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Apophatic Theology: the Apologia of Last Resort

Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connor’s, not Karen Armstrong’s.
© Ross Douthat, New York Times Sunday Book Review, Oct. 1, 2009

I learned a new word today—”apophatic”—as in “apophatic theology,” also known as “Negative theology” or “Via Negativa” (Latin for “Negative Way”). Apophatic theology is yet another attempt to explore the meaning of God, in this case, by negation—to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the arcane being that believers call God. At first blush this doesn’t seem like too bad an idea, since all previous attempts to explain God by telling us what He is and how He does operate leads most intelligent people to roll their eyes in disbelief at the twisted logic in which the explainers engage.

Apophaticism stands in contrast with plain-vanilla, regular theology, called “Cataphatic theology” (another new word for me). Cataphatic theology, which is in accord with more conventional definitions that describe the attributes of things, or what may be said about them, usually tells us all about God: His omnipotence, His omniscience, and His benevolence, among other things.

I learned these words in reading about Karen Armstrong’s recent book, The Case for God, the latest of at least eight previous books she has written with the word “God” or the name of a god (“Mohammed,” “Jesus,” “Buddha”) in the title. Do not underestimate or be misled about her prolificacy by the number “eight,” since that is only the number of books that contain the word “God” in the title; there are actually over a dozen more on the subject that do not locate the word there but probably make up for it elsewhere in the millions of words on the theme that she has written and that I have not read.

In The Case for God she accomplishes a near miracle in writing over four hundred pages to tell us what may not be said about God, which reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George proposes to Jerry that they write a television series about “nothing.”

Nevertheless, Karen Armstrong has built an illustrious career on writing all about God and religion. A former nun, teacher, and author of dozens of publications on the subject of theology, she is enormously successful and well-known for her expertise on God, religion, belief, and the Bible. Her latest book caps this glorious achievement by making a case for apophaticism, a viewpoint that may have begun with the early Greek philosophers (doesn’t it always?), possibly Plotinus. (It is also found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, so can it be all that bad?)

A random Google search for the word “apophaticism” led me to some fascinating claims, such as “It is impossible to know God—but you have to know Him to know that,” from someone called “Father Stephen.” Another said, “We behold God in a mystery and the mystery we behold is inherently unspeakable (if we truly behold Him).” A Humorous comment attributed to George Orwell (but one that was probably uttered in the context of politics rather than religion) says, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

Now, I’m not attempting to brag, but I swear that I always knew about apophaticism … I just didn’t know what to call it. It usually reared its ugly head during friendly discussions of my atheism with some Christian apologist (after thinking I had pinned him or her to the wall with the logic of Epicurus). At those times, immediately after my friend would mumble that “we simply cannot understand God’s mysterious ways,” I would experience the vague sensation of having been bamboozled. It was then, although I did not recognize it, that I was receiving my naive introduction to apophaticism.

Let’s accept that it is true that we cannot understand God’s mysterious ways and therefore that we cannot cavil against His destruction of everyone but Noah, his family, and his pets, and still call Him benevolent. Let’s concede that we are incapable of comprehending how disease, war and natural disasters like tsunamis can wipe out millions of people because of humans’ inability to control them, although God could but doesn’t, despite being omnipotent.

The apophacist’s answer to these objections is that we cannot describe God as “benevolent” or “omnipotent” or anything else because we must limit our discussion to that which He is not. We mortals, especially we atheists, (according to apophatic theology) must avoid any effort at discussing what God is, because He is ineffable. (Now there’s a word I have known for a long time—actually ever since I took Philosophy 101—but have always avoided using in polite conversation because I was afraid of using it in the wrong context, and worse, someone would call on me to define it.)

According to my Merriam Webster’s, the meaning of “ineffable” is clear enough; it means “incapable of being expressed in words,” or “unable to be described.” The reasons why something may be unable to be described are various; they may range from being forbidden or illegal to describe it, all the way to incomprehensibility of its essence—such as God, for example—but in every definition the impossibility of the description is always implied or explicitly stated. Don’t think you can get away with using “ineffable” in waxing poetic about the taste of chocolate mocha latte. “I had a chocolate mocha latte this morning and it was ineffable” will only elicit smirks and sneers from philosophers and gourmands because there is nothing mysterious here that cannot be compared with other delicious tastes we have experienced. No, the use of “ineffable” should be restricted to phenomena that have no comparative basis, such as, for example, how the universe began.

But I digress … although perhaps not too far, because “apophatic,” “ineffable,” “oxymoronic,” and other limitations on human cognitive capacities, are all related in the sense that they tell us what we cannot do. In fact, that which we cannot do is “infinite,” another word, along with the three aforementioned, that lets us know that there are limits to the ability of the human intellect to apprehend the cosmos in which it resides. But the limitations cannot take away from the fact that human intelligence is generally considered to be the crowning achievement of the evolutionary process and should be esteemed for its potential rather than dismissed as a source of theological obstruction.

In a sense, Armstrong is writing about, and displaying, the most extreme form of anti-intellectualism—by which I do not mean a school of thought which has been variously described as a reaction against elitism, literary specialization, or a nineteenth-century attitude—but rather a disparagement of the use of the human brain for understanding. For someone who has written so exhaustively and with such complexity, there seems to be a contradiction there. I believe, as do many scientists, that the essence of homo sapiens truly resides in its definition of “man the wise,” (which includes women, of course) in that the evolutionary trend has been toward an increasing ability of the mammalian brain to understand the universe that surrounds it, while it (the brain) also is a part of it (the environment). A prominent example of this capacity is the use of written language, even if semantics and linguistics are sometimes used to self-invalidate. To advocate apophacy is, for some theologians—and especially apologists for the Christian God—a desperate, last-ditch attempt to salvage the remains of the ludicrous religion they have created, now saying that we cannot talk about God except to say what He is not.

To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I know thee? Do not let me count the ways. Forget about depth and breadth and height of soul. Just let me list all the infinite things you are not.”

It seems to me that religion and conceptions of God have evolved from a simplistic fable about snakes that walk and converse with naked neophytes in a garden created by a Jewish ghost, to increasingly more imaginative and clever versions of the early literary output of primitive nomads. This trend paralleled the development of the human scientific movement and substituted ever more seemingly plausible interpretations (apologias) of the stories in order to be consistent with the advancement of human knowledge (read science). The Seven Days of Genesis became “eras” or “epochs”; the “light” of “Let there be …” became the background radiation of the Big Bang; apologists devised all manner of convoluted explanations for events that could not reasonably have occurred. When it no longer became possible to retain major portions of the phantasmagoria because no one but the most ignorant would buy them, along came Karen Armstrong invoking an ancient philosophical tradition to inform us that the real way to pursue God is not to try to describe, define, or explain Him, but rather to recognize that we can never hope to do any better than to affirm what He is not.