A Little Post about God

A Little Post about God May 24, 2010

I’ve been thinking about God lately, and I cannot help but be continually pulled toward an apophatic relationship with God.  That is, the more I’m drawn to thinking about God, the more I am convinced of the unknowability of God.  And so I wonder if I took on the challenge of Maimonides and spoke about God only in the negative, only stating what God is not.

I’m ready to dive into this, but I’m also struck with the challenge as a parent.  I don’t know that it’s fair to my young children to speak to them only of what God is not.  Nor do I think a pastor could get away with this for very long.  Apophatic sermons, while probably more theologically accurate than kataphatic sermons, can probably tend to get dreary.

I think that Pete Rollins has made the most productive step that an apophatic preacher can make, and that is to truck primarily in the genre of parable.

Me? I think I’m going to spend the next few posts writing about what God is not.
N.B., This post is part of a series exploring apophatic statements about God.

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  • I grew up Evangelical (Holiness tradition) and did not even know that these words or concepts existed!
    I am finishing up a Masters at a school that has roots in Quaker spirituality and really embraces both. It has been eye-opening!
    I am looking forward to these upcoming posts… and good insight on the Pete Rollins thing. That is an interesting point.

  • tom c.

    The other day I recommended the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in the comments to a post on a visit to Cape Cod for the Didache video shoot. (I don’t know where the photos you posted over the weekend were taken, but the terrain looks similar.) In any case, while walking the trails once earlier this year, I had an inclination to think about natural theology. What one encounters of nature on the Cape can be quite stark (especially if one visits outside of the Summer months). There are places on the Cape where the wind-blasted seashore looks like a desert (but not inhospitable). There are plenty of animals and plants that can find a home in even such an environment. In visiting this place, I felt a rich sense of awe.

    I suppose that’s somewhat the way I think about apophatic theology; I wouldn’t want to reduce God to any particular creative or designing act for the purpose of articulating a natural theology, but nature still inspires in me a sense of reverence for that on which it is contingent (and I want to continue lingering quietly in that moment of reverence for as long as I am able).

  • John

    To say that you can only speak of God in apophatic statements is itself a positive statement, so it has always seemed self-refuting. Its also seems like a false effort to ignore positive statements about God in Scripture and what we know of him in Christ – or at least thats how Protestants have described apophatic theologies historically.

  • Dan

    You should read some of the stuff by Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as Meister Eckhart and even Martin Luther. Also, there is a book called “Apophatic Bodies” that just came out that lays out issues quite well. I recently wrote a thesis for my degree about apophatic catechesis… I think any honest education about God should include how God is both describable and not-describable.

  • John

    Dan, I certainly don’t want to say that God is fully comprehensible. But I don’t think we can take refuge in the pretense of ignorance. I would just argue there is precedence for a “sense of divinity” in Scripture and in the history of orthodoxy that we can (and should) make positive statements about God. It seems authors like Rollins and others take steps toward skepticism rather than biblical conclusions. Please don’t hear me saying that we can obtain a full knowledge of God, but I do believe we can make true and satisfying statements.

  • Dan

    Apophasis isn’t ignorance, its more an affirmation of mystery. And of course we can make true statements. Apophasis always goes along with kataphasis… otherwise apophasis is incomplete as well.

  • Bo Eberle

    Tony, I’m up on all of Pete’s work, and I’m not sure that it embodies the apophatic tradition of Maimonides or Eckhart. If anything, the deconstructive nature of Rollins’ and others work is a bit of an exercise in negative theology, but especially Pete’s parables describe many positive aspects of God, depict God’s love and nature as revealed through the character of Jesus. After studying Maimonides and Eckhart, especially the latter, it seems that apophatic theology often has more in common with the Jedi or Eastern, especially Indian philosophy (the concept of “neti neti,” not this not that, as a way to speak of “Brahman,” or unified reality ,comes to mind)than Jesus. If we cannot speak of God constructively, specifically about his Love, then we seem to be left without the core of Kingdom. Eckhart and other mystics taught a kind of detachment from the world that seems antithetical to spreading the Kingdom, worshiping a God that seems exceedingly Platonic in his own dis-emotive nature. Just curious what you think.

  • John

    Dan, I wonder if you’ve read Rollins (who Tony referred us to). “How (Not) to Speak of God” is a little different than the classical apophatic theology. I don’t want to assume anything, but we might be talking past each other, it seems. Rollins take a deconstructionist approach to apophatic God talk. That’s more what I am responding to, not thomism.

  • Dan

    Ohh. Got it. I think you’re right. I read the first two paragraphs of this post and breezed quickly past the third. I like Rollins enough, but I haven’t read his book. I’ll put it on the pile. I heard him speak a few weeks ago. What he said was useful, but not sure if it’s groundbreaking. His parables while talking, while entertaining, didn’t get too deep into it. I’ll keep an eye on him.

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  • Hi Tony. I’m wondering if you’ve ever noticed that when Paul attempted to describe love, he started with two obvious adjectives… “Love is patient, love is kind,” but drifted to a series of statements concerning what love isn’t… “It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, etc.” I always wonder how long after “patient and kind” he must have struggled for words before deciding to describe love in terms of what it isn’t. He eventually returned to statements about what love “is,” but I’ve always found it interesting that Paul chose to describe love in terms of what it’s not. It’s more interesting to me that God is “love,” and both love and God are somehow more adequately described in terms of their not-ness. (I know. Not-ness is a ridiculous word, lol…) I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts as you share your observations about what God isn’t.

    Crystal 🙂

    • Crystal, I had not thought of that, but you are so right! Great insight. Thanks.

  • Brad C

    I am right there with you brotha!

    I have been drawn to apophatic ideas for years. I was first attracted to Jean-luc Marion because of his critique of Descartes and the Cartesina influence on Christianity. But God Without Being is a very interesting read.

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