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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Post-Holocaust Consciousness in Theology

A section from a paper I currently working on. It is still in the works, so keep in mind my thoughts are incomplete on this.

Kearney’s third chapter subtitle, “After Auschwitz who can say God?” gives us a more concrete vantage point from which to look at Kearney’s interest in the question of speaking of God. Jewish scholar and rabbi Eugene Borowitz observes that while Christianity wrestled with the philosophical pronouncement of the death of God in the 20th century, Judaism was not phased by this realization that “empiricist-oriented philosophers found it difficult to speak meaningfully about a nonempirical God.”[1] However, while Judaism seemed to avert the questions posed by the death of God philosophers and theologians, the Holocaust became the foremost challenge to Jewish thought. Emil Fackenheim saw the Holocaust as a veritable “radical rupture in history––and that among things ruptured may be not just this or that way of philosophical or theological thinking but thought itself.”[2] Fackenheim expands his theory of rupture by stating it is not merely a rupture of a particular religion or ethnicity, i.e. Judaism and the Jewish people, but of the very rupture of what it means to be human. Borowitz adds that the Holocaust “radically throws into doubt the Jewish people’s very Covenant with God and the way of life it authorizes––and by extension it also threatens the covenant between God and all humankind, the children of Noah.”[3]

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The God Who May Be – Pt 4

The God Who May Be – A Via Tertia (third way)

In contrast to the radically transcendent theologies of negative theology and mystical postmodernism, Kearney proposes his interpretation of God as the One who is not nor is, but may-be. Onto-theology and negative theology, that is, a theology of God as Being and a theology of God as non-being, are the two extremes that Kearney wants to avoid.

Kearney mentions that Philo’s translation of Exodus 3.14 is particularly important for in it “he insisted that God here reveals not his content (whatness-essence) but only that he exists…” (35) He then details Meister Eckhart’s commentary on Exodus 3.14 which postulates a God who is distant, yet present. This was a very muddy section for me, so I can’t really comment too much on it. Unfortunately this is where Kearney’s poetic writing style gets in the way of clarity (and for the most part, I really enjoy Kearney’s style and find it easier to understand that some other authors…this section being the exception).

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Thinking about the God who may be.

Kearney’s work The God Who May Be proposes a uniquely interdisciplinary approach to speaking about God. How might one describe his philosophical vision?

Kearney explains a few different pseudonyms for his philosophy of religion:


One of the terms Kearney suggests as a descripive term for his philosophical undertaking is metaxology. He defines metaxology as a “determination to choose a middle way (Greek, metaxy) between the extremes of absolutism and relativism.” (6)


Mi-lieu can be translated from the French as literally meaning middle place. For Kearney, his position is precisely in this middle place between the two absolutist positions in speaking of God. He philosophical work is an attempt to work out an alternative to “(a) the hyper-ascendant deity of mystical or negative theology; and (b) the consigning of the sacred to the domain of abyssal abjection.” (7) These two positions both result in being unable to think, speak, or imagine God.

Characteristics of “the hyper-ascendant deity of mystical or negative theology.”
  • God is extremely above everything.
  • God is beyond being.
  • No interpretation of God is possible, whether it is by symbols, imagination, narrative, metaphor, or allegory.
  • God is unnameable, incomprehensible, unrepresentable.
  • If human language is used to talk about God, it will fall short, and will in the end be idolatorous.
  • Rejects “any mediating role for narrative imagination.” (7)
Characteristisc of the deity of “abyssal abjection.”
  • God is beneath the use of language and symbolism.
  • God is unnameable, incomprehensible, unrepresentable.
  • Rejects “any mediating role for narrative imagination.” (7)

Both positions reject mediation between God (in name and essence) and the human person (mind, experience, etc.). The alternative that Kearney is seeking is the ability to speak about God again, to “engage just such a mediating function.”


Metaphorology is defined by Kearney as the use of religious language “to say something (however hestitant and provisional) about the unsayable.” In is interesting to note that Kearney still sails near the shoals of the apophatic contention of the inadequacy of language to speak about God. However, what differentiates Kearney’s metaphorology from apophaticism is that he is suggesting we can say something rather than nothing.

Metaphorology suggests the possibility of reading texts in new ways that create a “surplus of meaning.” As an example, Kearney explains how Paul Ricoeur suggested that reading the Song of Songs in conversation (interanimation) with other religious texts can help us to, even slightly, have some understanding of the desirous God. In other words, retrieving the literal translation of the word meta-phor, Kearney suggests that the art of reading religious texts in such a way becomes a process of transferring, transitting, or carrying across meaning across different texts so as to gain a more robust vision of God.

Metaphor, in Platonic thought, suggests a “vertical transfer from the sensible to the intelligble and from the human to the divine.” That is, metaphoric meanings are gained through an ascent to the pure thoughts about the Divine, the abstract, the spiritual. Kearney, on the other hand, seeks to create meaning on a two-way street: reading the Song of Songs in conversation with the broader Old Testament suggests a metaphor of God’s love for his people Israel. Traversing the boundary of the Old Testament (and the Old Covenant) into the New Testament (and New Covenant), one comes to recognize Christ and the Church in the Song of Songs. Or, if one converses with their own (or others’) day-to-day experience, they will see the meaning of intense nuptial love that is so powerful, the author of the Song of Songs must explain the erotic in terms of landscapes.

Quoting Ricoeur, it is “the mark of the ‘power of love to be able to move in both senses along the ascending and descending spiral of metaphor, allowing in this way for every level of the emotional investment of love to signify, to intersignify every other level.” (Ricouer, Nuptial Metaphor)

To simplify, Kearney appears to be contending, with Ricoeur’s help, that it is not that texts are always metaphors for the Divine and that it is the Divine that gives meaning to those texts. Rather, those texts can be given meaning by their human interpreters, by other texts, by human experience, and by the Divine. The Divine can also be given deeper meaning from all of these dimensions as well. There is a great deal of interplay, of the transfer of meanings from one level to another, occuring in the hermeneutical activity then. This doesn’t result in a heirarchy of meanings, but a mutual ‘fleshing’ out of the meaning–cooperation, participation in each dimension’s possible meaning.

Metaphorology, then, when speaking about God, must balance itself between the kataphatic and apophatic ways. The danger for the apophatic way is that it transcends God so far beyond all being that “there is no way back to the flesh of the face;” God is but a floating no-thing out there, in there, somewhere, no-where. Kearney, as will be discussed later, is deeply sacramental and reliant on the idea of incarnation of the Divine in the everyday ‘epiphanies’ of each moment, each relationship, each interaction.

However, the kataphatic way, which says that we can say something about God all too often reduces talk about God to “foundationalist propositions.” Mystery is jettisoned. God becomes held in our hand. It often appears in theology as God becoming some sort of supreme Being. The reef of idolatry quitely lurks beneath the kataphatic, and if one is not careful, they could find themselves in a wreck sinking to the bottom of making God in one’s own image.


“God neither is nor is not but may be,” writes Kearney. This is the basic thesis of his mi-lieu, his middle way. God is not Being. God is not Non-Being. God is “the possibility-to-be.” (8) This possibility-to-be Kearney calls onto-eschatology meaning that the eschaton (the fullness of time, the coming together of all things, the ultimate destiny of the human race, the world to come) meets the “finite order of being” (what you see before you, what you experience inside of you as a human being, what you experience between yourself and other beings).

It is here that we encounter the nuptial nexus where divine and human desires overlap. (8)

Within this intersection between the infinite and the finite, “narratives flourish and abound. It is a place where stories, songs, parables, and prophecies resound as human imaginations try to sy the unsayble and think the unthinkable.” (8)

Onto-eschatology, then, is the experience of recognizing the incomprehensibility of God, but that it is remains possible to say tenative and preliminary things about the Divine through the narrative imagination. Onto-eschatology is not simply dry, theological and philosophical drivel, but the creative application of human art, literature, poetry, conversation, discussion, argument, drama to attempt, ever so slightly, to speak the unspeakable.