The Negative Way
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, John Scotus Erigena defined Via Negativa as such:
“We do not know what God is. God does not know what God is because God is not any created thing. Literally God is not, because God transcends being.”
- John Scotus Erigena -
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:
A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant down to the marketplace for provisions. Soon afterward, the servant came home, white as a ghost and trembling. He told the merchant that he saw Death in the marketplace and that she made a threatening gesture toward him.
Borrowing the merchant’s horse, the servant fled at great speed to Samarra (a city about 75 miles away) where he knew Death wOULD never find him.
The merchant, intrigued by the story of his servant went down to the marketplace to question Death about why she made the threatening gesture toward his servant. Death replied, “That was not a threatening gesture that I made. On the contrary, I was startled to see him in Baghdad, for I knew that 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.