Apophatic Theodicy

Ten years ago a tsunami ripped through the Indian Ocean claiming more than a quarter of a million lives and displacing nearly two million more. In the face of such devastation, horrified silence is the only proper response I can think of; but many voices arose, claiming that God is clearly dead or that God was again cleansing the earth. It was against these voices that David Bentley Hart wrote The Doors of the Sea.

Hart’s Doors did little to calm the furor. The book drips with contempt for Hart’s interlocutors. As a work of theology it fails to attain to love, and as a work of rational reflection it fails, well, to be rational. Richard Dawkins has dismissed Hart’s theology as apophatuous. This is unfortunate, as Hart gives no evidence of appreciating the profound demands of silence.

But let me linger for a moment to consider the text. Take, by way of example, Hart’s attempt at defending God on apophatic grounds early in the book:

Unless one can see the beginning and end of all things, unless one possesses a divine, eternal vantage upon all of time, unless one knows the precise nature of the relation between divine and created freedom, unless indeed one can fathom infinite wisdom, one can draw no conclusions from finite experience regarding the coincidence in God of omnipotence and perfect goodness. One may still hate God for worldly suffering, if one chooses, or deny him, but one cannot in this way ‘disprove’ him. (pgs. 13-14)

The defense here would be laughable were the issue not so serious. Hart goes wrong by taking the atheist to say anything at all about omnipotence and perfect goodness. What the atheist objects to is calling God loving as well as powerful enough to intervene in the course of nature and history. Love is a perfectly familiar and ordinary sort of concept, so the atheist is surely on firm footing here. Similar points can be made about intervening in nature and history (although human attempts at such interventions have a horrible track record).

Hart, of course, wants to move the conversation to another level, a theological level. He wants our vocabulary to be restricted by the uses of theologians and Church fathers. One problem with doing so is that Hart has already as much as admitted that God’s wisdom, power and love are beyond our comprehension. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent… or something along those lines. Wittgenstein’s admonition is both an ethical tautology and a metaphysical fact about meaning.

I have suggested that there is another problem with Hart’s apophatic defense. That issue is simply this: it is not the atheist who is burdened with defending her position but the Christian. We make extraordinary claims about the unseen, claims on which we have often enough staked our reputations and lives, claims we believe have the power to transform human life itself. The atheist, on the other hand, the best among them, thinks things are as she thinks they are, to steal a line from Wallace Stevens. Things are as we find them and nothing more…. She has no patience for the postmodern mojo that would wrap everything in shadows.

The problem with the atheist position, if there is one, is that she must take care to not trust in her intuitions. She must let her intuitions be trained. Otherwise she falls victim to the tyranny of common sense. But, of course, that is not a problem really, but an expectation of intellectual honesty. The atheist’s position is one of moral responsibility, a position Hart could learn a lot from.

It strikes me as interesting that Hart’s theology, not being a Western Christian, is so wedded to scholastic philosophy. Intellectual responsibility, one would think, demands a rejection of a metaphysics and epistemology developed in almost complete ignorance of the various mechanisms at work in nature and psychology science has uncovered over the last few centuries. The development of scholastic philosophy strikes me as the epitome of religion developed without the benefit of deep experience of God…. an experience that demands silence.

What is a Christian to do in the face of overwhelming tragedy? In the Gospel of John, Jesus addresses human suffering and Christian hope:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. (Jn 16: 20-21)

We Christians can say nothing more than that we hope for some sort of transformative apocalypse, a revelation that will wipe away all tears, give meaning and value to the suffering endured during this life, and reconcile us all to one another and to nature. In other words, the Christian does not have anything to add. Silence and enduring with our brothers and sisters is the only gift we have to give.