Anxious Mo-Fo

An anxious m*********** from Seattle

A not completely fair parody of apophatic theology

leave a comment »

A somewhat common way of talking about God among theists is to claim that God is a mystery, while simultaneously saying things which are pretty specific about God. An example is this piece by Mark Vernon, which I know about because it was parodied here, on a new blog called Exquisite With Love, of which I am a fan.

Vernon writes,

First you’ve got to ask what you mean by the word ‘God’. And there is a quick answer: we don’t know what we mean by the word ‘God’. God is a mystery.


[H]ow can God be talked of? It’s called the negative way, or the apophatic – saying what God is not. Whatever God might be, God is not visible: God’s invisible. Whatever God might be, God cannot be defined: God’s ineffable. Nothing positive is said. But nonetheless something is said of God.

He also writes,

You see, if you believe the question of God is worth asking then it’s because you’ve sensed that life might have meaning, that the cosmos is for something, that there might be an explanation beyond chance as to why there is something rather than nothing.

He doesn’t come right out and say it, but Vernon does seem to be implying that God is the Creator of the Universe, that He created it for a particular purpose, and that His purpose is relevant to how we conduct our lives. That is not anything close to only describing God by what He is not and, when combined with the attempt to describe God as an unresolvable mystery, is incoherent. At its worst, talking about God in this way is an ad hoc shuttling between describing God in detail and refusing to making any positive statements about HIm at all (e.g., He is an ineffable mystery who hates gay marriage and loves foreign aid to Israel).

It seems strange to talk in this way about God; it would be even stranger to talk this way about anything else. For example, let’s imagine talking like this about literature:

Vernon: David Foster Wallace is the best writer ever.

Some other person: I dunno, I thought Infinite Jest was self-indulgent and overly long.

Vernon: Anti-Wallacites – e.g., you – are shrill, anti-intellectual, and fundamentalist. Also, you don’t get to like or dislike Wallace, as he is the kind of writer who transcends simplistic ideas of approval and disapproval.

Some other person: …

Vernon: David Foster Wallace is the term I use to point to – not denote, but point to – the transcendent ineffable indescribable awesomeness of literature. It refers not just to the historic David Foster Wallace but to the David Foster Wallace dancing in the margins of your Penguin Classics edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a David Foster Wallace both seen and not-seen, heard and not-heard, existent and non-existent. You may claim not to like David Foster Wallace, but when you read Kafka or Proust or Milton or even Patricia Cornwell you are really reading David Foster Wallace, as his writing envelops and subsumes and is the still small voice at the heart of all literature.

Some other person: …

Vernon: When I say I like David Foster Wallace, I’m also saying I like The Iliad and The Canterbury Tales. That’s why we really don’t have anything to disagree on, as the themes of David Foster Wallace’s work are the themes of all great literature, and by shuffling terms around a bit we can see that themes not treated in his work really are treated in his work after all because that’s how awesome he is. David Foster Wallace didn’t write “The Garden of Forking Paths”, but, in a deeper sense, he did – or at least we can no longer subscribe to the rigid and limiting idea that he didn’t write it and that Borges did.

Some other person: …

Vernon: And Infinite Jest was not self-indulgent or too long, you fundamentalist anti-Wallacer: it was the finest English-language novel of the ’90s, and if you don’t like it you’re just jealous that you’re not the awesome writer he is.

Some other person: But I really didn’t like it all that much.

Vernon: Descriptivist. And your ignorance of David Foster Wallace’s work and my own work on David Foster Wallace is appalling.

Some other person: Okay, where are the hidden cameras?

I said in the title that this parody is not fair, and it’s not fair to Vernon at all. But it’s at least somewhat fair as a mockery of a particular way of talking about God.

Written by JPP

January 2, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Posted in Religion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: