The apophatic theologian – again
REVISED VERSION – in lght of your helpful comments, thanks.
Some theists will be unmoved by the kinds of argument discussed in this and the previous chapter. They may say something like this:
“The god that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either! You are working with an outdated and unsophisticated conception of God. My understanding of God is different. When you say, “There is no such thing as God” I agree with you! For God is not a thing or entity that can be said to exist or not exist. Nor can God be categorized as belonging to this kind of thing or that kind of thing. I define God as something wholly other, something ineffable, unknowable, beyond our understanding. I cannot say what God is, only what he is not.”
The view that God is unknowable is sometimes termed apophaticism. The apophatic view has its attractions, perhaps the most obvious being that, if you never actually make any positive claim about God, you can never be contradicted or proved wrong. Indeed, at first sight, apophaticism appears to make atheism impossible – if no positive God claims are ever made, there can be none to deny.
The theologian Denys Turner is a leading exponent of this type of view. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University (entitled “How to be an Atheist”), Turner says to the atheist:
It is no use supposing that you disagree with me if you say “There is no such thing as God’. For I got there well before you. What I say is merely: the world is created out of nothing, that’s how to understand God. Deny that, and you are indeed some sort of decent atheist. But note what the issue is between us: it is about the legitimacy of a certain very odd kind of intellectual curiosity, about the right to ask a certain kind of question.” P19.
Note Turner’s parting suggestion, here, that the issue between atheists and theists like himself is whether a deep curiosity about such questions as, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is even legitimate. Turner goes on to characterize the atheist is someone who pooh-poohs such questions, as someone who remains steadfastly unamazed by the fact that there is anything at all.
But if that’s what an atheist is, then I am not an atheist, and neither are most philosophers (which will come as a surprise to many of them).
Of course, most apophaticists aren’t just expressing wonder and advocating philosophical reflection. Turner himself says above that the world was created from nothing, rather than just appeared from nothing. But as the thought that something is created tends naturally to lead one on to the thought that it has a creator, so it looks suspiciously as if Turner is here gesturing towards something at least analogous to a transcendent agent. In which case, he is gesturing towards something atheists can get their teeth into.
Of course, most apophaticists also deem this mysterious, transcendent whatever-it-is worthy of our worship and gratitude, which raises the question of how, if it’s unknowable, they could possibly be in a position to know that worship and gratitude are appropriate attitudes for us to have towards it.
Indeed, if Turner is right and the world is created, doesn’t the appalling amount of suffering it contains give us excellent grounds for adding two more characteristics to the list of characteristics Turner says his God is not – his God is not worthy of either our worship or our gratitude.