I was sitting in Comparative Theology class listening to a presentation on Taoism and something really struck me. It was a quote.
The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. (Tao Te Ching, chapter 1)
Now, I am not under the impression that all religions teach the same thing and I am not interested in downplaying real and substantial differences. But there is an aspect to our Christian tradition called the apophatic tradition that is important if often neglected – and it ties in here.
I had never heard of the apophatic way (Via Negativa) before seminary. I was raised with and trained for ministry in the cataphatic tradition. It was all positive, presence, blessing. In fact, if those ‘good‘ things are absent, I was taught to ask “what is wrong”.
I actually heard about the apophatic through a ‘history of Christian spirituality and practices’ class. About a month later, I was by listening to a Lutheran pastor talk about Luther’s “theology of the Cross” in contrast to Calvin’s “theology of Glory”. The point of the contrast is that American protestantism (including the ‘protestant work ethic’) is all Calvin and thus all glory. This was eye opening to me as a Wesleyan that the theology of Glory had been so influential on my North American Christianity.
It was during that same month that I first heard this poem by C.S. Lewis called “a footnote to all prayers”. It rocked me. I am getting so much out of Comparative Theology (versus the more famous discipline of Comparative Religion) and Lewis’ poem is speaking to me again.
Footnote to all Prayers by C.S. Lewis
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian* fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
* Pheidian was considered the greatest of the Greek sculptors. [link]