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The apophatic theologian

[Bit of draft book for comment.]

Some theists will be unmoved by the kinds of argument discussed in this and the previous chapter. They may say something like this:

“The god that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either! You are working with a very outdated and unsophisticated conception of god. My understanding of God is very different. When you say, “There is no such thing as God” I agree! God is not a thing or entity that can be said to exist. Nor can God be categorized as belonging to this kind of thing or that kind of thing. I define God as something wholly other, something necessarily unknowable, beyond our understanding. I cannot say what God is, only what he is not.”

The view that God is necessarily unknowable is sometimes termed apophaticism. The apophatic view has its attractions, perhaps the most obvious being that, if you never actually make any positive claim about God, you can never be contradicted or proved wrong. Indeed, at first sight, apophaticism appears to make atheism impossible – if no positive God claims are ever made, there can be none to deny.

The theologian Denys Turner is a leading exponent of this type of view. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University (entitled "How to be an Atheist"), Turner says to the atheist:

It is no use supposing that you disagree with me if you say “There is no such thing as God’. For I got there well before you. What I say is merely: the world is created out of nothing, that’s how to understand God. Deny that, and you are indeed some sort of decent atheist. But note what the issue is between us: it is about the legitimacy of a certain very odd kind of intellectual curiosity, about the right to ask a certain kind of question.” P19.

Note Turner’s parting suggestion that the issue between atheists and theists like himself is whether a deep curiosity about such questions as, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is even legitimate. Turner goes on to characterize the atheist is someone who pooh-poohs such questions, who remains steadfastly unamazed by the fact that there is anything at all.

But if that’s what an atheist is, then I am not an atheist, and neither are most philosophers (which will come as a surprise to many of them).

Of course, most apophaticists aren’t just expressing wonder and advocating philosophical reflection. Turner himself says above that the world was created from nothing, rather than just appeared from nothing, which strongly suggests the involvement of a creator - something at least analogous to an agent. So it seems Turner does possesses some inklings about what his God is like. And of course, most apophaticists also deem this mysterious, transcendent not-a-thing worthy of our worship and gratitude, which raises the question of why worship and gratitude are appropriate attitudes for us to have towards a transcendent not-a-thing that not only pointlessly tortures children but has unleashed unimaginable quantities of suffering on sentient creatures over hundreds of millions of years.


Brian said…
Jesus and mo have a handle on this:
Stephen Law said…
Thanks Brian - I am amused!
wombat said…
Why do the apophatics not spend more energy railing against the more obvious heresies of theists who insist on realist versions of God? After all, left unprovoked most atheists will not even mention God. Is this because apophatics are in fact a species of atheist? Ones who happen to like stained glass widows, organ music and the smell of incense but somehow wish to rationalize these desires.
They should be re-labeled clericist atheists perhaps.
Geoff Coupe said…
The recent pairing of articles by Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins in the Wall Street Journal are relevant to this discussion:

And, perhaps even more interesting is the response from Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who sees Armstrong as just another atheist...

georgesdelatour said…
Who or whatever Turner's God is, we can be certain it's not the God (or Gods) described by the writers of the Torah, Bible or Koran. Their God constantly intervenes miraculously in human affairs. He whispers in Abraham's ear that he should murder his son, clears the Red Sea, brings Jesus back from the dead, dictates specific dietary and dress instructions for the whole of humanity in early Arabic, etc.
jeremy said…
Yes, Dawkins' closing words in the "debate" referenced by Geoff are worth quoting again:

"Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."

Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.
jeremy said…
Of course, Dawkins isn't so much responding to the "sophisticated theologian" as much as he is pointing out his/her isolation from anything usually conceived of as religion proper.

Would I be right in branding apophaticists as, at best, pantheists? They don't seem to even be deists to me. Yet, as Stephen points out, they wish to retain the worship aspects of a conventional God, all the while washing their hands of all knowledge of him!
Giford said…
Hi Stephen,

I don't think you can fairly use that last sentence - these apophatists would surely deny that their 'God' does cause suffering, so you're attacking a strawman by assigning those properties to it.

I guess apophatism is the flipside of igtheism/ugtheism?

wombat said…
Geoff -

Re Karen Armstrong - the review by Eric Macdonald of her recent book was entertaining.

I particularly liked

"..there is something strange in the idea of an ineffability which is effed as being ineffable..."
I was listening to a Nova podcast this morning which featured a great lecture by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. While trying to emphasize how little we currently know about the universe, he said: "There are people who have to have the answer because they can't walk around in a state of ignorance". I thought to myself ... "and hence religion".

There is no point in trying to debate with an apophatic. They are simply defining God as what they don't know and can't comprehend. How do you worship that?
Using that definition ... I should worship string theory and Ed Witten is my Pope.
Mike said…
I enjoyed this very much. My only suggestion is that the very last sentence suddenly veers into a separate issue related to theism (the problem of evil). I think it would be more consistent and equally valid to point out that worship and gratitude are strangely decided, or assured, responses to something "necessarily unknowable."
Anonymous said…
Surely Denys Turner is making the same mistake that many generations of theists have made before, namely in supposing that atheism requires a denial of the existence of God. That is an illegitimate attempt to bring the argument into his court where (he thinks) he can deal with it.

The reality is that atheists don't give a toss about notions of God and do not need to disprove them.

Whereas that assumption is mistaken (or sly), then his view that atheists are characterized by a lack of curiosity and wonder (if indeed that is his view) is simply stupid.
Anonymous said…
The apophatic approach doesn't mean a kind of hiding behind the ineffable. It simply provides a humbling context to any discussion about meaning. My quarrel with Dawkins et al is that they confuse "descriptions" with "explanations". Science doesn't "explain" anything and religion shouldn't try to be scientific.

There is, what we might call, The Vole View of Science. Sebastian Faulks’ disturbed and disturbing protagonist in his novel Engleby asserts that science cannot deliver what we really need – some sort of reason to get up in the morning, let alone a reason to be loving and thankful.
“Heisenberg and Bohr and Einstein strike me as being like gifted retriever dogs. Off they go, not just for an afternoon, but for ten years; they come back exhausted and triumphant and drop at your feet . . . a vole. It’s a remarkable thing in its way, a vole – intricate, beautiful really, marvelous. But does it . . . Does it help? Does it move the matter on?
When you ask a question that you’d actually like to know the answer to – what was there before the Big Bang, for instance, or what lies beyond the expanding universe, why does life have this inbuilt absurdity, this non sequitur of death – they say that your question can’t be answered, because the terms in which you’ve put it are logically unsound. What you must do, you see, is ask vole questions. Vole is – as we have agreed – the answer; so it follows that your questions must therefore all be vole-related.”

This vole view of science shouldn’t be disparaged. It produces some wonderful books like The Social Amoebae: the biology of cellular slime molds -- interesting non-controversial pieces of information which help us better understand our environment. Does it help? Does it move the matter on? It may, but how?
Anonymous said…
A lot of very serious and very authoritative philosophers WILL tell you that questions like "why is there something rather than nothing" are meaningless. It's interesting to hear you're not one of them, and I'd be very interested in hearing you reflect more carefully on the difference between your kind and those on the other side of the divide. But the first step is to discard the easy assumption on this point.
AWESOME work. And amazing assortment of tools to work... Really great!!

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