Am I now trying to win a popularity contest, or to win God’s approval? If I were still looking for human approval, I would not be the Anointed’s slave. Let me make it clear, friends, the message I announced does not conform to human expectations. I say this because it was not transmitted to me by anyone nor did anyone teach it to me. Rather, it came to me as an insight from God about Jesus as God’s Anointed.
The via negativa or the way of letting go is a path of depth.Galatians 1:10-12 Scholars’ Version
We have explored silence and darkness as metaphors for the via negativa. Associated with this path are the phrases letting go, letting be, and stripping away. Pruning a tree is another metaphor. The season of autumn with its falling leaves is nature’s own metaphor, so to speak, for the via negativa. It is a path of preparation. Waiting and listening are appropriate postures for the via negativa. So is questioning.
This is not a path that is about suffering or bad things. It is not about being negative. It is true that our life experiences of grief, loss, or an awareness of our own frailty, vulnerability, or mortality are invitations to this spiritual path. Those experiences in and of themselves are not the path. They are gates to the path.
As I try to understand and approach this path myself, I am realizing that it is a path to my authentic self. The motion is not in my experience upward, like climbing a ladder, but a sinking or a falling. Not a sinking or falling into psychological depression, but a sinking and a falling, ultimately, into the depths of God.
This spiritual path is the opposite of grasping and clinging. It is letting go. Letting go of what? Control perhaps. Letting go of the need to be like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way.” Letting go of our perfectionism. Letting go of our need to be seen as successful or bright or beautiful or strong or competent or funny or whatever that ideal is that we have put a lot of effort and time in creating and cultivating. This path may be one in which we let go of images of ourselves that we might have thought represented us. This path shows us that we are deeper than those images.
Maybe it is letting go of those things that we think we “should be” or are “supposed to be” that we have learned from our family, culture, religion, media, or teachers. We may not have even thought we had the option to let go of all of that or any of that. So ingrained were these images of ourselves and what we are “supposed to be” that we didn’t even imagine that the images were not identical with who we are. The via negativa is a marvelous, liberating, and frightening path. It is a journey toward authenticity. It is a path not everyone takes. In fact, there is no requirement that we take it. Like the fox says in the poem from Mary Oliver:
“Why spend so much time trying. You fuss. We live.”I am not sure if the via negativa is fussing. Maybe it is. It is reflecting. It is examining. It is taking stock. It is asking the pointed questions and pointing them to oneself. Is this who I am? Is this who I want to be? If one is comfortable with God language, then the question might be,
“Who is God for me now?”It is also letting go of all of those questions and simply embracing who you are. Says the fox:
“You fuss over life with your clever words, mulling and chewing on its meaning, while we just live it.”Touche, Mr. Fox. Touche.
Let’s turn to our reading from the Bible.
The Apostle Paul is angry with the Galatians. He writes this letter without even including the formal niceties.
“Dear Galatians, How are you? I am fine.”
Instead he launches into them:
“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you!”He is angry because in his mind, these folks have added requirements to his liberating message. Instead of "God has made you free," they say "...as long as you do this and this and that."
I am no expert on Paul. I find him to be puzzling. His time, culture, and context is so foreign to me, I don’t even know how to translate him into contemporary idiom or if it is even possible. There are preachers and theologians who will gladly tell you who he was about and exactly what you need to do about it. My hunch is that you don’t find those preachers and theologians particularly interesting. That is why you are here!
Paul is a puzzler.
I need to say this first. I don’t think Paul is God. That is rather obvious. Who does? I also don’t think that Paul wrote “God’s words.” Paul wrote letters. We have some of them. The church gathered these and eventually called them scripture. I think that was a mistake. I think when we put haloes around these words and ideas we lose the human being. Paul, like all of the writers we find in what we call “the Bible,” are human beings. Mary Oliver’s poetry can be scripture to me as much as Paul’s writings. So are the writings of many others.
Paul, nevertheless, is an interesting human being. I am no expert on him, but I see him as a person who struggled with authenticity. He wanted desperately to get it right. He wanted to get life right, to get God right, to get truth right. I find that admirable.
I also find it a little frightening. It can fuel a zealotry, that psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls a “righteous mind” that can be blind to other points of view. One of the challenges we face in our country is a polarization over politics and religion. It includes what Haidt calls a blinding and a binding. We bind ourselves to our own tribe, whether it be liberal or conservative and we blind ourselves to the truth, value, at times even humanity of the other.
This spiritual path of the via negativa is a letting go of this tribalism. This can be lonely because you anger most the people who were on your own team. If you open yourself to another point of view you betray your own comrades. That tribalism feeds our polarization.
I think Paul is interesting because at some level he was able to let go of his inherited tribalism. I think it cost him. He wrote in Galatians:
Am I now trying to win a popularity contest, or to win God’s approval? If I were still looking for human approval, I would not be the Anointed’s slave.
Paul had on one hand a desire for authenticity. He saw the cost of that. It would alienate him from his friends. I find that admirable. He is willing to let go of his tribalism, of groupthink, to find his own voice. He wanted to follow the path of Jesus, the Annointed. What I find troubling with Paul is that he heard his own voice as God’s voice. He goes to say:
Let me make it clear, friends, the message I announced does not conform to human expectations. I say this because it was not transmitted to me by anyone nor did anyone teach it to me. Rather, it came to me as an insight from God about Jesus as God’s Anointed.You might say, perhaps Paul’s insight from God really was from God. OK. I am not sure what that means or how I am supposed to treat that insight. Do I believe him? Do I accept it without question? When someone tells me God’s opinion on some matter, I am skeptical. What that sometimes means in my experience is that this person is refusing to take responsibility for his or her own opinions and wants them backed by some higher authority, such as the Bible or ultimately God. It may not always mean that, of course. But if someone claims an insight from God, then lay it out on the table and let’s evaluate it. That, what we call “discernment” or testing the spirits is also part of the path of letting go and letting be, the via negativa.
Is there a way to find our own voice, to go deep into our authentic selves and at the same time not equate our voice with absolute truth of some sort?
Let me try to tie these ends together.
The via negativa, the spiritual path of letting go and letting be, is in part a letting go of all of the “supposed to bes” and the “should bes” that is the need to score high in the “popularity contest” that Paul mentions in order to find our authentic self, our own voice. It is a search for depth. It is as Brene Brown author of The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly writes:
“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”I could have ended the sermon right there and sent you home in search of your authentic selves. But there was something that nagged me. I worry about confusing my own voice, my authentic self, with absolute truth. While it is admirable to follow one’s own path, to walk that lonesome valley, to let go of our tribalism, to follow the beat of our own drummer, it is also crucial for us to be in community. I want to be authentic but I want to be in relationship with others. I need my voice checked.
When Paul writes that he got his insights from God and no other human, I get a little squeamish. I could be misreading Paul and in other places such as 1 Corinthians Paul is all about community. But here, the oh so human apostle Paul, reminds me that as I search for myself I must yet remember that there is still a whole world out there to which I belong.