“With the holy thou shalt be holy :
and with a perfect man thou shalt be perfect.
With the clean thou shalt be clean :
and with the froward thou shalt learn frowardness.” Psalm 18:25-26.
The fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing advises his readers that thoughts get in the way of true contemplation of God. He advised, therefore, to leave these thoughts in a “cloud of forgetting” and meditate in love. Because even our best, highest and most beautiful thought doesn’t pierce the vast cloud of ignorance that hides God. So, God is always in our unknowing, too. This immersing ourselves in our inability to reach God has a long history in Christianity in negative theology (or via negativa). It can be traced back to the mystical writings of Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagate of the sixth century.
The via negativa teaches the only way to say anything about God is by saying what God is not. It is far easier to say “God is not hate” than “God is nice”, because “God is nice” requires a full agreement on the words, “God”, “is” and “nice” in order to be true. And, even when full agreement is reached on these words, they will still come up short of describing the Divine. The via negativa is all about finding God through the God we don’t know; it’s about piercing through that cloud of unknowing.
Mostly absent and considered heretical in some circles, the via negativa has almost no place in contemporary Christian life. Christians are more concerned with protecting the God that they know (from unbelievers and believers alike) than with engaging with the God-beyond-knowing. Contemporary Christians will fight for the God they know on Twitter and Facebook — whather that God is conservative or liberal, progressive or traditional.
Seemingly, the only place for contemporary Christians to hear about what God is not is to listen to atheists. These will some times virulently proclaim that there is no God and, as Richard Dawkins put it, there is a “God delusion”. What most of us do not realize is that just like The Cloud of Unknowing and the works of Negative Theology, these atheists are telling us some very interesting things about the divine — if we only listen.
How can this be? How can these people who are seemingly God’s enemies (as it is often proclaimed) teach us anything about God? If God is above even our highest and best thought, then God occupies (and permeates) both thoughts of belief and doubt. When we sit in belief, as it were, we see one image of God. When we sit in doubt, we see another. After all, doubt is just darkly-colored faith that reaches into the unknown. God is in our doubting, too.
So, when my friend asked, “Is God a monster because God allows suffering?”, my first instinct was, “Of course not! God is not a monster!” But, how can I know that? How can I know that every ounce of God is good, when I selfishly define good as the lack of pain? Is there not the teeming and mysterious God beyond my common understanding of the Divine? Who am I to speak for the Divine, who is so beyond my highest thought, when I can only begin to comprehend Jesus?
So, yes, God is a monster because my doubts tell me God is. And, yes, God is not a monster because my faith whispers to me that He is not. Both are true. Both reveal less about God and more about me, revealing my proud unwillingness to pierce through into that cloud of unknowing that hides God.
It is time for us to sanctify doubt. It is not to be feared nor preached against, but it is to be embraced. We should listen to atheists and hear what they have to say, not dismissing their thoughts as heresy, for they are the prophets of the via negativa in our day. They are teaching us what our own tradition has forgotten because we’re so bombastically sure of ourselves. Unwittingly, they are showing a different side of God — one that people of faith often refuse to see.
It is time for us to sanctify doubt within ourselves. Doubt is not a shortcoming, but a reach into that cloud of unknowing. If doubt is a fault (as it is often said to be), then it is a happy fault, as the Exultet proclaims Adam’s sin is a felix culpa at every Easter Vigil. Like Adam’s sin, doubt is necessary for the happy outcome of our redemption. After all, Thomas only felt the wounds of the Lord after he doubted.
And this is Christ’s answer the question of suffering. Like Dostoevsky’s characters in The Brothers Karamazov, our Lord does not run from the questions. He does not belittle them as heresies. He sanctifies them with his wounds, embracing the doubts.
(This concludes the series)