Christianity as Philosophy?: Part 7
Fr. Gabriel Rochelle · April 3, 2013
Fr. Gabriel explains why the mystical pathway, which involves the approach called "negative" theology, is our best hope in terms of knowing God.
I want to move this time on different ground with regard to the whole question of God. I begin with a quote from St. Augustine:
God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
What I want to talk about this time moves beyond other philosophical approaches to the question of God. I guess that was obvious from the opening quote. It seems to me that there’s more stuff out there that simply doesn’t work, to put it bluntly. We can talk all we want about the so-called attributes of God, that God is all wisdom, God is omnipresent, God is omniscient, God is omnipotent. All of these things wind us up in logical cul-de-sacs. They are an attempt to provide a universalizing idea to the name God. They are an attempt to provide a universalizing concept to God that respects the unity of God and at the same time offers an intellectual way of talking about God that may prove to be satisfying to some people.
I do not find it satisfying at all, and I know that you’ll find these attributes in many of the catechisms of our Church. Somewhere along the line, there will be a statement that says, “Who or what is God?” and the answer will be something like, “God is a spirit who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, all-wise, all-merciful, all-loving,” that sort of thing. But then what usually happens is we go right off from there, from the catechism, to talk about biblical categories of who God is, that God is one and revealed to us in three different Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then we begin to feel as if we’re on somewhat safer ground, because we’re dealing with what is known as revelation at that point.
Back to the beginning. It seems to me that the biggest problem we have in a philosophical approach to theology or to God is that there really is no way to describe God that can comprehend God. Meister Eckhart, a 12th-century theologian-teacher, got in trouble in the Western Church because of many of the things that he preached. He preached very simply sermons that were incredibly deep in their meaning even though they were easily comprehended. Meister Eckhart said that any god you can grasp is not God. Ein [ergriffen] Gott ist [nein] Gott, as he said. And that has stuck with me throughout the whole of my life, so the question of how to speak about God is always tied up with the issue of how can we grasp enough about God in definition to be able to communicate God to another person.
It seems to me that we’re really stuck. We’re stuck with two different ways of knowing God. One is through revelation. We posit that the Scriptures reveal God to us in some way, or we might say, to put it more precisely, that they are a record and a witness to the revelation which people have known in the past which, if it works properly, will communicate that revelation to us in the here and now. And very often, in order for that to happen, we have to move by way of symbol. We have to move by way of ritual. We have to move by way of story texts, narratives that incorporate us within the framework of the story itself, like the Eucharist itself, which includes us, which incorporates us into the very act of Jesus saying, “This is my body; this is my blood.”
So all that we can know, we know either through revelation, as I said, or, secondly, then, through intuition. But in both cases, reason has to be brought to play in order for us to interpret the data of either revelation or of intuition. It seems to me that the way of interpreting intuition has historically been to correlate our insights with those of other people who claim to have intuitive knowledge of God, and to correlate that stuff not only with other people who have claimed to have this experience throughout the past—this would be like a history of spiritual theology, a history of mystical theology, if you will—but also to correlate it with what we know about the revelation that has been given to us.
We always have to check our own insights and intuitions against that historical body of the truth of the faith that we communicate to people through the revelation, through Scripture, and through the traditions that are wrapped around Scripture that communicate it from one generation to another. These things have to be held together or else we veer off into space. We become not only unintelligible at that particular point, but we probably become wrong-headed in what it is that we say. So the checks in the history of the Church for intuitions about the meaning and the understanding and the very nature of God, the checks for that have always been to hold ourselves within the framework of the community that asks serious questions about what our intuitions are and whether or not they are, in fact, correlated with the historical witness of the revelation.
Okay, so, having said that, the next question is: Where do we go in whatever it is that we describe about this God whom we know through revelation or through intuition or through a combination of both? And this is where we move into another realm, and this is the realm of the difference between what has been commonly called positive and negative theology. There are terms for this; perhaps you know them. If you’ve been in Orthodoxy long enough, you usually learn the terms “cataphatic theology” and “apophatic theology.”
Apophatic is the negative approach to theology, and let me explain. This is not as difficult as it may sound at the beginning. In apophatic or negative theology, we seek to describe God through the use of negative attributes. For instance, you shouldn’t say that God exists in the usual sense of the term. All we can safely say is that God is not non-existant. We shouldn’t say that God is wise, but we can say that God is not ignorant. That is, in some way, God has some property of knowledge, but we can’t make a full affirmation of it, you see. We have to approach it negatively. Perhaps we shouldn’t even say that God is one, but we can say that there is no multiplicity in God. You see? We try to express the knowledge of God by describing what God is not rather than trying to do a frontal approach by describing what God is.
I hasten to say that this is not just a trick of clever description. It’s a particular way to approach the problem of God-talk. It seems to me that the best resource on this for you to consult no doubt remains Vladimir Lossky’s great and very dense work, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.
Now this approach held sway in the Eastern theological tradition prior to its acceptance in the West. Because of the peculiar rational mindset that characterized Roman thought, Western theologians usually tried the positive way, the way of affirmation, first. That is to say, “God is this; God is that.” So: God is omnipresent. God is omniscient. God is all-wise, all-loving, all-merciful, and so forth.
We may attribute, I think, to two main sources, the introduction of negative theology into the West. One was through the Irish philosopher-theologian John Scotus Eriugena, who lived from about 815 to about 877. And the second, much later, was through the Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, who lived from 1135 to 1204 and whose most famous work is called The Guide for the Perplexed, which is divided into three sections dealing with the whole idea of theology from a Jewish perspective.
Both of them saw to the introduction of this negative stream in philosophical theology to the West, and because of their admiration… This whole approach to theology goes back to Neo-Platonism, and I don’t want to go there. You can look this up if you wish. The problem of an attempt like this is to curtail it and yet perhaps to make it explicable at the same time. You can look that stuff up. But both of them go back to the Neo-Platonic commentators, and they held on to these understandings that come through people like Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite, a mysterious writing that was very influential in the early Eastern Church and continues to have influence in our mystical theology to this day.
So another way to come at this is to say that God, always in some way, comprehends all of the opposites that we experience in existence, and the primary ones that God comprehends or… The term that was used by a medieval theologian named Nicholas of Cusa was implicatio, that there is this implication in God: God embraces things like transcendence and immanence. God embraces existence and essence. God embraces being and non-being. I guess you could extrapolate this to say that God embraces theism and atheism at the same time.
Let me explain what I mean. God is one. We can say that, or, to use the negative approach, we can say that there’s no multiplicity in God. So God is thus beyond all the opposites that can be imagined or postulated, and if this is true, it stands to reason that we can’t say anything about God in the realm of being that will be without some sort of an opposing member. So if we say that God is light, we must immediately also say that is God is darkness. St. John of the Cross said this in the middle ages, and he’s certainly not the only one; there are others in our tradition as well for whom God is the divine darkness which is at one and the same time the most brilliant light that you could experience. God must be in some way that which or who lies beyond all of the dualities.
Here we come, then, to what I want to say as a kind of concluding thought for this week, and that is that God is beyond being. Or maybe another way to put it is simply: God beyond being, with no verb implying separate existence: God beyond being and non-being, hence God outside of that which is both imaginable and unimaginable. So then the question becomes: Can we really say God? And the answer is: No, not really, because what is unimaginable is also incomprehensible, and what is incomprehensible is also ineffable, and what is ineffable means therefore that which cannot be fully said.
Now this has never stopped anybody in history, and you recognize that it’s not stopping me at this particular moment either. All of the people throughout history who know in their hearts that we really cannot say a whole lot about God nevertheless go on to write thousands of pages about the attempt to say something about God.
We have entered here into a different realm of knowing. The issue here has to do with how do we know anything about God, and we enter here into the realm which is called mystical, but it’s mystical not as mystifying but as wrapped in mystery. It’s experiential, but it’s not fully expressible, and hence we use the term “ineffable” of God. That term comes up in the Divine Liturgy; I’ve mentioned this before in connection with other broadcasts that I’ve done. God is ineffable. That is to say that we cannot really say God. And that’s why we use stories. That’s why we use narratives. That’s why we use rituals. That’s why we use symbols. That’s why we use bread and water and oil and smoke and salt and things like that. These are a way to try to communicate that which is on one level incommunicable to other people.
I could say more about that and how I feel that Orthodoxy is really a much… One of the reasons that I say that Orthodoxy, to other people that I say that Orthodoxy is the fullness of the faith, is precisely because of the fact that we have this panoply of ways in which we try to say God to other people, involving them, as it were, in the experience of God rather than in all kinds of God-talk, that is, talk about God.
When it comes to that, however, theology is a hedge against disaster. The disaster is a necessary and inevitable concomitant to the ineffability of God. The Jews, for example, would not say their sacred tetragrammaton, the four letters that are the name of God, because saying the unsayable inappropriately leads to wrong thinking and action. One can only think of the violence that’s been done in the name of God down through the centuries, and you can see this error fully at work across history. Theology is a hedge against disaster. What must be done is to strive for clarity in presenting what little is known on the grounds of revelation and with due respect for the tradition as well as what we know by our own intuition.
I want to say that, from my perspective, truth is in the tradition, but only as we participate in it. It’s not given to us by observation. Simply put, we may think we know a lot about God without ever knowing God. That knowledge is only gained by participation, and the other word for participation is love. To know God in the Old Testament is to enter into an intimate relationship with God. The same word can be used of intimate relationships between men and women. There is a kind of knowing that is deep and dense and grounded in love and in a movement outside of oneself toward the other. That’s the kind of knowledge that we’re talking about. Jacob wrestling with the angel is a picture of love. Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple is a vision of love. John’s depiction of Christ is an image of love par excellence.
The name of God is hidden in the world. We uncover it only with an embrace, not with a magnifying glass. We spend our lives seeking to discover who we are, and as the search proceeds, as in a mirror, we discover who God is, but—shhh—we still cannot say this with any full comprehensibility. We still can communicate only in stammers that which we have known.
Lastly for this time I want to say something about atheism. Atheism really should be no concern for those who are immersed in God. There is no question of the existence of God because all such questions arise in front of the experience of God, and they position themselves like a screen, separating us from an inner or a deeper room. So atheism and theism are like designs on the screen, but the screen is not the reality. That lies below.
To put it in another way and quite bluntly, theism as a belief is every bit as mistaken as is atheism as a belief. Both are shortcuts that circumvent our experience. It’s really easy to say, “I don’t believe in God”; it’s really easy to say, “I do believe in God,” but those easy statements may in fact be hollow and in very much the same way, because they’re shortcuts that circumvent our experience. The only difference is that one is negative and one is positive, but the process of arrival is the same. As beliefs they still remain outside the experience, and here we come back to intuition on our own part, and revelation is that which the Church gives to us as the means by which we can understand the presence of God in the world.
For this reason, and let us remain clear that this reason has its grounding in experiential truth, I have never placed any stock in the five philosophical proofs for the existence of God which are all flawed, as I said the last time around, and cannot really prove anything except to those who are already convinced. By the same token, I don’t put a great deal of stock in the so-called attributes of God that are derived philosophically either, like omniscience, omnipresence, or omnipotence. Those, too, have a kind of certain built-in flaw, and they really don’t prove anything except to those who are already convinced.
I sense that people put up a hand against the concept of God because they see such concepts as, (1) limiting, (2) exclusive, and (3) fraught with agenda and baggage. But if we begin from the mystical end—and I would hold that this has to be accepted as a philosophical approach to God in this case, and that’s why I include it within this series—if we begin from the mystical end of things, if we see with St. Gregory Palamas that he is not being if that which is not being is God, or with Meister Eckhart that a god you can grasp is no God, or with the Kabalists of the Jewish tradition that the Ein Sof, that which is without end, that which is without boundaries, is the only way to encounter God, and that through humility, then it seems to me that we have a starting point.
And there, for this week, I wish to end. So we’ve gone through the whole idea of the coincidence of opposites, that God arises, so to speak—I put this poetically; please don’t hold me out as inventing God—God, so to speak, arises at the coincidence of things like transcendence and immanence. We need a God who is near to us, and yet at the very same time, we recognize that we are totally separated from this God. How can this be? It can only come to us through experience, but an experience can be true. So also being and non-being: God is beyond both of these, or embraces both of them within God’s self, if you will.
And then we talked about the difference between apophatic and cataphatic theology, between positive and negative theology, and talked a little bit about the way in which negative theology has characterized much of the theology of the Eastern Church. And then we moved finally into the idea that the truth of God is known by participation, just as so many of those biblical stories point out to us. And then lastly, I hope I got across the idea that atheism and theism both operate on a plane that is different from the plane on which most of us who have entered into the community of faith, most of us who have had some—yes, I’ll say it—most of us who have had some experience of God in our lives… We live on a plane that’s beyond the issue of atheism versus theism, of whether or not God exists over and against whether or not God does not exist.
Thank you for listening. We’ll come back again to this series one or two more times, I think, and then I will have exhausted my resources if I’ve not exhausted you by that time. Thank you so much for listening.