Agnosis: Theology in the Void (George Pattison)

IAGO I am not what I am.
Shakespeare, Othello, I.I.
FOOL Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?
LEAR Why no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing.
Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.4.
It appeared to a man as in a dream – it was a waking dream – that he became pregnant with Nothing like a woman with child, and in that Nothing God was born, He was the fruit of nothing.
Meister Eckhart (tr. Walshe), Sermon Nineteen.

In calling for a transformation of religious belief that would make it accessible to inhabitants of the postmodern world, the English philosopher of religion Don Cupitt, in his 1982 book The World to Come, suggested that such a transformation would involve looking ‘long enough into the Void to feel it turn our bones to water’. Cupitt described such a willed endurance of the Void in terms that recall the language of mysticism, stating that it requires of us an ‘inner transformation’ and ‘a discipline of selflessness’ until the Void itself is transformed into ‘the Ineffable’, arousing ‘(non-cognitive) worship’. Yet, if this seems to imply an understanding of the contemporary experience of the void as corresponding in some way to the moment of purgation or to ‘the dark night of the soul’ that various forms of ascetical theology have often described, Cupitt’s conception of the void is distinctively modern. For, as he understands it, the void is not simply some inner state, a subjective feeling of abandonment or dereliction. No: ‘the Void’ is a characterization of the religious situation of our time; it is that into which all the inherited concepts and categories, icons and images of God have collapsed. It is the situation left by that ‘death of God’ proclaimed by the madman of Nietzsche’s parable, a death that not only shakes the foundations of religious constructions of reality but also undermines all systems of social order, ethical existence and metaphysical speculation. In a world that is in this radical sense Godless no ‘reality’ can be taken for granted, no all-embracing framework holds together the diverse realms of science and culture, no ultimate referent secures the ever-shifting helix of symbolic systems. The world is only what we make it, only how we represent it, only a function of language.

The adepts of such a Void can no longer cohabit with the reassuring doctrines of the theistic belief that provided mystics and knights of faith of previous ages with a stabilizing frame of reference for their wilder ventures of godly desire. For this Void is itself inseparable from the death of God and the end of theism. Yet, Cupitt maintains, some form of religion is possible on the far side of the Void, a form that (in his writings at least) has become known as ‘non-realism’, that is, a form of belief that no longer claims the sanction of reality for its beliefs and practices. Such belief is a self-consciously ‘merely’ human invention, a way of speaking.

However, such ‘Hyperborean faith’ (as Cupitt called it in The World to Come) is inseparable from the experience of the void itself. But can that experience be turned into a secure ‘result’ on which a future theology can safely build its postpostmodern structure? Won’t a truly post-realist faith find itself returning ever again to the void that is its birth-place, whence alone it can be born and re-born, again and again?

We have been here before. From the ‘theology of the death of God’ of the 1960s, through Tillich’s confrontation with the manifestation of non-being in existentialist meaninglessness, through Karl Barth’s 1921 portrayal of a humanist world laid waste, through Nietzsche himself and back, past Kierkegaard, to Hegel (at least): the encounter with nothingness has been a recurrent motif of modern religious thought. Nor is it any wonder that many in the West have found themselves attracted to Buddhism as a form of religion in which that encounter appears to have been successfully internalized. Indeed, Cupitt himself has referred to his own style of Christianity as ‘Christian Buddhism’.

It is not only religious thought that has succumbed to the lure of the abyss, however. Secular culture has been – and continues to be – highly productive of verbal and visual evocations of the void. ‘There’s no lack of void,’ as Samuel Beckett’s tramp Estragon said to his associate Vladimir. Painting, music, literature and film can all provide examples enough. The void is not just a matter of modern religious experience: it is integral to the modern experience as such.

Of course, there is a considerable body of opinion that maintains that all this concern with the void is somewhat passe’, being too redolent of postwar depression and existentialist despair. Writing in 1966 Robert Martin Adams could claim that ‘Nothing is closer to the supreme commonplace of our commonplace age than its preoccupation with Nothing.’ Today, however (or so the story goes), we’ve left all that behind. Cupitt himself declares that ‘the mourning is over’: the death of God is no longer an occasion for anxiety, grief or despair but the beginning of a ‘joyful wisdom’. Such a wisdom indulges itself in the creation of new values and new symbols without the kind of guilt or melancholy that characterized the first wave of post-theistic thinkers such as Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard.

A truly postmodern theology will have left such modernist angst behind.

However, although it seems to come naturally to identify talk of nothingness or the void with the shadow-side of life (as Iris Murdoch seems to do in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals), this book is certainly not an argument for pessimism. Neither is it simply a return to questions that have fallen by the wayside of intellectual progress. If the self-styled postmodern world order is no longer angst-ridden in the manner of existentialism, questions concerning the death of God and the end of metaphysics continue to preoccupy many labourers in the vineyards of the humanities. The enterprise of deconstruction, so influential in the 1980s and early 1990s, can itself be seen as a further extension of the task of thinking through just what those events imply. Within the narrower field of theology and religious studies recent books as diverse as Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being and Thomas Altizer’s The Genesis of God evince a concern to think theologically in the situation of the void, even if the approaches taken diverge considerably from that of the present study.

The question as to what it is to think of God in the situation of the modern/postmodern void is a question that the contemporary religious situation presses upon us. But how can we orientate ourselves in the face of such a question? Doesn’t it immediately reduce us to a silence as blank as a Rothko painting? What is there to say that is not a falsification of the matter in hand? The moment we begin to speak or to write aren’t we thereby imposing an order, a structure, a meaning on what in itself is, simply, nothing? Surely it is still true that, as Lear said to his fool, ‘Nothing can be made out of nothing’?

And yet – as has already been indicated – the theme of nothingness or of the void is not new to modern religious thought. Legitimate or not, much has already been said. Moreover, because, in the very formulation of the question, we identify ourselves as participants in that talk, one way of beginning is to see how the question has been constituted in the many conversations in which it has come to expression.

The enquiry therefore takes the shape of a hermeneutical operation, a venture in interpreting a sequence of texts and counter-texts, and, thereby, also a historical investigation. But what texts? And what is the nature of the historical sequence that comes into view through them?

These questions suggest a number of comments that (I hope) will explain much about what follows and that underline the modesty of the position being advanced.

Firstly, although thought is necessarily historical, its history is not subject to any law of necessary progress. This is worth saying, because even though there would be few takers today for a crude kind of Hegelianism that would see the history of ideas as an unbroken chain of dialectically necessary stages progressing towards a clear and determinate goal, there is a residual Hegelianism in much humanistic thinking that shows itself in a number of ways. One example of this is a tendency to treat certain thinkers or movements as having definitively resolved this or that question of philosophy in such a way that we are obligated to accept their conclusions in formulating our own beginnings. To take a specific instance to which considerable attention will be devoted towards the end of this study: there are many now writing who seem to take a particular post-structuralist understanding of the relationship between language and reality as an incontestable datum for all further reflection on the matter. To speak personally, however, I am more and more persuaded that although Derrida offers valuable lessons in slow and circumspect reading, Derrida is not a stage on the road towards absolute knowledge such that his methods and assumptions must be accepted without further thought or question. The shape of any study must be shaped by the question at issue (a comment that, of course, reflects a certain decision already taken about the relationship between text and hors-texte), not by preconceptions as to ‘what the age requires’. There cannot be only one way of exploring the key questions of religious existence. Some may find one way useful – deconstruction perhaps – others won’t. There is no compulsion and no necessity. Alternative routes exist.

It follows from this that, although in one sense the subject itself leads the enquiry, the textualization of the subject will be intrinsically variable and that there will be an inevitably individual element in the choice of texts used to get at the subject, reflecting the perspective, situation and experience of the writer. Indeed, as may become apparent, it is perhaps true of all religious writing that the story it tells about the history of religious ideas will be profoundly influenced by the writer’s own story. At the same time it is not implausible that individual stories develop out of and in turn influence collective stories in important ways. Thus, the discussion in Chapter 4 of the Kyoto school reflects my own long-term interest in and debt to Japanese Buddhism. But this is not to say that Agnosis is merely a heavily coded autobiography, for (to stay with this particular instance) the world-historical encounter between Europe and East Asia is one that has massive implications at every level for the shape of human existence in the twenty-first century. In terms of autobiographical influences, it may be added that the biggest single such influence in the present work is my own repeated realization of my inability to live by the faith I profess. But that too – the record suggests – is no unique experience. On the contrary, it is one with which all those who seek to live Christian lives and to understand Christian thought must come to terms.

It is always possible, of course, that other works and other writers have important things to say on nothingness. One such is Meister Eckhart. Such omissions must be acknowledged – but, precisely because I am not attempting a Hegelian world-history of nothingness, they do not require apology, since I am aiming neither to produce an exhaustive survey of all relevant material nor to achieve any kind of finality.

A separate, methodological comment may also be of some use at this point. A number of discussions of nothingness have begun by attempting to offer a clear definition of the concept itself. An example of this is Paul Tillich’s development of the distinction between me on and ouk on as the distinction between a relative kind of non-being that can come into some sort of dialectical relation to being and an absolute kind of non-being that is sheer nothingness. However, such attempts to stabilize usage have been, at best, disappointing in terms of results. The key Greek terms to einai, he ousia and to on have between them been variously translated as being, reality, substance, essence and existence and both the original terms and their translations have been variously assimilated to each other or distinguished from each other. Already in the classical world there was, as Christopher Stead has put it in his study Divine Substance, ‘extraordinary chaos and incongruity’ amongst the various senses of ousia and correlative terms. Nor have matters improved since – and if that is the case with ‘being’ how much more are the difficulties going to be compounded when it comes to the negative terms! In any case, even if a single author can achieve consistency within the covers of a single book, there is little to suggest that one person’s usage is going to command the kind of consensus that would be a chief aim of any such exercise. A definition that cannot take its place in the world of conventional usage is of very limited value. More often the only result is to torture language into impossible and unsustainable positions.

Thus, although terminological exactitude is an ideal not to be scorned and although (in another respect) there is much that is appealing in the kind of profound reflection on ‘basic words’ practised by a Heidegger, I have chosen to paint with a broader brush and to allow the sense of such terms as void, non-being and nothingness to emerge from their place in the larger picture. Once again it is a matter of enabling the question to emerge with just enough distinctness as to point us towards an appropriate response.

PATTISON, George, Agnosis: Theology in the Void. London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 1996.

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