Last year I delivered a presentation at a nearby college about science and faith. I spoke of my attraction to so-called negative, or apophatic, theology. This theology is more prominent in the Eastern churches, but is definitely present in the West as well, and builds on more conventional theology by breaking it down in a systematic series of negations. It may sound strange—that it builds by negation—but that’s an important paradox.
After the presentation a fellow near the front raised his hand and asked how this theology is different from atheism. I was taken aback, but not because his question offended me. Instead, it struck me just how well the questioner had understood what I had said. I fumbled around a bit, hardly knowing what to tell him. I escaped with some cryptic-sounding remark like, This theology is beyond atheism. I meant it when I said it, although I didn’t understand it at the time. But I do now.
It was a gentleman named Denys Turner who helped me figure it out. Turner is a professor of theology at Yale. Last week I read a remarkable essay of his called “Apophaticism, Idolatry, and the Claims of Reason.” In it he tells this story.
Some years ago, and in younger, more foolhardy days, finding myself in a tight spot in a public debate with a philosopher atheist at Bristol University, I made a wager with my audience: I would give anyone present five minutes to explain his or her reasons for atheism and if, after that, I could not guess correctly the Christian denomination in which that person had been brought up, I would buy her a pint of beer. As luck would have it I was not broke at the subsequent revels.
It turns out that he was not broke because no one took the bet. But the story points out a very interesting idea that Turner pursues in the course of his essay: The atheisms of most committed, principled atheists are often not more than mirror images—inversions—of the theisms they negate. In On Interpretation, Aristotle wrote, “Affirmations and their corresponding negations are one in the same knowledge”; therefore, one can discern from many atheisms their corresponding affirmative theologies.
Turner also writes that, very often, the theisms attacked by atheists are not very interesting; therefore, the atheisms of most committed, principled atheists are not very interesting. Why this is so is not clear; perhaps it is because in many cases theism was abandoned before it was allowed time to develop into something of substance.
“Atheists reject too little,” Turner writes, “This is why their atheisms lack theological interest. The routine principled atheist has but tinkered with religion.” This statement, with which I agree, will be unpacked in the remainder of this essay. In order to speak more specifically about this, I decided to investigate a single atheist’s stated beliefs. Since I have a few Richard Dawkins books on my living room shelf, and because his point of view is known to many, I decided on him.
Dawkins’ Inverted Theism
In The God Delusion, Dawkins presents his central argument against the existence of God in the fourth chapter. His thinking goes something like this: The universe is a complex thing. Therefore the God of the Christians, who, Christians say, made the universe, must be at least as complex as the universe God made. Therefore we are left with an even bigger problem than before: Who made this ultra-complex God? A hyper-complex megaGod? It makes plain sense, according to Occam’s razor, to stop before we get to the first God. The complex universe is enough. Ergo, in all likelihood, God does not exist.
This argument, which boils down to Well, who made God, then?, assumes that God is a thing like any other thing. It assumes that God must exist in the same way the moon exists, in the same way Dawkins himself exists. As Terry Eagleton wrote in his now-infamous review of The God Delusion, Dawkins seems to think that God is “a celestial super-object or divine UFO,” a creature like other creatures, only bigger and smarter: a kind of uberthing, but a thing nonetheless.
If God is a thing like any other thing, then his argument is really good: Any thing-making machine, which is itself a thing like any other thing, must be at least as complex as the thing it makes. In the case of God, the problem is worse, because of the standard Christian claim that God not only created the universe, but sustains it as well. So, if God is a thing like other things then Dawkins’ point is well made.
But nowhere does Dawkins get outside of himself and ask, Is my assumption that God is a thing like any other thing really necessary? On what is this assumption grounded? Where did it come from?
The truth is, despite all his claims to the contrary, Dawkins is a fundamentalist. In the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion, he attempts to distinguish himself from religious fundamentalists by insisting that “nothing will change their minds.” This is true; the average religious fundamentalist is dogmatically rigid and fixed in place. In his own eyes, however, Dawkins is a paragon of broad-minded humility; he writes, “If all the evidence in the universe turned in favor of creationism, I would be the first to admit it, and I would immediately change my mind.” But Dawkins completely overlooks the real issue, which has nothing at all to do with creationism or evolution.
What is at issue here is, Dawkins refuses to examine the ground on which he stands: science itself. That is, Dawkins may change his mind about evolution, but nothing will change his mind about science. He will never question—in a serious way—the sufficiency of science as a guide to truth. Perhaps he thinks the success of science makes it a self-evident choice when it comes to grounding his worldview; what he does not and will not consider is the very real possibility that science is so successful precisely because it is so limited. To reject this possibility out-of-hand is nothing but intellectual laziness. Dawkins is dogmatically rigid and fixed in place. He is a fundamentalist.
He must be, because the only theology he has ever successfully attacked is fundamentalism, an embarrassingly easy target. But it’s the only theology he knows, the only theology he can imagine. Therefore, per Turner, it’s the only theology his own atheism is equipped to deny, which he himself demonstrates beautifully in Chapter 3 of The God Delusion. This is the part of the book in which he addresses and summarily dismisses, in less than ten pages and with all the subtlety of a tire iron, the work of Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. Unlike these theologians, Dawkins refuses to step outside of himself and take a critical look at his own assumptions.
“Well,” it may be countered, “religious people also refuse to step outside their religion and critique their views.” This would be quite a good argument, if it were true.
The Negative Way
There is within Christian theology a great tradition of negating “God.” By this I mean the negation of everything we think we know about God, every concept we carry about God, every image we imagine of God, everything that God “is” to us. In order to demonstrate how this works, we will consider three levels of statements about God. In addition, four different images of God from the Bible will be used: (a) God is a fire, (b) God is a king, (c) God is love, and (d) God is being itself (I AM). These four are presented in order of increasing abstraction.
The first level of God-talk is simple affirmation. It is typical for Christians to use statements like those above when speaking of God. This is conventional cataphatic, or positive, theology. This is the way nearly all popular theology in the West is done, whether in worship, in personal devotions, or in Bible study. These are positive statements signifying what theologians call the “God of the Attributes”; that is, the God that can be named.
The second level is simple negation, in the manner of Aristotle. It is less typical for Christians to deny things of God, but it is done. I think every Christian would agree that God is not a fire, really, nor is God the ruling male member of a royal family. These are obvious cases of negation that should cause no one any difficulty. It is a bit harder for Christians to say things like “God is not love,” but theologians have said things like this for centuries, and have meant it too. What this comes down to is, God is not that warm feeling or even that sincerely other-centered state of the will that often goes by the name of love. Whatever our highest conception of love might be, God is very much not that.
The third level is the most difficult but the most important. This is second-order negation, or the inversion of the inversion. Here we would say, “God is not a fire, but God is not a not-fire either,” and “God is not love, but neither is God not-love.” God transcends the (human-based) distinction between love and not-love. Obviously what is happening here is a deliberate straining of verbal logic. It may sound like mere mental gymnastics or game-playing, but it has a very serious purpose: To question and test language, to step outside of ourselves and ask ourselves what we are doing when we talk about God, to critique the very ground upon which theology stands, to search for that place—if there is a place—where concepts fail.
Also on this third level is found the insistence, made for centuries by theologians throughout Christendom, that God transcends the distinction of being and not-being. Therefore, if we use the conventional definition of existence, God does not exist. Our category of existence does not apply to God. Put another way, the word “exist” cannot be used univocally of things and God. These are artificial categories imagined and used by human beings; they are manifestly not divine attributes. In the end, to speak correctly, there are no divine attributes. Which means that God is not distinct from creation, nor is God not-distinct from creation. That is, in God there is no distinction at all, nor is there non-distinction. No affirmation or denial properly applies to God.
Notice that this second sense of negation, the “negation of the negation,” does not simply return us to our positive statements, e.g., from “God is not love” back to the original affirmation, “God is love.” Instead, it challenges the very basis of our discursive thought and dialogue: language and image. It pulls out from under us our tacit assumption that language and image are sufficient to describe reality.
The End of the Matter: “Every Kind of Atheist”
Now I can explain what I meant when I told the fellow at the college that negative theology is beyond atheism. It is this: Most principled atheists do not go beyond the second level of thought, that of simple denial. They refuse to go further, to seriously question the ground beneath their feet. And, by holding on, consciously or not, to their unjustified assumptions, they end up rejecting far too little.
There are predictable counter-arguments. First, one may say that this kind of theology represents the beliefs of only a tiny fraction of Christians; atheists rightly focus on the more conventional theology of the average churchgoer. But atheists say that Christianity is false, that God does not exist. Asking them to defend their position in light of mature theology is doing nothing but taking them for their word and respecting their intelligence.
Also, one may say that negative theology is content-free and useless because it nullifies the use of rational thought. In a sense this is a valid argument. But one can go beyond negative theology while bearing in mind its lessons. In fact, negative theology constitutes the central nervous system, if you will, of the entire Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas that Dawkins so happily and ignorantly mocks. In this work, Thomas employs analogical language in order to speak freely of God’s attributes without the possibility of confusing them with the attributes of, say, fire or kingship or love or being.
Finally one may say that negative theology is just a mind game that has nothing to do with reality; certainly people who do such theology never really stop believing in God. If only this were true. The language of the apophatic theologian is the kind of speech that does what it says, so when one says or writes, “God does not exist,” and spends time with that assumption, working out all its consequences, it has the effect of removing “God” from one’s life. This may happen slowly or quickly, but it happens. This is one of the most powerful aspects of negative theology: It cleanses the mind not only of assumptions about God, but of idols (like science, say) that can so easily replace God.
Most atheists reject far too little. They only have to be one kind of atheist: The atheist who stands against some kind of ridiculous super-object in the sky, who stands against a child’s theology. Christians, who, like Jews, are commanded to have no gods before God, do not have the luxury of disbelieving in so few things. In Turner’s words, “In order to deny every kind of idolatry possible, a Christian must be every kind of atheist possible.” We are required to have faith in no thing at all; only then will our faith have any chance of finding its true home in God.