“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.
“So...no 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.
“It’s only what we can’t say about God that has any ultimate meaning.”
“You don’t say!” I said.
“Exactly!” said he.