Apophaticism

transfigurationI noted with interest recently that newly-elected Metropolitan Jonah, of the OCA, first became aware of the Orthodox faith through reading Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. It is a very difficult volume. My interest was piqued because this book was also my first introduction to the Othodox faith. I suspect I still do not understand most of what I read. Lossky is best known and associated with writing on Apophatic Theology (apophatic, from the Greek, means “unspeakable”). Many of the greatest writers and Fathers in Orthodox theology held to the importance of an apophatic approach – that is – that we may come to know God best in a manner that is beyond speech. I have always liked Fr. Thomas Hopko’s aphorism: “It is impossible to know God – but you have to know Him to know that.” It states the mystery succinctly.

I would add another aphorism:

It is hard to be deluded when you don’t claim to know anything.

That’s not Hopko – it’s me. What many do not understand is that apophaticism is not an intellectual position, but is itself a way of life – the very heart of Orthodoxy. What seems difficult to most is the idea that declaring that we do not know is a way of knowing. Apophaticism is not agnosticism.

We behold God in a mystery and the mystery we behold is inherently unspeakable (if we truly behold Him).

None of this is to say that we do not preach the Gospel, nor share the good news of God in Christ. But it is a recognition that in our own lives we pursue God not through greater depths of rationality but in a manner that is itself “unspeakable.” Such an approach is begotten of humility and the recognition of both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves.

I have written most recently of the “soul as mystery.” This is not to deny that we may know other people but that to know them properly we must do so in “fear and wonder.” This is the language of love. We do not rightly seek to define the object of our love, but to be in communion. We love and with it language fails. Language fails not because of the lack of knowledge, but because the character of the knowledge we have through love is larger than words. Words may serve as icons – as windows towards the reality they seek to express – but they cannot contain nor fully comprehend that to which they point.

I think particularly of the hymn for the Feast of the Transfiguration:

Thou wast transfigured on the mount, O Christ God,
revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Thine everlasting Light shine upon us sinners,
through the prayers of the Theotokos.
O Giver of Light, glory to Thee!

“Revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they could bear it.” We can bear it more than words can say. But if insist on what words can say, we will bear little indeed.

35 comments:

  1. So true…Archimandrite Sophrony captures your idea in his book ‘On Prayer’:

    Page 22
    “In contemplating the holiness of God man develops more quickly than he does in his ability to conform his life to the commandments. Hence the impression that the distance between us and God continually increases. In the field of science every new discovery, not being final, shows up our previous ignorance and at the same time, as it were, enlarges the area of the UNKNOWN lying before us”

    And then on page 24:
    “Our way is the way of apophatic effort through self emptying -kneotic love – after the example of Christ who humbled himself and became obedient until death…and when our heart becomes pure then the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit come to dwell in us, and we are led into the kingdom which cannot be moved where infinite majesty merges with infinite humility and meekness.

    And these powerful words on page 25:
    Our self emptying means renouncing all that we hold dear on earth in fulfillment of the commandment, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross….For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
    —————————–
    Perhaps, we cannot know from Him until we give Him room by letting go of what we think we know in ourselves. I think this attitude ‘we know but a little’ can pay huge rewards in allowing God to reveal Himself. I also think the more deeply we realize how little we know the closer we are to learning from the true Teacher.

    Pride, especially intellectual and spiritual pride, is a barrier I can easily erect which seperates me from God….very often, this pride is a direct result of this belief “I know” instead of a sense of awe and wonder that only “He knows”.

  2. Father Bless!

    Thank you for sharing this. I started my exploration of Orthodoxy with Lossky’s book too. And believe it or not, apophaticism was the first (of many) terms and ideas I encountered that humbled and amazed me. The introduction of an apophatic approach freed me from the bondage of rationalism, reasoning, and the neuroticism required to “understand” everything about God. Now I am privileged to know and enjoy my Boundless God.

    Glory to Him!

  3. I still cannot comprehend how some people (3 that I’ve seen on here) found Orthodoxy with Lossky’s book. It is such a hard book to comprehend. I guess God brings in people from all different aspects. I came in with The Way of a Pilgrim.

  4. Moses, I suspect that what moved many who read Lossky’s book before becoming Orthodox was the sense of wonder that comes with encountering teaching that, while not easily comprehensible, is truly breathtaking. I think it is its apophatic quality that makes Lossky’s book so powerful even when hardly understood. I, too, realized that the Orthodox Church was something special after reading The Way of a Pilgrim. I can’t say it was the first Orthodox book I read, but it was the first that called this Church to my attention. Lossky’s book came to me close on the Pilgrim’s heels.

  5. Apophaticism demonstrates to me that ultimately it is impossible to comprehend what the Faith (and thus Orthodoxy) is about when approached as an onlooker. At some point, if one desires to draw closer to the Mysteries, one must take the plunge and BECOME. Ultimately this speaks of the truth our Faith as Mystery, which can never be reduced or comprehended (as neither does the Unoriginate). The Christian Faith is not about understanding, grasping or philosophizing. It is about communion and wholeness. This requires humility.

  6. One of the books that was instrumental for me was the ‘Orthodox Way’, which deals breifly with many subjects including apophaticism. This was a concept that was and still is intriuging. I still can not get through ‘Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church’. Maybe someday!

  7. While I do not believe I will be able (mentally) to read Lossky’s book any time soon, the idea of Apophatic Theology presented here (and I have come across this in my three years as an Orthodox Christian) is to my mind and heart a blessing, a relief and a refreshment. The idea of this is like a cool drink of water. Thank you! (And I found the Way of the Pilgrim very encouraging.)

  8. I read Lossky’s book but became Orthodox over 20 years later. It introduced me to Orthodoxy but the journey was a lot longer than that. Met. Jonah read the book and went to Orthodoxy – that does indeed amaze me.

  9. Father Bless!

    Thank you for this post. I have a lot to learn. My spiritual father once said the silence is deeply linked to prayer…

    For me the book that brought me to the door was the first page of Met. A. Bloom’s _Courage to Pray_ When I read this page, I knew right away that this was a book I had always been looking for…

  10. It is hard to be deluded when you don’t claim to know anything.

    This fact, is what makes leading people to the real teachings of Messiah, impossible for me(although, i don’t think its my calling). Its the scientific approach to theology that we have inherited from the reformation that has bruised the body. Rome has a lot to blame and the pride of man thinking his intellect is higher than that of the Divine!

    Father Seraphim Rose said in his time most converts(to Orthodoxy) where of high intellect. I find that to be somewhat true in my parish(excluding myself). What brought me to Orthodoxy was a simple letter of St. James and wanting to find,or hope to find followers that did not label this letter as non essential. I only found out later the mystery and mercy of God is more than we can even begin to understand!

    But if I was to go door to door,I would hand out “The Orthodox Way”…

  11. I want to thank Father Stephen and the authors of these illuminating comments. I struggled and my faith was like a leaf at the mercy of the wind because I, too, tried to “understand” Christianity on a purely rational level. My attempts resulted only in confusion. I’ve come to realize what a limited approach I took. I still must work to overcome this tendency, but now at least I’ve identified it.
    One of the books that most led me to this conclusion was “Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church”, by Demetrios Constantelos.Currently, I am a catechumen in an OCA church with several willing orthodox christians available to help.

  12. “We do not rightly seek to define the object of our love, but to be in communion.”

    I agree 100%, but could you explain why the above statement is true?

  13. It was about a 1 1/2 yrs after I read the book that I became Orthodox. In the meantime, I had a course about philosophers who tried to grabble onto the Who or the What that was behind this all.

    After Augustine, I suppose, who tried to grabble the problem with his intellect, to after the Reformation, for example Locke and Hume, things started to really distance it from God. To the doctrine of the communist manisfesto, where Darwin´s evolution of the species was applied to their doctrine that now man is the end of all things. Look what happened…the bloodiest century ever.

    I am glad I read that book.

  14. Seraphim

    It seems to me that this quote reflects the difference in “knowing about” versus “knowing.” Both approaches have limitations, but they are MY limitations, not the other’s. Another observation is that people should not be regarded as objects anyway. That is a huge limitation, which easily leads to misunderstanding and judgment.

    Taking all of this up to the level of God presents an even greater problem because He is so great.

    Enough of this small mind. May the mind of Christ be in you!

  15. As a young man in his twenties and a major in special education and history I can say the western view of God has lead us to see him as purely a rational idea of being saved. No wonder why most young people do not God to church. I too read the mystical theology of the eastern church and was hooked. I had read Augustine and Thomas and thought this men were the greatest till I learned about the Orthodox Church. Only if we could get rid of this need to know everything about God what kind of God is the one we can know everything about? I would think that God is a regular person not God. Too bad for the stuff that gets put down our throats in the west what rubbish.

  16. Joseph said:

    “Only if we could get rid of this need to know everything about God what kind of God is the one we can know everything about?”

    Although your point is well taken that we cannot know everything about God, it is important to point out that the apophatic theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church does not mean that knowledge, reason nor the intellect is discounted even one iota. In fact, in my experience, the apophatic approach (and the Orthodox life in general) has had the opposite effect: in its proper place the intellect along with science, discursive reasoning and the like, has been elevated beyond what I have ever experienced.

  17. I posted on my blog as part of a synchroblog on “arkness and light as motifs in spirituality”, and mentioned apophatic theology, and when this post appeared I linked to it.

    But one commenter on my blog asked if apophatic theology wasn’t similar to the Socratic method or deconstruction. My immediate response is to want to say, like Zen masters, “Mu”, but my second thought is to say that apophatic theology has nothing to do with any “method”, and that method, by definition, belongs to cataphatic theology.

    If anyone can think of any better responses, that would be helpful to the commenter, you are welcome to post them over on my blog.

  18. Indeed it is not a method – but rather a “way of existence.” Methods are all part of rational schemes, none of which are apophatic. But this is very hard to grasp. “Unknowably knowing” would be a closer description. Mu

  19. Yeah, but a poor analogy. In Orthodoxy, “I don’t know” is a positive statement, not a negative. The Western tradition tends to think “I don’t know” means nothing. Whereas, it’s own claims to “know” often mean nothing.

    Not to get too far bogged down in epistemology, but it is a significant issue. How do you know your wife or husband? How do you know your children? God knows it cannot be on the grounds of pure information.

  20. “In Orthodoxy, ‘I don’t know’ is a positive statement, not a negative.”

    Is it possible to explain this statement (for us who are epistemologically challenged)?

  21. I can’t speak for what Fr. Stephen meant or even if the way I heard it would be considered Orthodox. But I would say, in part, that we cannot know what we know until we recognize what we don’t know or even what we can’t know.

    What I have heard of the apophatic approach is truly more positive than often seems to be recognized. For instance, we say ‘God is love’ that is certainly a true statement. Holy Scripture says it plainly. But we have only to reflect on the Cross for a short period of time before we begin to realize that we don’t really even know what love is. And so God is not any of the sort of love we know and understand and so in that sense, he is not love. He transcends all that we currently know of love.

    But as we look at Jesus and at others who have followed him, and as we try to do as others do as they follow or have followed Jesus, we will know the love of God more. And in that knowing we will begin to understand more.

  22. “We behold God in a mystery and the mystery we behold is inherently unspeakable (if we truly behold Him)”. – Fr. Stephen Freeman

    Exclusive Apophaticism is a very subtle form of atheism that COMPLETELY depersonalizes God to an impersonal, unfathomable, formless ‘light’ in the same way the Advaita Vedantists do making it no surprise at all that the absence of God is such a problematic phenomenon in this religion because this is precisely what Apophaticism elicits by negating God to the point of ‘no-thing’. The irony here is kind of funny when you think about it because the very doctrine itself conveys with words that which is ‘inherently unspeakable’. It seems then that Orthodoxy has a lot to say about nothing.

  23. Tony Sova,
    The key difference is that this Light is a Person, and He (this Light – John 8:12) is experienced outright ‘personally’. In addition this unapproachable Light is not merely a light of our mind in its meta-rational noetic functions – having escaped the forms of this world-, but a personal encounter of the utterly transcendent One coming to meet and embrace us, a stumbling upon another Person in which we behold this Person as Light, Who beholds us and yet we have no words to communicate this to another human that will not corrupt this experience of communion with the Uncreated Lover and God of our being… We therefore come to know the Unknowable and to also know His infinity as a never ending “unknowability” (which we do however know). And the fruits of this communion are deification and “unkowabilitization” of our own selves too…!
    Furthermore, our entire experience of the Cosmos changes after this encounter and we see from another angle. I believe F. Dimitru Staniloae’s words are also applicable here and help:

    This is true. But it is also true that once someone has this experience, all things become proofs for the existence and activity of God. The eyes of one who believes open up and they see God in all things. Then to believe becomes something that is totally rational and not to believe, something irrational. But through reason one does not experience God in his inner reality but only in his capacity as casue. Even in our reason, on the other hand, –if it is not perverted by sin – there exists a capacity of seeing God as cause. For our reason has as its ultimate support the reason of a Personal reality who created it.

  24. Dino, says it well. Question: is there a linear ratio between less sin/ more God or is it geometric with an upper limit of how much we can handle?

    Or does more God always equal more awareness of our own sin?

  25. Michael,
    what we see in all the saints as they approach God more is not just an increased sense of sinfulness, which goes without saying, but, even more so perhaps, an increased sense of having been the recipients of great and inconceivably unwarranted mercies. Their humility is like that of a tree which is so full of fruit that it stoops below all others.

  26. “Their humility is like that of a tree which is so full of fruit that it stoops below all others.”

    I like that a lot. Thanks, Dino!

  27. Dino, thank you brother. The phrase that resonates with me is “recipients of great and inconceivably unwarranted mercies”

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