When we try to imagine what God is like we must of necessity use that-which-is-not-God as the raw material for our minds to work on; hence whatever we visualize God to be, He is not, for we have constructed our image out of that which He has made and what He has made is not God. If we insist upon trying to imagine Him, we end with an idol, made not with hands but with thoughts […]
~A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy
In all of the wars and schisms and feuds across the span of civilization, the mystics have always been able to talk to each other. As you ascend up into the “cloud of unknowing,” all the labels and lines we place everywhere just don’t work anymore. Even the lines between atheism and theism become blurred, or more accurately become useless, because both are directed at a concept of God, and by mystic definition God is beyond all concepts, beyond all being itself. This is the idea of God as “hyper-being” that Peter Rollins talks about (here and elsewhere). Without borders to defend, it’s no wonder those in this tradition have always been able to more or less get along.
I remember being fascinated by this kind of thinking through A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, probably over a decade ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since. This great mystery beyond all comprehension, impossible to understand and yet infinitely simple. Tozer opens the door to mysticism, but he doesn’t venture beyond the threshold, unlike those explored in this week of Atheism for Lent, like Meister Eckhart, Anselm, and Simone Weil.
This week picked up where Tozer left me off all those years ago, and further explored concepts of negative or apophatic theology; examples of what was dubbed a “theological atheism”. As Simone Weil wrote, “A case of contradictories which are true. God exists: God does not exist.” Another way of saying it is God is beyond existence. The terms “exist/doesn’t exist” just don’t apply. Another example, from the apophatic side, is that when you say something like “God is my father,” you have to also negate it, like “But not the way I understand fathers.” These are the seas the mystics sail on.
At first this is disorienting, because it’s confusing and runs against the grain of how we think about pretty much everything. But what I’ve found, this week and at other times when I’ve engaged this type of thinking, is that it produces a solemn, humble reverence. Not knowing can produce anxiety, we’re wired that way (I don’t know if there’s a lion in that bush, so I’m afraid of it), but this active un-knowing actually eases that anxiety by relieving us of the pressure to know. I don’t have to figure it out anymore, I’m more open to simply be and experience, and explore for the sheer joy of exploring.
So forgive the abstruse post, but I’ve been hanging out with a bunch of dead mystics for the last week. If you want to dig in a little deeper, a good place to start is with everyone’s favorite friar, Richard Rohr. Here’s a good interview with him, and here’s another.
Peace and Tenacity,