Nothingness

I am reading – very slowly – Heisig’s book on the Kyoto philosophers*. I am very attracted by their insights into nothingness, the void, sunyata, etc. The more I think about it the more the apophatic approach, or negative theology, seems to be the right one for today. It is interesting that Rowan Williams is being criticised by the evangelical wing of his Church precisely for his negative theology. There are many reasons why I think it is right for now – the most important being that it situates God where he actually is. It answers all those ‘If God is good, or all-powerful, or just, why…’ questions by showing that such questions do not apply. It does not answer the question which wonders how an utterly transcendent and/or transcendentally immanent God can be approached. But the unanswerability of such a question does force us to re-examine our assumptions and especially to search for those hidden assumptions which prevent us from seeing and questioning. Negative theologians are a bit like the little boy who saw that the emperor had no clothes. All our God talk is not about God at all but about our conceptions and our ideas. This is not to say that the cataphatic approach is wrong and that there is no room for symbol, image, metaphor and analogy. Scriptural theology is essential. It is propaedeutic, introducing us to the history of our search for God and leading us, hopefully, into the desert to find him. Unfortunately, as Denys Turner has pointed out, we have tended to cling too tightly to the hand which has led us to the edge of the desert, refusing to let it go, afraid to leave our ideas behind – not just about God but also about ourselves – and set out into the solitary darkness. Theology should lead to prayer, and prayer should lead us into the darkness. There are two aspects to faith. There is fides quaerens intellectum, which is theology, and there is fides qua, the unseeing trust which allows us to let go of the known and the comforting and step out into the unknown.   

The trouble with the dark desert is that you cannot see where you are. You don’t know how far you have come, or where you are going. You might be going round in circles, or just marking time on the same spot. You have nothing to guide you except what The Cloud calls a ‘blind stirring’, of love?.. hope?.. a desperate longing?.. something inarticulate in us which feels right when we persist and feels wrong when we stop. 

*(James W Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School (Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture),   University of Hawaii Press, 2001)

Leave a Reply