Digging up the root of my confusion,
if no one planted it, how does it grow?
And why are some hell-bent upon there being an answer
while some are quite content to answer “I don’t know”?
I’m conflicted about an aspect of our faith which stretches back into the fuzzy past and seems to be reaching through our future. If anything, Mormonism has had a strong confidence, even outright pride, in knowing God. Who God is, what God does, our relation to God then now and always. In our more polemical moments, church leaders have even ridiculed the God of the creeds; a God without body, parts, or passions is simply a God “without”– a nothing. Our philosophers have dissected the “omni” God as impassible and thus impersonal, incapable of being moved by our troubles or pleased by our happiness. Mormons have (sometimes confidently and sometimes not) described God as embodied. God is one who took upon flesh and lived and suffered and died. In this we join with broader Christianity, although others restrict this embodiment to the Incarnation, to the person of Jesus Christ while Mormons typically include God the Father in this same category of embodied beings. And we’re comforted to proclaim and to believe that we “know God, and Jesus Christ” who he sent because such knowledge is “eternal life” (John 17:3). But I’ve never seen God, though I’ve felt that I’ve seen the works of God’s hands. And I’ve never heard God’s voice, not audibly at least, as far as I know, though I’ve felt God’s guidance and comfort, sometimes rebuke, at times in my life. But I’ve also sensed God’s absence.
Given our confidence in knowing God, it isn’t surprising that Mormons haven’t made much use of “apophatic theology.” In this approach to knowing God, the believer recognizes her fallibility and finitude compared to God’s perfection and infinitude. She does “negative theology,” she believes in God, but she emphasizes the unknowability of God. Her limited mind can’t grasp an unlimited God, she can’t say what God is and must confine herself to declaring what God isn’t. To some believers, such an approach seems like unnecessary resignation. It’s even been called “metaphysical false modesty”– after all, such negative assertions don’t escape our human finitude any more than our positive assertions do (58). Still others have recommended it as a first step in order to clear the mind of false conceptions and begin faith in God anew. And of course, there’s Kierkegaard: “May we be preserved from the blasphemy of men who ‘without being terrified and afraid in the presence of God…without the trembling which is the first requirement of adoration…hope to have direct knowledge’” (quoted in John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, 69).
Leaving aside the problem of knowing exactly who God is, there’s the pressing problem of knowing what God wants. An appeal to apophatic theology here would seem to be impossible for Mormons given our strong emphasis on works. (Although our lists of stuff we aren’t supposed to do might come to mind quicker than the lists of stuff we are supposed to do. Apophatic orthopraxis?) Some theologians express fears that apophatic theology applied to human action can lead to the justification of any sort of action or inaction in God’s name. Saying “I don’t know” can excuse me from working for something God might want me to work for, but I’m trapped in my finitude, offering resignation rather than putting my shoulder to the wheel.
The point is, in the process of seeking a rational faith we’re certain to run into some walls, certain to feel the press of mortality on our hearts, certain to sense our prayers bouncing off a dark ceiling in the middle of some God-forsaken night and perhaps wonder if anyone’s really listening. Especially in those moments, I hope we still hope. Negative theology, a leap of faith, can just as easily resign us to something less than what God hopes for us, something less than what we’re capable of, avoiding an action which we fear might carry too heavy a consequence. Still, there are mists of darkness. Perhaps there’s room in our doctrine, in our “probationary state,” for periods of apophatic theology. I’m not brave enough (weak enough? No…I’ll go with “steady enough”) to build a home there, but maybe I’d dwell in a tent for a time.
An angel asked Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” And I said unto him, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:16-17). We have/seek answers. Our testimonies would each contain a “Right now I hope…” at the start, and always conclude with the silent “and…”