There’s something comforting about a holding a familiar book in your hands, something about the feel, the scent, the sight. Not to mention the eternal universe contained in the decaying pages. A good friend of mine re-reads Moby Dick every year. I used to have a copy of Graham Greene’s The Moviegoer close at hand, but my library has disappeared little by little, year by year, the victim of cross-Atlantic moves, cross-city moves, and the dreary apathy of our digital age. I’m still quite fond of Greene, even though — much to my shame — I haven’t re-read The Moviegoer, The Pride and the Glory, or The End of the Affair in quite a few years. The End of the Affair was made into a rather good film with top-notch actors a few years ago. While the movie got one or two small but important details wrong, a sign that the director didn’t quite “get” Greene, in my opinion, the film version is still well worth the watch.
When I was in seminary, I felt immense sadness for the main character in The End of the Affair, a man filled with hate and resentment for God. Life is funny, though. Today I look on him more with compassion, recognizing something of myself in him. To the pious it might be difficult to grasp, but for many people the only way to affirm something like God is by denying it. Now, this actually has theological basis in the so-called apophatic tradition. This ancient theology states that the only true way to know God is by knowing what God is not. All the positive statements we make — God is good, loving, merciful, father, mother, shepherd — these things don’t really tell us much, for two reasons: (1) They are mostly metaphors, not literal statements, and (2) our concepts will always fall short of transcendent reality. Our experience of what a father or mother is, our idea of what a father or mother could be, is never more than a faint approximation of what God would be like, according to the Greek theologians. Interestingly, this is also an approach many Buddhists take when examining the mystery of God. I imagine Wikipedia has a clearer explanation of the apophatic theological tradition.
I’m sometimes tempted to refer to myself as an atheist. Curiously, this would be completely acceptable to the medieval theologian Duns Scotus because for him God transcends being, therefore in a literal sense God is-not because God is beyond being and not-being in the sense that you and I can understand. But for me, the God of stone and plaster statues, the God of certainties, the God of street corner preachers, the God who comforts the afflicted, who makes all things right in the end — I don’t find much evidence of this God in my life. The God I know is the God who isn’t there, the Absent God. Like a lot of people, I find myself in a bind: I’m not comfortable as a believer, and I’m not comfortable as a non-believer. Still, there’s something worthwhile in that contradiction, something meaningful in that existential tension.
December 3, 2015