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  • Empty WaysChristian Prayer and Daoist Meditation
  • Ashley South (bio)

Daoist perspectives have been largely absent from discussions of Christian theology and practice. My own experience as a Christian is that Daoist meditation can offer profound contributions to prayer, notably when understood in terms of two ideal types of Christian prayer: apophatic and cataphatic.

Apophatic or negative theology attempts to speak only in terms that do not limit the perfection that is God. Cataphatic theology, on the other hand, approaches the divine by imagery and affirmations or positive statements about what God is. Certain forms of Daoist meditation share similarities with both, practicing non-attachment to contingent phenomena as they assist adepts in moving from the limitations of ego toward direct experience.

Christian Prayer

Fredrick McLeod (2020) provides a useful framework for investigating axiomatic common elements in certain forms of Christian prayer and Daoist or Buddhist traditions. He notes two forms or ideal types of prayer in medieval Christianity: One is Ignatian prayer, based on the cycle of days. It employs a series of structured and intense engagements with biblical imagery and text to achieve empathy with the passion of Jesus. This is cataphatic, appraoching the divine through organized methods and systematic imagery. [End Page 184]

The other is apophatic. Closely relates to centering prayer, it has particular biblical resonance in the books of Job and Psalms and in the school of John in the New Testament. This way approaches holiness through emptiness. It also appears in the 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing which describes spiritual transformation as occurring after cleansing through regular prayer and study. The method involves moving on to quiet contemplation of the divine, emptying the self into unknowable goodness and merging with the love of Jesus and God—through the heart rather than the head, in the sense of the Daoist notion of "heartand-mind."

McLeod further compares these two types of prayer to identify the qualities of the apophatic. In part, he does so to reclaim a Christian tradition, which has been particularly prominent in the Orthodox Church historically and was present to varying degrees in medieval and subsequent streams of Christian mysticism, such as quietism.

According to Karen Armstrong (2009) and others, Christians have insisted on the literal truth of the Bible only in the past few centuries or since the Enlightenment. They have since emphasized the kind of positive imagination or belief that lends itself to the certainties, images, and narratives of cataphatic contemplation. Before then, Christians did not expect to believe the Bible was a literal description of reality—of what has passed and is to come—but rather a rich and multi-layered exploration of the sacred and mythic relationship between humans and God, opening themselves to the mystery in an apophatic mode.

As Armstrong puts it, the literal interpretation of scripture results from applying logos, that is, scientific rationality, to matters of the spirit. This rather simplistic positivism—the notion that objective truth can be measured and defined—became dominant in scientific circles and from there spread widely throughout Western culture and society, especially since the 17th century. However, advances in 20th-century physics have been largely superseded this vision as the dominant scientific paradigm.

Although the influence of positivism remains widespread, including in popular theology, transcendental reality cannot be captured in rational-literal assertions that are inherently human and thus limited. Historically, the Bible and other holy books were not intended to be read literally. Rather, the divine could be approached through reverential mythos and religious narratives were understood as images and metaphor— [End Page 185] containing great wisdom, but not true or factual in the sense of scientific positivism.

In this sense, faith may be a better word to describe the attitude than belief in a set of dogmatic propositions. Either way, positive theology and cataphatic prayer work together since words and images are held in mind through contemplation in order to develop a closer relationship with Jesus and God. This dimension of devotion remains dominant in Christianity—not least due to the difficulties of discussing and engaging with emptiness.

In contrast, the apophatic tradition dominates in the mystics Denys and Meister Eckhart. According to...


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pp. 184-190
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