The Mystical Art of Unsaying


Sermon #25 (5th November 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

It’s up to me, once again, to kick off our new theme for the month here at Essex Church. Throughout November we’re going to be looking into ‘The Unknown’, and today, in particular, we’re focusing on the concept of God – the idea that God is, in some sense, unknown – and ultimately unknowable – that God is so unlike anything else we humans have experienced or gained knowledge of, so utterly beyond the limits of what we can understand, that we can never really hope to grasp whatever it is we mean by ‘God’. On this view, it could be said that when we speak of God, as we do most weeks at church, we literally do not know what we are talking about! None of us. Certainly not me, anyway.

Not an especially reassuring thought to be bringing to you from the pulpit, but there it is. As the Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Walsh put it (in the reading that Antony gave for us earlier), ‘God is a mystery – [a creating, transforming, sustaining mystery] – and is always and forever beyond every mortal attempt to figure God out and settle God once and for all.’

And yet, as Victoria Safford wrote (in the second reading, that Sonya gave for us), she – and we – still use God-language ‘because sometimes there is no other metaphor, no other symbol, no other poetry, no other offering’. There’s something in us that draws us – regardless – towards religious language, to try and talk about the deeper things of life, to speak of things we don’t fully understand.

So what are we talking about when we talk about God? Well, it depends. It seems that some people are, fairly straightforwardly, talking about a supernatural being – not exactly the old man with a beard in the sky that we think of from child-like caricatures, generally – but a supernatural person, a cosmic mind, we might say – out there, somewhere. However, many of us don’t exactly believe in a supernatural being of that sort, so we use religious language more symbolically, perhaps to refer to some underlying metaphysical reality, something a bit more nebulous, which is harder to grasp. Another possibility is that when we talk about God we’re playing a sophisticated ‘language game’ and not really talking about any objective reality – whether that’s a supernatural being or the underlying metaphysical workings of the universe – at all. Instead we might be using God-talk as part of a whole system of religious language and ritual which affirms our commitment to a certain set of shared values and way of looking at life.

When we talk about God, it is not always obvious which of these we are engaging in. Are we being literal and speaking directly about a supernatural being? Are we being symbolic and speaking metaphorically about an underlying cosmic reality? Are we playing a non-realist language-game which has got nothing to do with either a supernatural being or an underlying reality but which is instead intended to support us in living out our highest values in the world? It’s possible that – as individuals, and as a community – we’re doing any or all of these things, even switching between them from time to time. In truth, I suspect for many of us, we’re not always totally clear about this ourselves. In fact, this was the topic of my recent dissertation, and even after spending months and months thinking and writing about it, and talking to other people, I’m still not entirely sure what I’m doing with religious language myself…

Perhaps it will be something of a comfort to us all to know that we’re in good company – good and faithful religious people of all stripes have been struggling with such questions forever – there is a (reasonably) reputable strand of theology that may be particularly useful to reflect on. Apophatic theology, sometimes also known as negative theology, or the via negativa, can be traced way back through Christian history, to the Fathers of the Early Church, through key thinkers such as the marvellously named “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite” [as an aside: the reason he is not just called Dionysius the Areopagite, but Pseudo-Dionysius, is that this was just a pseudonym, somebody adopted the name of “Dionysius the Areopagite”, a character in the Acts of the Apostles, from a much earlier era, and as far as I can make out he did this to piggy-back on a biblical character to gain credibility and get his works more widely read, which by all accounts worked, so good on him]. Apophatic theology is particularly connected to the mystics, most notably Meister Eckhart, but there are also a number of Jewish and Sufi mystics who were thinking along similar lines (including our old friend Maimonides, who cropped up in a service a few weeks back, and also the likes of Sufi poets Rumi and Hafez).

So – after all this preamble – what is apophatic, or negative, theology? Well, apparently, the root of the word, apophasis, originally meant ‘denial’, so that’s our first clue. Apophatic theology attempts to speak of God only in terms of what cannot be said about God. As you’re probably already realising, apophatic theology is paradoxical through and through. William Franke sums it up in one mind-bending phrase (on the front of your order of service):

‘Only the unsaying of language can “say” what cannot be said.’

And we’ll return to that idea of ‘unsaying’ a bit later on.

Megan Foley, a Unitarian Universalist minister, has her own particular take on apophatic theology. She says:

‘There is no shortage of voices shouting out what they think God is. And it’s important for people who are spiritually curious to be able to articulate what they are sure God is not, while they are on their way to finding out what God might be, so that they don’t get unduly misguided, or hurt, by all that’s already out there. It can’t all be true. And I’m not the first to declare it important to know what God is not; that tradition goes way back, and was particularly notable in the 9th century. That’s when theologian John Scotus Eriguena [a fan and translator of Pseudo-Dionysius] made this statement [note : please excuse the gendered language – bear in mind it was written about 1200 years ago]: “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.”’

[Megan Foley continues with her interpretation. She says:]

‘I would translate that to say that a creator God is bigger than creation itself, and also bigger than anything any human being can understand or describe. God is not definable by any human conception and therefore no human language can capture what God is. Kind of mind boggling, isn’t it? It kind of blows my mind, but back in the day, this was more than a mental exercise; a theology was born to describe God in terms of what God cannot possibly be, what God is not, so as to help people understand that [when we’re talking about God] we’re talking about something really outside the ordinary here. And that theology was called apophatic theology.’

There are several interpretations of how apophatic theology works, but today I just want to tell you about one that I’m particularly drawn to, based on the thought of Michael Sells, who wrote a book on the ‘Mystical Languages of Unsaying’. [Michael Sells is a Prof of Islamic History and Literature in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago] Now, pay attention, this bit may need to commit all of your brain cells – and it’s still going to be confusing anyway – because it’s meant to be! In a nutshell, according to Michael Sells, apophatic theology is a never-ending dialectical process, and it requires that every time you try to say something about God, you must immediately ‘unsay’ what you’ve just said, as a sort-of correction. The idea is that – what with God being unknowable and all that – whatever we might say about God is going to be a bit wrong. Or a lot wrong. Utterly inadequate, at least – even if it is our very best effort at pronouncing theological wisdom. But it doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve said something, and then you’ve ‘unsaid’ it, this apophatic process requires you to ‘unsay’ the thing you’ve just ‘unsaid’ as well! And this goes on and on forever. It’s not as if you’re going to arrive at a final destination where you’ll find a neat and tidy conclusion! That’s not what it’s about. It’s nothing like other modes of theological or philosophical reflection. And that’s why it’s often been associated with the mystics. Going through this process of ‘unsaying’ is somehow supposed to disrupt your everyday ways of thinking and have a transformative effect. Mark McIntosh, a writer on Christian spirituality has said that: ‘Apophatic speech might take the form of a quieting down, a stilling into hushed silence. But it might also take the form of an explosion of speech, a carnival of self-subverting discourse, language tripping over itself in paradox or fantastical repetition as it comes undone in the whirlwind of divine superabundance.’

And if you read some of the mystics, like the sermons of Meister Eckhart, you’ll get a sense of that. Apparently he had a kind-of apophatic formula for his sermons (it sounds like they were very long!)… He’d start out with something uncontroversial, maybe a well-known bible verse. For example, in his 87th sermon, he begins with the quotation: ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ This opening gambit would have been well-known to his congregation, and would have put them at ease, you might even say it lulled them into a false sense of security! Then he would have talked about how ‘poor’ in this sense – in the saying ‘blessed are the poor’ – didn’t mean a lack of material wealth but instead a sort of internal poverty – of ‘wanting, having, and knowing nothing’. This is his first ‘unsaying’ – he’s telling his listeners ‘aha! It doesn’t mean what you think it means’. But then he ‘unsays’ that too, saying ‘aha! It doesn’t mean internal poverty in the way you think either!’ And as he goes on and on, forever unsaying what he just said, the whole sermon gets ever stranger. At one point he famously cries out ‘let us pray to God that we may be free of God!’ (and while that kind-of makes sense in context it’s no wonder he got in trouble with the Pope). It almost becomes a kind of mystical frenzy of contradictions and provocations. And I think the idea is that instead of trying to reason with his congregation, by attempting this process of ‘unsaying’, he is trying to evoke some direct experience within them, which is beyond reason and which pushes them towards their own mystical encounters with God.

There might be a temptation for people (including us Unitarians) to ‘settle’ on a certain theological understanding or model of God – especially if we’ve worked hard to get our head round it – and to dig in and defend a particular position which we find appealing or convincing. But apophatic theology insists that we never settle – that we stay conscious of our unknowing. It insists that we keep these big questions alive and that we avoid settling for easy answers. Whatever you say about God – it can’t be the final word – we cannot grasp the ungraspable. But you might say that through this never-ending dynamic and dialectical process of course-correction we can, perhaps, better stumble in a zig-zagging path towards God.

Whatever our current theological understanding, collectively or as individuals, I think we can benefit from the insights of apophatic theology, and the process of ‘unsaying’ – even if only to put a little asterisk in our minds next to any theological pronouncements we might make – to remind ourselves that (as the theologian Keith Ward puts it): ‘God is beyond all human concepts. The most that they can do is to point, very inadequately, towards God.’

I want to close with an echo of today’s opening words, by Patricia Shelden, which I think affirm the apophatic aspect of all we do together here each week. She says:

‘Here is where we gather in the presence of the Sacred.
Here is where we gather to experience the Holy
Here is where, together, we face the unanswerable questions
and acknowledge that not knowing is as sublime as it is frustrating.

Here we gather to worship, to experience something happen –
perhaps something different for each of us according to our beliefs,
something unnamed, uncategorized, and unusual yet absolutely necessary.
Here we are so gathered: our minds, our hearts, and our souls.’

May it always be so. Amen.

Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: