How to Speak of God (Or Not)

Anyone who knows me personally knows how much I love it when different subjects or things I am studying interconnect and synthesize into a meaningful whole. I got to experience that today with the second meditation of Atheism for Lent.

Today’s reflection was the introduction from Peter Rollins’ book How (Not) To Speak of God. I have linked if if you would like to read it for yourself; it’s not that long and it is quite interesting.

To quickly summarize: Rollins is considering the implications of what we can and yet cannot say about God. He mentions two tensions: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” and “God is the one subject of whom we must never stop speaking.” These two tensions, while seeming oil and water at first, exist together, inform each other,  and enrich each other. Rollins says that he comes to Christian mystics when he is confronted by this dilemma of to speak or not to speak of God. I’ll share the larger quote here because it’s great:

Each time I returned to the horns of this dilemma I found myself drawn to the Christian mystics (such as Meister Eckhart), for while they did not embrace total silence they balked at the presumption of those who would seek to colonise the name ‘God’ with concepts. Instead of viewing the unspeakable as that which brings all language to a halt they realised the unspeakable was precisely the place where the most inspiring language began. This God whose name was above every name gave birth, not to a poverty of words, but to an excess of them. And so they wrote elegantly concerning the limits of writing and spoke eloquently about the brutality of words. By speaking with wounded words of their wounded Christ these mystics helped to develop, not a distinct religious tradition, but rather a way of engaging with and understanding already existing religious traditions: seeing them as a loving response to God rather than a way of defining God.

These writings of the mystics are typically overlooked in western Christianity. It’s certainly been true in my own personal experience with evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity. There is this certainty that is pervasive in the language we use to talk about God. We say “God is good. He is a Father. He is all-knowing. He is a Savior. He is the Lamb. He is Adonai. He is YHWH. He is I am. He is just. He is merciful.” I could go on.

But language always fails, does it not? Think about it. Is God really a father? What is the meaning of the word father to us? It is a man who is a parent, who has contributed his sperm to forming offspring. Did God do that? Did God contribute his sperm to form offspring? Did he form us? God is not a father. But we still call him that, because it is the only way we can use language to describe him in a certain situation. God is not not a father. Language fails. We can’t say he’s a father, but we also can’t say he is not a father, because at the end of the day, we just don’t know. We just have to keep using language to try and attempt to understand. We talk about the unknowable, knowing that we cannot reach actual understanding. But we must never stop speaking. There is a palpable tension when we speak of God. The tension must remain:

“That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking For the mystic God was neither an unspeakable secret to be passed over in silence, nor a dissipated secret that had been laid bare in revelation. Rather the mystic approached God as a secret that one was compelled to share, yet which retained its secrecy.”

It took me awhile to get to my point about synthesis and connections in my studies. A few weeks ago I attended a morning class at UBC in Waco where we read portions of The Mystical Theology by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the father of Christian mysticism. Do you see the connection?

Pseudo-Dionysius basically wrote the book on how to speak of God. We had a really great discussion on this short work, which I will link at the bottom if you’d like to read. I basically explained our conversation in the paragraph above about God being a father (or not).

Basically, words fail. But they’re all we have to try and understand God. Even if he is unknowable.

Here is the prayer with which he opens the work:

Trinity!! Higher than any being,
any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians
in the wisdom of heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,
up to the farthest, highest peak
of mystic scripture,
where the mysteries of God’s Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
they pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
they completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.

 

Side note: just by referring to God as a “he” I am demonstrating the severe limits of language. God isn’t gendered. Think about it.

Grace and peace.


Notes:

The Mystical Theology

Introduction to “How (not) to Speak of God

God Our Mother This is a liturgy using apophatic meditation. It takes you through the steps I mentioned above: “God is a father. God is not a father. God is not not a father.” It’s super helpful to help consider the limits of language in understanding of God.

Atheism for Lent

You’ve heard the story
You know how it goes
Once upon a garden
We were lovers with no clothes

Fresh from the soil
We were beautiful and true
In control of our emotions
‘Til we ate the poisoned fruit
And now it’s

[Chorus]
Hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be
A decent human being

Wait just a minute
You expect me to believe
That all this misbehaving
Came from one enchanted tree?

And helpless to fight it
We should all be satisfied
With this magical explanation
For why the living die?

[Chorus]

Child birth is painful
We toil to grow our food
Ignorance has made us hungry
Information made us no good
Every burden misunderstood

I swung my tassel
To the left side of my cap
Knowing after graduation
There would be no going back

And no congratulations
From my faithful family
Some of who are already fasting
To intercede for me
Because it’s

Hard to be, hard to be, hard to be a decent human being.

-David Bazan, “Hard to Be”


It is Ash Wednesday, and like so many Christians around the world I am observing Lent this year. I thought it would be a good start to this blog by writing at the beginning of something.

Lent is meant to bring one into suffering alongside Christ. 40 days of suffering yield to joy on Easter. These days it seems that people use it like a restart to their New Year’s Resolutions. Give up chocolate, soda, or sex for 40 days. Suffer without it. Pat yourself on the back when you make it halfway. No offense to those people, but eh.

Lent is marking a renewal of sorts for me. I walked away from the Christian church in August 2015. I’m just now making my way back. I have never been turned off from the church by Jesus. Or by a believer in another faith. Or by an atheist. It’s always been a Christian that makes me want to walk away. I’m trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But it’s difficult. So I’m taking the opportunity of the Lenten season to do a few things to try and strengthen my faith in Jesus and his teachings.

  1. Atheism for Lent: the wonderful Peter Rollins offers a 40 day Lenten program to take Christians through the greatest critiques of Christianity and of God. Reading writings from atheists and critiquers of religion “not to judge them, but to let them judge us.” This year’s theme is about the love affair between atheism and theism. One doesn’t exist without the other. I’m really excited about this, because I’ve reclaimed a much more progressive Christianity that listens to other voices and doesn’t exist in a fundamentalist echo chamber.
  2. The Liturgists Lent meditations: I’ve followed the Liturgists for some time now. Finding them helped me to keep from totally unravelling. This year, they are releasing meditations daily for their Patreon subscribers. I became a patron just so I could get access to these liturgies. They take the form of Lectio Divinia, which is a standard and highly used practice for Christian meditation.
  3. Bye Facebook: I wasn’t going to do this until just about an hour ago. But I decided that Facebook is completely unhelpful to what I am attempting to do this Lenten season. It’s a time suck, it gets me riled up, and I find that fundamentalist Christians on the internet make me hate God. Especially Christians who voted for 45. There is such a disconnect between the love of Christ and that man. I do not understand it. And so, I will stop attempting to understand it, and will stay off Facebook for Lent mainly to focus on the first two things I’m doing: Atheism for Lent and daily meditation practice.

The above song lyrics are from David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion fame). His 2009 album Curse Your Branches has been my Lenten playlist today. It seems fitting, since he so eloquently and emotionally struggles with his doubts on this album. It’s worth taking a look at the sincere criticisms of Christianity and religion. That’s exactly what I intend to do for the next 40 days.

Are you observing Lent? Tell me about it in the comments below!