Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On the apophatic and the kataphatic, in Peter Rollins

Recently, I Picked up from the library Peter Rollins book How (not) to Speak of God. The introduction pretty much sums up why I like the guy and why I find in the end am dissatisfied with his thought.

He begins quoting Ludwig Wittgenstien from the final sentence of the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." This for Rollins is contrasted with an other assertion he found in the evangelical charismatic movement "God is the one subject of whom we must never stop speaking." Rollins sees these two attitudes as two extremes that he found himself swinging between these two extremes that he says manifested in himself either as mystical humanism or religious fundamentalism. However, he came to the conclusion which the book is about that " these positions need not be enemies. The more I reflected upon the dept of these perspectives, the more I began to suspect that far from being utterly foreign to each other, there was away for them to inform and enrich each other."

In this discussion Rollins avoids the terms apophatic (away from the voice, ie not speaking of God) and the kataphatic (with voice/towards voice, speaking of God) and I think that is fair since I knew of these two ways before I was introduced to these Greek terms. But here is where I find Rollins both congenial and irritating at the same time: My faith has never been absent of these two positions (though they have been more approaches to God) and yet I have never really swung between these two positions. For me when he sums union of these two approaches as "That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking." this is my faith and it seems tom e that the best of the Evangelical Covenant Church, or its version of Lutheran Pietism, raised me within this place of holding both approaches to (not)speaking of God. The revelation for me wasn't that these two approaches are supposed to be together; rather the revelation for me was that pretty much this has been the orthodox way, and opinion. Granted people within orthodoxy may want to emphasize or may have a tendency towards one or the other, but the overall trajectory is towards the union of the approaches.

Rollins admits that this discover is something like Chesterton’s outline of the story yachtsman who gets lost and attempts to claim Britain for Britain. I appreciate this being said in the introduction since it seems that many in the Emergent movement don’t always take the time to admit that much of what they are talking about is a discovery for themselves and their communities but not the church as a whole through time. I feel towards the emergent church like the people who would watch the Chesterton yachtsman claiming Britain for Britain. Even so Rollins posture is towards explaining this discovery somehow revitalizes rather than a space that one has to inhabit abandoning previous habitations. Even I who was raised upon a Christian faith that more or less worked with some union of these approaches, has had to inhabit another space where that union is built in without skepticism of either silence or words in the face of God. Still it was skeptical of too much silence in the face of the divine. In the end I have had to embrace a concept of tradition as part of revelation as I have embraced ever more the union of these two approaches, and live in orthodoxy, for it is after all the saints fo the church who have lived this theology that Rollins has discovered that the Evangelical covenant Church taught me poorly.

But I hear Rollins: for those who thought they had to choose, for those who were never taught otherwise, this is a discovery. And perhaps a quite radical one, that seems heretical. Even so it is perhaps key to remember that the defenders of Nicene orthodoxy against the Arian heresy were also the ones who spoke of the union of the kataphatic and apophatic approaches to speech of God. So this is not only a very old understanding of theology but one that was not afraid to speak of those who in their speaking spoke not of the true God at all. This also needs to be recovered if this approach is to have Rollins hope for revitalization of Christianity in the West.