Negative Theology and Praxis: Toward a Negative Spirituality?

One thing that I have consistently been thinking about as I read apophatic theologians and other mystics is how all of this seemingly ‘heady’ talk translates into spiritual praxis (let alone everyday praxis!). In other words, how does negative theology become a positive force, paradoxically, for growth and service? The last part of Sermon 83 by Eckhart seems to suggest some possibilities.

In the previous post, I summarized what Eckhart had to say in this sermon about the namelessness and incomprehensibility of God.

Sermon 83’s main topic was Ephesians 4.23 which speaks about being renewed by the Spirit. The last section of the sermon is where Eckhart ties together this theme with the notion of God’s namelessness and incomprehensibility. Eckhart writes:

If we want to be renewed in the spirit, each of the soul’s six powers, the superior and inferior powers, must have a ring of gold, gilded with the gold of divine love. (207)

Perhaps Eckhart chose to speak of rings in order to emphasize the two-become-one reality of the union he envisions with the unknown God: “You ought to sink down out of all your your-ness, and flow into his his-ness, and your ‘yours’ and his ‘his’ ought to become one ‘mine’…” (207) The gold rings, symbolic of the ultimate reality of love, lift up our nature. The grace of divine love does not destroy or consume the soul, but sanctifies, hallows, and re-creates.

The rational power is that which allows us to use right reason in discerning our daily living. It is discretion. The gold ring that sanctifies is “a divine light” which illumines our reason, guiding and directing our every step.

The irascible or angry power is to have the ring of peace. Our peace with ourselves and God is directly proportional to our life with God. If we lack peace, we lack God.

The appetite, or power of want and need, is given the ring of contentment. Eckhart writes a beautifully simple explanation of this:

…you should be content with all creatures who are under God, but you should never be content with God, because you can never be content with God. The more you have of God, the more you long for him, for if you could be content with God, and such a contentment with him were to come, God would not be God. (207-208)

Desire for God is never fulfilled, quenched, or completed if one truly desires him.

The power of memory must wear a ring of remembrance and recollection that always points us back and forward to the eternal.

The intellectual power, which enables our understanding, is to wear a ring which causes us to always seek and perceive God. It is a ring which enables our understanding of God. But as discussed earlier, this is not an understanding that grasps the very nature of God. Knowledge of God must be achieved “without images, without a medium, and without comparisons.” (208) That doesn’t leave much of a basis on which to think and speak about God, now does it? Without these limitations, union occurs:

God must just become me, and I must just become God, so completely one that ‘he’ and this ‘I’ become and are one ‘is’, and, in this is-ness, eternally perform one work for this ‘he’, ‘who is God, and this ‘I’ which is the soul are greatly fruitful. (208)

Union is consummated when the two-become-one which results in spiritual fecundity. The love between the soul and God is creative, generative, imaginative.

The final power is the power of the will, the voluntary power, which Eckhart says is encircled by a ring that resembles the Holy Spirit. It is a golden ring of love. One loves God willfully, having not been forced, but out of choice.

You should love God. You should love God apart from his loveableness, that is, not because he is loveable, for God is unloveable.

That was a real zinger, Eckhart! No wonder you got such a bad rap with your hierarchy! Stating that God is unlovable does not mean, for Eckhart, that God is some evil monster whom we cannot bring ourselves to love. Rather, God is unlovable because “he is above all love and loveableness.” Again the radical transcendence of God is emphatically stated here. God is not loved because he is some object, but rather because he is beyond all love, all our notions of love. God is loved for his transcendence and immensity, loved for his incomprehensibility and unknowableness. Un/loving God is what I perceive to be the contours of a negative spirituality, an apophatic spirituality. Perhaps we might even call it an a/theistic spirituality.

But before I get too much further with using the term spirituality, Eckhart has something more to say:

You should love God unspiritually, that is, your soul should be unspiritual and stripped of all spirituality, for so long gas your soul has a spirit’s form, it has images, and so long as it has images, it has a medium, and so long as it has a medium, it has not unity or simplicity. (208)

You can just hear the Neo-Platonism of Eckhart bellowing out in that sentence: forms, unity, simplicity.
I would like to look at that more at some point because I think it is very important to identify the Neo-Platonic influence in Eckhart’s theology and spirituality. (Or should I say a/theology and non/spirituality.) Spirituality, for Eckhart, gets in the way of pure contemplation of the Divine. Metaphors, images, analogies, and other intellectual crutches cloud our contemplation of God; they are not devices that assist us, but rather limit us. How one is supposed to proceed in contemplation without these, I don’t know. Eckhart continues:

Therefore your soul must be unspiritual, free of all spirit, and must remain spiritless; for if you love God as he is God, as he is spirit, as he is person and as he is image–all this must go! (208)

This is a subtle but revolutionary approach to contemplation of God.

Karen Armstrong, in her book The Case for God, writes that Eckhart believed that one did not need the “normal structures of the Christian life” nor a “special lifestyle.” (CG, 155). The Eckhartian theology of detachment comes into play here: one must become detached from all the ways of the world, even the ways of what seems to be a devoutly religious life. Armstrong further explains that Eckhart was likely reacting to mystics like Richard Rolle (and others) who were intent on having ‘spiritual experiences’ or ‘feeling the presence of God.’ (CG, 155) Indeed a “felt desire for God can only be an ego need, born of the images we use to fill our emptiness. Any ‘God’ we find in this way is an idol that would actually alienate us from ourselves, ” Armstrong summarizes. (CG, 155) Armstrong also identifies an interesting point of contact between Eckhart’s concept of detachment and kenosis, or self-emptying. Armstrong explains that one must create a desert devoid of all “images, concepts, and experiences that we used to fill our inner emptiness and as it were, dig out an interior vacuum that would draw God into the self.” (CG, 155) One must empty themselves of everything in order to gain everything back in the ultimate union with God.

To conclude, Eckhart states that to love God means “to love him as he is a non-God, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage, but as he is a pure, unmixed, bright ‘One,’ separated from all duality; and in that One we should eternally sink down, out of ‘something’ into ‘nothing.'” (208) This place of nothing is that desert where God enters into. This nothing is called ‘nothing’ because of it is an  unparalleled and unique state which is “unlike anything else in our experience. Ultimately, therefore, the intellect [is] as unnameable as God.” (CG, 154)


Join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s