21 November 2008

Entanglement, Affirmation, and Negation

I have begun reading Louisa’s book, and would like to share some initial thoughts here. I don’t think I’ll be writing a play-by-play as I read, but these thoughts tie in so nicely with some themes of this blog that I just have to share them.

The introduction alone is food for thought. There, not explicit but certainly latent, is an idea that physics has wrestled with for a long time—and, interestingly enough, so has Christianity. Louisa and I have had conversations about this difficulty in our intellectual and practical spheres. It is the tension or conflict between The Way of Affirmation and The Way of Negation.

These two devotional Ways, two approaches to worship, were important concerns in Charles Williams’ thought and work. I will explain what they are, some of their implications, some of their occurrences in CW’s writing, and finally what in the world they have to do with physics. Louisa, if you’re reading this, please chime in!

The Way of Affirmation is the use of images and metaphors in the worship of God. The clearest example is in the veneration of icons. Perhaps Eve could share some of her experience with Russian Orthodoxy, and explain more about the valid (as opposed to idolatrous) use of images in devotion. But the Way of Affirmation is not confined to physical images. It also affirms the use of mental images—pictures, as it were, for God—and metaphors. God is a mother hen gathering her chicks; God is a strong tower fortifying His warriors; God is the wall of the sheepfold, protecting His vulnerable flock. All of these metaphors have Biblical precedent, and the Way of Affirmation encourages their use in devotional practice.

The Way of Negation, on the other hand, rejects the use of all images as reductive, misleading, and ultimately idolatrous. Edward tore down the icons and crucifixes; Cromwell whitewashed the churches. Following the same impulse, some modern Christian writers (I think J.I. Packer is one) adjure their readers to reject all mental images and metaphors, since none can adequately express God’s attributes. They encourage people to think about God Himself, and not finite human ways of understanding Him. [I’m sure you see my opinion, that this is an inherent impossibility, given the finitude of the human mind, and an unnecessary overcorrection, given the plenitude of Biblical imagery].

Charles Williams allowed both sorts of characters into his novels, allowing both points of view talking time. Richardson in The Place of the Lion is the clearest expression of the Via Negativa. He meditates himself into a mental place beyond image, beyond word, almost beyond thought, until he ends up calling God “Nothing.” One the other hand, the smallest or strangest events in CW’s metaphysical thrillers can represent God so strongly as to seem almost identifications with Him. The most extreme example is at the end of The Greater Trumps, in which one character asks if Nancy, the young lady around whom much of the supernatural action has centered, and who has submitted to being an instrument of redemptive change, is the Messiah. Another answers, “Near enough.” The balance between the two ways is personified in the character of the Archdeacon and in his characteristic mantra: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.” Every person, every object, even every event can “be God” to some extent (i.e., can show us something about God’s work and personality), as long as we simultaneously acknowledge that no thing (person, etc.) can ever some anywhere near being God or imitate His attributes in their glorious infinity.

So, then, how on earth does this relate to physics? [I imagine it’s only on earth that it can relate to physics; in the transluner spheres physics are probably transcended by some more perfect understanding!] Well, Louisa touches on this in her introduction by dividing the traditional approaches to entanglement (her central concept of quantum physics) into several camps. Some physicists used a kind of abstractionist approach: the realities of physics can only be expressed in pure mathematics; therefore, metaphors, word-pictures, diagrams, analogies are inappropriate, because they are inherently misleading. Others, however (I think Einstein is in this group) affirmed the use of drawings and comparisons. Think of the little figures of atoms looking like solar systems, with particles orbiting the nucleus. Think of Schrodinger’s cat in the box analogy.

So my comparison should be clear. The Ways of Affirmation and Negation seem to be pervasive routes of human thought, and are not limited to religion or science. I think this kind of division could probably be traced in other fields, as well. The visual arts; indeed, Louisa uses the analogy of representative vs. abstract art in her introduction. Music: think operas or programmatic instrumental compositions, like Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, vs. dodecaphonic or aleatoric works or even purely formal pieces such as sonatas and fugues.

I’m not really using these ideas to try to make a point or anything. Obviously I’m more of a Way of Affirmation kind of girl, but I see the beauty and the theological/scientific advantages of both. So, I guess I’m just encouraging you to ponder both, and observe which you tend to use in your devotional life and in your making of art.


Louisa said...

wow--I had never thought to connect these things. Your comparison is right on, I think. Much food for thought.

Like you, I tend in the Way of Affirmation direction, and for the same reason. It seems to me that human minds work in terms of images and in trying to follow the Way of Negation, Bohr and his followers simply prevented themselves from seeing certain interesting logical inconsistencies or mysteries in the theoretical framework they were using. Einstein and Schrödinger explicitly talked about how fuzzy thinking could develop from not checking your thinking against a specific model. (And they were the ones to frame entanglement in a clear way, and not Bohr, because of this.)
Of course Bohr made the equally valid point that tying your thinking to a model can stop you from following what's actually going on.

The dichotomy of Affirmation vs. Negation reminded me about a book on Paul I was browsing recently. The author was comparing Jesus to Paul in the context of rural Jewish thought vs. the ideas that were percolating into Judaism from Plato, etc., which would tend to be held by more urban and educated Jews. His claim was that the Jewish perspective literally does not separate between body and soul, and so tends to affirm the physical as part of the spiritual, whereas whatever form of Greek thought which Paul inherited separates body and soul, somewhat devaluing the body, and the physical world in general, in that separation.

Possibly this would relate to Jesus's penchant for parables (images) and Paul's tendency to present things in a more abstract way (though of course there are some famous metaphors due to Paul).

I'd love to be enlightened by anyone who knows more about these subjects!

Rosie Perera said...

I have done a lot of reading on the via negativa. I know that the mystics who pursued it were capable of experiencing profound spiritual ecstasy through bypassing their rational need for positive images, and tapping instead into an inner capacity to connect with the Spirit of God more immediately (as in "without mediation"). It is apparently only the culmination of a long life of practice that gets people to the stage where they can experience that. I've attempted to practice some of the earlier steps, but I must admit that the ardor of such a life does not appeal to me, for the payoff is uncertain and potentially a long way off. I also wonder sometimes whether it's all a psychological trick their minds are playing on them. I get weird when I try to be a mystic, so I'm better off not going there.

Wikipedia has a fairly decent section on the via negativa in Christian theology, including this excerpt:

"Mother Theresa's own spiritual struggles have correspondences in the apophatic tradition.

"C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, advocates the use of negative theology when first thinking about God, in order to cleanse our minds of misconceptions. He goes on to say we must then refill our minds with the truth about God, untainted by mythology, bad analogies or false mind-pictures.

"It should be noted that while negative theology is used in Christianity as a means of dispelling misconceptions about God, and of approaching Him beyond the limits of human reasoning, an uninformed or extreme negative theology can lead one outside the pale of Christianity. The Bible teaches emphatically that God exists, and speaks of God as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit. The Christian God has certain positive attributes, and Christians believe that these are knowable to men in some measure, if only in a limited way. Thus, Christians believe God is indeed good, but that His goodness is above and beyond our understanding of goodness and is thus only partially comprehensible to us."

Louisa said...

Rosie--Thank you! All that was very helpful, particularly the point that Christianity's use of the via negativa is mostly a method of clearing out the unhealthy clutter....That reminds me of fasting: apparently (I'm no expert) occasional fasts are a good idea for body and soul, but no one is recommending that you never eat again.

Rosie Perera said...

The experience of the silence of God (which most of us have encountered if we're really honest about it) is what has driven me to explore the classic Christian writers on the via negativa. I was intrigued by their claim that this silence of God was actually a sign that you were moving up the ladder in terms of spiritual maturity and silence was actually a better way of experiencing God, since his characteristics are ineffable. The explanation continues that new believers need a more tangible sense of God's presence, so God gives that to them, but he intentionally withholds it from us as we grow in faith, for he knows it draws us to seek him more fervently. This kind of cosmic lovers' hide-and-seek is depicted in Song of Solomon 2:8-3:4.

I love the sound of silence anyway, so I found this whole idea both enticing and also exasperating. It seems capricious of God to play hide-and-seek with us, if indeed that's what he's doing. I've dug deeper, because of my hunger for nearness to God. I have taken a break from my quest for the time being, but discussions like this bring it back to the fore.

Some suggested readings if you're interested in exploring this subject in more depth:

Primary sources:

The Interior Castle, by Teresa of Avila

Teresa, a Spanish mystic and Carmelite sister, describes the soul as a castle with a series of "dwelling places" that you progress through as you go closer into the center of your soul in prayer, towards ultimate union with God.

The Cloud of Unknowing, by Anonymous

A classic in apophatic devotional literature, probably written by some unknown Carthusian monk in the latter half of the 14th century. Talks about "piercing the cloud of unknowing" (that inability to know God for who he is) with the "dart of longing love". Introduces the contemplative life, but says it isn't for everyone. Very balanced.

The Dark Night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross

I haven't actually read this yet, but it's one of the great classics on this subject.

The above three are all available in several good modern translations, not just the ones I've included links to.

Secondary sources:

Here is an article explaining the early origins of Christian apophatic theology:
Saying Nothing about No-Thing: Apophatic Theology in the Classical World

Here's some more background info.

And finally if you love literature, which any reader of this blog must, surely, here are some poets and writers who have wrestled with the via negativa and/or the apparent absence of God:

Talking to a silent God: Donne's Holy Sonnets and the Via Negativa by Lawrence Beaston

Via Negativa (poem) by R.S. Thomas, probably the greatest Welsh Christian poet who ever lived.

John Updike's literary via negativa (Christian Century, 24 May 1995)

There's some good stuff on deus absconditus (the hidden God, or God unknowable by the human mind) in this article on the absence of God as a character in literature:
Christianity and Literature: Covertly Public, Overtly Private, by Martin Marty (Christianity and Literature, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Spring 1998)).

As you can see, you've piqued my interest in this topic which has been lying dormant under my bed for the past couple of years... :-)

Louisa said...

Rosie--thanks so much for this reading list!

I was actually about to buy The Dark Night of the Soul a couple months ago and decided against it after reading a review on Amazon. The crowd was falling into the two camps of "it's amazing" and "it's hard to read," and then I came to this one reviewer, who wrote:

"Don't read this until you're ready."

I just tried to find the review again now and couldn't, so I can't remember how you were supposed to tell if you're ready, just that I obviously wasn't!

Oh, shoot, maybe it was The Cloud of Unknowing. (I just snuck back to Amazon, and yes, it was.)
The reviewer's advice was, start with Nouwen (who I happened to be reading at the time) and Merton (who I still haven't read), THEN St. John of the Cross, THEN, eventually, Cloud of Unknowing.

I do resonate with what you said in your earlier post about feeling that you got weird when you tried to be a mystic. I'm afraid of jumping too deeply into something that might actually be a distraction.

But the people I have met who meditate are inspiringly peaceful and good to be around, which keeps me thinking maybe I should really try to make that part of my life.

Anyway--just hardly putting a toe in--I read the Updike article and have downloaded the one on apophatic theology in the classical world, and plan on returning to your list as I go. Many thanks.

Rosie Perera said...

Louisa--you are wise to not jump in too quickly. I haven't felt "ready" for Dark Night of the Soul either. I'm not even sure I was ready to read Interior Castle and Cloud of Unknowing when I read them. Be aware that lots of writers will talk about the "dark night of the soul" as being depression, but it's something quite different. I know enough now to realize that it's different, and no longer to glorify depression as being that state of mind where we're supposed to yearn for God more and more as he draws us closer to him by disappearing on us. I've gotten out of depression through more helpful means. But that's as far as I've gone on the mystical journey. I'm not saying I won't ever get interested in going further on it, but now that I've got the energy once again to do other things than sit around and mope and wonder where God is, I'm not exactly drawn to follow that journey as far as it can go, at least not right now. It's probably worth pursuing, but cautiously. Let's just put it this way: "there be dragons here."

Meditation is a whole 'nother ball of wax. There is some overlap between mediation and what the mystics do, but meditation and contemplation (of the mystical "way of negation" variety) are not the same thing. Meditation is much broader and includes meditating on Scripture (lectio divina is a way of doing that), as well as all kinds of not particularly Christian (though not necessarily anti-Christian) forms of meditation -- those found in Eastern practices, yoga, etc. A lot of these people are "inspiringly peaceful and good to be around," whether they are mystics in the St. John of the Cross sense or not. But there be dragons here as well.

I think a few minutes a day of intentionally quieting down of all the racing thoughts in our minds in order to be attentive to God, what the Quakers call "centering down" (the first three Google hits on that phrase are informative), can be helpful. I remember to do it very infrequently, but it is beneficial when I do. It's usually at the end of the day, when I'm getting ready for sleep. I slow my breathing down and pay attention to it for a while (to take my focus off whatever is still left on my "to do" list for the day, which I had to abandon). Then I review my day and ask God to show me the points at which I was most attentive to him, or doing things which were most nourishing for me spiritually, and also to remind me of those points at which I was farthest from him. I reflect on this (without any self-recrimination) and pray through them and hand them over to God and then wait in his presence for a while. If I drift off to sleep in this state, it's not a problem. The key is to be non-judgmental toward myself (leave the judging to him, for "will not the judge of all the world do right?") and rest in God's love. What better way to rest in his love than to sleep? ("He gives to his beloved even in their sleep" -- or "he gives sleep to his beloved" depending on the translation of Ps 127:2). And Psalm 4:8 "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety."

On that note, time for me to go to bed...

Blessings to you as you seek out the way of meditation, a lifelong journey.