Sunday, May 28, 2006

Unspeakable Nonsense: Glishing the Unglishable

While we’re on the topic of Word and words.... I’m reading this book entitled Mystical Languages of Unsaying, by Michael A. Sells, about apophatic, or "negative" theology. Apophatic theology deals with the problem of how we can talk about something--God--that is beyond all description. In other words, how do we use mere words to capture that which is by definition beyond words?

I was attracted to the book because it discusses many of my favorite mystical theologians: Plotinus, Denys the Areopagite, John the Scot Eriugena (very underrated ninth century Christian mystic), and Meister Eckhart. I’ve only just started it, so at this point I must unsay whether or not I can recommend it for your reading pleasure.

This is ironic. I googled “Michael Sells,” and it turns out that he was involved in the controversy at the University of North Carolina, in which they required incoming students to read the Koran. As a matter of fact, Sells was the one who wrote the text to be used. The problem was, he assembled a bowdlerized version of the Koran, removing all of the naughty bits that might give us the correct, I mean, incorrect, impression of Islam.

I found an interview with Sells, in which he defended his decision by stating that he didn’t want to confuse the students with all those irrelevant parts of the Koran that deal with 8th century Arab politics--you know, dismembering infidels, killing Jews, beating your wife, all that crazy stuff.

Excuse me... I’m no Arab scholar... but... when you say “Arab politics”... why the qualifier, “8th century?” Isn’t that redundant? And those parts you excised from the Koran... might they have anything to do with why the Islamic calendar is running, oh, about 800 years slow?

So in Sells’ case, he “unsaid” some of the most important parts of the Koran--instead of “Mystical Languages of Unsaying,” we get “Mystifying Students With What’s Best Left Unsaid.”

So now it’s hard for me to enjoy the book, even though there are some good parts. I keep thinking about the disingenuous intellectual dishonesty. Stupid cognitive dissonance!

Switching gears now.

They say you can’t prove the existence of Spirit, but that’s not true, any more than you can’t prove the existence of love or beauty. Of course you can, but only to someone who’s inclined to accept the appropriate proof. In my case, once I began achieving a bit of “vertical liftoff” ten or eleven years ago, I began to “discover” things about Spirit. Or at least I thought I was discovering them. Turns out I wasn’t, any more than I discovered Lake Tahoe on vacation just because I had never been there before.

Two things about these “discoveries” were striking. First, I suddenly had the capacity to understand the meaning of spiritual writing in a way that I never had before. Somehow I understood its “within,” or inner significance. Secondly, instead of a process of “learning,” it was more like a process of confirmation. In other words, I would think that I had discovered something by myself, only to discover that others before me had discovered the same thing.

This book, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, is a case in point. It helps me understand exactly what I was attempting to do with language in the prologue and epilogue of my book. In those two parts of the book I attempt to use language to describe what is clearly beyond language--specifically, what is “before” the big bang and what is “after” our separate existence, whether you want to call it ego death, transcendence, union with God, whatever. Language can’t go there, so it must be deployed in a special way so as to not mislead. In short, you have to “unsay” what you want to say.

Mystical languages of unsaying are used in order to deal with the problem of God’s transcendence. In order to talk about God at all, we must give God a name. But as soon as we do, we have placed an artificial linguistic fence around God. It’s no longer God we’re talking about, only “God.” So how do we get around that?

Through what is called “negative” or apophatic theology. This idea--which is especially prominent in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, and Vedanta--is that everything we say about God must, at the same time, be “unsaid.” It’s a way to talk about God without fooling ourselves into thinking we know what we are talking about--a way for language to “turn back upon its own propositions.” As I put it in the book, it is a way to make perfect nonsense.

So, for example, on page 10 of my book, it says “What a punnish ontic! [Combining Upanishads + ontology.] Is the author of this cacography [combining cacophony, or discordant noise, with what is possibly pure caca] an ainsoferable gnosis all [the Ain Sof is the Kabbalist word for the ultimate reality beyond name and form] or just an inrisible [i.e., risible, or laughable] mythmatician?... My yokes are easy, my words enlight [a reference to Jesus' statement that 'my yoke is easy, my burden light'].”

At least I was hoping that my yokes would be easy. Frankly, I was a little worried that the humor was overly broad. Turns out that my yokes may be hard and my words obscure, at least for a lot of people. More on that below.

Hello? Is anybody still with me?

Anyhoo, about a week before I finished the book, I discovered that I was hardly the first person to use jokes and puns to try to unsay ultimate reality. The Jews--it figures, doesn’t it?--specialized in a comedic approach to interpreting the Torah. Various esteemed rabbis would read between the lines of scripture and invent a midrash to illuminate a passage. Midrashim are often full of paradox, puns, wordplay and other midrashcally rabbitorahcal devoices, almost like zen koans.

And I only really dove wholeheartedly headwrong into the amuzing Meister Eckhart after I finished the book. His apophatic language is so full of punning and paradox, that it landed him in some real trouble with the religious authorities, who said to him, "how would you like an apophat lip, Meister?"

Sells writes of what he calls “performative intensity” in negative theology. In other words, when writing in this way, the “performance” of the language cannot be separated from its meaning: just as in case of the genome or the mathematical constants that undergird the cosmos, semantics can by no means be reduced to syntax. Again, the language itself is paradoxically trying to take you where language cannot go--it is trying urgently to say something that cannot be said. Yes, you can reduce apophatic theology to cataphatic, or positive theology. But as soon as you do this, you have eff’ed up the ineffable and screwed the inscrutable.

This has gone on a bit long, hasn’t it? Next week I hope to continue this line of thought and deconstruct some of the more mystifying passages at the beginning and end of my book, in order to shed some additional obscurity on what it is I was apparently attempting to unsay. As I said, I think it will help you ruahlize that my yokes are easy and words (hopefully) enlight. Who knows, you might even have a guffah-ha! experience.


Californian said...

And don't forget Ram Dass and his dedication to the One Eye Love.

Jim Bass

debass said...

The similarities between the Word and music is so striking that I don't know where to begin. Everything you have written about language also applies to musical language. Composition and decomposition. Performance of the moment. I am beside myself trying to descibe it. But there is probably no need to another musician. Incredible incite.

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, debass, it's all about metabolism and catabolism, building up and breaking down. Life--including the life of mind and spirit--is a process of both working dialectically. This is surely what Jesus meant when he said that he came not to bring peace but a sword.

will said...

Language tries to take us where language cannot go - just as, I think, good will, morality, heaven-yearning, virtue, etc., try to take us where, ultimately, they cannot go, ie., into the ineffable. (good thing Van Morrison didn't sing that line)

Language and morality, etc., are necessary, however, in lifting us up to where the dove descends and takes us the rest of the way.

Is there a point where language is no longer necessary? If language frames our world and gives it structure, is it necessary for our world to be "un-framed" when God enters fully? Do all pre-conceptions, conceptions, and images have to evaporate?

Maybe at the point of full God-entry, all language becomes inseparable from poetry, from music. I've often wondered if, long ago in the Way Back When, the very first language was not a series of rhythmic grunts but rather was a pure poetry that was sung instead of spoken.

Gagdad Bob said...

I believe there is a mishnah to the effect that before the fall, human beings spoke pure poetry. In fact, I believe this notion is common to a lot of perennial wisdom. It makes good nonsense.

michael said...

On the subject of intellectual honesty, and brushing under the carpet things we don't like about a particular religion or scripture, I might remind you of Jefferson's (one of those inspired Founding Fathers) abridged Bible, where all those pesky miraculous parts are erased.

I have just discovered your blog and book, which I am reading presently, all of which are thought provoking, but also, quite surprising. In particular, so far, as I already questioned you on, your attempt at finding the writings of F. Schuon and transformist evolution compatible (albeit in different parts of your brain--though I can assure you, he would have found that idea contemptable), but also, your firm support of the current US administration's policy's on the war on terror and such, as well as your view of the Islamic world as psychologically immature, which obviously goes hand in hand with your take on US policy. As an alternative view of some of these notions, I would suggest the following authors: Ananda Coomaraswamy, E.F. Shumacher, Wendell Berry (in my opinion, the most patriotic American of our times--a true conservative, but fiercely against the neo-conservative movement), and Hossein Nasr (the most famous, other than Huston Smith, of Schuon's disciples--especially his Knowledge and the Sacred, and The Need for a Sacred Science). Just a suggestion.

Gagdad Bob said...

Thanks for the suggestion, but I've read them all and am thoroughly familiar with their ideas. I won;t name names, but of those you mentioned, one is generally sound, another venerable, another somewhat pedantic, another on record as an Islamist apologist, while another is of the shallow new-age mentality that this blog passionately rejects. My respect for their ideas runs in that approximate order.

Petey said...

"One may feel that, in the name of honesty, Christians ought either to quit fighting or quit calling themselves Christians."

--Wendell Berry, Self-Righteous Idiot and Dangerous Moral Imbecile

Petey said...

"DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in the nation, has recently taken strides in embracing the anti-Israel fringe that has infiltrated its faculty and student body.

"Serving as the Director of the Islamic World Studies Program is Aminah Beverly McCloud, a follower of Louis Farrakhan who helped DePaul launch the department in response to what she believes is mass ignorance among Americans about the general Islamic world....

"One of the books McCloud uses as a required reading for both of these courses is Seyyed Hossein Nasr's book The Heart Of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity. An apologist's view of Islam, the text habitually conceals the darker sides of fundamentalist Islam. In the book Nasr writes, "When some people attack Islam for inciting struggle in the name of justice, they forget the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution." In this rudimentary and erroneous observation, Nasr is equating terrorist attacks and suicide bombings enacted on innocent civilians to throwing tea into the Boston Harbor."

jwm said...

God before time
God beyond eternity
God before the infinitesimal
God beyond the infinite God and God is in all things everywhere are in God...


will said...

DePaul U is here in Chicago. There's something very rotten in the state of Illinois, to wit:

Illinois Gov Rod Blagojevich recently appointed a member of Farrakhan's Nation Of Islam to - seat belts on, please - his Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crimes.

How effing ignorant and PC-dazzled does one have to be to do such a thing? The NOI, taken at face value, is a Jew-obsessed, Jew-hating enterprise. But it doesn't take any sleuthing to discover just how malevolently racist the NOI really is. And I mean foaming, barking at the moon, malevolently racist. Blagojevich's appointment of this sick soul just lends Farrakhan and the NOI credibility and weakens the moral resolve of those who would stand up for the principles of western civ.

Evidently, the barbarians don't have to linger at the gate. They're being welcomed in by those who they have every intention of destroying.

dilys said...

Re: the venerable and in some ways sound, for Sal and me and any others before we get around to actually buying more books, I discovered and enjoyed this Frithjof Schuon article, via, I suppose, a Nasr publication:

IMO, the realms in which Bob is making his own tracks aren't neatly sorted out. All the more reason to read widely and carefully. When I map this piece to a perspective I already trust, it dazzles and instructs, though without guardrails, and with the ever-welcome scattered excuses for self-deception and -congratulation which routinely tempt me.

Public Schuon excerpts seem scarce, so I thought it was worth posting this. Sample and scrutinize. Or not. Trainspotting in the blogosphere is one thing, but before actually riding the rails anywhere it's probably best to check the timetable, the destination, and the maintenance of the rolling stock.

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, Schuon himself always emphasized that nothing he said was operative unless applied within an authentic tradition. For extreme seekers only. Definitely not new-age.

6Gun said...

Remarkable stuff, Gagdad. If language is a precise unit-for-unit approximation of the reality it describes, then it is indeed the stepping stone to reason, and hence, the notion of God. And therein lies the paradox of the Infinite.

For years -- and as a Christian apologist -- I'd argued the anti-Christianity of Christianity; the conflict between on-the-ground dogma vs the essential impossible existentialism of God. Not proving God as the very Proof itself.

Thank you for putting into words a most nebulous concept. And...may God bless.

michael, again said...

Wendell Berry is about as far from new age as one could imagine. Small farmer from Kentucky, devoted Christian. He simply believes that globalization and complete dependence on oil is about as stupid as anything the US could do, as as far from Jeffersonian ideals as possible. That fundamentalist Muslims may use Nasr's writings (they also use Schuon's) is quite beside the point, in the same way as idiot fundamentalist Christians, like those who blow up federal buildings and kill doctors at abortion clinics, use the Bible to authorize their insanity. Nonetheless, there exist people, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. who do not actually believe we are in some kind of global evolution of conciousness (talk about new age), who truly believe their religion is true, but don't believe that the modern world is intrinsically good. We simply believe that, from about the time of the Renaissance, the world has entered into a downward trend. Not long before he died, I asked F. Schuon what he thought about the state of the world--he simply pointed down. Therefore, one can imagine a different scenario, one where the expansion of the forces of darkness are like a river, flooding, heaving beyond its bounds. All the efforts that may be laudable, like the inspired genius of the founding fathers, rather than being heralds of a new age of global awakening, are simply levies attempting to damn, for a short time, the dark waters. Nothing more. The work and influence of a Wendell Berry and and E.F. Shumacher, and really a Richard Weaver (Berry is firmly rooted in the Southern Agrarian tradition that Weaver helped found.) are really the same kind of thing, damns to block the flood. I really don't think you are as familiar with these writer's as you think. I am, however, finding your book extremely interesting and many of the entries of your blog as well. I do find, at the moment, the idea that the Bush administration is good really really funny. I am by no means a democrat either. But I am open to the idea that I am wrong.

ben conrad usn (ret) said...

Michael, again-
"But I am open to the idea that I am wrong".

Which part?

Gagdad Bob said...


Thank you for reading my book and for being patient with those of us with differing views.

But if you really want to test the traditionalist notion of the superiority of the past, it wouldn't be difficult. Just give up your literacy, books, freedom of conscience, sanitation, electricity, modern medicine, dentistry, freedom from endless pain due to lack of analgesics, democracy, the rule of law, abundant food supply, child labor laws, and women's rights, and sell yourself into indentured servitude. In fact, I could use a servant myself.

Oh, and you probably have to die as well, since you were lucky to live beyond 30 and you were an old man at 40.

R. Simpson said...

Bob, a small technical point:

I believe your post incorrectly uses the term "mishnahs".

Mishnayot are generally highly legalistic in character.

The word which describes the kind of rabbinic discourse you are referring to is "midrashim".

Both mishnahs and midrashim were authored by the Rabbis of the Second Temple period, but they are two very different forms.

dilys said...

Bob -- Hah!

Puts a whole new perspective on the "servant problem." Dead ones REALLY don't do windows. If there were transparent windows to do...

Not to mention the anomaly of one delivering a lecture on traditionalist superiority. I believe a Buckingham Palace butler, advising Anthony Hopkins on his role in The Remains of the Day, said there was nothing to being a butler, really - when you're in the room it should be even more empty.

Generic self-abnegation, another conundrum on the traditionalist-reenactor list.

A brash modern :-) who loves an Ancient Faith

Sal said...

I know people who would argue that the spiritual purity of such times would be worth all the other disadvantages. Indeed, the advantages could be seen as obstacles to the apprehension of the divine. The irony of proposing this on a computer seems to be lost on them.

Jack Finney, in the best mystery novel ever, "Time and Again", has a character explain to another that the key to time travel would involve cutting the millions of threads - the facts and sensory perceptions - that connect us to the present. We cannot do that in real life. We are stuck with making the best job of our circumstances - and that may often involve the rejection of large parts of popular culture for something better.

We also would point out to those who were pining for the 13th century fjords that it was the height of presumption to think that God had put one in the wrong place and time...

Dilys - I am loving the Schoun. Thank you!

Gagdad Bob said...

R. Simpson--

In the words of another Simpson, "d'oh!" You are correct, sir. I knew it was one of those "m" words.

One of the hazards of banging these things out first thing in the morning before I'm fully awake.

michael said...

As usual, I am easy to misunderstand. I am not a traditionalist, and those I have met really like air conditioning and espresso. Ideas, not technique. Superior ideas, generally.

Chieftain of Seir said...


I don't know if you are still following this thread or not, but I would take issue with your statement that Wendell Berry is a "devoted Christian". It is a free country and Wendell can be called anything you like. I don't mean to claim ownership of a word. But by using the words "devoted Christian" I think you risk misleading people as to nature of Wendell Berry beliefs. For most people, I think the words devoted Christian call to mind someone who holds to a traditional Christian faith.

I have read some of Wendell's works and he makes it quite clear that his Christianity is a cultural thing and that he does not hold anything like a traditional Christian faith. I could give you numerous examples, but the most obvious one is that Wendell does not believe in evangelism, which was core part of Christianity from the very beginning.

For Wendell, the faith that you were born to is the one that you should stick to, regardless of what faith that is. Just as Wendell believes that land you were born on is the place that you should stick to, regardless of place. Wendell's devotion is to tradition as such, not a particular faith.

For Wendell and most New Age teachers, the root problem of humanity is that they have left "Eden". Nature is their god and their solution to what ails humanity. The only real difference between Wendell and most New Age teachers is in regards to whether they consider human tradition, "natural" and therefore good. Wendell regards the traditions of those who worked that land as being natural and a path way that enables you to become right with Nature. Most New Age teachers seem to regard anything that interferes with the free exercise of their passion as being unnatural. Since most traditions involve the regulation of ones passions, they are regarded by most new age teachers as being unnatural and therefore bad.

For the traditional Christian, man was kicked out of Eden. And the solution to his fundamental problems lies not in his lack of communion with nature, but in his lack of communion with God. The distinction that traditional Christianity makes between God and nature is abhorrent to Wendell and most New Age teachers.

That is not to say that Wendell does not make frequent use of the Bible and Christian doctrine. But he does not seek to use those things to make them Christian, but to bring them to what he considers a right relationship with nature.

Sorry if I have been a bit nitpicky on this point. Because of how I live my life, I have had people think that I have a great spiritual kinship with Wendell Berry. I am thus prone to jump all over him.

I also had to have my sister make me a shirt that says, "I am hairy, not Amish" but that is another story.

michael said...

I have no doubt that Wendell Berry is not a Christian in the conventional sense, so we will have to agree to disagree on this point. I also consider Abraham Lincoln a devoted Christian and also Phillip Sherrard, but your definitions would deny them as well. I consider myself a devoted Muslim, though I can guarantee that the vast majority of Muslims in the world would disagree. That's religion for you. I don't consider the current Pope to be a devoted Catholic either, or the previous Pope, for that matter. I don't consider Steven Segal to be a devoted Buddhist. But God knows best. I still contend that Wendell Berry is not even remotely New Age. From my point of view, the guiding fundamental principle fo the New Age movement is evolution, with its attendant theory of progress. For me, this puts Bob squarely in that camp. That is why I take some offense to the use of Schoun's writings, because I know Schuon would be horrified at some of Bob's ideas, as well as his devotion to the way of New Age guru Sri Aurobindo. I also think, and many Christians, or those who claim to be, agree, that Christianity, beginning with Augustine, did create a yawning gulf between God and nature that is an abomination. Sorry this is very disjointed as my beautiful children are clammoring for me to play Scrabble. My best to you all on this Memorial Day.

Chieftain of Seir said...

There is nothing for us to disagree about. You agree that Wendell Berry is not a Christian in the conventional sense and that is all I wished to clarify. I would never have spoken up had you not called him devote. To me, that word implies orthodoxy but you seem to use it differently.

Fair enough.

As for the whole new age thing, I guess it depends on what you have in mind when you say New Age. When I think of New Age teachers, I think of the people I use to read about in old issues of Mother Earth News and still see in modern environmentalist circles.

michael said...


thanks for your comments (you too GAGDAD--though I prefer drop D tuning myself). I just read through a number of your blog posts. GAGDamned insightful stuff! This is really fun.