Kim Hinrichs likes to contemplate spirituality through the lens of postmodern America. A third-generation native Californian, she is ordained in the Swedenborgian Church, a doctoral student in Christian Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union, Director of Outreach for the Swedenborgian House of Studies at Pacific School of Religion, and Claire & Marielle’s mom. You can find Kim on Facebook or follow her on Twitter at @kimhinrichs.
A God Beyond Words
Two weeks ago, under a dark Southern California sky, I found myself walking on a gravel road out to a small observatory at the University of California, Irvine. It was a rare opening to the public, and a small crowd had gathered on this windswept hilltop, improbably located above the twinkling lights of sprawling Orange County. As I approached, I saw that an amateur stargazer had set up a hefty telescope on the dirt behind his truck. He invited me to take a look, so I leaned in to position my eyeball in just the right spot. I peered in and suddenly, I stopped breathing.
What I beheld within my eyesight was the planet Saturn. Encircled by rings; a perfect, white orb. Saturn. It was glowing, twinkling, existing before me. The planet Saturn made contact for the first time with my optic nerves, my brain, my being. This was not a photograph; this was actually Saturn, 746 million miles away from where my feet stood on an infinitesimally small patch of planet earth.
Standing up again, I felt mute—as if there were a large ball of silent awe and humility caught in my throat. Neither words nor thoughts came to mind; just a skin-tingling sense of wonder. It made me feel as if I was so overwhelmingly small, yet at the same time not too small to make contact with something absolutely magnificent. It was a wordless reminder that I inhabit a universe that is far, far greater than I, or anyone else, is able to comprehend. It was a reminder too that what lies within and among this immense creation is beauty.
In the realm of spirituality studies, this kind of experience has actually been given a name: apophatic spirituality. Apophatic spirituality, also referred to as the via negativa or negative theology, is a way of approaching God by shedding all the linguistic, visual and mental constructs we may have of God until one is able to sit at the threshold of divine being itself. The via negativa has a long and rich history in Western Christianity, having been embraced and described by mystics and spiritual theologians such as Pseudo-Dionysius, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg, among others.
But what is most relevant for religious pluralism is that the apophatic way is found in many other world religions as well, particularly in the mystical expressions of those religions. We find apophatic spirituality in Jewish Kabbalah, in Buddhism, in Taoism and in Sufism. In each of these traditions can be found practice and instruction for approaching a sense of the ineffable divine which lies at the center of all being.
I suggest that the apophatic way can become a bridge to enable us to discuss pluralist spirituality. When we read the Christian mystics named above, we can discover how they forged a spirituality that was fully Christian and at the same time acknowledged that at the highest levels of spiritual contemplation, they found themselves present with a sense of oneness that deeply infused all of reality. Often there was a sense of a loss of one’s ego into the infinite divine, and an awakening of deep compassion for all creatures. These moments did not abide by the findings of ecclesiastical councils or the recitation of doctrines. They were about the immediacy of religious experience.
I believe that there is a powerful common ground in the apophatic tradition that is shared by the world’s mystical traditions. I encourage you, in a thoroughly 21st-century postmodern way, to create a pastiche of pluralist spirituality explorations. Read about the God who cannot be named in Jewish mysticism; understand how “emptiness” is used in Zen Buddhist philosophy; learn about how all things return to their source in Taoism; find out about transcending dualism in Sufi practice; learn about the individual as an infinite reflection of the divine in Swedenborgian Christianity. In this way of approaching God we might grow in our compassion and understanding for our brothers and sisters in other faiths—indeed, we might even find that our very ability to put people in the category of “other” will be upended.
In bringing our attention to the God beyond all words, we may just find that we are all one.