Yes. And we can change the word “God” to almost anything else. There is a seemingly impenetrable wall of ignorance between us and whatever we confront. And it is precisely at the point of ignorance that the mischief begins.
The point of ignorance, which should provide a signal to stop, frequently becomes a green light for intellectual nonsense: “Since we can’t really know, we can just make it up!” I recall encountering this argument in the 70’s when fellow seminarians were advocating naming God as “She,” “He/She,” and other even less euphonious iterations. If God transcends gender, then why not call God whatever is most useful?
Christian theology, particularly in the East, has long championed the use of an “apophatic” approach to theology. The word “apophatic” literally means, “what cannot be spoken.” It is a recognition that “what cannot be spoken” is not the same thing as “what cannot be known.” Apophaticism is a mystical approach to theology (and even to the world), in which participation becomes the primary means of cognition. We come to know something or someone because we have a share in its existence. Rationality is not dismissed, but is made to serve the primary life of participation.
One of my favorite apophatic statements comes from Fr. Thomas Hopko: “You cannot know God. But you have to know Him to know that.” Just this sort of “brain-teaser” is typical of apophaticism. We “unknowingly know” God. God “causelessly causes.” Classical theology is filled with such statements – some so familiar by now that we forget just how reasonably impossible they are. Mary is a “Virgin Mother.” Christ is both “God and man.” “God became man so that man could become God.” When such phrases cease to bring us up short and stagger our reasoning, then they have lost something of their original force. I do not think this to be the fault of language so much as our habit of assuming that we actually understand what is familiar.
Language has undergone a radical shift in the last century. Marxist dialectic, which imposed a theory of conflicting forces as the model for understanding history, has passed into mainstream usage, largely stripped of its association with a somewhat discredited political system. Marx saw the world in terms he had borrowed from the philosopher Hegel: Thesis:Antithesis:Synthesis. Thus he theorized that history had “progressed” from Primitive Communism (common ownership of property) to a system of Slavery to Feudalism to Capitalism, now being replaced with new Communism (I have greatly simplified the complexities of his analysis). The movement of history was “progressive,” each new economic form throwing off the oppression of earlier forms. At the heart of the dialectical analysis was conflict.
In popular terms, this analysis has become commonplace when applied to certain social issues. Thus various “liberations” mark the forward movement of history. The enslavement of Africans, the oppression of women, the castigation of homosexuals, etc., are being swept away by a progression of liberations. This dialectical analysis has focused great attention on language. Thus, getting various terms correct is often equated with liberation itself. In America, mainstream Divinity Schools regularly insist that “inclusive” language be used when referring to God (God Godself, He/She, etc.). I have doggedly refused to adopt even more benign forms of political correctness, continuing to use “man” as a generic term rather than “humanity,” etc. As such, I assume my writing might seem somewhat antique. Just so.
And though this article is ostensibly directed towards apophatic language, this digression to examine dialectical language is important. For the dialectical use of language carries with it a theory of history and of knowledge. It is also the reigning form of popular language, controlling speech in academic circles and news cycles, being able to reduce otherwise kindhearted persons to puddles of apologies for a single slip of the tongue (if they are allowed to apologize).
The dialectical analysis of history enjoys great popularity perhaps because it is so simple. Very little knowledge of historical detail is required in order to know that slavery is wrong and that it was good that it was abolished. Nor does it take a historical genius to postulate that slavery and racism have had lasting effects into the present. But the reality (far more apophatic than dialectic) is that the simplification of history not only does an injustice to reality, it creates perhaps more problems than it purports to solve. The apparent intractability of certain forms of poverty is often deepened by the substitution of slogan-driven political action where a dispassionate analysis would yield a genuine solution. History is not, in fact, best described by the conflict theories of dialectical analysis. Nothing is that simple. A wrinkle added by such dialectical theories is the introduction of conflict into all situations. Thus, conversation about gender issues or sexual morality becomes highly charged with recrimination and assumptions of ill-will. In such a setting, people are not only judged to be wrong – but to be evil. To be on the wrong side of history in a dialectical model, is to be the enemy.
There is a power hidden within dialectical rhetoric. It subjects every statement with an element of suspicion. “Are you still beating your wife?” has now become, “Are you still oppressing women?” Misogyny is real. Racial hatred is real. The world has always been filled with sin. But an accurate account of history is not a progressive march from sin to liberation. We travel from sin to sin. One social ill may be treated but then another rises – sometimes as collateral damage from the treatment itself.
Apophaticism understands that the world presents itself as opaque. What we see is never all there is. Human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made. God is neither obvious nor transparent. It is with this in mind that we stop before what cannot be spoken (and ideally before all speech). What cannot be known directly is not therefore unknown to us. The way of participation is by far the most common form of knowledge. The entire ethos of any given culture, the grammar of every language, and the vast majority of all activities in which we engage are known not because we think about them, but because we have a share in their life. Our days would be unbearable were this not the most common form of knowledge.
But for things that are new, or which present larger difficulties, we often refuse the patience and endurance required to pierce through the veil and insist upon the power of rational analysis. Those things that fail to admit to rational analysis are often labeled “unknowable” or “theoretical” in an absolute sense. Then the vultures of political correctness or demagoguery swoop in to have a go at things.
Knowing God is a far greater mystery than a foreign language. And yet we recognize that languages can be learned, with patience and steady effort. There is a moment for learners of language in which things seem to come together. Oddly, such a moment can come in a night’s sleep. What seemed impossible one day seems easy the next. It is as though there were a “switch” in the brain. No one can create the switch or force it. But with time it will come. Language is not foreign to us – it is human. And though God is utterly unlike anything, such that He transcends every category, even being itself, nevertheless we are told that we are created “in His image.” Theology (“speaking of God”) is not foreign to us – human beings not only speak of the transcendent, we are driven to speak of it. The human recognition of limits is not only an understanding of what we are not and what we do not know, but the intuition that what we are not is Other, and that what we do not know beckons us still further.
The Orthodox practice in the face of transcendence is to pray. Worship is not at all the same thing as rational inquiry – but it is a means of knowing. What cannot be pierced with logic can be shared in worship. This is the preferred meaning of the word “Orthodox” – “right glory” – “right worship.” To the disciple who does not know,