The Negative Way

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In the study of theology, if one studies long enough, it’s likely that they will come across a method of study called, “Via Negativa.”

Via Negativa is the Latin for, “The Negative Way.” It’s a type of theological thinking that attempts to describe God by negation— to speak only in terms of what may not be said about God.

The Irish theologian and philosopher, Johannes Scotus Erigena defined Via Negativa like this:


We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.
— Johannes Scotus Eriugena

When he says, “God is not anything,” and, “God is not,” Erigena doesn’t mean that there is no God. Instead, he means that God cannot be said to exist in the way that other things exist. He’s using negative language to emphasize that God is something “other.”

This way of thinking is a struggle for those of us in living here in the west, because we pride ourselves (especially those of us who are Evangelical) in knowing who and what God is, and how to explain God in simple terms so that our friends and neighbors can understand what we believe.

Though this way of thinking about God is useful in smalltalk, it falls horribly short when it comes to discussing the deeper things. It makes the Divine something cheap— something that can be read off of an index card— when in truth, we can’t even explain a grain of salt in such with such simplicity.

Think about your life for a second. Think back over the years that you have lived on this earth. Do you remember when you were in grade school? High school? What about college? Think of all that you wanted to do and be in this life that, for some reason just never materialized for you.

I think back over my own life, look at where I am today, and I can’t draw any sort of line between the various stages of chaos and disorder that have caused me to arrive where I did. I never planned to be where I am. In fact, growing up in a pastor’s home, becoming a pastor was the one thing in my life that I said I would never do. Yet, now that I am, I realize that there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing with my life.

Had I gotten everything that I wanted when I wanted it and how I wanted it, I’d be something else. Life is strange like that. We are taught at a very young age to set our sights and pursue our dreams, but in all the setting and pursuing our lives seem to drift off course. We are pointed at something, but we never reach it.

Realizing that we arrive where we are supposed to arrive, not with determination, skill, or a carefully crafted plan, but because of chaos and disorder, is so important for us to learn and own. This is grace at work in us.

Do you really want what you think you want? Could it be that getting everything that you want in this life would turn you into something that you would detest in the long run?

All of the avoidance and the padding that we build into the construct of our lives and our routines to keep us from experiencing the smallest bit of dissatisfaction— could that be why we are so unfulfilled in the deepest parts of us?

In 1934 John O’Hara published his first novel, titled, “An Appointment In Samarra.” The book title is borrowed from on an old Mesopotamian tale about a merchant’s servant who is trying to avoid Death, a character in the story.

The tale goes like this:


There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

We all have all have appointments with things that we are trying to avoid. And the harder that we try to avoid them, we put ourselves right in their path.

What are you avoiding in your life today? What are you terrified of?

Instead of running from it, maybe you need to run toward it, embrace it, and learn from it.

Selah


 
 Ryan Phipps is the Senior Minister at Church In Bethesda.  Raised in the church, becoming a pastor was the one thing Ryan vowed he would never do. After spending many years away from faith, he found that for all of its flaws, the church can still occupy a unique place of good in the world if it is willing to evolve with reason and empathy.  Ryan has a special place in his heart for those who have been damaged or disillusioned by the church, and longs to lead those within it toward a more just and generous expression of itself.  Ryan is an  INTJ  on the MBTI and a  5w4  on the Enneagram.   

Ryan Phipps is the Senior Minister at Church In Bethesda.

Raised in the church, becoming a pastor was the one thing Ryan vowed he would never do. After spending many years away from faith, he found that for all of its flaws, the church can still occupy a unique place of good in the world if it is willing to evolve with reason and empathy.

Ryan has a special place in his heart for those who have been damaged or disillusioned by the church, and longs to lead those within it toward a more just and generous expression of itself.

Ryan is an INTJ on the MBTI and a 5w4 on the Enneagram.

 

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