The Two Ways
Before we get to the core of this chapter—Christian creeds—I need to introduce two words from the specialized theological vocabulary. I’m sorry for it, but I think it will pay off in the end. They are words that describe different ways of approaching God, different kinds of spirituality: kataphatic and apophatic.
Kataphatic spirituality approaches God through knowing. If you are thinking about God’s properties (saying, for instance, “God is good!”), or if you are meditating on an image of God (picturing, for instance, the infant Jesus in Mary’s arms), or if you are reasoning about God (wondering, for instance, “Why did God make mosquitoes?”), that’s kataphatic spirituality.
Apophatic spirituality, by contrast, approaches God through unknowing. Maybe you decide that everything you think you know about God’s properties is inadequate; maybe you decide that all your images of God are inadequate, and perhaps even idolatrous; maybe you decide that reasoning about God is never going to get you anywhere. So then maybe you decide to just be still and silent, to let go of all the things you think you know about God, and to encounter God in prayer, as a mystery. That’s apophatic spirituality. But rather than using these terms to try to divide spirituality neatly into two kinds, I think it is probably more useful to think of a whole spectrum of religious ideas and practices, with the extremely kataphatic on one end and the extremely apophatic on the other, and with most traditions and practices falling somewhere in between.
On the kataphatic side of Christianity, people have approached God through many different kinds of sounds (such as music and the ringing of bells), sights (including stained glass, icons, statuary, and other religious art), and smells (like incense). People have approached God through reasoning and rational discussion. And, of course, many Christians have worked hard over the centuries to build up collections of things that are believed to be known (and required to be believed) about God. We have invested great energies in these collections: not only the creeds short enough to be said in unison every week, but also the lengthy catechisms of many branches of the tradition, and the countless written volumes of dogmatic theology.
Yet Christianity has its apophatic side as well, and always has. People sometimes think of apophatic spirituality as some kind of New-Age weakening of the faith—some kind of modern adulteration in which Christianity has been corrupted by trendy Eastern religions that seek enlightenment beyond rational knowledge. But apophatic spirituality has been a part of Christianity all along. It was there in the Hebrew traditions, before the time of Jesus: it was there in, for example, the ancient commandment against idolatry, and against making any graven images of God. Approaching God through an image would be more kataphatic; prohibiting images is more apophatic.
The apophatic side was there in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa (who lived from 335 to 395):
Yet the characteristic of the divine nature is to transcend all characteristics. Therefore, he who thinks God is something to be known does not have life, because he has turned from true Being to what he considers by sense perception to have being.
Similarly, The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous work of the 14th century, counsels that God cannot be found by thinking, but only by loving. There is a long tradition of apophatic thought: Denys, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, John of the Cross, and many others. Behind the great kataphatic emphasis of Christianity, there has always been this apophatic counter-current.
Apophatic writings tend to be rather inscrutable, as you might expect: it’s hard to say anything about God without describing God’s properties, without using images, and without relying on reasoning. Here’s an example by Meister Eckhart, a German theologian who lived from 1260 to 1328. Here he is speaking of the “light that is in the soul”, and the longing of that light for union with God.
That is why I say that if a man will turn away from himself and from all created things, by so much will you be made one and blessed in the spark in the soul, which has never touched either time or place. This spark rejects all created things, and wants nothing but its naked God, as he is in himself. It is not content with the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit, or with the three Persons so far as each of them persists in his properties. I say truly that this light is not content with the divine nature’s generative or fruitful qualities. I will say more, surprising though this is. I speak in all truth, truth that is eternal and enduring, that this same light is not content with the simple divine essence in its repose, as it neither gives nor receives; but it wants to know the source of this essence, it wants to go into the simple ground, into the quiet desert, into which distinction never gazed, not the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. In the innermost part, where no one dwells, there is contentment for that light, there it is more inward than it can be to itself, for this ground is a simple silence, in itself immovable, and by this immovability all things are moved, all life is received by those who in themselves have rational being.
That isn’t from a theological tract, but from a sermon—delivered not in Latin for the scholars, but in the everyday language of the people (which, for Eckhart, was Middle High German). Notice how much negation there is in the sermon: “… turn away from … never touched … rejects … wants nothing … not content with … not content with … not content with … neither gives nor receives … not the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit … no one dwells ….” That’s typical of the apophatic way, which is also sometimes called the via negativa, the negative way. You approach God by a process of removal, stripping away all the properties you don’t want to ascribe to God, until only God remains. It’s a bit like a sculptor chipping away until the sculpture within is revealed. (But there: that’s just another image!) In any case, the irony is that apophatic writing, in trying to escape the limitations of worded images, often ends up being very wordy indeed.
As an occasional preacher myself, I’ve often admired Eckhart’s chutzpah. His sermons were unapologetically obscure. Apparently he felt that he was already pandering enough just by preaching in the vernacular; he seemed to feel no need to be generally understood. In another sermon, he concludes with this reassurance:
Whoever does not understand what I have said, let him not burden his heart with it; for as long as a man is not equal to this truth, he will not understand these words, for this is a truth beyond speculation that has come immediately from the heart of God.
Somehow, I can’t picture myself concluding a sermon by telling the congregation not to worry if they’re too dumb to understand me! (But then, no one calls me “Meister”, either.)