How can we speak of God, in its essence (its what-ness) and energies (its actions)? Is it even possible? Can we say anything meaningful about God? Or, are our human languages so inadequate at speaking about transcendence that we must remain silent in the face of the abyss between God and humanity? If this be the case, what then is the point in doing theology or of even participating in a religious way of life?
Vladimir Lossky, author of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church wrote a short chapter on these very questions that can provide us with an introduction to the basic contours of two ways of speaking about God: the kataphatic (literally, “towards speech”) and apophatic (literally, “away from speech”). It will be manifest to readers that Lossky doesn’t think that these two ways of speaking about God are the territory of the academic theologian, a territory that anyone without a theology degree cannot enter. While there is a no doubt a learning curve and one will have to be initiated into these sorts of theological ways, the purpose of these ways is not so that academics can talk abstractly about God in the safety of their offices. No. These ways of speaking about God have very relevant, personal, and daily ramifications on the way we speak about God. After all, if one is religious (in a theistic tradition), speaking about God is nearly unavoidable: from the pious statements of encouragement to other believers to even how one ‘speaks’ of God in their mind (how one thinks about God).
Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite
The body of works attributed to an unknown author, referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius, contains an essential study of how we might speak and think about God. As mentioned, there are two ‘ways’ that are said to be possible: the kataphatic and the apophatic. The kataphatic way “proceeds by affirmations” (25). That is, we can say positive things about God, like ‘God is our Father.’ The second way, the apophatic, “proceeds…by negations” (25). That is, we can only say negative things about God, like ‘God is incomprehensible’ (God is not understandable). Lossky, an Eastern Orthodox theologian is not shy in saying which way he believes is the best way: “The first [way] leads us to some knowledge of God, but is an imperfect way. The perfect way, the only way which is fitting in regard to God, who is of His very nature unknowable, is the second–which leads us to total ignorance” (25).
God Beyond Being and Divine Ignorance
WHen we seek to know something, we are seeking to know something that exists. Lossky is referring here to being: “I am” is a present tense affirmation of one’s existence. A future tense affirmation would look like “I will be at the bank.” Lossky states emphatically “Now God is beyond all that exists” (25). Thus, God is beyond being. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. It simply means that God does not exist in the same way we think of existence. God is not a Supreme Being that lives above us in some sort of heavenly attic looking down upon the earth. Things that exist are intelligible and sensible: “If in seeing God one can know what one sees, the one has not seen God in Himself but something intelligible, something which is inferior to [God]” (25). God is superior to all that exists. Mere human beings are inferior to God and as such, if a human being speaks about God with language that one might use to describe another human being, e.g. God is Father, then they are speaking about God with language that is inferior and inadequate and thus problematic. How then can we speak about God?
It is by unknowing (agnosia) that one may know Him who is above every possible object of knowledge. Proceeding by negations one ascends from the inferior degrees of being to the highest, by progressively setting aside all that can be known, in order to draw near to the Unknown in the darkness of absolute ignorance. (25)
Knowledge of God requires acknowledging no-knowledge of God. Agnostic is often used, pejoratively, to refer to those who are taking a position of indifference to matters like God. But the theological agnostic is not indifferent, but rather active, move away towards a great contemplation of God through a posture of unknowing. (Lossky would probably not like the use of the word agnostic here, but oh well.) Ignorance, “is the only way by which one can attain to God in Himself.” (25). Ignorance is necessary to be united with God in perfect love, “for it is no more a question fo knowledge but of union.” (28) This journey from knowing to unknowing is a process of purification of the mind, riding oneself of concepts and language about God which pretends to grasp the very essence of God:
“One must abandon all that is impure and even all that is pure. One must then scale the most sublime heights of sanctity leaving behind one all the divine luminaries, all the heavenly sounds and words. It is only thus that one may penetrate to the darkness wherein He who is beyond all created things makes his dwelling.” (27)