There are two brands of atheists who won’t admit it: religious people who are so liberal that they eviscerate their faith, removing all the dogma and existential claims until it becomes a form of humanism couched in religious language, with God so nebulous that he can’t be described—or even imagined. The other is the true atheist who hides behind labels like “nonbeliever” or “agnostic.” This morning we’ll feature both sorts.
An example of the first type is David Bryant, a retired Anglican vicar who has written an amazing piece at the Guardian, “God is unknowable—stop looking for him and you will find faith.” Bryant is so apophatic that he might as well be an atheist.
Apophatic theology has always puzzled me for two reasons. First, because it attempts to deal with God by asserting what he is not. (I use “he” by default since one of the things we can’t know is God’s gender, or if God has a gender.) How can one worship something like that? The second problem is related: if you’re going to describe god in terms of what he is not, then why not add that we don’t know whether he exists? After all, existence is one of the things we can’t know, or don’t know, about a god. And if an apophatic believer goes one “not” further—as she should—then she becomes an atheist. I claim that dealing with a god by arguing about what it is not, or by what we can’t know about it, is a self-defeating exercise, because it still accepts that there is some sort of divine being—a claim as unevidenced as that about the nature of said being.
Bryant is one of these religious people a hairsbreadth from nonbelief. And yet, embracing the ludicrous and intellectually dishonest theology of apophatism, he manages to find advantages in it! This is perfectly in line with Sophisticated Theologians’™ skill at turning empirical necessities into spiritual virtues. In this case, the necessity is explaining the problem of gratuitous evil.
But first Bryant describes his faith:
Faith is not the progressive unearthing of God’s nature but a recognition that he/she is fundamentally unknowable. The signpost points not to growing certainty but towards increasing non-knowing. This is not as outrageous as it seems. An apophatic thread, a belief that the only way to conceive of God is through conceding that he is ineffable, runs throughout Christian history.
It’s science and reason, by the way, that has convinced people like Bryant that “non-knowing” is increasing. Here his “faith” is intellectually honest in one sense: there’s no way to know what God is like. But it’s intellectually dishonest in claiming that there’s a God anyway. It’s like saying that since we don’t know what Bigfoot is like, or have evidence for it, we’ll worship it anyway and hope for the best.
But here’s the Big Problem that apophatic theology solves for Bryant it dispenses with theodicy.
This redirectioning of the spiritual path has fruitful offshoots. We no longer have to ask why God orders the world in such an unsatisfactory way, allowing cancer cells and war to proliferate. Nor do we have to bombard him with prayer in order to achieve our desired ends. Such dialogue is only sustainable if you posit a personal being.
As Church Lady would say, “Now isn’t that convenient!” But that isn’t really pure apophatism, as it pinpoints real characteristics of God: apathy and powerlessness. For if there is a divine being, and it has any recognition of human existence, and any power, then we must conclude that it doesn’t give a rat’s patootie—or does but is impotent It is a positive claim that God can’t, or doesn’t do anything about suffering. Bryant has found a theology that is intellectually dishonest and self-contradictory, but still allows him to avoid thinking about evil.
And what kind of faith is he left with? This:
Is anything left or does this destroy the very fabric of spirituality? What remains is a Quakerlike silence during which we can respond to the numinous, develop our perceptions, hone our morality and enhance our wonder at the staggering complexity of the universe. Instead of ranting at the arbitrariness and high-handed conduct of the God we have invented, it is now possible to rest in a cloud of unknowing which gives us time and space in which to reflect on the fundamental questions of life. Why am I here? How can I best deport myself in this bewildering world?
Now tell me: how does this differ from secular humanism? Only in assuming the question “Why am I here?” has a divine answer. But that’s not worth pondering, either, because apophatic theology stipulates that we can’t answer it.
But Bryant underscores the huge advantages of negative theology:
At first sight this is a distinctly uncomfortable stance. It leaves us rudderless in a sea of uncertainty. All the old props of a father God, prayer as colloquy with a personal deity and faith as a clear-cut assent to a set of credal formulations has been deconstructed and abandoned.
Persist and the rewards are immense. There is an exhilarating sense of newfound freedom. It releases us from the burden of kowtowing to the dictates of a holy book and it relieves us of the intellectual difficulties of accepting the dogmatic assertions of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. We are liberated and can follow our own spiritual path.
Try atheism, Reverend Bryant, and you’ll find real freedom! No need to even think about the numinous!
Bryant’s brand of “faith” not only leaves one rudderless in a sea of uncertainty, but ridiculous in a sea of uncertainty. And nobody’s going to be convinced by this line of argument except rarefied intellectuals (if that term applies) like Karen Armstrong. Who wants to think that they don’t know anything about God—even whether he’s merciful and loving? There’s a reason why there’s no Church of the Ineffable Savior.
Apophatism is the faith of the intellectual coward. But it has one advantage: if it mandates a “Quakerlike silence,” then religious people will finally stop beleaguering us with their insupportable beliefs.