Apophatic Theology: Thoughts from Fr. Thomas Hopko
In recent blog discussions between Tripp, Clifton, and in this discussion over at Kevin's blog, I have noticed a common theme cropping up about the nature of knowledge, specifically in regards to the essence of God and the Church.
There seems to be a popular sentiment running through many Christian circles saying that *all* of our words, concepts, "institutions," and such are only mere approximations. They do not really explain or get to the heart of what we are trying to describe or experience. Thus, they feel justified in jettisoning (or at least tweaking) traditional teachings, churches, practices etc. Having juiced up traditional apophatic theology with a bit of postmodern deconstructionism, this way of thinking runs dangerously close to moving from a proper apophatic vision grounded in revelation, to nihilism and despair.
For example this comment was recently made by someone over at Kevin's blog:
"What you deem as 'traditional Christianity' is what I define as man's foiled attempts to understand, 'bottle', define and package God.
"It's ludicrous to think that we, with our finite minds, will ever, truly know God until we stand before Him."
Father Thomas Hopko wrote an interesting essay a few years back about the nature of apophatic theology that might be helpful in these discussions. In the essay, he responds to critics who claim he usurped the boundaries of apophaticism in a previous essay. He summarizes their arguments when he writes, "They [words] are rather the confession and expression of limited human experience of the divine and are psychologically, socially, subjectively and culturally determined....in different times and places men speak differently about God."
This sounds like what I've been hearing. And of course this is true, as far as it goes. No one is about to deny the fact that all human language is fundamentally *shaped* by culture. The difference is that the Orthodox do not accept that all words and concepts are fundamentally *corrupted* by culture. Fr. Hopko explains,
"Apophaticism in theology is not the same as total ignorance. It is not the claim that we know nothing whatsoever of God, in reference to whom our human expressions are ultimately meaningless and useless. It is rather a way--the traditional Orthodox Christian way--of knowing God: of knowing and affirming the fact that the God who reveals himself in creation and in the dispensation of salvation in his Word and Spirit is ultimately beyond creaturely comprehension."
It wasn't until I encountered Orthodox theology, specifically the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas that I started to see the paradox we must uphold. In St. Gregory's teachings, we see that God is made known to His creatures by means of His energies but will never be known in His essence. Yet, His energies communicate, in ways we can understand and experience, His essence!
One of the hymns for the Feast of the Transfiguration says "Thou wast transfigured on the mount. 0 Christ God, revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as they could bear it. Let Thine everlasting light shine upon us sinners. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to Thee."
We can know God "as far as we can bear it" through his energies. Thus the Orthodox teaching is that, while sin breaks our communion with God, we can (through repentance, the sacraments, and prayer) have true "gnosis" of God that is not limited to words, concepts et al. These tools neither limit our knowledge, nor comprise it--they are signposts along the way. That is a fine distinction, but a critical one. Falling to either side (prideful scholasticism or sophistic relativism) results in heresy and ironically *both* end up "putting God in a box." Later in the essay, Fr. Hopko writes back against his relativist critics when he says,
"All too often the apophatic way is wrongly understood to be the denial of any real knowledge of God at all, with the corresponding denial (often parading under the guise of self-deprecating humility) that our theological words and concepts have any meaning at all. Such a denial is in fact a denial of divine revelation and of theology itself."
One of the chasms between the Orthodox and the west is the different understandings of just what "theology" even is (I'll post about that soon). Simply put, for the Orthodox theology is the actual experience and mystical union of God with his creature. In fact, the Greek word for "knowledge" when used in the Bible always carried with it a "nuptial" connotation. Knowledge is not information about something or someone--it is intimate experience and union with said object or Person.
Fr. Hopko concludes by raising an important question. He says, "If there are indeed no "words adequate to God"--to the extent that any human expressions are adequate to the divine reality--then we humans are left ignorantly wallowing in the subjectively created imaginations of our own invention."
If it is true that our words, concepts and even churches are, as my friend Tripp has said, "all straw" then here are a few questions for them to answer:
How do I know that is true, since even the words employed to say words are useless are bound by culture and subjectivity? In other words, why should I believe you when you say that the truth of God and his Church is fundamentally unknowable, or at least so ambiguous that we can't know anything for sure? How can I know you are speaking truth if every tool by which I could determine the truth of your statement is "all straw?" If you call yourself a Christian, how can you *know* that your creed, church, beliefs are true if the words, histories and concepts used to communicate them are fundamentally flawed?