Catholicism’s failings, protestantism’s ‘neurotic need for certitude’ and the importance of darkness: one of the world’s most influential Christians discusses mystery.
Today, Catholics seem to be much better at handling mystery than Protestants. Would you say that’s true?
Well, yes, because we’re still drawing upon the first 1500 years [of Christianity]. And I know there is plenty of darkness in that period, too. But there were two parallel streams in spirituality: the cataphatic tradition and the apophatic. Cataphatic meant knowing God through words, symbols, images. But it always had to be balanced by the apophatic, which was knowing God through absence, silence, darkness and mystery. Whatever the weaknesses of Catholicism were, and there were plenty, it still drew upon this appreciation for mystery. Which it was able to exemplify through the sacraments, through a well-celebrated eucharist.
The dark side of Catholicism is that very often the word ‘mystery’ is a cover up for mystification. And I think that’s what Protestantism rightly reacted against: that we used the word ‘mystery’ to justify almost everything and said, ‘oh it’s a mystery, don’t think about it.’ Protestantism brought in a necessary critical mind. But, yes, largely because of the sacraments and the images and the emphasis upon quality music not just loud music, the Catholic mind still has opened people up much more to the contemplative mind, which does open you up to mystery.
Why are some protestant traditions so uncomfortable with the idea of mystery?
The first obvious answer is that, historically, Protestantism emerged around the same time as the invention of the printing press and also, in the next centuries, the Enlightenment. What has marked Protestantism from the beginning is a beautiful but almost neurotic need for certitude, ending up in redefining biblical faith with little knowledge of the older tradition of darkness, of not knowing, of unknowing and silence. Everything was a theology of light, clarity, order, certitude. So much so that Protestantism came to think it had a right to certitude. Which, when you think of it, is almost the exact opposite of biblical faith.
Faith got defined in a very western, left-brain, verbal way that had almost no space for mystery.
Is the value of darkness and ‘unknowing’ the attaining of more certainty as we come out of it, or is it more about being transformed in and through these experiences?
True spiritual knowing has to be balanced by the non-need to know. Our word for that in most of the mystics would be darkness. You’re held so tightly by your deeper experience of God that there’s a non-need to have answers for everything. And that’s why most of our mystics – your own Julian of Norwich, who is one of my favourites – they use this language of darkness so consistently. John of the Cross would be the supreme example. But they still understood that spiritual knowing is a convergence of knowing with not needing to know. That the two work together. And non-need to know among most Protestants and low level Catholics is interpreted as scepticism or unbelief or fuzzy thinking. And that shows that we’ve been much more influenced by the Enlightenment than we have by the gospel.
Other ways in which people seem to access mystery seem to be solitude, silence and suffering. Is a loss of personal control always essential to encountering the mystery of God directly?
I couldn’t have said it better. Silence and suffering: those are the only things that, against our will, take away our manipulating of the moment, our managing of the event. They leave us temporarily out of control. Now if God wants to take control in a good way, which I believe God always does, that’s God’s opening. That’s when grace can get at you in a much more ready way, basically because you’re out of the driver’s seat. And as long as you’re in the driver’s seat, God really has very little chance of guiding you.
We don’t realise that a lot of our glib religious clichés and even our misuse of Scripture quotes has been just another way to remain in the driver’s seat.
Many Christians’ desire for control may come from a positive motive of wanting to get things right for God. What would you say to them?
I’m not trying to push my book [Falling upward], but in terms of that vocabulary, that’s much more a first half of life need and a legitimate first half of life need. I certainly had it as a young man. It seems that you need a certain ego structure – what I call in Falling Upward a certain ‘containment’ – and once you have your containment long enough that you can go deep in that contained place, then you don’t need the container anymore. That’s the second half of life.
My conviction is that all of our denominations only get a minority of their people to the second half of life. But I meet people from every denomination who are there. I have met second half of life Baptists who put Catholics to shame. But they have always been people who have suffered, who’ve been humbled by life somehow, so they’re not all in their heads anymore.
But I think you’re affirming an important thing. That a young 22-year-old boy newly arrived in college, he needs some certitudes. He needs some clarity. You just can’t dive into non-dual consciousness. It feels to them like fuzzy thinking. It feels like relativism. It feels like a loss of all boundaries. And for them it is. Because they haven’t found their boundaries yet. But I’m 69. I did all that, and it served me well. What my soul needs at my age isn’t more certitudes.
Catholic novelists like Graham Greene and Shusaku Endo seem to express this better than writers we’d think of as Evangelical. Is that because they leave space in their narratives for mystery or because their works seem more comfortable with darkness, failure and weakness as things that can be used by God?
Well, in many ways the two go together. That very patience with darkness also makes you very patient with morality. You realise by the second half of life that what looked like the moral person again and again in time showed itself to be well-disguised selfishness. And what looked like the immoral person – the prostitutes and the drunkards and tax collectors that Jesus talks about – again and again show themselves to often have levels of compassion, communion, humility, honesty…. So you’re much more patient with it and less sure of yourself about who’s right and who’s wrong. That does rearrange your understanding of what gets you to God. You realise that it isn’t obeying commandments. Which is what we all start out thinking. I did too. And yet, when you go back to Jesus, it’s pretty clear. And you wonder why you never saw it. Jesus really is not upset at sinners. He really isn’t. He’s only upset at people who don’t think they are sinners. Once you hear that, you go back and think: my gosh, that’s obvious. And that’s a very different stance. But it takes all of us years to get there. You’re not there naturally.
In fact, the older I get, the more counter-intuitive I realise the gospel is.
If we’re addicted to certitude, even death isn’t mysterious. Does death hold any fear for you?
I’ve been lucky to have to face it twice. As recently as this April I got another cancer diagnosis (I got another diagnosis in ‘91), but then seem to have passed through it. And both times I was told I had cancer, perhaps a fatal cancer, I was just more sad than fearful. But I’m sure I’m lying if I say there’s no fear, because we’re all afraid of what we don’t know. And you know I haven’t died yet, so…
Fr Richard Rohr is a Catholic Franciscan priest, speaker and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico and author of over 20 books, the most recent of which deals with a stage of spiritual development he calls ‘the second half of life’.
Reproduced here with the kind permission of BMS World Mission