One of my Facebook friends — an intelligent, thoughtful, tolerant and liberal Unitarian-Universalist — linked to an article by Paul Wallace entitled “Way Beyond Atheism: God Does Not (Not) Exist: Why Richard Dawkins is a fundamentalist, and why most atheists reject far too little.” This post is an expanded version of my response.
Let me say first that my friend didn’t swallow the article hook, line, and sinker; in fact, her comment on it had to do with liking apophaticism, and not with liking Wallace’s critique — such as it is — of atheism.
Briefly, apophaticism is the conviction that God is beyond human definitions, and so it’s best not to speak too much about what God is. The apophatic approach is prominent in Eastern Christianity. Eastern Christian theologians are reluctant to say too much, and Eastern theology, while accepting the basic dogmatic framework of Christianity, is very hesitant to go beyond that. When it comes to the Trinity, Eastern Christians will affirm, since Jesus said so, that the Son “is begotten of” the Father and the Holy Spirit “proceeds from” the Father, but they won’t venture to explain, or even guess, what that means, or what the distinction there might be between proceeding and being begotten. This approach finds expression in Eastern Orthodox theology in what is sometimes called “Palamism” after St. Gregory Palamas: the doctrine that humans can experience God in his energies but not in his essence.
Anyone who has spent much time reading Orthodox theology will be familiar with this reticence. Orthodox Christians may riot over which liturgical practice is authentically traditional, but they never try to guess how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Western Christianity asks, and definitively answers, a great many questions that Eastern Christianity rarely thinks to ask and would never dream of answering. Ask an Eastern Orthodox theologian whether we are saved by faith or by works, or what happens to the soul after death, and he’s likely to say that the basis of the question is wrong, or to caution that “it has not pleased the Lord to reveal to us” the kind of answer you’re looking for. Eastern Orthodoxy has a very rich theology, but it’s apophatic. Orthodoxy understands instinctively and explicitly what Zora Neale Hurston so concisely expressed when she said, “You cannot have knowledge and worship at the same time. Mystery is the essence of divinity.”
To say that the apophatic approach is rare in Western Christianity — the kind of Christianity Westerners are likely to encounter and experience — is an understatement. The presumption of Western theology is overwhelming, and approaches, more often than not, hubris. Not to put too fine a point on it, Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism all feel comfortable with the most outrageous dogmatic definitions. They answer questions nobody in his right mind would answer, and they answer them with an air of authority.
Liberal Christians and post-Christians are generally less dogmatic, but they typically have theological views that would be more accurately described as pluralistic than apophatic. Apophaticism is rare in Western religion, and something the people in the pews, if they have heard of it at all, are likely to have had presented to them as an option — one way of approaching God, but certainly not the only way or the necessary way. It plays no part at all in our public religious life and only rarely does it play any part in our private religous life.
I’m not saying there is no appreciation at all for the apophatic approach in Western Christianity. I am saying that Western Christians who adopt the apophatic approach quickly finding themselves reaching back to the fourteenth century or earlier for good, original books on the subject.
All of which is almost beside the point, because for the nonbeliever, apophaticism doesn’t solve the problem of whether God exists, or give her even the slightest reason to believe. “You may not ask for evidence for my beliefs, because evidence is quite beside the point” is hardly the devastating critique of atheism that Wallace seems to think it is.
Nor does apophaticism resolve the other problems many of the non-religious have with the major religions. For the most part, Eastern Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism all embrace an apophatic approach to God — where God is considered at all — but they also typically have attitudes toward social injustice, sexism, heterosexism and violence that would be anathema to most liberal theists, and a strong nationalistic chauvinism is not at all uncommon among them, either.
I guess what mystifies me here is the dissonance between what “liberal” theists like Wallace say and what they seem to mean. It’s an odd thing that people who claim to reject cataphatic theology and authoritarian, sexist, heterosexist, violent, oppressive, and nationalistic religion seem to find, nevertheless, no common ground with atheists who also reject all those things, but a great deal in common with religionists who don’t. And then they wonder why Dawkins says they provide cover for the extremists.
Also, Wallace’s understanding of atheism (and fundamentalism) is remarkably shallow. He doesn’t limit himself to specific criticisms of points made by Dawkins or Hitchens or similar antagonists of religion. He’s happy to generalize about “atheism,” “beyond atheism,” “the atheisms of most committed, principled atheists,” “most atheists” — by which he seems to mean “Richard Dawkins,” since he never mentions another atheist. He’s happy to lump all atheists together as “fundamentalists,” except for the occasional rhetorical disclaimer which has no real meaning since it never seems to occur to Wallace that there could possibly be any more to atheism than rejecting fundamentalism, or that dismissive and condescending generalizations about atheism — and, indeed, about fundamentalism — might be just as objectionable as generalizations about theism.
Religious fundamentalism is, whatever religious liberals may think of it, not without its strong points. Fundamentalists are not all unlettered troglodytes who sit grunting in their caves, throwing rocks at everybody outside. I can find much to respect in the Primitive Baptist beliefs of some of my ancestors, even though I don’t share those beliefs. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for all the outrageousness of their superstition, have things to say about war and politics and about silly idolatries like saluting the flag that bear serious reflection. Pentecostals were racially and ethnically integrated, and ordaining women, long before either became common among mainline Protestants — and the majority of Christians to this day belong to churches that still don’t ordain women. Religious liberals shouldn’t be so quick to assume that fundamentalists have nothing of value to say.
And whether Wallace likes it or not, atheism isn’t always, or even usually, merely a kneejerk overreaction to Pat Robertson. Many of us have carefully considered a wider variety of theisms than Wallace appears to have considered, and still found them lacking. It is possible — and reasonable — to consider apophaticism better than cataphaticism, to exult in the beauty of Christian hymns and liturgy, to love the Bible, and to find much to respect in the thought of at least some devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and still not believe in God. It is even possible to love everything that’s beautiful about all those Levantine religions, and still believe they do more harm than good. But for many believers, it may be more comfortable to snuggle up in the thin blanket of superficial critiques like Wallace’s than to venture out where they can gain a wider perspective.