Negative Theology: Antidote to Reductionism? A Path of Redemptive Tragedy?

I am going to assert here—probably much to the consternation of classical philosophers of religion and perhaps also philosophers of science convinced of something similarly sacrosanct in their enterprise—that models of thinking and examined living which apply methods like the Socratic elenchus as therapeutic cross-examination of one’s conceptual and imaginative certainty just don’t sell as well as models that affirm something. In such methods I would include key strains of Judaic thought and philosophy from Maimonides through Levinas; much of Chan thought in China and its variations as Seon and Zen in Korea and Japan (with “Only Don’t Know” serving as a key Korean Seon response to, or deconstruction of, a more kataphatic, or affirmative mystical apparatus like the mantra in Buddhist praxis); Orthodox Christian traditions whose theology typically at least wishes that the kataphatic be subordinated to the apophatic; and in the sciences, Popperian falsificationism contra repeated trials with controls.

Thinking that recognizes conceptual fanaticism, literalism, and idolatry in the habit of affirming, more than asking good questions, takes longer to foster, to cultivate, or (if you will) to cook. Maimonides is much more cautious about kataphatic theological models than is Aquinas, who does use some negative theology but not to the same degree as his Jewish philosophical forebear. Western thought simply isn’t as comfortable with the via negativa as some other traditions, except in its esoteric reaches.

In one sense, recognizing the inner reductionist or fanatic is a healthy point of departure for any inquiry, whether secular-materialist or religious. Perhaps clinging to the image or idol of certainty is the most fundamentally addictive predicament of mortal persons. We are driven by different circumstances, but also by needs for certainty that differ by character. I long ago struggled with the concept of “mystical fundamentalism” to refer to the tendency of figures vaunted as saintly figures of great spiritual subtlety—that is, “round characters” who avoid many of the obvious pitfalls of a given spiritual path—to succumb to a hardening of such subtlety into formula: luminous dogma. A secular-materialist analogue to “mystical fundamentalism” might be “urbane scientism.” At first glance, Walter White is a heroic, urbane “badass.” But his reduction of the universe to chemistry that he can manipulate, oblivious to his own inner poisoning—a catastrophic chemical reaction—frames the entire series.

And this is quite consciously portrayed by Gilligan, who in a 2010 interview told Jovana Grbic, chemist and editor of the online journal ScriptPhD, “First and foremost to me, the show is a character study about a man who is undergoing a radical transformation. He’s transforming himself from a protagonist to an antagonist. The whole show, in that sense, is an experiment to continue chemistry analogy.”6

 
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