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Does Apophatic Theology Denature Christianity? Part II

Does Apophatic Theology Denature Christianity Part I.

I. The Reality of Sin in Apophatic Theology

Viewing God as the ultimate embodiment of moral rightness means that moral action, and the moral life, is intrinsically oriented away from the self: one ought to sublimate one’s own will and desires when those sentiments impel toward self-aggrandizement or self-centeredness. Moral evil, then, is a self-oriented derogation from the moral perfection God epitomizes.

Spong correctly (and in line with Christian orthodoxy) observes that humans are distinct from the animal kingdom, a boundary at least cursorily delineated by humans’ capacity for reflection and moral reasoning. Spong also hews to an evolutionary view of life’s origins, a view characterized by the violent self-centeredness and tribalism inherent to the fight for survival. On its face, I do not see this view as incompatible with the fundamental Christian doctrine of original sin (though Augustine might frame the issue differently): this survival-oriented self-centeredness might be said to embody our moral imperfection and imperfectability.

Yet despite having all the pieces in front of him, Spong cannot bring himself to draw the connection between self-gratification (arising from the survive at all costs impulse) and sinning against God. Instead, Spong describes the Christian life is the process in which we are made more ourselves and more human. This is nonsensical, intellectually rootless, and incompatible with a properly conceptualized apophatic theology. If we recognize that moral standards are extrinsic to ourselves (as Spong appears to), and that God is the definition and source of those standards (as apophatic theology must), one is not meant to “be all they can be,” as Spong puts it. Instead, one is meant to conform to the character of God. Of course such a transformation is uncomfortable and unpleasant: it calls us outside ourselves to embrace standards that may not align with our personal preferences. It is beyond dispute that human beings systematically pursue self-gratification at the expense of orientation toward God; Spong would probably even agree, though inexplicably would not identify it as the sin it is. Accordingly, contra Spong, accepting an evolutionary perspective on the origin of life in no way obviates the problem of sin and the need for redemption: despite our innately human capacity to apprehend God’s moral standards, we still make the choice not to seek Him and to pursue our own self-gratification. Since we cannot free ourselves from our inherently sinful (self-oriented) condition, redemption must come from outside ourselves.

The redemption effected by Jesus Christ is the foundational, distinctive truth-claim of Christianity. A variety of different atonement theories (why it was necessary, what the implications of Christ’s death were) have been advanced by diverse theologians and philosophers throughout the centuries; it is unnecessary to wade into those debates here. It suffices to note that given the need of humanity for redemption, a distinct Incarnation–a paradoxical intersection of the Ultimate with humanity–can coherently be said to have occurred as a unique historical event to liberate humankind from sin. The Incarnation does not undermine the core thesis of apophatic theology that God is an infinite and ineffable Ground of Being: God’s divine nature may be wholly beyond our comprehension, but Jesus’s human nature need not be.

Spong’s exceedingly dysfunctional Christology (which explicitly places Jesus on the level of Buddha, Krishna, and Muhammad) additionally suffers from gratuitous internal inconsistencies: relying on the systematically debunked scholarship of the “Jesus Seminar,” Spong attempts to toss out the historical reliability of the Gospels while using select biblical proof-texts to support his thesis that “Jesus would’ve tolerated everyone.”

II. Apophatic Theology and Revelation

Metaphysical and meta-ethical sparring aside, an important relational question rears its head: what does it mean for human beings to commune with an apophatic-theological God who is so wholly other?

As one example, I suggest that Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film Noah is a strikingly incisive vision of divine revelation and human encounter with God. In the film, God is clearly real, transcendent, and other (i.e. not a construct made to conform to human likeness): Noah witnesses prophetic visions of a flood to come, which ultimately occurs, and at the end of the film beholds a spectacular sign of God’s covenanting with man. Here, God’s ultimate truth is accessible to certain individuals, who have the duty to take action accordingly; this revelation, however, may not unfold as a propositional series of verbal dictates (a concept reflected in the mystical traditions of the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches). Controversially, the film portrays Noah as a fiercely misanthropic figure consumed by his own belief that God wishes to destroy every last human and let Homo sapiens die off, a plot device misinterpreted by some Christian critics as an ultra-environmentalist statement about God wanting to wipe out every living soul in favor of innocent animals. This is wrong: rather, the film suggests that people have the free will to misinterpret what God requires of them, interpolating their own biases and tenaciously held beliefs into that which God has actually revealed.

(In criticizing interpolations of this sort made by Christians throughout history, Spong is on safe ground – however, Spong leaps ahead to suggest that apophatic theology (of the sort on display in Noah) actually destroys any ability to speak meaningfully about objective ethics. As discussed above, this is not the case: Noah’s closing images even suggest that, despite human misinterpretations, there is still a substantive moral vision that exists, bound up in the character of God).

Spong contends that human beings, through acts of love, can participate in the transcendent reality of God; this proposition, however, is unmoored from any standard of what “love” actually is, which would require some attempt to affirm ethical objectivity. Conceptually bounded ways in which humans today can participate in this reality, however, may be traced back to the life of Christ: Word (the Church’s codification of interactions between God and man) and Sacraments (deliberate acts of communion with God).  Spong correctly recognizes that not all acts done by humans involve encounter with the transcendent, but his abstracted substitution of “love” is so indeterminate that it fails as a proxy for sacramentalism. The traditional paradigm of Word and Sacraments aligns far better with an apophatic-theological metaphysical approach: humans wrote down the words of the Bible, and humans administer the Sacraments, but both involve real encounters with a transcendent God who is indeed other. Decontextualized “love”–particularly given Spong’s support for more “self-love”–is certainly humanistic, but is theologically threadbare.

In short, Word and Sacraments matter – and their ongoing celebrations are wholly consistent with a robust apophatic theology.

Conclusion: Why the Church Matters

In summary, Spong’s work can be summed up as reflecting a preconceived set of applied-ethics principles (mostly centered on issues of gender equality and sexual orientation nondiscrimination), for which he has attempted to reverse-engineer a theological foundation. His views do not conform to a systematically developed apophatic theology, and represent a failed attempt to extend Tillich’s intellectual project. But its defective internal logic aside, Spong’s work reflects a sincere attempt to foray bravely into a theological-metaphysical landscape that (in my view correctly) recognizes that too-anthropomorphic ways of viewing God have encountered significant problems.

Apophatic theology does not, however, kick out the supports beneath traditional Christianity. Instead, I submit it offers a philosophically satisfying metaphysical explanation for the structures and rites many take for granted: while the implications of Tillich’s metaphysical framing are clearly new to many Westerners steeped in Protestant religiosity, their roots extend far further back.

When the Incarnation is properly understood as a once-in-history event, the need for an institutional framework for passing on the truth and memory of that event becomes clear. Not only is the Church the conduit of history regarding Jesus’s life and work, within the framework of the Church the visible means of grace are administered. The Church originally canonized the Bible and selected its contents, and the Church distributes the sacraments to repentant parishioners who recognize the reality of sin and their desire to be conformed to God’s essence.

That is not a “new Christianity”–it is quite an old one indeed.


Image courtesy of fxguide.

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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