Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 7: Fed by the negative

If, like most extroverts, you are fed by external things which give energy, what do you make of the experience of wilderness? Can you be fed by an experience of absence, a place of nothingness?

I didn't discover the Apophatic tradition till about halfway through theological training - the idea that we can only describe God in the negative, 'the via negativa', because all the pictures we try and use are sooner or later found to be inadequate. So, yes, He is like a shepherd and a rock, up to a point, but these images really fall short to describe the indescribable. He is not like so many more things that He is like. It is negative, but in a good way. It sets God free to be Himself, or to be more accurate, to be 'Godself' (you even have to watch gendered pronouns).

Christ in the Wilderness, 1898, Riviere.
Like Jesus in the wilderness. He experienced everything stripped back to bare essentials. And here, apparently, was the nub of his temptation, the heart of what made him tick: would he rely on miraculous physical provision coupled with desire for power, glory and fame, or would He insist on God's provision only, choosing the way of single minded obedience? The wilderness was crucial to growth.

That's what the wilderness does for you - it strips you back to essentials. James Fowler*, in his writing on faith stages, which he plots like psychological stages, always shows the journey of development as going from certainty to questioning, then to some kind of broad and contented 'synthesis' between what you knew, what then became worryingly less clear. In other words, questions are good, and we mustn't fear uncertainty.

So we shouldn't be put off by an apparent absence of something spiritual that used to be present and nurturing, and which now seems to have gone, or at least to be ineffective. In the end, the negative, the absence, might lead, by God's grace, to something deeper and more long lasting. 

Which is why, despite my extroversion, I try not to fear the wilderness.


  1. Hi Claire. I've finally found my way to the comments section of the blog. I'm not sure whether this is down to my Blogger settings or yours. Some of the dispaly options don't make it easy to comment, for some reason. Anyway...

    As an introvert myself, I would advise against assuming that introverts find some (or any of this stuff) easy. The wilderness may look like a great place for introverts - all that alone-time, but real wilderness is a scary place where one encounters realities we all like to avoid or brush under the carpet, whether we are E or I types. I guess all I'm saying really is that almost everything you have written should be taken to heart by the rest of us, too. So, a good and helpful post. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for your perseverance! And you make a good point too; 'wilderness' is not wholly positive for anyone I guess.