There are moments in my study of theology, especially at the current stage, when I lapse into silence, feeling that the complexity and mystery of God render our attempts to describe God – or even God’s will for our lives – ever-partial, tainted, and inadequate. At times I must recognize that God is simply beyond anything human words can express. But luckily for me (and for the future of my studies!), I’m not the first to come to this realization. In fact, there’s an entire strand of theology devoted to the profundity of God’s mystery. It’s called apophatic or negative theology.
When we think about theology (something Mennonites have a hard time with – usually we’re talking biblical studies or ethics!) we usually assume it’s comprised of all that we know about God, all that has been revealed about who God is, and therefore all the positive statements we can make about God – that God is our good Creator, became human in Jesus Christ, is Three-in-One, etc. Technically, all this is what’s called cataphatic or positive theology, the talk of what God is, and its corollary, its corresponding and often-neglected shadow-side, is negative theology, talk of what God is not. In this book, German theologian Dorothee Soelle describes negative theology as “a basic experience that language is too small, too narrow, too dusty, too unexpressive, and too misleading to give word to the mystic condition [of God’s presence]. How could God be named? By necessity, are not all names too small?” Attempts to describe God not only reveal the inadequacy of language for such a task, but also reveal an audacity that verges on idolatry, since they reduce God to human concepts. This is something, Soelle claims, that “Most mystics knew: whatever is said about the deity is untrue.”
But isn’t this an overstatement? How could our speech about God be “untrue”? Perhaps an example will help illustrate this statement. Think of the notion of God as “Father,” a fairly common affirmation within Christianity, appearing everywhere from the Lord’s Prayer to the classic doctrine of the Trinity as “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” So, is God actually our Father? Well, no, not in the literal sense of our biological fathers; God didn’t physically or sexually “father” us. And whatever faults our fathers have, God doesn’t share those. And the maleness of our fathers, God doesn’t share that, since the divine is beyond gender, and even beyond personhood. God is beyond whatever limited thing we think of when we hear the name “Father.” God is far too mysterious to be crammed tightly into this image. So no, God is not our Father. And yet many of us use that name for God, and find meaning in it, not because it’s literally true, but because it expresses and conveys to our human minds something of what God is like: God is loving and gentle, comforting and protective of us, and imparts wisdom to us, like a good father. But the warning of negative theology is that we should never make the mistake of reducing God to the analogy of fathering alone, of mistaking this or any other symbol for the utterly mysterious reality of the Divine. So paradoxically, God both is and is not our Father.
Many of us are probably somewhat uncomfortable with this sense of mystery. We live in a society that craves control and certainty; even our Mennonite emphasis on ethics is about what we can know and do. Negative theology takes us into a space without words, a space of letting go, a space of simply marvelling at God’s mystery – and we’re not used to this space of speechlessness and unknowing. But the tradition of negative theology is not about sinking us into a kind of agnosticism, leaving us unable to speak about God at all; the point of negative theology is to deepen and transform our sense of who God is, not to cut us off from God. Like positive theology, negative theology is one side of the coin, one arm of the paradoxes that we cannot avoid when attempting to describe and address the Divine. As Soelle puts it, “Apophatic and kataphatic tradition, the true and the insufficient, actually devour each other and remain interdependent.” In other words, positive and negative theologies provide balance for one another, as in the realization that God both is and is not our Father. This is something the image above gets at (found here).
One of my (and Soelle’s) favourite negative theologians is the thirteenth-century German mystic Meister Eckhart (see this book). He recognized this balance of the “via positiva” (literally the “positive way”) and the “via negativa” (the “negative way”), but he also revelled and lingered in the via negativa. Eckhart didn’t attempt to prematurely swallow up the mystery with the “via positiva” as we may tend to do. So I leave you with just some of his profound words about what God is not: “God is nothing. No thing. God is nothingness, and yet God is something. God is neither this thing nor that thing that we can express. God is a being beyond all being; God is a beingless being.” And again, “The ineffable One has no name. The naked God is without a name and is the denial of all names and has never been given a name and so remains a truly hidden God.” He said, “Love God as God is / a not-God, a not-mind, a not-person, a not-image.” And he even said, “I pray God to rid me of God. The highest and loftiest thing that one can let go of is to let go of God for the sake of God.”