God Liberates, Even in the Dark

A common critique of apophatic thinking is that it encourages a kind of pietism or radical interiority at the expense of engagement with life as it actually unfolds on the ground. Where theology and life unfold in the movement with God that sees our concepts and speech continuously break down, aren’t we just left with a kind of silence or withdrawal? Doesn’t this simply lead to quiet pauses and dewy-eyed sighs of contemplative reflection while the world outside burns?

While it’s true that certain forms of apophosis could encourage this kind of retreat or resignation (or could lead simply to a focus on the realities of the church’s liturgical life and symbols[1]), things don’t have to tend that way.

Again, Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses provides a helpful jumping off point.

In my previous posts, I alluded to the way that Gregory’s whole apophatic journey kicks off and is understood within the context of the pursuit of God. Nyssa calls this a movement into virtue.[2] Here, our desires and loves are gradually reordered and transferred from their attachment to the things of creation and onto the One from whom creation springs. It is precisely this liberation of desire which draws us up and into God, for it is our appetite that elevates us “to the participation in the Good” (58).[3] This simply is the apophatic immersion into God’s darkness.

Gregory rejects the idea of a disconnect between mind and body, so this purgative journey does not only have to do with interior dispositions, but with our life in the world. Where we take up this mantle, “we must put to death…both the base movements of the mind and the acts which issue from them” (67, emphasis added). Within this account, the apophatic life is an intrinsically active one, one that continuously spirals outward into the fabric of our lives. This virtuous life may be disorienting and dizzying, and may be initially distasteful, but eventually it comes to be something we relish and desire. In short, “the virtuous life, being sweetened by the hope of things to come, becomes sweeter and more pleasant than all the sweetness that tickles the senses with pleasure” (69).

Because God is infinite, and thus unbounded, this active movement into God, this expansion into the Good, is one which will never cease.

Ever.

So here is where I want to make some pirouettes beyond Nyssa:

Where we see life with God as a continuously active one, one that never ends, that sees our expectations of who God is being permanently overturned; and where we see this movement as one of our hearts, minds, and bodies being reoriented in light of who God is, all of this demands an account of God and salvation as liberating.[4]

Simply put: this God disrupts all attempts to nail her down by those who claim particular practices, parties, and ways of speaking as the sum total of “Godly” speech and action. God, we might say, is the one who eternally topples our idols, and, because she is good, frees us precisely for emancipatory speech, action, and, yes, perhaps, silence[5] alongside those whom the world sidelines, silences, and marginalizes. Because the powers-that-be claim to have God on lock and on their side, the God who exceeds us at every turn must stand in the trenches on the side of those who have been bypassed and shut out of theological, political, societal, and civic representation, signification, and authority. 

Getting concrete: an apophatic approach is one which must reject the idea that God is named by and through capitalism, whiteness, patriarchy, able-bodiedism, American exceptionalism, and heteronormativity. While these dead gods might look nice and provide elegant set-pieces for sophisticated conversations at dinner parties, this is not the God of Exodus, the God of fire, the God of divine darkness.

The living God is the God who liberates and who calls her people to live in line with liberation. Because this God’s ways are not our ways, she topples all of the above idolatries, and calls her followers to topple all who would seek to name and claim God with them.

As such, we must take up the mantle of emancipatory speech and action. We must displace and disrupt the business-as-usual grammar and practices used to box God in.

Along these lines, it becomes appropriate to speak of this apophatic God as black, female, poor, and queer. And, to act accordingly.

As Marcella Althaus-Reid puts it, this “Queer God – fluid and unstable as ourselves, but also laughing and taking pleasure while pursuing a divine destiny of the kind of transgressive justice which disorders the law – comes in glory and in resurrection.”[6]

And God will not be mocked.

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[1] …as if that will solve anything.

[2] Fear not faithful readers, I’ll have some serious critiques of Gregory’s account of virtue--and the idea of virtue in general--in future posts. Things’ll hit the fan then, but stick with me for now.

[3] Again, my text is Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. By Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (HarperOne: New York, 2006).

[4] In saying this, I don’t intend to yoke the movement of God to a particular strain of contemporary theology (though most of us--myself included--have not yet begun to catch up to or take seriously the implications of Liberation Theology, Latin American or otherwise), but to say that God is the one who perpetually unsettles and defies our attempts to box God in, and is the one who calls us to act like it.

[5] By "silence" I don't mean a failure to act or a fearful or apathetic withdrawal from lived solidarity for others. I simply mean that talk is cheap (especially among Christian-y folks), so there are times when we simply need to shut up and show up.

[6] Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God (Routledge: New York, 2003), p. 171.