In the contemporary Western church today there is a great emphasis in the cataphatic theology of God. Many modern songs used in church make bold declarations of who God is, and some of the modern charismatic responsive statements are the same, for example when the leader proclaims ‘God is good’ a common response is ‘all the time, and all the time God is good’. On the surface this may not seem like a bad thing, but creating a solely positive concept of God in such a way can, in fact, have a negative influence upon the church, both as individuals and as a collective.
It can limit the God which is taught and which people worship and believe in; it can ultimately detract from the ineffability of God; and subsequently create restricted concepts of God which end up becoming people’s God. Numerous people from Christian heritage have taught what is known as Apophatic theology. Meister Eckhart, a Dominican friar who died in the 14th century, described by Christian scholar Bernard McGinn as ‘essentially an apophatic exegete’ , might aid the contemporary Christian understanding of God.
Cataphatic theology is the means of discovering or describing God by what he is, contrarywise apophatic theology defines God according to what God is not. Apophasis is a systematic and progressive removal, or stripping away, of each and every concept we have about God in the understanding that they are all inadequate.
Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican friar, says ‘Having proved the existence of a First Being, which we call God, we have now to examine His nature, i.e. – to enquire into the properties of this Being’ He goes on to describe how when scientists or biologists discover something new, a new plant or creature, they first begin to identify it by what it is similar to…However, when it comes to God, Aquinas says ‘The Divine essence exceeds in its immensity everything that the human mind can grasp’ therefore we cannot identify God by what he is, so ‘If we cannot attain to what the essence of God is, we can endeavour to ascertain what it is not.’ This is essentially what apophatic theology is, or what Meister Eckhart called the ‘doctrine of the nothingness of God’.
‘No one can see God, as John’s Gospel has it. For God has no material embodiment to see. God never appears…as an object among other objects, a being among other beings, not even the Supreme Being…God’s being is so far beyond human grasp as to seem like nothingness. God is, in this sense, nothing – no thing. That is, that the Divine transcends all aspects of any being, even our limited concepts of such things as love and goodness. To describe God as ‘good’, therefore, with our restricted understanding of ‘good’ immediately puts limitations on God and leads us to believe that we have fathomed God. However, as Meister Eckhart says:
‘if one knows anything in God and affixes any name to it, that is not God. God is above names and above nature…we should learn not to give God any name with the idea that we had thereby sufficiently honoured and magnified Him: for God is above names and is ineffable.’
Oliver Davies, historian and scholar, explains Eckhart’s thoughts as follows:
“Passages such as these [sermons 54 & 97] show Eckhart’s clear preference for speaking of God in radically negative terms, so that nothing is ‘added’ to him. The inadequacy of using names and affirmative language of God, which conceal rather than reveal him, is to some extent resolved by using negative formulations which appear to subvert the linguistic process itself, and thus God becomes ‘nothing of anything’ (nihtes niht), ‘solitude’ and ‘wilderness’ (einoede, wüestung) and is “hidden darkness of the eternal Godhead, which is unknown and never has been known and never shall be known” [sermon 53].’
Peter Rollins, an Irish philosopher and spiritual teacher says:
“If we fail to recognize that the term “God” always falls short of that towards which the word is supposed to point, we will end up bowing down before our own conceptual creations forged from the raw materials of our self-image, rather than bowing before the one who stands over and above that creation. Hence Meister Eckhart famously prays, “God, rid me of God”, a prayer that acknowledges how the God we are in relationship with is bigger, better and different than our understanding of that God”.
Having prayed this prayer Meister Eckhart might be able to scream, like Friedrich Nietsche’s ‘madman’ screamed: ‘God is dead, and we killed him’ adding ‘Hallelujah’ at the end. Meister Eckhart makes it clear that letting go of the name of God, or unknowing our concept of God, brings us to a greater understanding of who that God is. The apophatic approach to God enables us to move into higher forms of insight and knowledge, or mystical understandings. This is how Meister Eckhart understood his faith, as Richard Woods, modern day Dominican friar, explains:
“As God is without mode or measure, the way to God must also be without mode or measure, that is, without means, immediately. (For Eckhart, ‘means’ in this regard are not merely creatures but especially conceptual tools – ideas, images, even sensory representations.)”
The path to God leads to nothing, that is the no-thing of the ineffable God which Meister Eckhart expresses clearly in his teaching.
Justin Coutts from New Eden Ministry and myself (David Cole) have put together a virtual retreat on the subject of Apophatic theology, or the Unknowing of God. We look at four particular people from the Christian tradition who have taught on this subject throughout history. Dionysius the Areopagite, John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, and The Cloud of Unknowing. The retreat includes a series of talks from us both as well as a series of guided mediation videos featuring Celtic harp music and beautiful nature scenery. There are a few video available for free preview if you would like to get a taste for what it involves. Click the button below to learn more.