“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” So, the old proverb goes.
Why is it often so much easier to be against something than it is to be for something? Just listen to many of the conversations happening in the broader cultural context of our day. Listen to the way people talk about their community, their country, their faith, their political convictions, and even their neighbors. It is often easy to tell who or what they are against, what they disagree with, or what they oppose. Too often, I’m afraid, we seek to define ourselves by what (or who) we are not.
Interestingly, there is a strong philosophical and theological rationale for this kind of approach. Throughout history, there have been those who recognized that our knowledge of the Divine is severely hampered by our limited perspective and finite human understanding. Heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, some theologians have spoken of God via negativa (a Latin phrase translated as “the negative way” or “the way of negation”). The idea goes something like this: God is beyond our comprehension, so we should not try to identify God by any human concept or knowledge. The Divine will always transcend our feeble attempts. Therefore, proponents of Apophatic Theology (denial theology) speak of God by illuminating the ways God is different from us – not like us.
This language of “negation” is commonplace in our theologies and churches. We often describe God as infinite (no beginning or end). We say that God is ineffable (too great to be described with words). Some describe God as immutable (not changing), incomprehensible (beyond our understanding), or incommensurable (beyond compare). Echoing St. Thomas Aquinas, we might describe God’s perfection in terms of “lacking nothing.” And yet, this says very little about who or what the Divine actually is.
One criticism of faith that I’ve encountered echoes this observation. Christians often seem to proclaim with great passion and conviction those commands of God that begin with “Thou shalt not…” as if God is some cosmic kill-joy that wants to deny us pleasure and fun. Too frequently, well-meaning folks – fearful that the world they once knew is slipping away and whipped up by those who stand to gain from their outrage – fix their sites on the latest scapegoat, ready to fight. Sadly, some people of faith appear to be most at home when they are fighting a common enemy. As such, too many live a via negativa faith, defined by what they are not. The result is often a spiritual anemia and stunted spiritual growth that misses out on Christ’s abundant life.
When I first moved to the mountains of North Carolina, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the surrounding landscape. I had never lived in a place where picturesque scenes dotted the horizon in every direction. Very quickly, however, I found that I had to use caution when driving because of a strange human phenomenon – we tend to go in the direction our eyes are focused. Therefore, if I was enamored by the beauty of the mountains, the sunset, or the river, I would almost unconsciously aim my car in that direction. Unaware, I would find myself nudging the steering wheel until the rumble strips on the side of the road called me to wake from my reverie.
I find that the same is true for the life of faith. When my attention is focused almost exclusively on those things that I am against, I may very well find that my life is unintentionally drifting in that direction. If my whole faith journey is merely an attempt to avoid sin, I may very well miss out on the abundance that is available to me in Jesus. I may find my heart shaped more by the fight than by my communion with God.
It is not enough to be against evil. We also need to be for something. Therefore, I suggest that we start by remembering Jesus’ response when he was asked about the greatest commandment. He did not start with any of the “Thou shalt nots.” Instead, he said, “Love God with everything that you have and everything that you are. Second, love your neighbor as yourself.” Maybe that is a good place to start. And while we’re at it, maybe we could remember Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Maybe we could focus our hearts on bearing the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Christian virtues would also be worthy of meditation: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.
While via negativa may help us define the boundaries of our faith, it does very little to describe the substance of faith. In a world as deeply divided as ours, may we be bold in standing for the things that are worthy of emulation. May we be rooted in deep conviction for the things that make for a flourishing community. May we focus our eyes, hearts, and mind on the goal we want to achieve rather than the one we want to avoid. In doing so, we might just find our lives, our words, our actions, and our community drifting in a better direction as well.
Rev. Steven Norris