For a while I was discussing the nature of God with an old friend who had since become a Christian. This is always a dangerous thing to do. I am very interested in spiritual matters, but I am actively hostile to religious dogma. Nonetheless, I tried to find common ground by introducing the idea of negative theology, something I find compelling and useful.
Negative theology is the belief that we can only say what God is not—never what he is. It is very useful for dispensing with the most primitive—and the most commonly held—ideas that God is some thing. The stereotype is a man with a white beard which Beckett has so much fun with in Waiting for Godot.
My friend dismissed negative theology as something that he had abandoned. He derisively referred to it as “easy.” Contrast this reaction to negative theology with his answer to some of the following most difficult questions regarding Christianity:
- Why does God allow suffering of the righteous?
- Why did God not care about those born more than 2000 years ago?
- Why did God send his son to a backwater where word would travel slowly?
- Why does God hate the children of Buddhists and other religious followers?
To these kinds of questions, my friend responded, “I long ago gave up trying to figure out God”! So negative theology is easy, but throwing up your hands and proclaiming God’s inscrutability is tough minded? This gets to the heart of my problem with all religions: they don’t start questions about God, they end them.
I think that the teachings of every religion can be useful in a spiritual quest. But once you accept that a particular dogma is right, you stop being a seeker and become an apologist.
I’m not suggesting an à la carte approach to spirituality: a little reincarnation here, a little redemption there. For one thing, I think these ideas are barren. The main thing is that these religions can help in the journey to understanding. But they are not the destination.
So I think that one can self-identify as a Christian. He can use the Bible as a primary source. But the moment he starts reading the Bible like a Gypsy reads tea leaves? The moment he thinks he has found the key to God’s love? The moment he gives up on understanding God? He is lost in a world of fake certainty.