Apophatic and Kataphatic

There is a saying in the Jewish tradition that scripture is “black fire written on white fire.” Weight is given to the words but just as weighty are the spaces between. It is also the case that musicians talk about music not only in terms of the notes, but also in terms of the rests.


And yet in much of the religious tradition I engage in, there is an emphasis on the black fire or the notes and much less on the white fire and rests.

It may surprise some of you to know there is a name for the black fire/notes of spiritual practice. That name is “Kataphaticism”. It is the way of knowing by what we can affirm. So for instance, if we say God is Love we are describing God by what God is or does. This is knowing by affirming or knowing by the positive. Much of our theology is kataphatic in nature.

Kataphatic tradition is wonderful, however it is only part of the spiritual life. Another part of the spiritual life is the "Apophatic” tradition. Is the way of knowing through negation. There was an old cartoon I saw as a child which something was lost. The main characters were searching for the item were growing frustrated that everywhere they looked the item was not located. It was pointed out that this was good news because if they could locate everywhere the item was not, then they would find where the item was.

Take the previous example that God is Love. The Apophatic tradition would ask what can we discover about God by saying “God is not Love”? Perhaps one of the things we discover about God is that God is not romantic love or even brotherly love. God is not love in the same way that I love gummy bears. God is not love because God is greater than love. Limiting God to the action of love means that we begin to believe that we can fully know God. Assuming that we fully know God is also called Idolatry.

Recently I read that Gregory Palamas said, “God is not only beyond knowledge, but also beyond unknowing.”

One of the beautiful things of the apophatic tradition is that by the unknowable God requires humans to be humble and repent of our confidence that we can fully understand God.

There is comfort in knowing by what we can describe. There is mystery in knowing by what we cannot. There is security in knowing by what we can see, there is faith in knowing by what we cannot see.

Black fire without white fire is just an ink spill. Music without silence is just noise. Knowing without negation is pride.