We’re now a little more than halfway through the season of Lent. As we’ve discussed before, this a time when we are encouraged to engage in personal reflection and introspection, and to intentionally focus on our spiritual lives. How we do this (and, of course, whether we do this) is more of less left up to each of us to figure out.
Before we jump into the meat of this week’s topic, let’s start by thinking and talking about our own spiritual practices. Is there something that you engage in periodically, or aspire to engage in, that helps you spiritually connect? What might it be? One of our unexplored topics from last week, the nature of sacred music and how we think about it and respond to it, is something we’ll revisit.
It’s also about this time of year when, if you made New Years resolutions, those are most likely to have fallen by the wayside. A recent article from The Atlantic suggests an alternative approach to trying to make yours a better life in the remainder of the year. Rather than making resolutions, this approach focuses on anti-resolutions:
These are things you want to not do this year, such as spending time with particular people who don’t bring out your best, or going places you don’t enjoy. That might sound a little too, well, negative, but it’s actually an approach to life improvement based on an ancient philosophical concept known as the via negativa.
The via negativa was popularized in two ancient Christian treatises purportedly written by Dionysius the Areopagite, a fifth- or sixth-century theologian. Dionysius wrote that God could not be described with any worldly conception or name, and that he could be known only by contemplating what he is not. This paradox also shows up in the works of Thomas Aquinas, who argued in his 13th-century Summa Theologiae that if you think you understand God, you don’t.
This is a bit of a mind-bender, I know. But stay with me here. The via negativa, at its core, is about recognizing that when you don’t know the rightway forward, you might succeed by focusing on what you know to be wronginstead. If you have been feeling stuck—in, say, your job or relationship—but don’t know exactly what to do to make things better, the via negativa might be exactly what you need.
The article points out that people use a secular version of the via negativa all the time. For example, after taking a vacation, rather than focusing on the all the good parts, we tick off the list of all the small irritations and things that we would do differently the next time we take some serious time off. And, if we follow through and act on these ideas, what’s called “subtractive knowledge,” we’re likely to have a better time on our next vacation.
As a way to practically apply the concept of the via negativa, the article suggests this kind of approach:
[S]tart by making a to-don’t list to go along with your to-do list. Write down the things you do out of habit or obligation, even though they lower your spirits. Perhaps you’ll resolve to avoid a few toxic friends. Maybe you will delete your social-media accounts because they eat up your time and make you feel lonely.
This strategy works in many other areas of life. Because of the nature of my research, many people reach out to me for advice about retirement, and I always start with the via negativa. I ask them to list the parts of their professional and social lives they most dislike. … Then I ask them to imagine a daily and weekly routine without these obligations. Retirement, I tell them, is not inactivity; it is simply getting rid of the parts of your schedule that prevent you from lingering over the things you are enjoying.
With these examples in mind, what do you think about the anti-resolution, or following the via negativa, as a route to improving your life? While the above examples are rooted in the kind of secular lives most of us live, how could we adapt this approach in order to enhance our spiritual lives?
Join us for the conversation tomorrow evening, Tuesday, March 21, as we talk about all of this and more. The discussion begins at 7pm at Casa Real in downtown Oxford.