Introduction to Apophatic Theology – Vladimir Lossky – Pt 2

The Way of Not Knowing and Purification

The apophatic way, according to Dionysius and Lossky is the, begins with an acknowledgement of God’s incomprehensibility. It is “the one definition proper to God–if we make speak here of definitions.” (31) It is God’s incomprehensibility that is the ground on which every other apophatic contemplation rests. It is at once the beginning and the ending of the apophatic way. From there one must begin to purify their intellect and words of conceptions of God which in order to reach a more perfect knowledge of God’s unknowableness. This perfect knowledge, or rather, this perfect ignorance, is only possible by grace. To even take the first step, a step of awareness of God’s utter incomprehensibility, is a step requiring the intervention of the divine gift. “This awareness of the incomprehensibility of the divine nature thus corresponds to an experience: to a meeting with the personal God of revelation.” (34) Coming to the un-knowledge of God, the ignorance of God’s true nature, is again, not the privilege and prerogative of the highly trained theologian with bundles of letters after their name. Beginning the ascent to union with the God of love is an act solely brought on by the initiative of God itself. Without grace, knowledge, no-knowledge, is not even possible. Grace is not reserved for the few, but poured out for the many. And in this gift of grace, one encounters God.

This ascent to the un-knowledge of God is again, the ascent to union.

Our spiritual ascent does but reveal to us, ever more and more clearly, the absolute incomprehensibility of the divine nature. Filled with an ever-increasing desire the soul grows without ceasing, goes forth from itself, reaches out beyond itself, and, in so doing, is filled with yet greater longing. Thus the ascent becomes infinite and the desire insatiable. This is the love of the bride in the Song of Songs: she stretches out her hands towards the lock, she seeks Him who cannot be grasped, she calls Him to whom she cannot attain…she attains to Him in the perception that the union is endless, the ascent without limit. (35)

The apophatic way is above all, Lossky says, an attitude which rejects the temptation to create ideas, language, and concepts about God. The pursuit of theology, for intellectual enjoyment or mere knowledge is the opposite of this attitude. Moreover, the apophatic way is not a theology that remains in the head, but it is deeply rooted in the heart, in the encounter with God, an encounter which calls for metanoia, a changing of the whole human person into a new human being. Thus, theology is also experiential, not in a shallow pursuit of ‘spiritual experiences’ or ‘getting high on God’ (the apophatic way does not exclude the possibility of experiencing the deep absence of the spiritual desert, the dark night of the soul). These experiences are not always joyful consolations, the feel-good moments.   After all, the whole purpose of the apophatic way is purification, and purification often comes only in the intensity of fire.

Thus the apophatic way appears to walk a careful charted course between the intellectual pursuit of theology for its own sake and the shallow unreflective experientialism of an unreflective faith. Intellectual speculation, using concepts and language to try to talk about God, is abstract and sails much too close to the shoals of idolatry. Experientialism is equally problematic in that it rarely identifies itself with an acknowledgement of the utter transcendence of God, settling instead for an immanence that is all too often co-opted for the sake of personal benefit.

Apophaticism is above all contemplative: “raising the mind to those realities which pass all understanding.” (43).

Now Lossky would like disagree with my description of apophaticism as a type of theology or method or even a way of thinking about God. Apophatic theology is not meant to turn Christianity into a philosophy about the Abstract. Lossky returns to the heart of the Church’s proclamation: “communion with the living God” is made possible by the apophatic.

That is why, despite all their philosophical learning and natural bent towards speculation, the Fathers of the eastern tradition in remaining faithful to the apophatic principle of theology, never allowed their thought to cross the threshold of mystery, or to substitute idols of God for God Himself. (42)

Union with God is impossible if one is speaking and thinking of God with concepts and words that are not appropriate for God or ideas that reflect more of us than of God: the danger is to create God in our own image. Apophaticism is the guard against idolatry, the preserver of Divine Other-ness, the road of communion with the Unknowable.

Essence and Energies: Incarnation and Incomprehsibility

If God’s essence is unknowable, what then can we say about God? Anything? Nothing? How is it that the apophatic theologians of the early Christian communities were able to still say things about God rather than simply sitting in an eternal muck of indifference? Moreover, how can one remain apophatic and at the same time affirm the essential mystery of the Christian faith: the Incarnation?

Lossky, strangely enough, doesn’t go into much detail on this issue in this chapter. But he does mention that Dionysius contends that in Jesus’ humanity, God manifested itself while maintaining its hiddenness and incomprehensibility.

Suffice it to say, that so far, I understand that there is a distinction made between essence and energies. God’s essence is God’s nature, which is unknowable. God’s energies are God’s actions in the world. Energies are what come after God has passed by. Thus we can speak, to a limited degree I think, about God’s energies, however those energies do not reveal God’s essence, God’s inner nature. Thus, Jesus would be seen as an Incarnation of God’s energy, but, an energy which participates in the essence of God.

More on this at a later date.

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Introduction to Apophatic Theology – Vladimir Lossky – Pt 1

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

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)