Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part Two)


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/  Apophaticism is an essential feature of Eastern Catholic theology but is often misunderstood by Western theologians and thinkers.  This is part two of a series of articles designed to introduce apophatic theology to those who are unfamiliar with it . . . It should also prove useful for those who have a negative aversion to negative theology (pun intended).   /

Another way to characterize apophaticism is in terms of the impersonal versus the personal.  In contrast to Plato’s heavenly realm of the forms and enigmatic Demiurge, or Aristotle’s reduction of form to that of particular instantiations of essences and his impersonal notion of the Unmoved Mover, early Christian apologists and theologians grounded the forms in the mind of God.  Unlike the Greek philosophers, Christians understood Ultimate Reality in terms of a dynamic, self-determined, Personality who lovingly created (out of nothing) and maintained the world.  Identifying the forms with the mind of God, however, necessarily leads to apophatic conclusions.  Why?  Because no one can know the mind of God.

Dionysius declares that we,

“must not dare to apply words or conceptions to this hidden transcendent God [outside of what He Himself has revealed],” because, “the divinity is not only invisible and incomprehensible, but also “unsearchable and inscrutable,” since there is not a trace for anyone who would reach through into the hidden depths of this infinity.”

These statements make all the more sense when we recognize that the transcendent God is personal.  There is always an element of profound mystery attached to human personhood; especially in terms of  communicating our personhood to other persons.  No matter how ardently we attempt to communicate our interior life to the outside world the human soul remains a “black box” to those who remain forever distinct from us.  No matter how intimate the relationship there forever remains something private and unseen between even the closest friends.   If this is true of the human heart and mind, how much more so when it comes to the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity?  As Judith states, “You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought?” (Judith 8:14).

In this, apophaticism offers an epistemological advantage because it grounds our discovery of the Good, of Truth, of Ultimate Reality, in love.  For it is out of love that God makes Himself known (in as much as He can be known) and it is out of love that we seek to know Him.  According to apophaticism, seeking Truth–seeking to understand Existence–is ultimately the pursuit of and desire for intimacy with a Person (whether the pursuer realizes this or not).

Thus we are faced with a paradox.  Apophaticism teaches that the Divine Nature is completely inaccessible to us, and that He is actively seeking to make Himself known to us (which is why apophaticism, rightly understood, acknowledges that we can make positive statements about God).  But how can this be?  To understand this, we must now turn our inquiry to an important distinction; namely, the difference between God’s essence and His energies.

God’s Active Presence and Self-Revelation

While it is impossible for us to comprehend the essence of God, it is possible for us both to know and experience Him.  How?  By participating in His energies.  Because God is love (1 John 4:8) He desires to be known and to be in communion with His creation.  His active presence and self-revelation in the world is what apophatic theology refers to as God’s uncreated energies.  God’s foreknowledge, His providence, His will, His goodness, His love, His justice, Hist power–all of these attributes are discovered through participation in God’s energies.  These works of God are, according to St. Gregory Palamas, “manifestly unoriginate and pretemporal.”

Which is simply to say, they are uncreated and, hence, not something ontologically grounded outside of God’s being.  St. Palamas explains:

“Neither the uncreated goodness, nor the eternal glory, nor the divine life nor things akin to these are simply the superessential essence of God, for God transcends them all as Cause.  But we say He is life, goodness and so forth, and give Him these names, because of the revelatory energies and powers of the Superessential.”

Thus, while God’s energies dynamically flow out of His essence, his energies are not to be mistaken as being His essence.  To understand this, St. Palamas provides a very simple illustration:

“The divine essence that transcends all names, also surpasses energy, to the extent that the subject of an action surpasses its object; and He Who is beyond every name transcends what is named according to the same measure.  But this is in no way opposed to the veneration of a unique God and unique divinity, since the fact of calling the ray “sun” in no way prevents us from thinking of a unique sun and a unique light.”

So, as it would be mistaken to confuse the act of eating with the person eating it would be mistaken to confuse God’s foreknowledge with the One who knows future contingents.  Likewise, we would be mistaken to separate God’s providence from His essence as we would be mistaken to separate rays of light from the sun; nevertheless, we are able to recognize the rays as being unique in relation to the sun as we are able to recognize that God’s providence is unique in relation to His essence.

It must be stressed, however, that the things we learn about God through participating in His energies are still restricted by the confines of our finite language and limited noetic capacities.  Thus, while we can affirm positively that, for example, God is good–because He is creator and sustainer, always keeps His promises, brings about our salvation, etc.–we must remember that such a positive affirmation is still analogical, and does not provide us with information about the Divine Nature.  For, as Dionysius states,

“we use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God.  With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one.”

Likewise, St. John of Damascus explains that,

“many of those things about God which are not clearly perceived cannot be fittingly described, so that we are obliged to express in human terms things which transcend the human order.  Thus, for example, in speaking about God we attribute to Him sleep, anger, indifference, hands and feet, and the alike.”

Apophaticism, therefore, maintains God’s complete transcendence–His otherness–and his nearness and familiarity without falling into contradiction.

This article was previously posted on Truth is a Man.

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One thought on “Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part Two)

  1. It seems less than apophatic to me to state that God is personal or impersonal. But then I’m a pedant,.

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