Friday, May 29, 2015

The appeal of apophatic theology

Earlier I was told that skepticism leads to apophaticism.* I wholeheartedly disagree. As I replied on the spot:
Apophaticism is not a result of skepticism, but a result of deep and careful thinking of the sort that always leads non-emotional, logic-abiding people to apophatic theology. 
I am not suggesting that logic abiding, non-emotional people are superior, only that this particular temperament leads to apophaticism. 
Wonderful, brilliant people who are, say, emotional - feelers end up elsewhere. 
But just as it wasn't skepticism that brought them to, say mysticism, it isn't skepticism that brought us to apophaticism
Let me tell you in just two words what I find so appealing about the apophatic line of thinking:

Its honest

Non apophatic Jews are forever making unsustainable claims on God's behalf. He needs our prayers. He wants us to do mitzvos. Our actions make him happy. He can be swayed to act differently toward us when we chant his praises. He can be bribed with compliments and symbolic deeds.

The only intelligent response to any of this is: How do you know?

And if, after realizing that you CAN'T know, you choose to think about it further, you'll see the central claims of apophaticism are unavoidably true: You can't accurately conceptualize something as unknowable as God. You can't speak positively about any of his deeds or actions. You can't acquire any real knowledge of God, or find words that describe Him fully.

Here's an analogy. 

Pretend you don't know the first thing about chess. You've never seen the game pieces and you don't know the rules. Now try to offer meaningful, accurate, honest, specific praise of Bobby Fisher.Ty to make a claim about the great chess-master's chess-playing abilities that aren't at best vague and at worst infantile and trivial. It can't be done.

Now compare the chess ignoramus's relationship with Bobby Fisher to our relationship with God. Can't you see that we have far less understanding of God's greatness, His brilliance, and His works? So now that its been established that we lack the ability to meaningfully understand anything about God or to say anything definitive and true about Him what are your choices? Do you go on making trivial, vague, infantile claims about God? Or do you embrace apophatic theology?

*Apophaticism is not deism, A classical deist is certain that God created the world, and certain that God has little or no direct involvement in that creation. Apophatic theology has no such certainties. It defines God by what He is not, and makes no positive claims about Him (such as those made by deists, viz, God has nothing to do with the creation.)

I want to provide you with an example of the trivial and the infantile. 

Because we know nothing about God, we have no choice but to personify him. All of us do this. But not all personifications are the same. For some reason, our culture deems it pious and preferable to personify God as an eight year old. In the imagination of the ordinary Orthodox Jew, God is a boy king sitting in his sky palace waiting for homage and genuflections. He likes hearing us praise His name. Our chants make Him merry and arouse His mercy. Odd symbolic acts - a key in the challa, a strap wrapped around the arm - compel him to bless us with health and riches and other rewards. How can a grown man accept this? How can He choose to worship such a childlike diety?

Which is why other personifications are preferable. Try it yourself. Instead of thinking of God in the terms described above, try to imagine him as a brilliant professor or a great athlete. You can't even begin to understand how his mind works. You can't meaningfully exist on the same playing field as he can. In fact you can't relate to him at all. But you can, perhaps, begin to emulate him, and through those acts of emulation you can become more like him, and as a result of becoming more like him various privileges and opportunities become available to you as the natural result of the changes you have made.

I am not saying that this second way of thinking is any more likely to be true than the first, but can't you agree that it's more mature and more respectful of God?

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