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Does Apophatic Theology Denature Christianity? Part I

Introduction: Tracing the Implications of Metaphysical Theology

The branch of philosophical theology known as classical theism has long written of a God who is the Ground and Source of Being, both wholly transcendent and wholly immanent (Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s brilliant exposition and defense of this concept, The Experience of God, is still one of the most influential and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read). This concept, implicit in Eastern Orthodox and much Catholic thought for centuries, made its way into the academic theological mainstream via the writings of Paul Tillich, who coined many of the verbal formulations that characterize this approach. Tillich’s “transtheism”–which recognized that popular thought was displaying a tendency to overly anthropomorphize God, who in fundamental essence is wholly Other from man–had its roots in the tradition of apophatic theology, which affirmed that certain direct propositional statements about God (namely, the ascription of certain human characteristics to the essence of the Ultimate) were in many ways improper. Apophatic theology (and Tillich) stressed the fact that the “theistic” concept of God as merely the “greatest among all categories of beings” is an erroneous definition; God ought to be understood as the source and wellspring of existence itself. (As a side matter, I am no fan of describing the God-construct Tillich rejected as “theism”. “Excessive anthropomorphization” or “attempting to restrict God’s essence to the image of man” appear to be less confusing descriptors).

Controversial Episcopalian ex-bishop John Shelby Spong, notorious for his rejection of orthodox Christian creeds and redefinition of traditional doctrinal concepts, claims to hold to this view. Spong’s metaphysics, at least on the surface, are not so different from those of the classically theistic persuasion (and indeed, Spong views himself as picking up where Tillich left off). In A New Christianity for a New World, Spong claims that Christianity must radically reform to recognize this theological landscape. Among other claims, Spong declares that the “God of theism” is dead, that Christian claims to truth-exclusivity must be abandoned, that traditional views of sin make no sense, that Jesus should be reimagined, and that assertions of objective morality should be denied. Setting aside the question of whether or not Spong’s proposals can even be viewed as existing within the Christian tradition at all, he does raise an important, oft-avoided question: is Spong’s denatured Christianity the necessary theological terminus for those who seek to live out a consistent classical theism?

Those who (like me) affirm the metaphysical correctness of classical theism must seriously grapple with its doctrinal and practical implications for the substance of modern Christianity, much of which (at least in America) tends toward hyper-literal interpretations of Scripture; such literalism is anathema to the apophatic-theological project.

In this reader’s assessment, a metaphysical position embracing apophatic theology cannot–and must not–produce the sterilized quasi-religiosity for which Spong advocates.

I. Moral Reasoning from Apophatic-Theological Premises

Spong’s greatest failure is his complete abandonment of any attempt at meta-ethical reasoning: this failure permeates his work and is incompatible with the metaphysical view of God he advances. Spong’s dreadfully muddled ethical framework blurs the distinction between subjective and objective ethics, between correctness and incorrectness, and any number of other logical opposites. That said, given how absolutely Spong denounces any form of prejudice and tribalism, particularly about matters of sexuality, it appears obvious that he believes that at least some moral standards are objective in nature. Taking him at his word, then, one must consider how and whether a Ground of Being about which little can be said affirmatively (i.e. in terms of concrete definitional propositions) can be a basis for ethics and morality. This question is necessarily prior to any questions regarding proper apophatic-theological ecclesiology, and is addressed first.

If God is the Source of all Being, so too is ultimate objective morality bound up in God’s essence. I seek to demonstrate here that coherent, objective statements about ethics and morality may be made while still affirming God’s otherness from man. (The framework of “divine command ethics,” which often emerges from a verbal and plenary approach to Scriptural inspiration, endeavors to address this question but are incompatible with apophatic theology; for the purposes of this essay, I am assuming the metaphysical correctness of apophatic theology, although I realize this is certainly not beyond debate). While a full engagement with these questions is far beyond the scope of any short essay, I hope to lay out a cogent starting point for subsequent inquiries.

Arguments about the moral foundations of law typically split discussants into two camps: natural law theorists and legal positivists. Natural law, rooted in Aristotelian and Thomistic ideas about the purpose and function of things in reality, assigns moral weight to the ways in which individual entities’ actions are properly ordered toward (or, conversely, misaligned with) their essential purpose or function. As such, natural law is compatible with apophatic theology’s vision of God as ultimate Creator and Sustainer: God holds all things in being, and such created/upheld things often have moral rights and duties as befit their intrinsic nature. Since all things are fundamentally dependent upon God for their continuance in being, the natural law theorist holds, it is right and proper that individuals and other entities act in properly ordered conformity with their distinct natures.

But even if one finds natural law an unsatisfying theological-sociological paradigm, apophatic theology need not erode the role of God as the final standard and embodiment of objective morality. The modern positivistic tradition of law, in which the sovereign’s commands ought to be obeyed because they are the commands of the sovereign (often viewed as existing in diametric opposition to natural law), also recognizes the necessity of an Ultimate. While positivism embraces a distinct epistemological skepticism about the derivability of a coherent system of moral law from a prior absolute Imperative, Hans Kelsen (the intellectual father of legal positivism) recognized that such a prior Imperative (an ultimate ought-statement, if you will) was needed to ground the authority of any sovereign’s commands. This first Imperative might have no epistemologically accessible substantive or propositional character, but it is metaphysically necessary to legitimize law. Kelsen’s description of this first Imperative correlates closely with apophatic-theological descriptions of God.

Affirming both God’s otherness from man and God’s embodiment of moral truth is to affirm that God is not like us, but also is that to which we ought to conform, and to whose mold we should be reshaped. Such a view is perhaps most perfectly epitomized by the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis, but is also reflected in Catholic doctrine regarding the beatific vision.

(To be continued in Part II)


Image courtesy of Simon Harrod.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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