John and the apophatic way

Saint John of the Cross, whose feast is tomorrow, is sometimes described as a practitioner of apophatic theology and an exemplar of apophatic spirituality. This is not necessarily a helpful description to the novice, who may not know what apophatic means.

So, first a definition is in order:

Apophatic: Of or relating to the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what He is not (such as ‘God is unknowable.’)

As for Apophatic spirituality, here is Gerald May in Care of Mind/Care of Spirit

“[T]wo different basic approaches to spirituality need to be clarified. In all traditions there is a way of viewing spirituality that emphasizes the importance of images, symbols, and sensations. This kind of spirituality, classically known as kataphatic, has always been the most popular. In it one seeks deeper realization of God through visions, feelings, imagery, words, and other sensate or symbolic forms of experience.

The second way emphasizes the truth of God that lies behind, beyond, or hidden within all sensory or intellectual representations. This is known as the apophatic way. Evangelical and charismatic Christianity, popular Hinduism, and much of Tantric Buddhism represent markedly kataphatic spiritualities. At the other extreme, one might find the Christian mysticism of John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart, the silence of Quaker Meeting, and the emptiness of Zen Buddhism, which are distinctly apophatic spiritualities.

In nearly all traditions one will find elements of both apophatic and kataphatic approaches, overlapping, but with one of the two in dominance.”

While apophatic thought dates as least to Pseudo-Dionysius in the sixth century, it is, as Clifton Healy has argued, quoting various academic heavyweights, suited to the postmodern temperament:

“Apophatic theology, like poststructural notions of text, demonstrates a radical skepticism regarding metaphor, and it holds that nay truth claims relying on metaphor as a vehicle are, at best, provisional. The reader looking for truth . . . Should not confuse metaphor, iconography, symbolism, liturgy, and the like with the ineffable mystery they attempt to signify. (Zornado 1992:118)

“Winquist echoes:

The work of theology has usually been a web of meaningful connections and saying what can be said about the relationship of common events and foundational principles. What could not be said, the surplus of meaning in even the most rationalistic theologies, fell into spaces of silence within and between systems and thereby constituted a presence that is an absence, a mystery and shadow for theological understanding.

If we are to initiate a new excavation, it must choose as its terrain the silences of experience, those suspicious areas of unintelligibility that have haunted the theological achievements of past enlightenments. (1986:32).

Zornado adds: “Apophatic thought provides a kind of key to those moments of silence, not that we might fill them in but rather that we might more fully experience the gaps between vehicle and tenor, between signifier and signified, as a silence related to that which contemplative monks desire” (1992:119).”

“Theology,” Healy adds, “is expressed in fallen language. Philosophy can never attain complete knowledge. Therefore when it comes to God-talk, reverence and humility seem the safest attitudes. Theology needs always to be in encounter with the unsaid, even if only to contradict/correct the said. God is necessarily larger than our understanding of him–and certainly of our ability to speak accurately of him.”

For me, the reverence and humility that Healy speaks of require that we not make an idol of our own imperfect understanding of God.

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