The via-positiva tells us that everything created is a blessing! Now, think of the ramifications of that. First off, it means that you were created as blessing...born into a blessed creation. It means that you were born untainted as blessing; in other words there is no original sin. You were born pure and blessed.
Funny thing about the theology of original sin, it didn’t come about until the 3rd century. Jesus never mentioned original sin, the Jews have no concept of original sin, nor does any other major faith tradition. Original sin is not mentioned in the Bible. In fact it is only the Western Church that holds to original sin. In brief, it was something that Augustine of Hippo theorized in the late 2nd century as he was trying to work out why he had such difficulty with lust and women. He mistranslated a bit of scripture which led him to believe that he must have been born with sin as he had such difficulty controlling his sin.
Still, not much was thought of his theory until the church became the official state church under the Roman Emperor Constantine. The state and the church became linked and they found that the concept of original sin was a very convenient and effective means of controlling the masses. And it took off from there even living on past the reformation to this day. The Eastern Orthodox Church never took original sin into their theology, and believe that Augustine was badly mistaken.
Another aspect of the via-positiva is panentheism, not to be confused with pantheism. Panentheism tells us that God is in all things and all things are in God. There is Jewish midrash which tells us that God made room in God’s self for creation. Isn’t that beautiful?! Thomas Merton stated, “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.”
So you see, we are created Imago Dei, or in the image of God, and that image is within us. How could we contain the image of God and also sin at our birth? Some may say, ‘Then why do we need Jesus?’ And who could blame them as this is what the Western Church has taught? But the Western Church got it wrong with substitutionary atonement. I know, this statement is going to be a deal breaker for many as, again, this is what most in the west have grown up with. But I invite you to at least open your mind to the possibility.
In essence, Jesus came to teach us about the Kingdom of God and to teach us how to make the journey to our true selves here and now...not at some future rapture or after death, etc. Most of us pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven...” at least once a week if we attend a church. We are praying for the Kingdom in the here and now, which is what Jesus’ coming was all about. Jesus teaches us how to make the journey to the true self. Sin comes from the false egoistic self so Jesus tells us in many different ways that the false self, that the ego must be let go of. “I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.” (John 12:24-25) Jesus tells us to lose our ‘false lives’ in this world. That is salvation!
It seems that the via-negativa is the most difficult path for us as it is the path that the ego or the false self is most interested in blocking. It is also, arguably, the most important path on the way to the true self. When Jesus taught, he often illustrated the via-negativa in his parables on dying to self. “All who want to come after me must say not to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) “I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.” (John 12:24-25)
In these parables, Jesus is is portraying the egoistic false self as the grain of wheat and life in this world. Several other parables indicate that we must die to self...that is the false self which is controlled and programmed by the ego. Paul tells us in Colossians 3:3, “You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” You see, we can only realize the true self which is hidden within by setting aside the false self. Dying to self is a part of the via-negativa.
Jesus gives us the example of dying to self. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us.” (John 1:14) “But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.” (Philippians 2:7)
The false egoistic self simply won’t let us truly understand Jesus’ teachings such as the Beattitudes, and so many others in the Gospels. This is why we see Christianity so severely twisted and adulterated by much of the Western Church and certainly the ‘Evangelical’ church that has connected itself to a political party. This is the very definition of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. The church of Constantine (explained in the via-positiva) has not changed much in all these centuries. Cynthia Bourgeault uses the Greek word, Kenosis, for the emptying we are speaking of. She describes a divine exchange which, “connects us instantly with the whole of God, allowing divine love to become manifest in some new and profound dimension.” As we empty ourselves, God fills us.
Emptying is the main point of the via-negativa, however there are other aspects of this spiritual practice which are of great benefit. For example, we are deeply affected by the psychological pain we experience by living life in the false self. Most psychologists will attempt to help people accept and experience their pain and often the goal is to provide a means to cope with pain. As we empty ourselves through the Spirit, we can find those often hidden patches of pain.
This is a process that usually takes time and comes about in conjunction with other spiritual practices such as centering prayer, Thomas Keating calls centering prayer the archeological dig, and it is the most important tool we have in the emptying process. Centering prayer is the practice of simply being and allowing yourself to be enveloped by God’s spirit of love. Find a comfortable position...most folks like to sit with both feet on the ground and let their body relax. The idea is to empty the mind such that God can work within. There is a saying that God cannot write on a full slate, so we allow our thoughts to pass without grabbing hold of them or focusing on them. Many folks like to choose a word which is sacred to them, and when they find their thoughts wandering they go to their word and allow the mind to empty once again.
Cynthia Bourgeault explains, “As trust grows in God and practice becomes more stable, we penetrate deeper and deeper down to the bedrock of pain, the origin of our personal false self.” In the emptying process we find that as the ego is forced to relinquish control we find ourselves in the midst of a lot of negative emotion...thus negativa. However, as we allow God to work in us we will find that this negative emotion which is pain from the past that hasn’t been dealt with begins to subside, and we can even get to the point where we claim past negative experiences in the via-positiva.
In a short but important work by Joseph F. Schmidt titled, Praying Our Experiences, he points to three types of prayer that can be used in the healing of pain. One of those is contemplative prayer. Schmidt tells us that through these practices we can place the story of our pain into God’s story. In doing so we come closer to “the truth that is already within us as the Spirit of Truth, abiding in us and constantly calling us to be our true, best self.” God is in our stories, and finding God in our stories helps us to find God in the stories of others, and become a blessing for others as we enter into via-creativa/transformativa.
Through realizing our pain, and consciously involving the Spirit in processing our pain, we can begin to be healed at the root of our pain. This goes above and beyond coping with our pain as is the way of many secular therapies. We then better understand the pain of others, and can even apply our process in facilitating relief for others in their pain. In that way we can become co-creators with God as was intended.
Another very important tool available to us is the Eucharist. Every time we receive the bread of life and the cup of God’s covenant we are giving permission for God to work within us. More than giving permission, as we receive this provision of God with intentionality we are praying God’s work within us. Every time we receive the bread and the wine we are taking part in breaking down the egoistic walls we ourselves have built up between us and God. Again, done with intentionality we empty ourselves (our false self) just as Jesus did and taught, so that we begin to be re-introduced to our true selves.
The Gospel of Philip, discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library, calls the bread the food of humanity and the wine the cup of prayer. He exclaims that the cup, “is full of the Holy Spirit, and it belongs to the wholly perfect human being.” The Eucharist is a form of contemplative prayer, so it engages God’s work as we allow it.
I spoke about kenosis (emptying) and realizing our pain through via-negativa. And I explained about the healing that is available through the Spirit. As we go through this process of realizing the via-positiva and working through the via-negativa we can join the two together and begin to experience via-creativa; that is, we begin to become the new creation that Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things (false egoistical self) have gone away, and look, new things (The true self as created in the image of God) have arrived!” Parentheses are mine.
This is a good place, and it is important to point out that the four paths of creation spirituality are not in any order. We can experience more than one path at the same time and move back and forth between them. Eventually we find that all of the paths can fall under via-positiva and are part of our original blessing.
Through the via-creativa, we will begin to notice and feel changes in the way we see, perceive and experience our lives, in the way we see, perceive, and experience others, and the way we see, perceive, and experience creation. Cosmic spirituality calls for spiritual evolution, which is exactly what is needed for humankind to survive and progress. Cynthia Bourgeault calls the personal transformation the ‘Divine Alchemy,’ which is beautifully appropriate as it implies change and evolution. I love what Matthew Fox says about the via-creativa, “For creativity is a cosmic energy; it is the cosmos birthing itself.”
You see, it’s all about becoming co-creators with God
Now we get to existential reason for our being. The via-transformativa takes place as we begin to realize who we truly are which is the via-creative. You can see that these two paths overlap a great deal. The transformativa is what many of us pray for each Sunday morning. “...thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In being co-creators with God we are instruments in ushering in the Kingdom of God. We realize our connectedness with all! I love a prayer by Bruce Sanguin. This is a prayer over the elements of communion, but it speaks to what I am saying.
“To the wisdom of Krishna, who helps us distinguish illusion from Reality...To the wisdom of the Buddha who teaches us to reflect on the transitory nature of life...To the wisdom of Chief Seattle and our indigenous peoples, who share with us the wisdom of earth...To the wisdom of the Jewish prophets, who show us there is a time to speak truth to power...To the wisdom of the Christ, who teaches us the subversive wisdom of the silenced ones...to the wisdom of Mohammed, who inspired ecstatic prophets.”
This wisdom (Sophia) is part of the via-positiva, and we begin to take it in through the via-negativa, which in turn works in the via-transformativa and the via-creativa. This is spiritual evolution!