Beyond Words

One of the major problems in the modern debate between Atheism and Theism is that both the Christians and the Atheists have lost a good understanding of what is called Apophatic Theology.  Apophatic Theology is that theology which insists that we can really say almost nothing about God because all of our language is inadequate to speak about God.  Apophatic Theology says that it is inappropriate to say that “God Exists” because “existence” is a category that we only understand within the confines of our universe.  God is not in the universe, and thus does not fit within the context of this category.  To say that God has a mind is inappropriate because all minds that we know are too small and too material for them to be adequate descriptions of the reality of God’s own self knowledge and knowledge of all other things[1].  To say that God is powerful is wrong, because power as we know it is the application of force within all manner of realms that God is not contained by.

This tradition of Apophatic theology is heavily associated with the mystical tradition of the eastern church.  Theologians and monks who prayed deeply and sought to be drawn into union with God did so because they realized that our words utterly fail us when we try to talk about God.  The greatest theologians, no matter how precise their words, no matter how technical their language, cannot escape the fact that the human mind is, and must, function within the constructs of human thought.  Human thought cannot contain the proper idea of God, because God is prior to human ideas.  Here I do not mean temporally prior, but logically and ontologically prior.  Nothing about God can be properly contained in human thought because human thought is a creation of God, and exists in a far more limited way than God.

Therefore human language is highly inadequate to speak about God in an ultimate sense.  Of course there are modern philosophies that say that human language is highly inadequate to talk about anything at all.  If these philosophies are true (and I don’t think they are) then a mode of communication that is inadequate to talk about cabbages is all the more inadequate to talk about the king of kings.  But we need not think that human language is wholly useless to know that, when we come down to the most rock bottom assertions about God, we do not have the tools to communicate the ultimate realities of a being who transcends our universe.

One might ask, after such a discouraging project as the above paragraphs, why we bother to talk about God at all.  If we cannot get at the real truth, then why are we so adamant about saying things like “God exists” and “God is good” when existence and goodness are, by our own admission, too small to describe God.  One might say that we are conceding ground to the skeptics who say that the “God Hypothesis” is a useless one.  If, they might say, we cannot talk about God, let us stop talking about him.  Problem solved.

First, we should say that those who were most adamant about Apophatic theology were also often some of the greatest Cataphatic Theologians.  “Cataphatic Theology” is the kind of theology that says things like “God is good” where Apophatic theology says things like “God is beyond goodness[2].”  The reason for this is because while Apophatic theologians insist that “God is beyond goodness and being” they also insist that the reality that is beyond those things is far more like them than evil and non-being.  Goodness, though inadequate, is a pointer to God in a way that Evil is most definitely not.  Knowledge, love, peace, mercy, and joy are all inadequate ways of describing God, for the ideas that they convey are limited and created ideas.  But they are all pointers to the unlimited and uncreated reality of God that is in a very real way continuous with them.

Thus peace, as we understand it, is not a big enough idea to describe the unshakable and imperturbable God.  However, peace when it is magnified, exalted, and brought to its uncreated ends, shows itself to be identifiable with God.  This is true for Goodness, being, joy, love, and mercy.  But it is not true for hatred, fear, destruction, and evil.  For when they are expanded, and made transcendent, they are not identifiable with God, they are identifiable with non-entity.  In other words, when peace is made big enough that our word “peace” no longer encompasses it, we say that that transcendent peace is God’s, though we no longer know what to call it.  The same is true for goodness and being and all of the attributes of God.

And for those who wish for a Biblical root for all of this, there are numerous examples of human knowledge failing to describe God well in Scripture.  Paul speaks of a “peace that passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7) and there is of course the well known statement about God whose “ways are higher than [our] ways.” (Is 55:9)  As well, it is important to remember that the highest of all divine revelations is not a statement, or a document, but a man.

What is so important about all of this, is that we must firmly say that there are some things that, when brought to their ultimate and transcendent state, are identifiable with that One who is ultimate and transcendent.  However, there are most definitely things that are not identifiable with God.  God may be “beyond good” in the way that goodness, when elevated beyond our conception of it, is true of God, but God is not “beyond good and evil” in the way that Nietzsche described.  God is beyond good because good is, to the reality of God, what a child’s drawing of the stars is to the real night sky.  God is beyond evil because, being beyond goodness, evil is hateful to God.

Now in our debates with Atheism, we must remember that God is ultimately beyond human predication.  We cannot expect God to be definable in the way that something in nature is definable.  And this is where what Stephen J. Gould calls the “non-overlapping magisteria” comes in.  Science’s job is to tell us about “stuff” in the universe, or about the universe.  God is not “stuff” in the universe.  God is not a “local cause” but a “transcendent cause” that is not compassed by human thought, scientific or logical[3].

Thus when an Atheist asks, as they have several times, “Would you be convinced if science somehow showed that God exists?” the answer must be “no.”   The answer is “no” because the thing is not possible.  Whatever science might show, it cannot encompass God, it cannot prove God.  God cannot be detected in nature, because God is not part of nature.  But neither can God be deduced with logical certainty, because logic does not encompass God.  And this is where revelation comes in.  No one deduces “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth;” it just shows up.  It appears, unlooked-for, and novel.  It is not the answer to a scientific or logical question, it is a lightning bolt from beyond the world.

And this is where I break with some of the more prominent Apologists of the Christian faith.  I do not believe that we can concretely and unavoidably prove God logically or scientifically.  I think that the transcendence of God necessitates this.  The nature of a created order necessitates this.  The thing is too big to prove, too close, to far.

And I think, if we continue to drive people away from the concept of revelation, the concept of personal experience, and into the laboratory, we will find that people will in fact lose their grounds for believing in God.  For it was never in answer to a philosophical question that the “God hypothesis” arrived.  Instead, thoughts came into people’s minds, and words came out of strange and remote places stating new and unlooked-for ideas.  Ideas that had no root in the natural progression of thought that came before them.

And then one idea came to life in a small village, again not looked for in the minds of men and women.  And He dwelt among us to show us what God, whom no idea or theory could encompass, is like.


[1] Even “Knowledge” is an ultimately inappropriate category for what God does, for all of our models of knowledge have to do with data storage, access, and association.  We cannot assume that the utterly simple God stores knowledge, accesses it, and associates it with things.

[2] It should be mentioned there that a thoroughgoing Apophatic Theology will also say that “God is beyond ‘beyondness’” and thus draw God back into the intimate relationship that transcends transcendence.

[3] Here we must say that while God transcends logical bounds, we believe that God is the ground of logic, and thus will not be “illogical” but instead, perhaps, “super-logical” in the sense of transcending what we can deduce.

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7 thoughts on “Beyond Words

    • Actually, Apophatic theology has been on the rise in the western church in the last century. This is largely due to the increased discourse with the Eastern Church which had never lost this theology.

      But I invite you to, first, find some evidence for your statement, and secondly to back up your “and rightly so” with a reasoned argument.

      • Whether or not AT is on the rise would be irrelevant to the question of whether or not the two camps “Christians” and “Atheists” have lost true understanding of AT. As to my own rejection, your own presentation is self-referentially incoherent. To say that God is not in the universe, etc. is in fact to make statements about him, etc.

        Good day.

      • The fact that I am making cataphatic statements in the context of acknowledged Apophatic realities does not make them invalid. If I say “god is not a thing in the universe” I am using the via negativa which is cataphatic, but not making a claim as to what God is.

        I can definitely say that no object in the universe is God without contradiction to Apophatic theology. For Apophatic theology is about out positive words being insufficient about God. It is not about having the inability to say that “God is not the table.”

        And the fact that skeptic scientists look for evidence of God (and thus deny God’s existence because no such evidence an be found) means that they do not get the concepts listed above. Books like “The Domestication of Transcendance” outline this mondern phenomenon.

        If you are interested in debating rationally, you are welcome here. If you just want to say your piece and run, however, you are welcome to stay out of the conversation, like any merely disruptive rude person.

  1. How is Apophetic theology related to the concept of dogma (as opposed to kerygma) in the early church?

    Also, are you on reddit? You should check out http://www.reddit.com/r/DebateReligion/ and http://www.reddit.com/r/DebateAnAtheist/. We would love to have you. You seem to have an intellectually rigorous approach towards theology (well duh, you are a professional theologian). I think you would find the debates stimulating. There are no ad homoniem attacks and members are eager to debate.

    • Passion_gap,

      Thanks for commenting!

      Apophatic theology functions mainly in the early church as a theological tool that appears lightly in the Cappadocian Fathers and then in full force in a writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (who was heavily influential in the west during the Medieval period, and remains influential in the east).

      However, in the formation of Dogma, Apophatic theology seems to be silent except as a background understanding of the limits of theology from the council of Constantinople forward. Theologians may agree with Pseudo-Dionysius that ultimately God is “beyond Oneness and beyond Threeness” (or they may very much disagree), but that is not ultimately useful in the formation of doctrine which seems nearly always to function as a response to divergent ideas within the religious community (i.e. we make the statement “the Lord Jesus Christ, God from God, Light From Light, True God from True God” in response to Arius saying “quasi-God from God, derived light from Light, and not-true God from True God” (obviously wildly oversimplified here)).

      And we can see why, for Apophatic theology functions as a method of theology which ultimately is meant to draw the believer into a richer and deeper mystical relationship with God, going beyond all mere facts that we can say about God (and thus arises out of a monastic context), but also works as a method of formal theology to show the limits of our endeavors, and the humility of our efforts. Dogmatic theology develops and functions as that which helps to set bounds that clearly identify what is understood to be true about God, perhaps with the Apophatic understanding that these bounds are only the best we can do with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and not in fact the truth themselves.

      I am familiar with the /r/DebateAnAtheist over there, (and think that at least one of my debates on here came from there), but I am not aware of the other. I’ll give it a look.

      • Thanks for the response, I was actually not referring to the current use of the term dogma and more along the lines of: “the deeper meaning of biblical truth, which can only be apprehended through religious experience and expressed in symbolic form.” As opposed to kerygma, the public teaching of the church.

        It is my understanding that the eastern church found the contemplation of the trinity a much inspiring religious experience but that the west found it a baffling concept. The Cappadocians especially distinguished between the esoteric and exoteric truth, meaning not all religious truth can be expressed and defined clearly and logically.

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