in the fact that God’s judgments are “unsearchable,” and his paths “beyond tracing out.”

            Who has known the mind of the Lord?

Or who has been his counselor? (Rom. 11.34).

Beyond tracing.

This phrase strikes me, because while the inability to understand God often troubles us moderns, Paul sees it as a cause for worship (“To him be the glory forever!” [vs.36]).

One reason is that if you can “trace” your deity, you can be darn sure you’re worshiping an idol.

Idols are traceable; YHWH is not.

And this mystery is evident even in God’s clearest revelations.

Take Romans for instance. Here, Paul writes that:

since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen… (1.20).

The passage is clear that God has revealed himself through the created order: sunsets, supernovas, and the miracle of newborn life. The revelation is clearly seen. Yet note what is “seen”: God’s “invisible qualities.”

Can you describe for me what invisible qualities look like? Can you trace them? Please, draw me a picture of an invisible cat (*C.S. Lewis reference).

Perhaps the lesson here is that even amid the clarity of revelation, there is mystery and an overthrow of overreaching human intellect.

To acknowledge this seems important for those of us (read: me) who make a living talking and writing about God. There is a danger for me to pretend that I have “traced” the untraceable. And, once again, the biblical word for this is IDOLATRY.

At such points, apophasis can be helpful if I allow my pride to be pierced by what the Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius called “a ray of darkness.”

This is necessary, not just because of the great distance between God and I – but because of the great CLOSENESS. As the theologian Karen Kilby notes, our life “in” God makes it impossible to step back and view him from afar.

As Paul states in Acts 17: “In him we live and move and have our being.”

So in the same way that sitting inside a Boeing 747 makes it impossible to view the plane from a distance, so too our life in God makes “tracing” him impossible.

This, then, is the promise of apophaticism: (1) the piercing of our pride, and (2) a guard against idolatry.

What though about the pitfalls?

THE PITFALLS

When taken too far, however, apophasis may be a gateway drug to another A-word: agnosticism.

In my academic response to Coakley, I took issue (politely) with her description of the Christian life as “a love affair with a blank.”

Because while faith may sometimes feel like this (Eloi; Eloi…), Christians also believe that God has revealed himself in concrete ways: in the Scriptures, and most importantly, in Jesus Christ.

To forget this is to stand in the Areopagus of Acts 17 and bow down to that statue of “THE UNKNOWN GOD.”

In some cases, I suspect that the renewed interest in apophaticism (while helpful to a point) may be an academic attempt to avoid the uncomfortable clarity of Scripture at various points.

And when this happens, the “dazzling darkness” hides more pernicious spirits.

There is mystery, to be sure.

And there are “rays of darkness” that must pierce our prideful attempts to trace divinity.

But there are also rays of light.

Christ is the image of the invisible God. And to glimpse his character is to see the heart of the divine.

Why I’d rather lose my religious liberty than vote for Donald Trump

Why I’d rather lose my religious liberty than vote for Donald Trump

“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

And while Donald Trump said this of women, it’s been more true of his relationship with the Religious Right.

In short, Donald Trump has treated the bride of Christ just like the other married women in that disgusting audio recording. Yet unlike more honorable brides, some evangelical leaders have done nothing to resist his self-serving advances.

This, indeed, is a profound mystery. But I am talking about Trump and the church.

prolifememe

To be honest, I thought I’d written my last post on this subject.

Then came the audio of Trump bragging about his sexual assaults. And yes, that is the proper word for it (You just “Grab them by the p—y; you can do anything!”).

So here we are. Once more unto the breach.

In past posts (for newcomers):

  • I lamented the fact that democracy gives you the candidates you deserve (here);
  • I predicted that despite playing coy initially, evangelicals would ultimately flock to Trump (here) like moths to an orange and hairspray-fueled flame.
  • And I argued that choosing the “lesser of two evils” is not always a rule to live by (here).
  • I’ve also made it clear, that I am no fan of Trump’s main opponent.
  • And I suggested (here) that, for me personally, focusing my voting energy on local and statewide issues is a solution to the high-stakes game of “Would you rather…?” that is the Presidential race.

Along slightly different lines, I also appreciated my pastor’s wise advice to think for yourself, to think biblically, and to vote accordingly.

This post, however, is about a different topic.

THE “RELIGIOUS LIBERTY” ARGUMENT

As many of my Christian friends more-or-less concede, Donald Trump is a lecherous braggart with no serious proposals, the temperament of a toddler, and a penchant for racism and misogyny.

But… they say… We still must vote for him, because if we don’t, we’ll lose our religious liberties. And that “trumps” everything.

I respect people who say this.

And indeed, one of the things I like about academics is that we often disagree (even in print), not because we dislike one another, but because critique brings clarity, and that helps us all.

In fact, amongst esteemed professors, the way you honor someone is to gather their friends from around the globe, and publically critique their work. 🙂

And while that may seem strange, there is something beautiful about it too, because it says that even severe disagreement need not sever friendship.

(Now back to the issue.)

THE GRAIN OF TRUTH

As best I can tell, the logic of the “religious liberty” argument runs as follows:

Christianity is under attack. And if we don’t elect this admittedly horrible person, we will face further marginalization in the future.

(Note: I toned down the prior sentence in the editing process. Originally, it read: “orange-tinted sexual predator,” but I will not say that. Many others are saying it. I will not.)

And to be honest, there are bits of the religious liberty narrative to which I’m somewhat sympathetic.

It concerns me that our culture has confused “tolerance” with “agreement” (see here). And there are some areas in which liberty has been eroded.

The problem, however, is not just that the threat is sometimes exaggerated.

The deeper issue is the assumption that Christians should publicly join themselves with truly horrible individuals (and ideas) in exchange for promised “favors.”

That’s not prophetic witness. It’s closer to prostitution.

THE EVANGELICAL FUTURE

And my fear, which is rapidly materializing, is that American evangelicalism will suffer permanent damage for its shameful part in Trump’s doomed and degenerate campaign.

Here are just a few:

  • We will increasingly be seen as a “White’s only” movement – and if you don’t believe that, just ask my black and Latino students.
  • We will increasingly be known as a misogynistic movement, which has been a concern already, given the way certain evangelicals have tried to keep women from serving in leadership roles.
  • And we will increasingly be an “over sixty” movement, because one needs only to look at the Stats to see that my own generation has little stomach for Trump, or for those who try to force us into supporting him in the name of Jesus.

White guys. Over sixty.

That is not the kingdom of God.

But it is in danger of becoming “American evangelicalism.”

MY PERSONAL OPINION

So what’s my personal answer to the religious liberty argument?

Here it is:

As a Christian, and a father of two girls, I would rather lose every shred of my religious freedom than align myself with this truly vile human being.

In fact, I would rather have Christianity assailed from without (by liberalism) than corrupted from within.

As history shows, we can survive being marginalized. We can even survive persecution (though the “p-word” is sometimes overused by the Religious Right).

But we cannot so easily survive brazen complicity with the worst elements of human behavior. Nor do we deserve to.

So, yes, I still care deeply about abortion, the supreme court, religious liberty, and everything else.

But as Christ’s bride, I will not be treated like that married woman who Trump took “furniture shopping” in an effort to buy her body.

I did try and f— her. She was married. And I moved on her very heavily.

Some things are more important than “furniture.”

And some things are more important than political favors.

That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.


Now a brief addition to the original post to address a common critique:

I should probably clarify at this point, what I am NOT saying.  I am not saying (as some seem to think) that we, as Christians should simply “give away” our liberties or treat them lightly (Thus, the intentional use of the word “lose” instead of “give” in my admittedly hyperbolic title).

Since true liberties are given by God, they should not be encroached upon by anyone.  Period.  Nor should they be “given up” without right resistance. I’m not proposing that we stop caring about religious liberty–in fact, I explicitly state that I do care about it, and that there are areas of concern.

What I am saying is that the church should stay true to Christ and his values (which, for me, means saying “No” to both candidates). And if that means having to face further marginalization in the future, then we must face that also by staying true to Christ.

Nothing is gained by linking arms with a truly destructive and dangerous candidate simply because he promises certain favors to one particular group. In sum, I do not think this is a particularly controversial idea and there is ample precedent for it in the Scriptures.

 

 

Mow the backyard: A parable about priorities

Mow the backyard: A parable about priorities

For the first time in months, the weather here in Oklahoma has been beautiful. Temps have been in the 70s; it’s been sunny with a light breeze, and it finally feels great to be outside.

So I celebrated by mowing.

During summers, the heat and humidity are such that yard work sounds about as enjoyable as standing in a steady drizzle of dead cats.[1]

Which is to say: not very. But the other day, the weather was so nice that I actually mowed both front and back yards. Consecutively. Like a champion.

This has been rare.

One reason is that our new house has a sprinkler system, which means that we actually have grass now, and it grows quickly. And while our new yard is larger than the old one, my push mower is the same. So I’ve been compensating by paying much more attention to the front yard while the back has been neglected.

My reasoning was simple: The front yard is the part that people see. It reflects my character as a citizen—which is also why it’s devoid of presidential campaign signs. And it gives me a sense of pride to see it neatly edged and manicured. I am respectable. I drive a Dodge Stratus. Look at my lawn.

The backyard is hidden. So I have an excuse. As a result, the grass grew tall; the wasps made a home in our not-yet-fully-reassembled play set. Penelope and I got stung. (One of us cried.) And the general state of the backyard has been one of disregard and disarray.

And that’s a shame.

Because the backyard is the one we actually use. It’s where the life is. There’s a kiddie pool with moss and sidewalk chalk inside. The backyard is where we barbecue. And it’s where the kids can run and play (amid the wasps and jungle grass).

In short, I’ve been neglecting the yard we use in order to keep up the one that’s for show.

And somewhere in there is a parable about priorities.

“If you have ears to hear, then hear.”

At some point, all of us are tempted to spend lots of time and energy on the parts of life that people see, while neglecting the important parts that remain more hidden.

Jesus likened this to cleaning the outside of a cup while leaving the inside dirty and disgusting.

And it involves more than just lawn care.

More serious examples include:

  • Speaking kindly to friends and coworkers, while being short with a spouse.
  • Spending hours on a project or presentation while neglecting personal enrichment.
  • Ignoring the kids in order to find that perfect “filter” to display that photo of you and the kids.
  • Sacrificing one’s health on the altar of success.
  • Or sacrificing one’s soul on the altar of physical appearance.

In all of this, the “front lawn” takes precedence, while the “backyard” goes to hell.

So while I often fail to live up to this, my goal in the coming weeks is to “mow the backyard” (both literally and metaphorically), even if that means that the more visible parts of life look just a little less impressive.

Because while I enjoy being seen as a respectable citizen, that’s not the most important thing.

Besides, no one looks respectable while crying from a wasp sting.


 

[1] This disgusting and fantastic phrase was stolen from David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Art Making, p. 80.