Love and Negative Theology

Perhaps a strange title for a conference paper, but this is what I spoke about recently in Metochi on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Since I couldn’t speak in the abstract, I chose Marguerite Porete (burned at the stake in 310 on 1 June in Paris for perceived heresy) to illustrate the relationship between the two concepts.

For those interested, this is the abstract:

Negative Theology and Love:  Love and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls

In this paper I examine Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (I also make frequent reference to some of the vernacular sermons of Meister Eckhart) as an illustration of how the two concepts: love and negative theology – which at first sight appear to have little in common – can be brought together in one, most unusual spiritual journey.

The fundamental thesis I attempt to develop is that both love and negative theology have the same impetus if we understand negative theology as praxis, not simply as a word game or an exercise of mental abstraction. Both (if we take negative theology to its ultimate goal of unity with the Divine) entail a going out of oneself. Love is extasis, because it is the going out into the heart of an other; extasis is the central moment in a negative theology when the soul no longer knows either the self or God but is in the same place as, or is united to God.

I begin with a brief exposition of negative theology. I then turn to a discussion of how Porete begins from the perspective of negative theology in The Mirror of Simple Souls and tells a love story with a most unusual ending. Put simply, Porete’s Mirror is the story of the soul becoming what she truly is by falling out of herself, by annihilating herself under the impetus of love. When the soul is liberated from will and reason, when the soul “… has all and has nothing, knows all and knows nothing, wills all and wills nothing …”, she is emptied so that her divine lover has space to be and to love in her. She becomes the river that no longer exists when it flows into the sea. In Porete’s falling into the ocean of the Divine, she is made no thing so that her divine lover can be all. Her self-annihilation, however, is the portal to her deification when she is finally changed into God. The continuous hominification of God and divinization of humanity is the eternal process of Love loving Love’s self.

In the final part of the paper I argue that Porete’s spiritual journey is a departure from the usual way of negation. Negative theology usually practises an aphairesis that begins by taking away from God all that is considered creaturely or it embarks on a purification of one’s God concepts. In the Mirror, Porete’s method focuses on the self rather than on God, and is a relentless stripping the self of all that is creaturely to the extent of self-annihilation. This procedure leaves God to be God and concentrates instead on making the soul an empty dwelling place for Love to take up residence. I close the paper by showing how Porete’s is a radical negative theology taken to the extreme: the soul never knows God even when she becomes God’s residence.

And for those of you who want to listen to the conference presentation, well, here it is:

Screen shot 2015-06-11 at 3.00.03 PM

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