The ‘apophatic’ path, the way of negation, the via negativa, is the vital starting place for any relationship with the divine mystery. There are plenty of things unseen, unknown, not conceived, a puzzle to intellect, a mystery to the contemplative perceptiveness of philosophical reason, in the cosmos, in the earth, in the world.. But the divine mystery is not on any analogy with these, not akin to any of them, not like anything discovered or undiscovered in human experience. We cannot by searching, whether ‘taking thought’ or ‘not taking thought’, find what God is or is not. God is the Creator of all that is, thus God is beyond all that is, and cannot be reduced to the terms of reference of anything that is.
To deny that any concept, any image, any word, or likeness to any form whether sensible [picked up by the senses] or intelligible [conceived of by the mind], can be applied to God is both true of the radical mysteriousness of divinity, and has vital implications for human existence.. It grounds us in the sharp realisation of the absolute and radical Otherness of God. This prevents idolatry, and stops the human tendency to grant authority to anything less than God even if it purports to be ‘from God’, ‘sanctioned by God’, ‘in the name of God.’ Giving glory only to the Creator precludes giving an inappropriate glory to mystics, priests, monarchs, sacred texts, sacred ikons, and the like.. It challenges many illnesses of human misappropriation of God. These always have as their premise that the person knows God all too easily and all too well..
The apophatic path also tells us in a very practical sense that the gap between Uncreated and created cannot be crossed by the creature acting from their own intelligence, virtue, ascetic disciplines or spiritual yogas. Only the Uncreated can give a ‘leg up’ to the created, or more ultimately, ‘descend’ to them. The implication is, we cannot by any human effort, intellectual, moral, physical, reach ‘up’ to God. To get ready for God’s approach, by all such efforts, is a different kettle of fish entirely.
The apophatic stance is a harsh medicine for= worship of religious idols, kow towing to religious authoritarianism, and impossible attempts to cross a gap that only God crosses– or not, as the case may be.
“History, including the history of Christianity, is littered with caricatures of God, like so many mental idols which have led people to either cruelty or to atheism. ..how ..could people have accepted a God who seemed to them worse than themselves, or at least inferior to the highest demands of ..conscience? ..People never cease to project on to God their individual and collective obsessions, so that they can ..make use of him. But they ought to understand that God cannot be apprehended from without, as if he were an object, for with him there is no outside; nor can the Creator be set side by side with the creature. ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ [Acts, 17, 28].. But, enclosed as we are within ourselves and also enclosed ‘in his hand’, we can know him only if he freely establishes with us a relationship..” [Oliver Clement, ‘Roots of Christian Mysticism’, 1993, p 26].”
“Every concept formed by the intellect in an attempt to comprehend and circumscribe the divine nature can succeed only in fashioning an idol, not in making God known” [Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Life of Moses’; in Clement, p 27].
The apophatic awareness, or consciousness, of the Reality of God is paradoxical. The created rests in the Creator, but the created cannot contain the Creator. Thus the Uncreated cannot be reduced to anything whatever derived from the created.
The apophatic, or ‘negative’, approach to the divine mystery starts from the apprehension that the Uncreated is radically unlike everything in creation, cosmos, nature, world, be it vast or minute, formed or chaotic, visible or invisible, high or low, broad or narrow, bright or dark, spoken or mute, and thus cannot be known by human beings.
The Uncreated is equally beyond anything we can imagine, speculate, hypothesise, fantasize, invent, create..
The Living God, the Real God, is radically different from everything that exists, and is therefore radically unique.
God is incomparable= nothing can be likened to God in the entire creation, top to bottom, one end to the other end; there can be no analogies for what God is or is not derived from the entire created realm, be it physical, mental, spiritual, be it visibly tangible, invisibly subtle, purely mysterious.
God is not commensurable= has no common measure or standard of comparison; the divine mystery is utterly disproportionate, as one writer on Maimonides [circa 1100 AD] puts it.
A Jewish friend, exasperated with listening to all the careful nuancings of metaphysics, spluttered, ‘God is God’, and then lapsed into silence. The exasperation, the statement pulled out at full stretch, the silence which followed– this is as good as any of the religious philosophers, and better than most. We get it..
Thus God is not ‘being or non-being’, not ‘nothing or not-nothing’, not ‘fullness’ and not ‘emptiness’.. God is God, and ‘neither negation nor affirmation’ gets any closer to that Absolute Reality beyond all relative realities. “Nothing compares to you” can only be sung to God.
There is a danger in not starting with the apophatic way.
But there is a worse danger in staying with it, and not moving through its complete paradox. The danger is especially evident in the abstracted, or highly mentalised people, who cannot love. For them, there is a secret appeal in a more obscure reduction of the divine mystery than any of the gross types of idolatry and authoritarianism which they easily attack= the reduction of God to an abstract nothing, an abstract zero, an abstract ‘ungraspable’ non-entity. This error appeals to those who cannot love because in this way God cannot affect them, touch them, move them, in the heart; rather, God remains safely at a great distance, because the Realness of God is only signified by an un-formed and impossible to formulate something or nothing in the head.
Hence, given this abstract ‘negative of all positive statements, beliefs, imaginings’ remains confined to the person’s head, its exact articulation matters not one jot. It can be the Nobodaddy – ‘nobody’s daddy’ of William Blake – or the Supreme Being beyond being but at the pinnacle of all being, or the Ground of Being undergirding everything, or the Neo Platonic One, beyond everything yet engulfing it as drops of water dissolved in an ocean.. You can play this game with keenly sophisticated Platonic terminology, Jewish terminology, Christian terminology, Zen Buddhist terminology, and it makes no difference whatever. One abstract ‘non-thing of any sort whatever’ is as good as another.. Western Buddhists are among the worst offenders in this abstraction away from things confused as spiritual, or even as enlightenment, because of the huge axe they have to grind against the idolatrous and authoritarian mono-theism they want to escape.
The ‘abstract’ becomes a refuge for a mere machination of the mind; instead of a humble acknowledgement of what cannot be grasped by the mind, the abstract ‘absence’ of anything positive is confused with the metaphysical, the transcendent, the spiritual. This is a sterile Void= a Void constituted by the mind. The person remains untouched by the Great Mystery beyond the mind.
For, the full paradox is that you cannot confine God in any way, including making God stay beyond everything. God does not! God overflows his limitlessness to touch, enter, affect, the limited. He does not stand on his dignity. The transcendent becomes immanent. It is important to not conflate the transcendent with the immanent, for if we do that, we lose much of the meaning of the dynamism of the transcendent becoming immanent. Apophaticism really means= it is the transcendent which becomes immanent.
If God were just the Radically Other, so what? The Creator might have produced the creation and gone away, leaving it to its devices.. In which case, then we are better off ceasing to ‘mark’ or ‘note’ God in any way, even apophatically. For, apophaticism is in danger of establishing a God so unlike everything created and human, this Nobody’s Daddy is wholly irrelevant.
The apophatic path, rightly walked, is mystical, not philosophical. It encounters the Divine Mystery. It viscerally registers that meeting with an inarticulate shout of joy, amazing! Or with hushed silence and rapt attentiveness, like a sudden and sharp intake of breath. Or, with tears impossible to explain..
When apophaticism is proper mysticism, not philosophical religiosity, then in meeting the divine mystery, the person confronts the full paradox, and passes through it, from the apophatic to the cataphatic, from negative to positive, from absence to presence, because this is the dynamic we encounter in God. God is ‘moving’ like this, and so when we really meet God, we are set into motion in this same manner.
Thanks to the negative starting point, all our poetic analogies, stories, likenesses of human and created things to God, are purged, purified, cleansed. They take on a terrible power, and beautiful poetry. The God of no name is the source, the origin, of the names of all beings, things, creatures, persons. This God is both hidden and revealed by all the beings, things, creatures, persons, he has created out of love for them. The mystery is masked. The mystery is expressed. Everything conceals and reveals its Creator at once; that is the full paradox, and that is the valid symbolism of Uncreated and created= the Void that is not Form and the Void that is Form, the Silence that cannot be Spoken and the Silence that is Speaking.
God is beyond yet that very beyond overflows, exceeds itself, reaches out to what it creates out of love. “The inexhaustible nature of transcendence is expressed in the profusion of creatures. The universe is the first Bible” [Clement, p 27].
“That God is, and that he is everywhere and fills the universe, is known by the [spirit beings] and those who have purified themselves.. But where, how, and what he is, not one amongst all beings knows” [Diadochus of Photike; in Clement, p 59].
“The world is still the vast theophany honoured by the religions of antiquity” [Clement, p 29].
The divine mystery sends out multiple ‘rays’ of that mysteriousness. “Each ray.. is a divine Name, and these Names are innumerable. ..the [Greek] Fathers [of Christianity] also identify them with the ‘powers’ or the ‘energies’ that spring from the unapproachable nature of God” [Clement, p 28]. We do not know God ‘in essence’, as divinity is in and of itself. We know God ‘in the energies’ of divinity that ecstatically go out of God, go beyond the beyond of God, to enter and penetrate the creation; we know God in the powers of divinity that uphold, nourish, inspire, guide, illumine, strengthen, all beings, human and non-human. All being is held in God= immersed in the creativity and loving activity of God that is always moving toward it. “The energies, the powers, then become so many modes of the divine presence. ..Thus every creature names.. in its own peculiar fashion, the divine Names” [Clement, pp 28-29].
“O thou who art beyond all,
..No name describes thee.
What mind can grasp thee?
No intellect conceives thee.
Thou only art inexpressible.
All that is spoken comes forth from thee.
All creatures praise thee,
Those that speak and those that are dumb.
The universal longing, the groaning of creation tends toward thee.
Everything that exists prays to thee.
In thee alone all things dwell.
Thou art the purpose of every creature.
Thou art unique.
Thou art each one and art not any.
Thou art not a single creature, nor art thou the sum of creatures;
All names are thine, how shall I address thee,
Who alone cannot be named?
[Gregory Nazianzen; in Clement, p 28]
These names of the created naming him who cannot be named are the ‘no words songs’ sung in everything as a prayer to the Creator, meeting the love that made them with a love of gratitude, thanksgiving, praise, and also, sighing, groaning, hurting. I cannot know you. I can encounter you because you relate to me. I can question your coming and goings, when the heart wonders why they are as they are, in what this means for what we are..
It is God’s love that passes from the beyond to the immersed. Love links apophatic and cataphatic, holding them in tension, striking the exact balance between when to remain silent about that of which we cannot speak, and when the poetry of the words that acknowledge love is needed, and urgent, and cries out, irrepressibly, despite the risk. He who loves more risks more to love more. He does not hold back, out of the fear of the God exalted above everything. He rushes in, not only to thank but also to battle with the God who humbles himself, strips himself, ultimately empties himself, to make and consolidate relationship with us.
We cannot know God outside this relationship he initiates. We can know God in the relationship he initiates, by freely responding to it, and vowing to remain true to it, keeping faith with it, no matter what.
This is why the Bible claims that we can only see, hear, understand, the matters revealed by God with the heart.
We were created by God for a purpose we cannot fathom.. Only God can disclose it to us. It would seem to require we give ourself wholly, as God is given to us.
“The mystery that is beyond God himself,
that gives its name to everything,
is complete affirmation, complete negation,
beyond all affirmation and all negation.”
[Dionysus; in Clement, p 31]
“This simultaneous [rejection] of affirmation and negation means that God’s transcendence eludes our very idea of transcendence. God transcends his own transcendence, so that he may not be lost in abstract nothingness, but may give himself” [Clement, p 31].
God is hidden, yet given. Hidden from us= given to us. It is the hidden that comes to us, and giving itself to us, creates in us that longing in each and every created thing, being, creature, person, for seeking God. It is the dynamic propulsion, movement, hurt, in us. We want to know, we have to know, the Unknowable.
Not knowing God “will awake in our soul the longing to know him further; this longing will lay bare our soul; this nakedness will make us like God” [Gregory Nazianzen; in Clement, pp 32-33].
Mystical Unknowing does not mean not knowing anything whatever.. It means seeking that which we cannot know as abstraction, as object, in its core as it is in itself. But it means chasing a numinous beast in a hunt that is driven from the cells singing in our blood. It means an unknowing that is the only possible knowing of love. It means entering in with what has entered us. For, it is the Heart of God that bridges the ontological gap between God’s hiddenness and givenness. For the heart, which we cannot know from the outside, moves outside its inside, and approaches us in dynamic movement, and in a host of differing kinds of action, and this hidden heart given to us penetrates our heart, and we know it ‘heart to heart.’
This is more than face to face meeting. Face to face is meeting in the Light.
This is heart to heart meeting. Heart to heart is meeting in the Fire.
God is the ultimate pain in the heart. The deepest passion is forged in this furnace.
It is more than the Refiner’s Fire, purging and strengthening the heart. It is the wound of God’s heart in the human heart.
In this wound, we uncover the lineaments, the paths, the sinews, the beating heart beat, of the Fire seeping into us, like blood from a wound.
In this wound, why God created us as a heart, and what the heart is called to, will be unhidden.
Then we know as we are known.
We know the love that loved us before we existed, and we know the existence hidden in, and given to, love.
We know the Fire.
God is inaccessible, yet God is “a springing forth, a creative and redemptive leap outside his essence, ..to communicate [the divine energies] to creatures by personal actions, because the living God is a God who acts” [Clement, pp 31-32].
Jewish tradition gives God different names on the basis of different actions. This takes the form, ‘when God does this, he is called by such a name; when God does that, he is called by another name.’ The Jewish Bible is full of such Names of God that are at the same time the Deeds of God that strike to the heart of the matter of human existence.
Action is Fire. Action comes from the Heart.
“..fire can be experienced everywhere.. It shines with a total brilliance and at the same time its presence is secret, being unknown outside of the material that is making it visible. ..it gives itself to anyone who approaches it: it restores [people] to life with its quickening warmth.. It is active, powerful, everywhere present and invisible. Neglected, it seems as if it did not exist. But as a result of the friction which is a kind of prayer it suddenly appears, leaps up, and spreads all around” [Dionysus; in Clement, p 33].
“God, the unfathomed deep beyond all, takes us to himself, as a father his child’ [Clement, p 199].
In Greek, there are two roots in the word for God, which is ‘theos’= theira — to found, and theein — to leap.
God’s love founds and God’s love leaps. What does it found? Where does it leap?
It Founds the radical heart to heart of Fire, in a vow of blood.
It Leaps into the Abyss where the human heart is defunct, to regenerate its power in passion to stand firm and go beyond all limit, by paying the price with blood.
“This is the sign by which to recognise those who have arrived at perfection: even if they were to throw themselves into the fire ten times a day for the sake of humanity, they would not be satisfied. That is what Moses says to God: ‘Now, if thou wilt, forgive their sin – [even] if [this means] blotting my name out of the book [of life] which thou hast written’ [Exodus, 32, 32]. That is also what.. the apostle Paul says: ‘I could wish that I.. were accursed.. for the sake of my brethren’ [Romans, 9, 3]..” [Isaac of Nineveh; in Clement, p 275].
Love stands firm in passion.
Love leaps beyond all measure in passion.
The vow has been made, the price has been paid.