~And Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was (Exod. 20.21).
“Apophaticism” is a strange word by any stretch of the imagination.
In theology, it refers to our inability to put God into speech. The true God is transcendent. He is mysterious. And because he is not an object in creation—like a beetle or a bag of marbles—all attempts to define and explain him exhaustively must fall short.
Like trying to pin a living tiger to the cardboard matting of one’s bug collection.
This is so, because, as T.S. Eliot wrote:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish
So while we cannot do justice to what God IS, we can say some things about what God is NOT—while leaving space for mystery. This is apophasis.
As most acknowledge, this apophatic approach should be balanced by “cataphasis,” which refers to what can be said of God. This includes the reality that God is love, that he is holy, and many other things besides.
Yet while all these cataphatic claims are true, the apophatic tradition emphasizes that there are shadowlands as well—blank spaces on our maps. And at these points, our knowledge bumps against the veil of the infinite—or what Sarah Coakley of Cambridge calls “the dazzling darkness.”
I’ve been thinking of this recently because the Scottish Journal of Theology has just published an article of mine in which I engage with both Coakley and N.T. Wright regarding Paul, apophasis, the Holy Spirit, and the mystical tradition (see here).
I won’t attempt to duplicate that here, but I would like to ask a couple questions about the promise and the pitfalls of a more “apophatic” faith. First, the promise.
One virtue of apophaticism is that some use of it is manifestly biblical.
Paul, for instance, glories in the fact that God’s judgments are “unsearchable,” and his paths “beyond tracing out.”
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor? (Rom. 11.34).
This phrase strikes me, because while the inability to understand God often troubles us moderns, Paul sees it as a cause for worship (“To him be the glory forever!” [vs.36]).
One reason is that if you can “trace” your deity, you can be darn sure you’re worshiping an idol.
Idols are traceable; YHWH is not.
And this mystery is evident even in God’s clearest revelations.
Take Romans for instance. Here, Paul writes that:
since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen… (1.20).
The passage is clear that God has revealed himself through the created order: sunsets, supernovas, and the miracle of newborn life. The revelation is clearly seen. Yet note what is “seen”: God’s “invisible qualities.”
Can you describe for me what invisible qualities look like? Can you trace them? Please, draw me a picture of an invisible cat (*C.S. Lewis reference).
Perhaps the lesson here is that even amid the clarity of revelation, there is mystery and an overthrow of overreaching human intellect.
To acknowledge this seems important for those of us (read: me) who make a living talking and writing about God. There is a danger for me to pretend that I have “traced” the untraceable. And, once again, the biblical word for this is IDOLATRY.
At such points, apophasis can be helpful if I allow my pride to be pierced by what the Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius called “a ray of darkness.”
This is necessary, not just because of the great distance between God and I – but because of the great CLOSENESS. As the theologian Karen Kilby notes, our life “in” God makes it impossible to step back and view him from afar.
As Paul states in Acts 17: “In him we live and move and have our being.”
So in the same way that sitting inside a Boeing 747 makes it impossible to view the plane from a distance, so too our life in God makes “tracing” him impossible.
This, then, is the promise of apophaticism: (1) the piercing of our pride, and (2) a guard against idolatry.
What though about the pitfalls?
When taken too far, however, apophasis may be a gateway drug to another A-word: agnosticism.
In my academic response to Coakley, I took issue (politely) with her description of the Christian life as “a love affair with a blank.”
Because while faith may sometimes feel like this (Eloi; Eloi…), Christians also believe that God has revealed himself in concrete ways: in the Scriptures, and most importantly, in Jesus Christ.
To forget this is to stand in the Areopagus of Acts 17 and bow down to that statue of “THE UNKNOWN GOD.”
In some cases, I suspect that the renewed interest in apophaticism (while helpful to a point) may be an academic attempt to avoid the uncomfortable clarity of Scripture at various points.
And when this happens, the “dazzling darkness” hides more pernicious spirits.
There is mystery, to be sure.
And there are “rays of darkness” that must pierce our prideful attempts to trace divinity.
But there are also rays of light.
Christ is the image of the invisible God. And to glimpse his character is to see the heart of the divine.