What is Apophatic Theology?

What is Apophatic Theology?

What is apophatic theology, and how does it differ from Western philosophy?  In order to participate in apophatic theology, why are holiness and purity of heart needed?  And why is total ignorance a necessary aspect of experiencing God?

The necessity of genuine contemplation and purification can be best highlighted by contrasting the true apophatic theology of Orthodoxy with the philosophy of rational negations which has been sometimes practiced within Catholicism and Protestantism.  These two approaches often lead to writings which bear certain surface similarities, so it is important to ferret out the core distinction.

When using the philosophy of rational negations, the philosopher relates some property or attribute with which he is acquainted, and then he simply negates it in reference to God. For example, I have a personal experience of what it means to be limited and finite, so I can simply negate that term and say that God is “infinite”. By saying this, I have added no information to the concept of what it means to be “finite”. Rather, I simply plead ignorance, and recognize that God exists in a plane which I can neither comprehend nor describe.  Everything I know is finite.  Yet God lives beyond the realm of everything I know and understand.  Thus I simply negate everything I know, and call God “infinite”.  This is the approach of rational negations, and it is helpful as far as it goes.

Apophatic theology bears a surface similarity to the philosophy of rational negations, because both approaches result in verbal declarations of “what God is not”.  Both approaches plead the ignorance of the human being, and confess God to be transcendent.  The key distinction between the two approaches is that rational negations start from the basis of speculative philosophy alone, whereas true apophatic theology begins with a personal experience of the Triune God.

Genuine apophasis is initiated by God, when He grants the theologian a direct experience of His energies. The theologian is swallowed up and dumbfounded by the ecstasy of the experience, and recognizes that nothing in all of creation is truly worthy to be compared to this mystery. Lacking any references which are fitting for positive comparison, the theologian grasps for terminology which at least points in the direction of what he has just experienced. “It is not this … it is not that … it is better than this … it is far superior to that …” In no case can the theologian ever find human words able to convey the experience to those who have never likewise experienced it.  He can only ultimately tell his readers that union with God is like nothing they have ever experienced.  At the end of the day, the semantics of the theologian are filled with many negations.  But this is only a surface similarity to the philosophy of rational negations.

The speculative philosopher has not directly met God, he recognizes his own ignorance, and he attempts to name that which he has never seen. The theologian meets God, experiences his own ignorance in the process, and then attempts to name that which he has seen.  The difference between these two approaches is vast.

If true apophasis requires an acutal, personal experience of God, then it is easy to understand why genuine contemplation and purity of heart are prerequisites for apophatic theology.  God is perfectly holy, and Jesus said that only the pure in heart will “see God” (cf. Matthew 5:8).  If the passions are roadblocks to purity, then they are also roadblocks to seeing God.  And if the passions are roadblocks to seeing God, then they are also roadblocks to engaging in apophatic theology. Thus, asceticism and holiness are prerequisites for performing genuine theological apophasis.

Fr. Dumitru Staniloae (The Experience of God, p. 101) sums up these observations thus:

That cleansing from the passions and the acute sense of one’s own sinfulness and insufficiency are necessary conditions for this knowledge shows that it is not a negative, intellectual knowledge as has been understood in the West, that is, the simple negation of certain rational affirmations about God. It has to do with a knowledge that comes through experience.

The verbal indescribability of an actual encounter with God is at the heart of apophasis, and it is far superior to the mere rational negations of the philosophers.  Nevertheless, the full range of apophatic theology is not exhausted even in this case.  One aspect of apophatic theology occurs when the theologian experiences God, and then struggles finding words to explain the experience.  But there is also a second aspect of apophatic theology, which recognizes the partiality of the experience itself. Vladimir Lossky aptly notes that “Apophasis is the inscription in human language, in theological language, of the mystery of faith” (Orthodox Theology, pp. 24-25). And since the mystery of our faith is directed toward a God of utter transcendence, the direct experience of His energies leaves the theologian with an awestruck recognition that God’s essence lies yet beyond those energies, and that the theologian is forever unable to experience it.  Thus he is left not only negating correlations between his experience and nature, but also negating correlations between his experience and God’s essence.  As Fr. Staniloae has described the situation (p. 103):

We can say that there are two kinds of apophaticism: the apophaticism of what is experienced but cannot be defined; and the apophaticism of that which cannot even be experienced. These two are simultaneous.

After God has granted the theologian a direct experience of His energies, the theologian uses apophatic, theological language to convey these two truths:

  1. His experience of God’s energies has transported him to a plane which transcends created nature, and therefore he is unable to fully compare his experience to anything within creation.
  2. His experience of God’s energies is not an experience of God’s essence, which remains forever unknowable to any created being.

Even having experienced the gift of divine illumination, the theologian still comes face to face with the insuperable ignorance which is intrinsic to all created beings. Thus a true theologian is driven even further into humility.  True apophasis leaves no room for pride. That may be why the apostle Paul was able to be transported into the third heaven, and yet come away from the experience without feeling that he had a right to boast (2 Cor. 12:1-6). True union with God causes a person to realize that a human being is much smaller than we had ever believed, and that God is much bigger than even an experience of Him incites us to imagine.  In the course of true apophasis, our nous is granted a brief and insatiable sense of the inscrutability and inexhaustibility of God.

In other words, an apophatic encounter with God imparts an intimate apprehension of one’s own ignorance. In apophasis, the theologian comes face to face with his own inability to describe what he has seen (God’s energies), as well as with the impossibility of ever experiencing that which he has not seen (God’s essence).  Unlike the speculative philosopher who boasts of positive “knowledge”, the theologian emerges from apophasis utterly awestruck by the encounter with that which he does not know, and cannot know.

That is why the world of the mind can be such dangerous territory.  The more we read and write books about theology, the more we can become deceived into believing that we have actually grasped theology.  It is too easy to forget that all our words, all our books, and all our knowledge, are only road signs pointing to Him whom we cannot intellectually grasp.  Success in theology is marked neither by libraries nor by advanced degrees, but only by personal union with our personal God.  University degrees and libraries are the realm of the intellect.  Meanwhile, union with God abides in the realm of relationship.

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