Okay, so DAY TWELVE’s material kinda gave me fits. Because I like to know what words mean and where they come from and how their use morphs over time. And there’s this word that kept popping up in DAY TWELVE’s material, and that word is apophatic.
I recall my Greek
(me *yelling*: my greek! hey, you! greek who belongs to me! i’m recalling you! get back here!)
*ahem* (I have no Greeks.)
I recall my Greek enough to remember that apo– means off, away from. But what’s this –phatic part? I won’t walk you through all of my research, but by consulting various paper and offline English-Greek dictionaries, Strong’s numbers, and Wiktionary, I finally came up with this, and I’m 95% sure it’s accurate:
apo- + (-phatic)
= (ἀπό) + (φάσις from φημί = “I speak”)
= (off, away from) + (information, knowledge)
So this word apophatic, which keeps popping up in today’s material, is a word connoting a movement away from knowledge. A “Speaking-Away-from-Knowledge” Knowing. It’s called the “Apophatic Tradition” and is also known as “Negative Theology.”
Negative Theology critiques superstition and critiques the concept of God as a being. It’s a theology that moves us away from speaking the “knowledge” we have gained about “God.” Instead, we speak in the “negative.” In the a/theistic manner, we speak of what we don’t know.
This away-from-knowing is the tradition of the mystics from the 4th-14th centuries. Please note that these mystics are not four-armed, lumbering creatures that chant in deep booming voices and try to reunite with their skeletal bird counterparts. These mystics are people who valued deep contemplation (THAT AND COFFEE, FLO) and believed that we can’t get to the essence of spiritual concepts by using our intellect.
In his overview of this coming week’s material, Dr. Rollins says that Negative Theology is basically “Anthony Flew on steroids.” The mystics weren’t criticizing the atheists who came after them; instead the mystics say to the atheists, “Yes to your criticisms, AND….” The mystics reject any concept that claims to grasp the meaning of the word “God” — both theistic and atheistic claims.
Rollins identifies four outworkings of the idea that “God” cannot be conceived of:
- A spiritual person is simply someone who orients themselves toward That Which Is Other Than, that which is irreducible to pure matter. This isn’t a necessarily theistic position.
- The mystics keep themselves open to the experiences that short-circuit us, the stuff that overwhelms us like trauma. The mystics are into the intangible, that which has an essence of too-much-ness. We don’t experience life; instead, life opens us up to experience. Being “born again” doesn’t mean experiencing (re-)birth; instead, being “born again” opens us up to experiencing life in its depth.
- Rollins emphasizes Anselm of Canterbury, who posits that however great we imagine “God” to be, God is always greater than that. This is a type of theopoetics, the birth of an iconic language that praises instead of trying to nail down specifics. In other words, the apophatic tradition lets us abandon the “this is what God is like, so xyz is how you should behave” and instead draws us into something we can’t hold onto, helps us stay open to the dimension of other in our daily lives.
- Many mystics turn to love over belief: giving up all attempts to conceptualize God and turning to love as a way of being in the world.
According to the mystics, trying to put together and maintain any concept of God is idolatry.
I feel good about all of this.