Saturday, January 14, 2006

Emphatically Apophatic

“You see it all started,” said my friend, Berkley Spence, “when western Christianity forgot its eastern roots and relinquished the apophatic.”

“Gesundheit!” I said, and offered him a Kleenex.

“Uh, I’m fine,” he replied, looking a bit puzzled, and leaving an awkward pause in the conversation.

“So this, er, apophatic thing,” I recovered, “did the early Christians, uhm, wear it? Or did it come in some, er, handy applicator or something...?”

“Uh-uh,” said Berk, shaking his head, although not too impatiently, “No. It’s a way of doing theology.”

“Oh. Okay.” I was starting to warm up to the subject now.

“And the reason that today’s western church is so impoverished spiritually is because we’ve virtually abandoned it.”

“So then, this approach goes all the way back to the apostles?”

Another awkward pause.

“Well, not exactly,” replied Berk. “It was discovered by Dionysius the Pseudo-Aereopagite.”

I resisted the temptation to offer him a zinc lozenge at this point, and instead I said, “So how does it work?”

“Well, Dionysius identified two ways of talking about God: positively and negatively.”

“And,” I interrupted, “since the negative way involves a higher risk of lightning-strikes, he probably concluded—”

“No, no, no,” said Berk, for the first time sounding just a tad impatient. “Dionysius showed that the negative way is actually better than the positive way.”

“Kind of counter-intuitive, wouldn’t you say?” But I figured it was like getting a negative test result back from the doctor or something.

“Perhaps it’s more helpful to call it ‘the way of negation.’ It assumes that any positive statement about God is actually impossible, and so all we can really say about God is what He is not, instead of what He is, because His being is so ineffable. And so it’s only by unknowing that one may know Him.”

Berk went on to say a lot more after this, but with so many unfamiliar terms and names coming at me, like “apophatic,” “cataphatic,” “Vladimir Lossky,” “ecstasy,” and so on, I kind of felt like Hans Solo trying to navigate the Millennial Falcon through an asteroid field. It’s the same feeling I get when visiting many postmodern theology web sites. On such occasions I don’t know if I’m living with the consequences of my own inability to digest huge libraries of information before I turned 30, or if I’m actually experiencing something I once read about called “the Dopeler effect” (not to be confused with the Doppler effect), which is “the tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.” But since I rarely feel qualified to distinguish between stupidity and pure genius in these conversations, my tendency is to clam up and peer deeply and profoundly into the other person’s eyes—perhaps even massaging my chin thoughtfully with my thumb and forefinger—so as to give the impression that I’m not only tracking very closely with every word being said, but that I’m already developing brilliant applications of my own even as he speaks.

Looking straight back at me, Berk must have noticed the “Space For Rent” sign behind my retinas, and so he stopped talking and waited for me to say something.

“ positive statements—only negative ones?”

“Right,” said Berk. “It’s not about knowing God, but mystical union with Him.”

“Oh,” I said, wondering if anyone’s told J.I. Packer about this.

I didn’t want to change the subject, but since I’d forgotten, I asked, “What did you say the name of your church was again?”

“The Church of the Inarticulate Conception.”

There was another brief pause as Berk seemed to allow all he’d said to settle in.

“Well, I will say this: it sounds like a very clever way to get theologians to shut up,” I observed. “I mean, like, how much can you not say about God?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Berk, “maybe.”

“But what about all those Scripture texts that make positive statements about God. You know—like ‘God is love,’ and what-not?”

“You’re missing the point,” Berk said, with an expression that seemed to indicate he’d somehow covered this objection already.

“Which is—?”

“It’s only what we can’t say about God that has any ultimate meaning.”

“You don’t say!” I said.

“Exactly!” said he.


Michael said...

well-written. Both extremes offer a tempting kind of fundamentalism, the certainty of process. Positive, proppsitional statements about the revealed nature of God need to be tempered with an awareness of transcendence, of mystery. We see through the glass, but dimly. Likewise, to deny any possibility of positive affirmation is a radical limitation of God's ability to reveal himself. Must we believe that he is incapable of making anything positive about himself known?

One of the things I love about the formulation of the creeds at Nicea and Chalcedon is how masterfully they allow for both paths. Especially at Chalcedon, there is no overreaching, no laying bare the mystery of the incarnation in excess of what we are taught in scripture. "One man, two natures, fully God, fully man." It's minimalism leaves unsaid much that theologians and philosophers would later try to fill, and makes itself a confession of human ignorance in those areas.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hilarious. Loved it.

codepoke said...

This was funny, and very cool. I had to go out to Wikipedia and skim apophetic, but I'm glad I did. Made it that much more hilarious. I read back on your site through the end of 2005, and I will be back! Great stuff, all the way.

Now, though.

Add "apophetic" to the long list of things of which I have never heard. Would I benefit from giving this a harder look? How so? Thanks.

codepoke said...

Forgot to mention, Dopeler Effect NEEDS to be a published term!

Justin said...

" sounds like a very clever way to get theologians to shut up..."

Lol, if only that were true. :-) Some people handle apophaticism very wonderfully, such as St. Gregory the Theologian (e.g., Oration 28), who by most accounts came before Pseudo-Dionysius ;) ...but anyway, most people (me included) probably resemble a cave man flailing a club around when trying to grapple with the concept, let alone trying to explain it to someone else.

Call Me Ishmael said...

Codepoke (can I call you Cody?): from a general western Christian, or even more specifically evangelical position, I think it's helpful to at least cultivate an awareness of the apophatic tradition, even though it's an almost exclusively Eastern Orthodox view. The kind of pure mysticism to which it usually leads was consciously rejected by the Protestant Reformers. As for the Dopeler effect: I claim no originality. I understand it was one of the winning terms in a recent Washington Post Mensa Invitational. Google it sometime.

Deeapaulitan said...

"But since I rarely feel qualified to distinguish between stupidity and pure genius in these conversations, my tendency is to clam up and peer deeply and profoundly into the other person’s eyes—perhaps even massaging my chin thoughtfully with my thumb and forefinger—so as to give the impression that I’m not only tracking very closely with every word being said, but that I’m already developing brilliant applications of my own even as he speaks."
I use this one often. Along with it try an almost inaudible, low, gutteral "mmm, yeeeees". Oh! And buy a good pipe! If you cross your left arm over your torso and rest your right elbow on top of it while holding your pipe with you right hand and mutter the above phrase ... POW!... I mean, no one will doubt you are the mastermind.

iggy said...

Ishmael... you scare me with how well you write and get the point across.... and i wet myself from laughing... nope wait, just spilt my coffee... that's why it's so warm... i mean.. hot. HOT! HOT!

Gotta go!


DJG said...

Hmmm, you do sum it all up nicely. I tune out when the words are hurting my head. I don't want to have to use a dictionary to read anything. But maybe just maybe that means I am lazy....???

codepoke said...

I did read that the outcome of apophatics is mysticism.

I spent a decade in a church that tried to emulate a few of the mystics (Guyon, Molinos, Brother Lawrence). I never really did get fully on board with them, though for a long while I thought I had.

It seems like there might be a value to apophatics in the same manner as buddhist "one-hand clapping" questions. It might be a profitable exercise to drive one into a new set of thoughts. I don't think I would want to live in an apophatic world, though.

Jason said...

Hilarious. I thoroughly resonate with the Dopeler Effect (which would also make a great name for a blog).

Call Me Ishmael said...

I forgot to mention that at first I thought Berk was talking about apathetic theology, and I thought, "Why would anyone care about that?"

Scott said...

Nice post, Ishmael.

Liz said...

Nice :)

Bert Crabbe said...

Hey Bro,

Thanks for the insightful comment you left on my blog. I'm loving the Pink Panther reference. The 'that is not my dog' scene is a classic. Almost as funny as people missing the Melville reference and actually calling you Ishmael.

If you have a second, I'd love to know how you happened across my humble blog. I'm looking forward to keeping up with yours.



Call Me Ishmael said...


Some months after I figured out how to actually blog I still felt somewhat isolated from the rest of the blogging community. Then I noticed the handy blog search engine that Blogger put at the top of mine, and I started searching subjects related to what I was writing about. That led me to blogs such as yours, where I occasionally leave comments.

Thanks for stopping by!

geoff payne said...

How could people possibly benefit from my struggle with cynicism?
There I go again, being cynical. I just can't stop myself.
How did you find me?
Good post.

Call Me Ishmael said...


I found you very interesting. Keep blogging!

jeremy said...

You should publish some of your stuff... Love it.

Race Bannon said...

“The Church of the Inarticulate Conception.” ...niiiiice funny

Thank Ismael, ( better to call you that than 'Dick') for your note I'll be back as soon as I burn a hole in wicki.


Joseph said...

Hi there... thanks for stopping by my blog and making me aware of yours. What a great writer you are, and very creative. I like the illustrations/graphics, too. Do you create them yourself? I'll be back to check for updates. Thanks again.


Grey Owl said...

I actually laughed out loud when reading your post. That's rare for me.

Re: postmodernism - I think that it, like modernism and all the rest, aren't the point. If a postmodern christian (whatever that is) is genuinely trying to serve and follow Jesus, then God will be faithful to them. I really think that it's not as big a deal as people think it is.

laura said...

hey there ishmael,
thanks for your encouraging comment on my blog. so true, so very true. its a process though.
Ill come and check your blog through later :)

geoff payne said...

No I mean how did you encounter my blog? Through what means did you locate it?

Tim said...

How did you find my blog? Anybody I know?

Rushan said...

GREAT post, Ishmael! I see you stopped by A Considerable Speck. Thanks for commenting and keep up the great writing!

ScottyB said...

Thanks brother I like your blog too. Is that Inspector Clouseau-hmm i think it is.

geoff payne said...

Grey Owl, you're correct. One of the paradoxes about post-modernism is that the true post-modern Christian would not consider themself a post-modern, just a faithful follower of Christ.

laura said...

hey again ishmael. Im actually having hard time figuring out if your blog is in the area of stupidity or genius. maybe thats just cause Im not a native english speaker. (yeah right)
cant help wondering how on earth you stumbled on to my blog? are you the same guy who wrote about "the bubble-head jesus" (could imagine it was you..), if, then it must have been me visiting your blog first. anyways, I really have been strongly encouraged by your comment still.

Anonymous said...

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Grey Owl said...

I went to the 4th dimension once. The food was terrible.

Militus Christi said...

Dittos to your post 'call me ishmael' and to 'michael' at the top of the page. Apophatic approaches to theology demonstrate that while we pursue Truth, there is much that our human minds simply do not and cannot grasp in this worlds-realm.

Let us reclaim those Eastern roots and realize that while modern scientists know more than do many of the ancient ones, most modern theologians do not understand God as the earliest ones did.

Also, thanks for your comment on my blog!

Call Me Ishmael said...

Geoff, Laura, and one other person who contacted me by email (but my reply was bounced back by his spam protection) have asked me essentially the same question Bert asked earlier: how did I come across their blogs? Ever mindful of the baneful consequences of carpal tunnel syndrome, I will avoid re-typing my January 17 reply to Bert here by simply pasting it in quotation marks as follows:

"Some months after I figured out how to actually blog I still felt somewhat isolated from the rest of the blogging community. Then I noticed the handy blog search engine that Blogger put at the top of mine, and I started searching subjects related to what I was writing about. That led me to blogs such as yours, where I occasionally leave comments."

Poking around in another person's blog provides all the voyeuristic titillation of peeking into the diary of an exhibitionist. Maybe that's why the experience isn't fully satisfying until I've left a comment--something that wouldn't occur to me if I was actually peeking into, say, your diary, for obvious reasons.

Lately I've been more than a bit under the weather (but technically, except for astronauts, aren't we all?), and so I've been unable to peruse blogs or leave comments (either there or here). I hope to climb back into the saddle soon.

geoff payne said...

Man, your words are too big for my eyes.
But, thanks. I'm glad you commented.

Call Me Ishmael said...

Josheph wrote: "I like the illustrations/graphics, too. Do you create them yourself?" Most of them are images I've found and altered either a little or a lot. In the case of the image on my very first post, I may not have done much more than crop it a bit.

isaac said...

Ishmael, thanks for visiting my site a bit ago and dropping your web address. I was totally into your post. So funny. Great design, by the way. Anyhow, I was interested in something you said in one of your comments: "The kind of pure mysticism to which it usually leads was consciously rejected by the Protestant Reformers." That's interesting. I would love to know where I can go to read some of the Reformation texts that engage in this conversation. I'm interested because Rowan Williams shows how Martin Luther is actually quite close to apophatic theology and the mysticism of Eckhart (see the last chapter of The Wound of Knowledge). Since, for Luther, God is revealed in the cross, "God himself is the great 'negative theologian,' who shatters all our images by addressing us in the cross of Jesus" (p.158). For Luther, spirituality begins in the wreckage of human attempts a definitive knowledge, in the experience of Aufechtung (dereliction)--"God can manifest his power in weakness" (see Table Talk, Dec. 1531). So, yeah, I'd love to read some more stuff on all this and figure out what was going on in the Reformation argument. If you can help, that would be great. Thanks.

Oh, the other thing... I am not sure about this statemtent: "It's only what we can't say about God that has any ultimate meaning." I know you are doing some really funny cynical stuff, and for that I am very thankful. But I wonder if that's really your read on apophatic theology. Is it? If it is, I have to admit that my read is a bit different. From what I've gathered, what you are describing as way of negation is actually only the first phase of apophasis. The first phase is to negate our usual positive assertions about God. But then there's the important second phase: to deny that denying things about God puts one in a more substantive position of knowledge about God than do positive assertions. So, in the end, there is no handle on knowing God; negative langauge is no better than positive claims. Apophasis teaches us that we are always in a position of lack when it comes to substantive knowledge of God. Does that make sense?

Call Me Ishmael said...

Isaac: it’s true that the early Luther seemed to have good things to say about the apophatic approach. I’m thinking particularly of his Lectures on the Psalms (his comments on Psalm 65 are a good place to start). But then Luther never considered Christianity merely a matter for the intellect, and neither did any of the Protestant Reformers. The early Luther made room for the apophatic approach alongside the cataphatic approach, and the later Luther sounded somewhat like an apophatic theologian by saying that one who had no experience of God (particularly an experience along the lines of his own Anfechtung) could not consider himself a true theologian.

But one should never confuse Luther’s (and the Reformation’s) acknowledgment of the mystical aspect of the faith with the pure kind of mysticism one finds in Eastern Orthodoxy. I refer you particularly to Luther’s Table Talk No. 644: “The Defects of Speculative or Mystical Theology Fall, 1533,” in which he wrote:

“The speculative learning of the theologians is altogether worthless. I have read Bonaventure on this, and he almost drove me mad because I desired to experience the union of God with my soul (about which he babbles) through a union of intellect and will. Such theologians are nothing but fanatics. This is the true speculative theology (and it’s practical too): Believe in Christ and do what you ought. Likewise, the mystical theology of Dionysius is nothing but trumpery, and Plato prattles that everything is non-being and everything is being, and he leaves it at that. This is what mystical theology declares: Abandon your intellect and senses and rise up above being and non-being.

“‘Is being in such shadows? God is everything,’ etc.”

[Martin Luther, Vol. 54, Luther's Works, Vol. 54 : Table Talk. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann. Luther's Works. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1967.]

As for Berk's statement, “It’s only what we can’t say about God that has any ultimate meaning”—I don’t see how this differs from your description of the second phase of apophasis. The statement under consideration here is not “Only negative statements about God have any ultimate meaning,” but rather “It’s only what we can’t say about God that has any ultimate meaning.” So I think these words remain a fair summary of the basic apophatic conclusion.

And I think this is exactly what you find in, say, St. Gregory Palamas's defense of the Hesychasts in the 14th century, in which he wrote:

“The super-essential nature of God is not a subject for speech or thought or even contemplation, for it is far removed from all that exists and more than unknowable, being founded upon the uncircumscribed might of the celestial spirits—incomprehensible and ineffable to all for ever. There is no name whereby it can be named, neither in this age nor in the age to come, nor word found in the soul and uttered by the tongue, nor contact whether sensible or intellectual, nor yet any image which may afford any knowledge of its subject, if this be not that perfect incomprehensibility which one acknowledges in denying all that can be named. None can properly name its essence or nature if he be truly seeking the truth that is above all truth.”

[“Theophanes,” quoted in Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, reprinted 1998, 37.]

In short, we can neither speak, nor think, nor even contemplate any proposition about God if we are to truly know him—and I believe this is amply confirmed by the analyses of apophaticism you find in Kallistos Ware, Daniel Clendenin, and others.

isaac said...

thanks. especially for the Luther references. I definitely want to check that out.

isaac v.

Matt Stone said...

What was that first question again?