Merton the Anatheist?

Compare these two writers:

You Must Know How to Doubt

You cannot be a man of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning the authority of prejudice, even though that prejudice may seem to be religious. Faith is not blind conformity to a prejudice–a ‘pre-judgement’. It is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven. It is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been made by somebody else. (105)

Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

The Free Decision to Believe

Happily, during my time in Glenstal [Abbey], as later in Benedictine and Ignatian ashrams in India, the atheist too was a welcome stranger. How could one authentically choose theism if one was not familiar with the alternative of atheism? Or the agnostic space between? Indeed, in my first Christian doctrine classes at Glenstal I remember how liberated I felt when the monks had  us read cogent arguments against the existence of God–by Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Russell–before any talk of why God might exist! Atheism was not only tolerated, it was considered indispensable to any wager of faith. (xii)

I like to think of this book as a small intellectual agora where theists and atheists might engage in reasonable if robust debate, acknowledging the possibility of what I call an anatheist space where the free decision to believe or not believe is not just tolerated but cherished. If anatheism signals the possibility of God after God, it is because it allows for the alternative option of its impossibility. (xiv)

Kearney, Anatheism

Kearney only mentions Merton in passing in Anatheism as an exemplar of interreligious dialogue. But I am beginning to see some significant points of contact between Merton and Kearney that would be valuable to the development of the anatheist hermeneutic.

Highlights from Nicholas of Cusa

From Nicholas of Cusa’s On the Vision of God

Introduction § 1 

But I pray first the Word from on high and the all-powerful Discourse, which alone can disclose itself may be given to me in order to set forth, according to your grasp, the wonders which are revealed beyond all sensible, rational, and intellectual sight. (235)

Ch 6 § 21 

In all faces the face of faces is seen veiled and in enigma. It is not seen unveiled so long as one does not enter into a certain secret and hidden silence beyond all faces where there is no knowledge or concept of a face. This cloud, mist, darkness, or ignorance into which whoever seeks your face enters when one leaps beyond every knowledge and concept is such that below it your face cannot be found except veiled. But this very cloud reveals your face to be there beyond all veils… (244)

Ch 7 § 25

No one can approach you because you are unapproachable. No one, therefore, will grasp you unless you give yourself to this person. How do I have you, O Lord, I who am not worthy to appear in your presence? How will my prayer reach you, who are unapproachable by every means? How will I beseech you, for what would be more absurd than to ask that you give yourself to me, you who are all in all? (246)

Ch 9 § 34

If, therefore, your essence penetrates all things, so too does your sight, which is your essence. Just as nothing that exists is able to flee from its own proper being, so neither can it flee from your essence, which gives essential being to all things, nor therefore, can it flee from your sight. (250-251)

Ch 9 § 36

Hence, I experience how necessary it is for me to enter into the cloud and to admit the conincidence of opposites, above all capacity of reason, and to seek there the truth where impossibility confronts me. And above reason, above even every highest intellectual ascent when I will have attained to that which is unknown to every intellect and which every intellect judges to be the most removed from truth, there are you, my God, who are absolute necessity. And the more that cloud of impossibility is recognized as obscure and impossible, the more truly the necessity shines forth and the less veiled it appears and draws near (251)

Ch 9 § 37

Therefore, I thank you, my God, because you make clear to me that there is no other way of approaching you except that which to all humans, even to the most learned philosophers, seems wholly inaccessible and impossible. For you have shown me that you cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility confronts and obstructs me. (251)

Ch 12 § 47

Formerly you appeared to me, O Lord, as invisible by every creature because you are a hidden, infinite God. Infinity, however, is incomprehensible by every means of comprehending. Later you appeared to me as visible by all, for a thing exists only as you see it, and it would not actually exists unless it saw you. For your vision confers being, since your vision is your essence. Thus, my God, you are equally invisible and visible. (256)

Ch 12 §50

O Depth of riches, how incomprehensible you are! So long as I conceive a creator creating, I am still on this side of the wall of paradise. And so long as I imagine a creatable creator, I have not yet entered, but I am at the wall. But when I see you as absolute infinity to whom is suited neither the name of creating creator nor that of creatable creator, then I begin to behold you in an unveiled way and to enter the garden of delights. For you are not anything that can be named or conceived but are absolutely and infinitely superexalted above all such things. You are not, therefore, creator, but infinitely more than creator, although with you nothing is made or can be made. To you be the praise and the glory through all eternity. (257)

Ch 13 § 51

O Lord God, helper of those who seek you, I see you in the garden of paradise, and I do not know what I see, because I see nothing visible. I know this alone that I  know that I do not know what I see and that I can never know. I do not know how to name you, because I do not know what you are. Should anyone tell me that you are named by this or that name, by the fact that one gives a name I know that it is not your name. For the wall beyond which I see you is the limit of every mode of signification by names. Should anyone express any concept by which you could be conceived, I know that this concept is not a concept of you, for every concept finds its boundary at the wall of paradise. Should anyone express any likeness and say that you ought to be conceived according to it, I know in the same way that this is not a likeness of you. So too, if anyone wishing to furnish the means by which you might be understood should set forth an understanding of you, one is still far removed from you. For the highest wall separates you from all theses and secludes you from everything that can be said or thought, because you are absolute from all the things that can fall within any concept. (257-258)

Ch 13 § 52

Accordingly, when I am lifted up to the highest, I see you as infinity. For this reason you cannot be approached, comprehended, named, multiplied, or seen. Whoever, therefore, approaches you must ascend above every end, every limit, and every finite thing. Bu how will one reach you, who are the end to which one strives, if one must ascend above the end….The intellect, therefore, must become ignorant and established in darkness if it wishes to see you. But what, my God, is intellect in ignorance if not learned ignorance. O God, you are infinity, and no one can approach you except one whose intellect abides in ignorance, that is, one whose intellect knows that it is ignorant of you….The intellect knows that it is ignorant and that you cannot be grasped because you are infinity. For to understand infinity is to comprehend the incomprehensible. The intellect knows that it is ignorant of you because it knows that you can be known only if the unknowable could be known, and the invisible seen, and the inaccessible reached. (258)

Ch 13 § 53

My God you are absolute infinity itself, which I perceive to be the infinite end, but I am unable to grasp how an end without an end is an end. You, O God, are your own end, since you are whatever you have; if you have an end, you are an end. You are, therefore, an infinite end, because you are your own end, for your end is your essence….When, therefore, I assert the existence of the infinite, I admit that darkness is light, ignorance knowledge, and the impossible necessary.(258)

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)

The Ordinary Ways are Safer, More Perfect.

An excerpt from Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

We have to remember the principle that certain desires and certain pleasures are willed for us by God. We cannot live in the truth if we automatically suspect all desires and all pleasures. It is humility to accept our humanity, pride to reject it.

Von Hugel, in one of his letters, writes of W.G. Ward (“Ideal Ward”) as an “eager, one-sided, great, unintentionally unjust soul” who on his deathbed saw the mischief of his life–he had consistently demanded that all others be like himself!

This is the root of inhumanity!

It is often more perfect to do what is simply normal and human than to try to act like an angel when God does not will it. That is, when there is no need for it, except in the stubborn passion of our own impatience with ourselves.

It is not practical, it is not honest, it is not Christian to fly from “every desire” and “every pleasure” that is not explicitly pious.

For others who are human enough to be ascetics without losing any of their humanity, it is all right to risk things that seem inhuman. For one as deficient and self-conscious as I am, the ordinary ways are safer. They are not just an evasion to be tolerated; they are the more perfect way.

The Mountain of Divine Knowledge

The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb–the majority of people scarcely reach its base. (78)

The ‘meat and potatoes’ of Gregory’s apophaticism

The LIfe of Moses is a really good read if you are interested in getting to know Gregory’s theology a bit better. Additionally, it is also a good read for understanding an aspect of early Christian biblical interpretation. However, I’ve read this text before for the purposes of just that. So I’m actually going to jump right to the part of the text where we get into the real core of Gregory’s apophatic theology. The section in this translation is entitled ‘The Mountain of Divine Knowledge.’

Continue reading