Emerging Apophatic

One of my favorite theological sayings is “God in all things; all things in God.” This statement reflects the lively omnipresence of God, who can be experienced in everything from toddlers and fireflies to galaxies, soy burgers, mystery novels, and enchiladas. Every place is a divine center and although God doesn’t cause all things and cannot be identified with everything that happens (omnipotence or pantheism), you can find divine inspiration in joyful souls and cancer cells.
This is the good news of kataphatic theology and spirituality. But, there is also good news to the contrasting image of divine dazzling darkness, the negative theology, of apophatic spirituality and theology.

The apophatic way is deconstructive in nature. God is always “not this and not that.” In a world in which the idolatry of place, time, and dogma is always a temptation, apophatic theology is theological Lysol – the prophetic cleansing of all images of God. God is always more than we can imagine. This calls us to humility and agnosticism. In a universe of 125 billion galaxies and a 14 billion year evolutionary journey, nothing we can say can be more than pointing to the moon. God can be glimpsed in all things, but our experiences of God, as life transforming as they are, must always be seen as limited and one of many possibilities. The divine iconoclast calls us to theological iconoclasm.

In many apophatic and kataphatic balance each other. Kataphatic is the great “yes” that inspires our journey. We are at home in the kataphatic world. Apophatic is the “but” that challenges our temptation to localize or absolutize our religious experiences, doctrines, and rituals. It reminds us that we can be content with evolving “good enough” theologies. Apophatic theology invites us to theological and spiritual restlessness. More than that, apophatic – like kataphatic – invites us in true post-modern fashion to explore the many faces of God.

Both apophatic and kataphatic invite us to be theological and spiritual adventurers – always venturing beyond the known theological and experiential world. Like yin and yang, they invite us to always be on the move, challenging the frontiers of the known in quest of God’s presence in small and large.

About Bruce Epperly

Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. Prior to coming to Cape Cod in 2013, he served on the faculties and often in administrative and chaplaincy roles at Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor in spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. He has served as pastor or interim pastor of congregations in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. He is the author or co-author of over 35 books in the areas of theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job; From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure; and A Center in the Cyclone: Clergy Self-care in the 21st Century.

  • http://www.peacenext.org/profile/RonKrumpos Ron Krumpos

    Many people do not understand apophatic (negative) theology. This might help:

    Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

    Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

    Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.

    (quoted from “the greatest achievement in life,” my free ebook on comparative mysticism)