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)

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I am better and wiser than God.

Meister Eckhart

If I have learned anything in my experience with doing marketing stuff for different groups I’ve been affiliated with, it’s the power of language to get someone to do something. Thus, a provocative title to get you to read this.

But I didn’t just come up with the title.

I am reading Sermon 83 from the 13th c. Dominican friar and mystic Meister Eckhart. Specifically, I’m reading him to get idea of how he uses negative theology in his understanding and communion with God.

To start, in Sermon 83, Eckhart is talking about renewal that comes from the Holy Spirit. But he switches gears a bit to talk about the namelessness of God.

Now pay attention: God is nameless, because no one can say anything or understand anything about him….So if I say: ‘God is good,’ that is not true. I am good, but God is not good. I can even say: ‘I am better than God,’ for whatever is good can become better, and whatever can become better can become best of all. But since God is not good, he cannot become better. And since he cannot become better, he cannot be best of all. For these three degrees are alien to God: ‘good,’ ‘better,’ and ‘best’ for he is superior to them all. (206-207)

Eckhart is pretty emphatic here about our inability to attribute proper and clearly defined names to God. This sort of radical thought is pushed to the edges when Eckhart states that it is not accurate to call God good. God is beyond good, but not the epitome of the adjective good. It seems that what Eckhart is getting at here is that some language implies development and change, the opposite of what God is. If God is just good, then that means God might be able to become better, and that God might even become the best. God, for Eckhart, must be beyond change, and thus, beyond transitory adjectives.

And if I say: ‘God is wise,’ that is not true. I am wiser than he. If I say: ‘God is a being,’ it is not true; he is a being transcending being and a transcendent nothingness. (207)

Here Eckhart critiques putting God into ontological categories (e.g. being) that might result in God being called just another but more supreme being or considering God the ground of all being, that is, Being-itself. What I find interesting though is that he paradoxically uses the word being to still refer to God: “he is a being transcending being.” I think it would be clearer and less confusing to refer to God as surpassing being, beyond being. Eckhart’s choice of the word nothingness at first appears confusing because how can something (God) be nothing? Eckhart would argue that God is not a thing, this would be reducing God to a mere object. Instead, God is no-thing. God does not possess the qualities of a thing nor should we ascribe to God qualities of things. But God’s nothingness is beyond what we would call nothing. Nothing, in our language, might refer to something not being there physically or not possessing the qualities of existence. God is no-thing insofar as he is not an object, but rather a subject.

On a side note, the Papal Bull In Agro Dominico did not shy away from condemning Eckhart’s assertion regarding the untruth of the statement ‘God is good.’ The Pope wrote that this article (and another 16) “contain the error or stain of heresy as much from the tenor of their words as from the sequence of their thoughts.” (80) It continues, “we condemn and expressly reprove…[these]…as heretical.” (80)

Moving right along, then, Eckhart quotes Pseudo-Dionysius (but for some reason he says that Augustine said it):

The best that one can say about God is for one to keep silent out of the wisdom of one’s inward riches. (Mystical Theology)

In other words, the wise person will know that their language ultimately falters in speaking about who God is in his nature; it is better to keep silent. Eckhart adds “So be silent and do not chatter about God; for when you do chatter about him, you are telling lies and sinning But if you want to be without sin and perfect, you should not chatter about God.” (207) Chatter, which might be something like ‘casually talking about God’ or ‘speculation,’ is not helpful to one who desires to become perfect. Perhaps this ‘chattering’ that Eckhart speaks about might be a more accurate example of taking God’s name in vain. God’s name and essence are not to be spoken about lightly, in other words. Casual talk opens up the possibility of speaking incorrectly about God because one has not carefully contemplated God. Speculation, (the perpetual sin of the theologian? Oh no!), is ‘chattering’ that is more conducive to splitting theological hairs than actually investigating the essence of God. For Eckhart, casual talk about God and speculation, redirect one’s attention from the primordial truth about God: that God is “beyond all understanding.” (207) I don’t think Eckhart is saying that the vocation of the theologian is somehow sinful, because they are prone to what appears to be chattering. Nor do I think that Eckhart would be against conversations amongst individuals about God. His emphatic statements like this seem more intent on drawing our attention to the absolute importance of speech about God. Talking about God, no matter the context, is a privilege. It should not be done lightly.

If I had a God whom I could understand, I should never consider him God. (207)

Quoting an unknown source, Eckhart intimates that if one claims to know God in an intellectual sense, understanding God’s essence, then it is probable that one should not consider that ‘god’ as God. What one claims to know about God “in no way belongs to him.” (207) If one does understand God, then in reality they do not understand God and the result is that they “arrive at a brute’s stupidity.” (207) Eckhart turns the tables, then, and says that to avoid “a brute’s stupidity” one must acknowledge that thy do not understand God. The brute thinks he understands but really doesn’t. The one who is not a brute acknowledges right off the bat that he does not understand and thus lives in this truth, not as a brute, but as a humbled creature who knows he does not know and does not pretend that he knows.

Eckhart ends this train this paragraph by asking the question in light of everything he has said: “Then what ought I to do?” In words that seem to echo the Eastern Christian theology of theosis, Eckhart calls upon the Christian 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,’ so completely that you with him perceive forever his uncreated is-ness, and his nothingness, for which there is no name.” (207) Union with God is the mode of knowing God, which is ultimately unknowing. Though I am sure that Eckhart speaks more about this union elsewhere, from what I see, he is suggesting that one must empty themselves of themselves, giving up their rights and expectations, all that they are and want, and having it subsumed into the very nothingness of God. Eckhart’s vision for union seems pretty well radical in that the one becomes so unified with God that there is no ‘yours’ or ‘his’ but only ‘mine.’ One knows God intimately so much so that the two become one. Is there still a distinction or is this a complete union that does not allow of differentiation and distinction? My guess is that the union is so unitary, and because God is the perfect One, that this union does not allow for the individual to remain and individual. I could be wrong about Eckhart’s theology of union here. I will go into detail regarding this union in another post.

…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. (206-207)