atheism for lent, day 13: medieval jewish boyfriend
Howdy, inklings! On this bright and lovely Monday morning, the husband and the 10yo both have covid and I am, thus far, miraculously plague-free. I will be shocked to the core if my condition doesn’t change within the next 48 hours. But for now…
After yesterday’s intro to mysticism, Peter moves us right along with Maimonides, a 12th-century Jewish philosopher. I’m sure I have read him before — I know the name, anyway — but I can’t remember where or when. My most recent encounter with him, however, happened via Glennon Doyle’s We Can Do Hard Things podcast, specifically the episode with guest Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. In discussing her book On Repentance and Repair, the rabbi rests much of her forgiveness thesis on the writings of Maimonides: “I used to refer to him as my dead medieval boyfriend.”
That kind of nerdiness just makes me so unutterably happy, y’all.
As an aside — BUT AN IMPORTANT ONE — I have had Rabbi Ruttenberg on my radar for several years now, and she is wholly delightful. If you’re not following her work, I highly recommend you begin posthaste.
And on that note — Maimonides! Our reflection for today comes from Chapter 60 of his work The Guide of the Perplexed, which was originally considered so controversial that it was banned. From what I understand, many Jewish communities took umbrage at his support for the idea that the universe is eternal. But today, Jewish circles consider his work authoritative; also, The Guide influenced Christian thinkers Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Ramon Martí, and Meister Eckhart.
On to The Guide of the Perplexed, itself. As I read, I am just tickled all shades of pink at how Maimonides uses the word “propriety”: in his view, it is completely improper to ascribe positive attributes to God and only proper to ascribe to God as many negative attributes as possible. Talk about a decentering, disturbing, and disabusing of preconceptions! I love it.
But now it gets a little more brain-twisty. Maimonides launches (no pun intended), via the example of a ship, into what he means by im/proper. Proper, he says, is to define all the things a ship isn’t; improper is to assume we know what the word “ship” even means. Start at the point of knowing only the word “ship” and nothing else, no definition at all. From there, we can progress to “a ship is not an accident,” and from there to “a ship is not a mineral” to “a ship is not a plant,” and on and on. Eventually, we have such an extensive list of what a ship isn’t, we actually come close to understanding what it is — all via the negative (the what-it-isn’t) attributes.
This reminds me of the anecdote, cited a variety of ways and misattributed both to Michelangelo and John Ruskin, that reads something like: to create a beautiful statue, all you have to do is chip and chisel away all the stone that doesn’t belong there (“chip away everything that doesn’t look like David”). To get at a beautiful “statue” of “God,” we chip and chisel away everything that doesn’t look like “God.” Maimonides warns, though, that when we engage with “God” in this way, we have to have evidence that what we’re “chiseling away” truly is not one of the attributes of God. I can’t say “God isn’t pink” unless I can prove that “God” isn’t pink.
Not sure how I’d go about that, but there we are.
Furthermore, warns Maimonides, we must remain keenly wary of trying to say what “God” is. Even if we declare that “God is every perfection,” we have to remember that when we say “perfection,” we’re still dealing with a human concept. Actual perfection is far greater, vaster, purer than we can possibly imagine. “God,” the “Perfect” that we imagine, is as real as a false storefront in a frontier town. That’s the analogy that springs to mind for this Third Culture Kid Okie, anyway.
Fellow AfL participant Ruby Neumann has a great analogy for this: “Confusing the Actor for the Character.” Her ponderings on creators/creations and the confusing of the two really clarify what Maimonides is saying.
Still, dead Jewish boyfriend’s word choices and many clauses muddy the waters of my sleepy, potentially covid-foggy brain. I think what he’s saying is that when we use any descriptor/predicate, the definition of that descriptor/predicate contains aspects that don’t necessarily belong to the subject in question. So, I can say “this photo of a false front is yellowed” — and the definition of “yellowed” contains some aspects that don’t apply to the photo. In the same way, “this photo of a false front” contains some aspects that aren’t yellow.
This is why Maimonides cautions against the danger of describing “God”: we’re always saying more and saying less than what the signifier “G-o-d” implies. Not only that, says Maimo, but we also know this subconsciously and lose faith in “God” every time we use the word. Every descriptor/predicate we use both adds to and subtracts from “God” until what we believe in has very little similarity with the essence of God.
“This is a very difficult subject; consider it well.”–Maimonides,
“Chapter 60,” The Guide of the Perplexed
There’s also this fascinating observation by Our Fearless Final Guru:
“Maimonides offers us a fascinating analogy for understanding how God might appear in various different ways in the world. He writes of how a fire has a different effect on different objects – softening wax, hardening clay, blackening sugar etc. Depending on the nature of the object, the same fire draws out different effects. In the same way, we might say that the inscrutable oneness of God draws out different effects in the people and objects it touches.”–Dr. Peter Rollins,
Atheism for Lent, 03/06/2023
All of this is bound up in what’s called the “Apophatic Tradition,” which I’ve previously written about here. Another term for it is this “Negative Theology” — which Maimonides espouses, though he wasn’t the first. Before him came Pseudo-Dionysius with The Mystical Theology, in which Fake-Dio (as I like to call him) insists that every affirmation of God must be followed by a negation of that specific affirmation. And Anselm of Canterbury posits that however great we imagine “God” to be, God is always greater than that.
This is a type of theopoetics, the birth of an iconic language that praises instead of trying to nail down specifics. In other words, the apophatic tradition (Negative Theology) lets us abandon the “this is what God is like, so xyz is how you should behave” and instead draws us into something we can’t hold onto, keeping us open to the dimension of Other in our daily lives.
I’ll end today’s reflection with this quote that resonates with me on a level I can’t put into words:
“Anyone who tries to describe the ineffable Light in language is truly a liar — not because he hates the truth, but because of the inadequacy of his description.”–Gregory of Nyssa,
c. 335 – c. 395
Considering the state of society in the U.S.A. these days, and considering the source of today’s AfL material, I think this is a good place and time to make a statement:
I categorically reject the christo-fascism that has gained such an atrocious foothold in this nation. I reject the transphobia, the homophobia, the anti-Semitism, the anti-Black violence, the anti-Asian violence, and the anti-women and anti-education policies. This is not a culture war; this is a war of fascism against democracy. A glance at history shows us initial Nazi activities: banning books and trying to “eradicate” trans people. Eventually, these activities ramped up to outright destroying any reading material, any speech, and any demographic of human beings that did not suit the Nazi ideal.
We’re there. Now. And I irrevocably despise, reject, resist, and dissent against all of it.