Sarah Simms — Wonder, Silence, and the Apophatic Leap: Returning to Negative Theology through an Ethics of Sexual Difference

My research examines Christian apophatic mysticism from the standpoint of an Irigarayan ethics of sexuate difference. The apophatic tradition emerges from negative theology, a body of religious literature that insists that the journey towards union with God requires the surpassing of both the intelligible and sensuous aspects of human existence. Drawing inspiration from Irigaray’s long-standing and rigorous engagement with religious thought and the theological underpinnings of the Western canon, I explore the work of two medieval mystical theologians, Pseudo-Dionysius and Bonaventure, both of whom strive (as the former writes in The Mystical Theology) to follow the via negativa “toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge” (The Mystical Theology, 1.1). I begin with suggesting reasons why Irigaray’s work might lead us to criticize this particular mystical tradition, demonstrating that it may prove to be complicit in a sacrificial economy in which human beings renounce the singularity and materiality of sexuate life in order to try to reach union with the ineffable, eternal, and disembodied transcendence of God. After establishing the potential dangers of apophatic mysticism, however, I argue that Irigaray’s account of the conditions for anethical encounter between differently sexed subjects could shed a new light on the spiritual core of negative theology. Instead of viewing the apophatic leap beyond the sensuous and the intelligible as aviolent rejection of embodiment, we might reinterpret it as an essential step towards the renunciation of a traditional desire for mastery, allowing the divine to surpass all that was once known, and thereby allowing ourselves to return to a state of wonder and openness to renewal.

The attempt to reconcile apophatic mysticism with a commitment to a culture of sexuate difference faces several powerful objections: first among them, the concern that the spiritual impulse underlying the via negativa is fueled by a masculine disregard for the sensuous character of human life. There is significant evidence to support such a concern. In The Mystical Theology, a foundational text in the apophatic tradition, Pseudo-Dionysius urges his readers to turn away from beings in their specificity and diversity, to continue to negate all worldly experience and rational concepts until they reach theplace “where the mysteries of God’s Word lie simple, absolute and unchangeable in the brilliant darkness of hidden silence” (The Mystical Theology, 1.1). It seems here that the via negativa described by Pseudo-Dionysius demands the denial not only of past knowledge but also of the tangible, embodied pursuit of the divine so eloquently articulated by Irigaray throughout her work. My initial assessment of The Mystical Theology pays close attention to Irigaray’s warning in Speculum about a theological path which calls the spiritual seeker to become “blind except for the contemplation of Ideas. Deaf except to the sounds of the soul revolving in harmony” (Speculum, p. 321). I remain alert to the question: Are the mystical silence and darkness described by Pseudo-Dionysius in fact nothing but the blindness and deafness laid bare by Irigaray?

Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God presents a more ambiguous picture of the role of embodiment in the mystical path. The Seraphic Doctor’s text begins not with the renunciation of sensuous embodiment, but with a wholehearted embrace of the goodness and beauty of the material universe, through which we are invited to repeatedly discover the traces of God’s presence. Furthermore, Bonaventure describes the journey towards the divine as intimately related to the cultivation of the “spiritual senses”— as modes of internal perception which, according to a theological tradition reaching back to patristic sources, map onto and intertwine with the five, corresponding physical senses. Through his account of humanity’s “double range of senses,” Bonaventure establishes a continuity between the flesh and the soul, each of which is essential to our capacity to witness and take part in the simultaneously spiritual and corporeal redemption of the world (Breviloquium, p. 2 c.11 n.1). This account, I argue, resonates deeply with Irigaray’s conception of an incarnate spirituality, which follows from “the Word’s faithfulness to the flesh” and therefore makes space for two sexually different beings (Marine Lover. Of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 169). And yet, in theseventh and final phase, Bonaventure’s mystical path turns away from these early assertions of the goodness of the sensuousness of human life and compels the spiritual seeker to submit to a death in which the body is surpassed through self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Bonaventure seemingly subverts his own affirmation of embodied becoming in order to launch headlong, through an apophatic gestureof renunciation, into the timeless, weightless promise of an otherworldly immortality.

Bonaventure’s use of negative theology reveals the threat it potentially poses against feminists who would like to embrace the Christian faith. But is the apophatic tradition truly irredeemable? I argue that we ought to take up two major ethical insights of Irigaray’s work to consider a possible new, life-affirming interpretation of the via negativa. Firstly, drawing upon her understanding of the ethical relationship as beginning with wonder and the relinquishment of any mastery, we might interpret the via negativa as an attempt to oppose to the impulse to reduce that which transcends us to our own projections, allowing the divine to surpass all totalizing and appropriating gestures. Secondly, learning from Irigaray’s approach—exemplified by texts like The Mystery of Mary—to the ethical relationship as a dynamic movement between recognition of the other as a “beyond” and return to ourselves, towards which wonder ultimately points us back, we might read the apophatic gesture as always requiring a return to our own becoming, such that our encounter with the transcendence of the divine sends us back to ourselves, preparing us for a yet-unthought future. Furthermore, in these re-readings of negative theology, we discover great ethical potential in the cultivation of silence.