The Apophatic Way (Part 2 of ‘The Anaphatic Way’)


II. Two ways of (not) speaking about God.

Theological discourse is (too) easily cast into two opposing methods: the kataphatic and the apophatic. The former suggests there is much we can and must say about God. The later asserts that there is far more that we cannot say about God and we must therefore be silent. Moreover, these two ways both succumb to tendency to see itself as the only way, exclusive of the other. The artificial boundary between the two is in fact much more porous and, as we shall see, Kearney takes complete advantage of this, exercising an anaphatic back and forth between the two domains. Finally, both ways show up in theology in extreme ways. Kataphatic theology is inclined towards decisive statements about God with varying degrees of certainty. Apophatic theology is equally swayed towards resolute denials that are also held with differing intensities of certainty. Both are steadfastly intent on saying something about God, whether by affirmation or denials, and both hold their statements quite tightly. The kataphatic becomes too confident in their capacity and authority to say things about God; they forget that they are talking about something inherently mysterious and unknowable. The apophatic may steer themselves too closely to the shores of apathetic silence: If we can’t say anything, why bother?

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Dialoge on the Hidden God – Nicholas of Cusa – Pt 3

Read part one and part two.

Cusa’s dialogue between the Christian and the Pagan presents some challenging questions for contemporary Christians’ language about knowledge, certainty, faith, and how one speaks about God. I find the Christian in the dialogue to be very different from mainstream Christianity’s desire for certainty, rational proofs for the existence of God, and other efforts that inadvertently express to the wider world a degree of epistemological arrogance. (I recognize that to some degree this is a generalization.) More to it, admitting that one does not know something about God (or any other matter of faith) is seen as weakness, laziness, a lack of faith, a rejection of the Bible as a source of knowledge, and a lack of confidence in God. At worst, admitting that one doesn’t know something is seen as a sinful ignorance. Additionally, agnosticism is a target of polemical apologetics. Agnostics are, like atheists, people who’ve got it all wrong. They need to be corrected. To be shown true knowledge. While I’m not disputing the fact that agnosticism is often a mask for apathy or disinterest, I am saying that the inherent value of agnosticism for the Christian faith is underestimated. Again, some observations.

So, back to the Christian and the Pagan.

Where I last left off, the Christian had said something very peculiar about his God: “I know that everything I know is not God and that everything I conceive is not like God…” That is to say, the Christian recognizes that his intellect cannot conceive of anything like God on its own. Even if faith, which amplifies and enlightens reason, allowing one to go beyond reason, is brought into the equation, I think that this simple detail, God’s incomprehensibility, remains true.

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Dialogue on the Hidden God – Nicholas of Cusa – Pt 2

Read Part One.

Where we last left off, the Pagan had asked how the Christian would explain our ability to distinguish between a human being and a stone. The Christian was explaining to the Pagan how we really don’t know the essence of something even though we may claim to. The best example of this is to try to answer the question “What is a stone?” Our intellect cannot exhaust the essence of a stone (if there is an essence at all). But again, how is it that we know something is a stone and not a human being and vice versa?

Christian. …That you know that a human is not a stone does not result from a knowledge by which you know a human and a stone and their difference, but it results from accident, from a difference in the ways of operating and their shapes, to which you discern them, you impose different names.

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Dialogue on the Hidden God – Nicholas of Cusa – Pt 1

Dialogue On the Hidden God (1444) is a short conversation, written by Nicholas of Cusa, between a Pagan and a Christian on the topic of God, specifically on how we might know, or not know, God. A Pagan comes across someone engaged in the act of worship, prostrate and weeping, and is curious. What is this person doing? Who are they worshipping? Why are they worshipping? The Pagan finds out that this person is a Christian and begins to probe as to what sort of God the Christian worships.

Pagan. What are you worshipping?

Christian. God.

Pagan. Who is the God you worship?

Christian. I do not know.

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Merton the Anatheist?

Compare these two writers:

You Must Know How to Doubt

You cannot be a man of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning the authority of prejudice, even though that prejudice may seem to be religious. Faith is not blind conformity to a prejudice–a ‘pre-judgement’. It is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven. It is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been made by somebody else. (105)

Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

The Free Decision to Believe

Happily, during my time in Glenstal [Abbey], as later in Benedictine and Ignatian ashrams in India, the atheist too was a welcome stranger. How could one authentically choose theism if one was not familiar with the alternative of atheism? Or the agnostic space between? Indeed, in my first Christian doctrine classes at Glenstal I remember how liberated I felt when the monks had  us read cogent arguments against the existence of God–by Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Russell–before any talk of why God might exist! Atheism was not only tolerated, it was considered indispensable to any wager of faith. (xii)

I like to think of this book as a small intellectual agora where theists and atheists might engage in reasonable if robust debate, acknowledging the possibility of what I call an anatheist space where the free decision to believe or not believe is not just tolerated but cherished. If anatheism signals the possibility of God after God, it is because it allows for the alternative option of its impossibility. (xiv)

Kearney, Anatheism

Kearney only mentions Merton in passing in Anatheism as an exemplar of interreligious dialogue. But I am beginning to see some significant points of contact between Merton and Kearney that would be valuable to the development of the anatheist hermeneutic.