The Way of Negativity* is a method for talking about God developed by some Sufi mystics in the tenth century. The basic premise is that you can’t really talk about God because God is transcendent. And what is God transcendent of? Concepts. God transcends conceptualization because God is eternal and infinite. Human beings are temporal and finite. There is nothing in our experience that is not temporal and finite and we can’t imagine the meanings of those words. You can say “Oh, ‘infinity’ means it goes on and on forever, like outer space”, but you can’t imagine what that is really like.
Further, if you say “God is good”, you are limiting God to that which you – or your society – defines as “good”. “Goodness” is a concept and a mighty flimsy one at that. Machine-gunning people is good if you happen to be a Marine and the people you’re mowing down are enemy combatants. This was no problem for the early Jews. Their God was a Warrior God. When they weren’t praising him for smiting their enemies, they were begging him to stop smiting them and to smite their enemies instead (cf. the entire Old Testament). That’s all well and good for a warrior tribe, but not so much. One quickly starts wondering why, if God is good, does He allow so much suffering, pain and anguish. Why doesn’t he cure kids’ leukemia? If I had the power to cure a kid who had leukemia and I didn’t do it, I’d be a fuckin’ asshole. There’s a lot of word-wrangling and victim-blaming that goes on with that, or people say that God is testing the poor little kid, or that He has strange ways Hi
His wonders to perform. It’s true – God does have mighty strange ways and we do see as through a glass darkly, but c’mon. The Jews did embrace the Way of Negativity and developed Kabbalah, which has a lot to do with the numerical values of Hebrew letters and such.
Obviously, God is not “good” as we define it. Nor is God “wise” as we define it. Or “just”, “merciful”, “powerful” or any other word that anybody has used to describe God. It isn’t even accurate to say that God “is”, because that implies that God exists in the same way everything else in the universe exists.
That isn’t accurate. God transcends all words, concepts and inklings. No one can ever actually talk about God. But people want to talk about God.
The Way of Negativity is an attempt to talk about God with less inaccuracy. Instead of saying “God is good”, one would say “God is not evil”, which is certainly true because if God was evil, things would be a lot worse for us than they are. And God is not “evil” as humans can be “evil”. Nor is God “ignorant”, “weak”, “cruel” or “small”. The Way goes on to add more “not”s: “God is not not-good”, but that’s more of a way of hammering home the paradoxical nature of the subject at hand and really only useful for meditative purposes. I think one “not” is sufficient. But it is important to remember that God transcends all pairs of opposites so “God is not male” must be balanced with “God is not female”. “God is not dead” must go with “God is not alive” because God is not “alive” in the same way that trees and people and slugs are “alive”.
We’re getting away from the Way of Negativity and into my own personal belief. I would say that God is not “alive” because God is life. The very fact that there is such a thing as life, when there is absolutely no reason why there should be, is enough for me. Actually, I don’t generally use the capital G because it implies a specific conception of the Divine which I don’t cotton to. I’m using it here for simplicity.
God is life. God is energy. Physics has shown that energy and matter are actually the same – energy is matter sped up; matter is energy slowed down. So God is also matter. God is being, but God is also not being. God is all that is and more. This is called “panentheism”, by the way. “Pantheism” is the belief that God is everything. “Panentheism” is the belief that God is more than everything. But at the same time, God is not a thing, so God is nothing, or no-thing. It’s all pretty paradoxical, which is bothersome for some people which is why they dumb it down for themselves and make God a combination of Santa Claus and Superman. Feh,
Here’s another “not”: God is not personal. God is not sitting around waiting for you to ask for the immutable laws of the universe to be altered so that you can have a nice day. God, in fact, is the immutable laws of the universe, while also being the universe. And more.
You can, of course, have a relationship with God. Prayer is affective, but it works a helluva lot better when the person praying prays for the ability to align her/himself with God’s will, which is also known as Dharma and Tao. Make no bones, God’s will is what’s going to happen. If you’re aligned with God’s will, things are going to go smoother for you. That’s not the same as predestination, by the by. God does not predetermine our actions. We are all operating with as much free will as the limitations of our bodies and the laws of our society allow (heh heh). We do, absolutely, co-create reality in real time, but we do so within a specific framework and God is that framework. Every individual has the exact same amount of power to determine the course that reality will take, so the world we inhabit is a product of the collective efforts of all people.
How’s that for a kick in the teeth? All of us, working together, have co-created the swirling shitstorm of war, famine, economic injustice, bigotry, greed, corruption, environmental destruction, pornography, pop culture, rape, waste and general shittiness that we ignore in the headlines every day. The assholes at the top of the capitalist pyramid scheme, who control the media, love it and want to keep it the way it is, which is why they promote it so hard. Obviously, they’re succeeding.
But anyway, The whole point of the thing is to help us remember that God is something vague and mysterious. The Oglala phrase for God is “Wakan Tanka”, which is frequently translated “Great Spirit”. I read somewhere – I think it was something by John Lame Deer – that “wakan” refers to the mysterious spirit-power that exists, to more or less obvious degree, in all things and “tanka” is an absolute. “Wakan Tanka”, then, is the absolute Mysterious Spirit-Power that is in all things, but which can be addressed as if separate from all things. That is very much like the Hindu Brahman/Atman concept and also very much like what I personally believe. Some people, myself included, find it desirable to personify the Great Mysterious Whatever, and that is a fine thing to do if it helps, but it is important to remember that that’s what you’re doing.
I used the phrase “as if” in the last paragraph. All mythology should be addressed within the context of “it is as if”, because it is. Especially when the topic is God. God is as if, but God is also not as if. It all seems like gibberish sometimes, but it does somehow add up to something that a person can hang their hat on. I know, it’s the framework of my life.
*Actually, it’s the Way of Negation, or Via Negativa, or apophatic theology, but I think “the Way of Negativity” is funny.
Fifteenish years ago, I got a bike – a chrome-finish, Ross mountain bike. I was still fairly new to the clean/sober lifestyle and still had five years to wait before I was eligible to petition the court for reinstatement of my driver’s license. The bike – which at some point acquired the moniker SMF, for “Silver MotherFucker” – was my primary mode of transport and, as so often happens, I became quite attached to it.
The Commonwealth of Virginia eventually decided to let me drive. I got a ’78 Ford F-150, which was breaking down faster than I could repair it and a motorcycle. I kept the SMF, of course. The Ford threw a rod. I sold the motorcycle when the Spotted Opossum was a wee babe – couldn’t justify keeping a vehicle that I couldn’t use with a baby.
The SMF was stolen. Some asshole stole it off the back porch. I couldn’t believe it. I’d had that bike for eight years or so, logged hundreds of miles on it, jumped thousands of curbs. I searched all over for it, keeping an eye always out for a silver Ross, for years. Five years or thereabouts. I did get a Giant Iguana at one point, but I didn’t really care about it. When the Iguana got stolen, I didn’t care. It was never the SMF.
I knew I had to let it go. I knew the bike was gone, gone , gone, beyond any hope of recall. I knew that – and yet, I just kept looking, kept thinking I’d spot it somewhere.
And then I did. I came in to work at the collectively owned restaurant where I work one Saturday morning. Upon arrival, I learned that the compost bins were full. We throw all of our food waste into bins which are then picked up by Christian hippies on bikes who take them to their compost field, which is in the backyard of the communal house they have about a block north of the restaurant. The Christian hippies have a farm someplace out in the county. They take in homeless people, put ‘em to work on the farm,. help ‘em kick meth, preach at ‘em. I have some quibbles with some Christian shelter-type organizations, and I don’t agree completely with the ones up the street, but I do vaguely believe they’re doing good work and are nice folks.
Anyway, when the compost bins get full, the dishers throw the food waste in the trash which I find objectionable. Whatever can be composted should be composted. And I am apparently the only person in the joint who is capable of walking a block up the street and snagging a bin or two out of the yard at the Christian hippie commune or whatever they call it. So I went up there, snagged a couple bins and as I was leaving, walked past the hanging bike rack and there was the SMF. Hanging on the rack. At the far right end of the rack. I walked over and checked the logo and yes, it was a Ross. I stood there for a couple moments staring at it. There it was, five years later.
I had to go back to work so I did and spent way too much of the day running around in my head about the SMF. I decided I’d go back, find whoever had the bike and trade them for the Trek that I got last month. The Trek is a good mountain bike. I got it used and it even came with toe clips. Looking at it objectively, the Trek is a better bike than the Ross, but the Ross was my bike. I was sure I could convince whoever had it to take the trade. And if they wouldn’t take the trade, then I could mention that when the Ross was stolen I filed a report at the police station (not because I thought the cops would get my bike back, but because I thought I might find it and there could be a confrontation when I stole it back), implying that I could bring some heat down on their little Christian hippie, stolen-bike-powered operation, which I wouldn’t actually do, but they don’t know that.
I did go back after work and spoke with a nice Christian hippie mom named Grace, who told me I had to talk with a guy named Daniel, who is the resident Christian hippie bike mechanic. During the next couple days, I returned to the commune several times without finding Daniel. Someone sent me to the Christian hippie community center on Sunday, on the theory that Daniel would be at Christian hippie church there. He wasn’t, but I ran into Grace, who told me Daniel said I had to talk to a guy named Tomahawk, who has been using the Ross. Tomahawk wasn’t there, but was expected to be around the following day, so I went home.
The tailpipe on the little red truck had rusted through and was hanging loose so I spent a bit of Sunday afternoon splicing it back together with a square of aluminum (Coke can), a hose clamp and some gasket sealant. I had a can of hunter green oil paint on the porch that I had been thinking about using to make the Trek green and less attractive to thieves before I spotted the Ross. After I fixed the tailpipe, I still felt like being outside, doing some kind of work on something.
And then I knew that I was going to let Tomahawk keep the Ross. I’m sure he didn’t steal it – the Christian hippies get their bikes through a local shop that rehabs found/donated bikes and gives them away. Whoever did steal it probably abandoned it somewhere and it somehow got to the commune.
I had a bike, a perfectly good Trek. Tomahawk had a bike, a battered, but still good Ross.
Why not just leave it as it was? So I opened the can and painted the Trek. Everyone who’s seen it has agreed that it’s less attractive (to thieves). I haven’t gotten around to wiring a small mammal skull to the center of the handlebars, but I will. The Trek is my bike and will doubtlessly acquire a name in time.
The next day, I ran into Grace and told her that I had experienced a change of heart about the whole situation and that I hoped Tomahawk enjoyed the bike. She seemed pleased that the whole thing had a happy ending.
This story is about letting go, moving on and being okay with it. It’s also got somewhat to do with living in a small world, where people are interconnected and things that are lost come back around. And I suppose there’s something here about the importance of knowing what matters and what doesn’t.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.