Apophatic Theology

Well, friends … here we go. For almost 10 years there has been conversation about a First Congo church blog, and now, in the midst of a global pandemic and quarantine, we finally decided to give it a whirl.

Here’s the way it works: Walter and I have invited a couple of folks to be in regular blog conversations with us on this space. Every week, there will be a topic with at least 2 authors engaging each other (and you) in conversation.  

So, for example, this week, Walter chose a topic. I will introduce it in this post, and the comments will be open. You can read, reflect, and comment as you see fit. A couple of days later, Walter will respond to my thoughts and introduce his own musings. Once again: read, reflect, comment, be in conversation with us and each other as we explore theological and spiritual territory in this online space.

If you like it – share it with people you know – draw the circle wide! That’s it. Easy peasy. So now, drumroll please … the first topic is Apophatic Theology.

Yikes. That’s a mouthful and there are a lot of dissertations, papers and books that exist on this subject if you want to go down that rabbit hole. For the sake of not getting too academic in this space, I’m just going to draw on what I remember from seminary. 

The simplest way I can think to describe it is to address its counterpart, first. Kataphatic theology. In English, the Greek word kataphasis is translated “affirmation.” Kataphatic theology seeks to describe knowledge of God in what is knowable – affirmed – in human experience. So, for example, I might describe God as like a parent, something that is knowable in my own, embodied experience.

Apophatic theology, on the other hand, says God can only be defined by what God is not … a negative, rather than affirmational approach. Simone Weil wrote, “Contact with human creatures is given us through the sense of presence. Contact with God is given us through the sense of absence. Compared with this absence, presence becomes more absent than absence.” 

Maybe another way to think about that is: Kataphatic theology says God can be known by what is present because God is LIKE the things we know and interact with (knowable by human categories). Apophatic theology says God is NOT LIKE the things we know (unknowable by human categories).

Western Christianity mostly views kataphatic theology as a normative position – while Eastern Christianity is more likely to acknowledge the blessings of the apophatic position. So my guess is, most of us have more experience describing what God is LIKE than talking about what God is NOT LIKE.

Maybe the bottom line is a question – or rather, the tension between two fixed points: is God ultimately, knowable? Or unknowable? 

When I think of apophatic theology I always think of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” a 14th century text on Christian mysticism. No one knows who authored it, which makes it all the more mysterious and enticing.

The Cloud refers to God, whom we are led to “know” by not-knowing. The author writes, “We can not think our way to God. He can be loved but not thought.” 

My friend, Dan, offers these thoughts on apophatic spirituality: a theology rooted in darkness, obscurity, unknowing, and mystery, that asks only surrender in response.

So, here’s my personal reflection. I am a thinker…figuring things out, having control over my universe is the water I was trained to swim in. It has been a survival mechanism, a point of pride, and, sometimes, it gets in my way.

I like to KNOW what I know. While the mysterious and ineffable might be appealing to me, they are ultimately, less appealing than certainty.

But at this point in my life, I am beginning to learn something about the limits of knowledge, the limits of what is ultimately knowable. It was probably growing a human in my body that marked that shift for me. I had no control over the life inside of me or the way my body was morphing – it was not a thing I could understand, anticipate, or compare to any other experience I had previously. That process for me, was a long struggle with the idea of surrender.

For whatever reason, I find myself reaching for the mystical every once in awhile these days. My go-to method for understanding God is still primarily through reading and thinking and reflecting…I have been a good student of the kataphatic. 

And what about you, dear reader? Do you lean more on one tradition than the other? What gifts might await you by stretching your spiritual muscles toward the other direction? I can’t wait to hear what Walter has to say …

 

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