Thursday, August 4, 2011

Apophatic Theology - by Clint

Vladimir Lossky - Great Orthodox Theologian

This is part one of this series. Normally, I leave out in-text citations from these blog posts. However, due to the density of this topic, I am going to leave them in this time. On the final installment, I will include a Works Cited page. This is my first major "struggle" with Lossky, so forgive my limited insight. However, I think it is a great topic, and I hope you learn from, and enjoy, this series.

Orthodox Christians strive to know God, yet in a way vastly different than western theology. Orthodoxy practices apophatic theology, or a theology of ignorance, where intellectual exercise is eschewed and a state of silence, or purity of prayer, is pursued (Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 13). “Human nature must undergo a change; it must be more and more transfigured by grace in the way of sanctification” (Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 18). This apophatic theology is a way in which the Christian opens his thought to a reality that goes beyond thought, a type of contemplation that is eschatological, utilizing the language of the “world which is coming” (Orthodox Theology 15). This form of theology is a personal relationship with God, a sort of reciprocity or communion. “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (NKJV; Hebrews 11:3). It is through faith that we are able to truly “think” about God. Not with our intellect, but by grace through faith, as an “ontological relationship between God and man” (Orthodox Theology 16).

As such, apophatic theology does not lead to human knowledge, based upon mental abilities or scholastic experience. Rather, it is an assimilation of “an unfathomable mystery…[looking] for a profound change, an inner transformation of the spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically” (Mystical Theology 8). This theology actually transcends knowledge, because God is transcendent, and it aspires to union with God, or theosis. That is the ultimate purpose of apophatic theology. Head knowledge is unhelpful, and even counter-productive, as intellectual concepts can become idols, distracting from true worship and union with God (Mystical Theology 33). Instead, one must begin with faith, trusting in God’s revelation of himself, and seek communion with Him. God is revealed through His Son by the Holy Spirit, and we must endeavor to be joined together with Him in contemplative silence. Human understanding is not capable of grasping knowledge of God, so we must move beyond the limits of our understanding and embrace our ignorance of the reality of God (Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, 13).

Apophatic theology is an “ascent towards the source of all manifesting energy” of God (ibid 16). This ascent is accomplished through inner contemplation and purification. It “demands the surmounting and arrest of thought” (Orthodox Theology 13), and is founded upon the Incarnation of the Word, since the immanence of the Incarnation reveals the transcendence of God (ibid 21). St. Clement of Alexandria presents an early form of apophatic theology by focusing upon first, a type of analysis, where one strips away all intelligible concepts of God, then moves into a second phase of throwing oneself upon the majesty of Christ, in order to move through holiness into the abyss, where one can know not “what He is, but what He is not.” He calls this final state “Sanctity,” where God is recognized through His revelation through the Son in the Holy Spirit (Image and Likeness 19-21). However, St. Clement’s apophatic theology is not mystical, and was refined by the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, who taught that Christians must move toward “cessation of speech and all thought, in order to celebrate by silence Him who cannot be known except by unknowing” (ibid 26). God is presented as both Unity and Trinity, yet is wholly unknowable to us as either. Human logic finds this conundrum impossible to solve, yet by faith, in silence, one may truly come to know God and have union with Him, because the “theologian in search of God…[will find that God] transcends the opposition between the transcendent and the immanent, since He is beyond all affirmation and negation” (ibid 29).

To be continued...


Joel said...

Looking forward to this and I have buckled my seat belt.

Ron Krumpos said...

Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.

(quoted from "the greatest achievement in life," my free ebook on comparative mysticism)