Friday, 9 March 2012

40BFL 9: The Darkness of God

What could you follow Illuminations with but The Darkness of God? Having gone to Yale, Denys Turner is the biggest loss to British theology in a long time. I often feel guilty that I didn't make more effort when I had the privilege of being taught by him - actually I remember with acute embarrassment asking him for an extension on my extended essay deadlines because I was at hockey practice most days preparing for the blues game. (We won 3-1 - ha!) Not the greatest mark of pedigree in a wannabe theologian and I must say I have lived every bit up to the promise shown there. At Cambridge I excelled at punting, short corners and coxing in last night's clothes, but the greater loss is mine.

This is the best entry into mystical theology. It's the sort of book you wish everyone had read because then you'd be dealing a lot less with the frustration of people's sunday-school theology. In a nut shell, it gives you a two-for-one deal. Firstly, by managing to present an intellectually defensible idea of God. And, secondly, by challenging spurious contemporary notions of 'mysticism'. Turner has a life long preoccupation of correcting experiential readings of John of the Cross, Julian et al. and shutting out all that voodoo, woowoo nonsense. He does it, I think, in every book he's written and quite right because it is really annoying.

The general thrust is a sort of historical tracing of one path of theology brought about, he very successfully argues, by the coming together of two narratives: Plato's analogy of the cave in the Republic and Moses ascent of Mount Sinai. These stories play on the imagery of light and darkness and ascent and interiority, where the seemingly contradictory metaphors get resolved. The dark, smokey mountain of Moses ascent is equated with the blinding light of the sun coming out of the cave which plunges the philosopher into greater darkness on re-entry to the cave; while in Augustine's journey into the soul, where God is within and I am without (another Turner favourite), where I most approach the centre of my being I am also raised in the encounter with God - the ascesis of the soul.

The language of contradiction is important because it's at the heart of this theology. Essentially, from St Denys we receive the understanding that the cataphatic and apophatic pathways to God are part of the same process. We name God by everything in creation as everything bears its creator's imprint - caterpillars and slugs - even spiders and wasps - through higher categories of goodness, power, knowledge, to the radical difference of the transcendent divine to all creation. This is the cataphatic way. But then begins the apophatic way, which is to say that actually God is nothing like anything in creation because God is uncreated, but to go further saying we cannot even say God is good, powerful &c. because God is not good like anything we know - a good stool, a good dog, a good human. Then further again to say God is not actually truly different, because to establish difference requires a frame of references - triangles and squares are different (both are shapes); but how would one say salmon and quantum mechanics are different? talking about God is even more different. But this takes us back into the cataphatic approach because, for example, say we start from a basic principle that God is male. The temptation is to say in negation "AHA! God is not male, I'm getting somewhere here!" But actually no - it is better to say God is male and female. If we say God is not male we may think we have a handle on God's gender - he is neuter or asexual like those angels in Dogma. If though we say God is male and female, there is more truth in the contradiction - we are closer to understanding something about God. So it turns out - as the Heracleitan epigram to Four Quartets has it - that 'the way up and the way down are one and the same'.

Anyway that was very long winded. Basically it's a great book that returns a bit of sense and imagination to theology. And it's a joy to read - particularly the penultimate chapter on St John of the Cross, which contains a lot of truth and wisdom together with some personal and searching theology about depression and selfhood; combining all those requisites for truly great writing: honesty, clarity, insight and imagination. It's this chapter that first got me reading St John who is one of the few to successfully combine being a good theologian and a genuine poet. More from him later.


  1. Spiders??? Surely God did not make spiders???

  2. He did but it was the devil that gave them 8 legs and a scuttle.

  3. Please can you pause for a few months. Your arguments for this lovely new reading list are far too compelling and are making me feel all the more grossly ill-read with each passing day. Thank you.

  4. That's very kind but there is no time. I'm expecting all these books to be read by the end of Lent. The hour is late, the judge is at the gate. Do not be like the foolish virgin.

  5. I'll just watch the highlights package on Good Friday.


DreamHost promo codes