Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Neti, Neti

How can a believer “have problems” with the Creation? (Here I have in mind creation in time, not in the sense of the origin of reality.) That’s simple enough to explain. My leanings are in the direction of what is called negative theology, thus one that denies the possibility of knowing anything at all about the Ultimate. The opposite stance is positive theology; it affirms that we can too know something—but that knowledge will come to us through revelation. We’re a late civilization and hence have the luxury of using technical words here. The two are called apophatic and cataphatic theologies, derived from Greek roots apo- meaning “away from” and kata- meaning “down into.” Away from is used here as denial (of any knowledge) and down into as meaning that knowledge comes from above into this created realm. (I pity the old Greeks; they had no “Greek” of their own to signal that their knowledge came from ancient times…)

Every religious tradition has its negative modality; in some it is very strongly to the fore and thus represents the very core of the teaching. Buddhism is a good example. The mystical schools of other traditions tend toward negativity and to the degree they do, they live in tension with their cataphatic orthodoxies. In the Sufi tradition ibn el Arabi’s writings prominently feature wujûd. It’s plain meaning is “being,” but in el Arabi’s writings it is the single reality of God in contrast to which the created world is as nothing—Maya, the Buddhist’s would say. Pure illusion. In the Judaic tradition the kabbalistic tradition’s En Sof is the infinite, unknowable God. Christianity has strains of this negative theology. My Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion only mentions an unknown but famous theologian called Pseudo-Dionysius (fourth century), but Meister Eckhart comes to mind. Taoism seems rooted in negative theology as well. The first lines of the Tao Te Ching assert:
The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.
My title here comes from the Hindu tradition, specifically the Upanishads, where a teacher, Yajnavalkya is asked about the nature of God and answers, “Neti, neti,” meaning literally “not this, not this” That phrase later become a chant, a mantra—and I encountered it almost immediately long, long ago when I first looked into the religious life of India. I liked it then—the sheer simplicity of it. Not this, not this.

Pantheism, in a way, is the inversion of that stance. Put into Sanskrit it would be “Sarva, sarva,” all, all. All is God. Interestingly, the apo- and the kata-style approaches tend to converge. When Moses stands before the burning bush, the following exchange takes place (Exodus 3:13-14):
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
Ibn el Arabi calls this ultimate wujûd, Being. And who can say what that really means?

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