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.

Even Satan Knows He Does Not Exist

Photo by  NASA  on  Unsplash

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Pastor Brian Zahnd was explaining Satan to those of us who do not take the Satanvery seriously. Generally those are the people who are in the west, highly educated, wealthy, “rational” and suspicious of those things that are unscientific. A decent sized group of people.

In his efforts to explain the Devil, Zahnd described the way meteorologists would describe a hurricane. Hurricanes are powerful, destructive and are even given anthropomorphic names. But even as we name a hurricane, we know that the hurricane is the result of complex systems intermingling and colliding with each other. The hurricane cannot exist on its own.

Likewise Satan is powerful, destructive and given a name. We know that Satan is the result of complex systems intermingling and colliding with each other. As such, Satan cannot exist on its own. Satan is the result of the most complicated systems interconnected with the most complex animal on the planet.

Those of us who have read Stanley Hauerwas may recall how he wrote in his book Matthew, “That is why the devil is at once crafty but self-destructively mad, for the devil cannot help but be angry, recognizing as he must that he does not exist.”

It is Christianity, not Jesusism

Jesus is a big deal. Not only has part of the world measured time around his life with the less common "B.C." and "A.D." but as of 2010 there were an estimated 2.2 billion Christians. And that is the thing, the religion is centered on Jesus but is not called Jesusism. Christianity revolves around the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, but the faith is built on the foundations of "the Christ". 

Not unlike the religion that revolves around the man named Siddhartha Gautama, but it called Buddhism. Buddha is a title, not a name, and it means "Awakened" or "Enlightened" one. Christ is a title, not a name, and it means "anointed" one. While Jesus is very important to the faith, Christianity is larger than the man named Jesus. Christianity is built on the foundations of the mystical Christ that was fully embodied in Jesus but the Christ spirit is not limited to the life of Jesus.

Jesus says that anyone who believes will have the Christ spirit and may even do even greater works than Jesus. The Holy Spirit is a more common name of the spirit of Christ that came down at Pentecost. Luther said that we are all to be "little Christs". 

Again I say, Jesus is a big deal, but Jesus knew that what God was doing was (and is) much bigger than even him. Following Jesus is a great idea, however if the Jesus you follow is not able to bridge time, space, divisions and people, then you might be practicing Jesusism and not Christianity.

"Mystery isn't something that you cannot understand..."

The conversations in and around the denomination that I serve (United Methodist) are complex and, at times, frustrating. I expect that 7 billion people will have different conclusions/positions on the issues of the day. I was prepared for that since the times I would be in an argument with my brother as a child who each saw "what happened to the lamp" much differently (no matter what you hear, I did not throw the ball!) What throws me off is the relationship to mystery that we have. 

As a teenager, I came across a VHS tape of the cult classic movie "Clue". The 1980's were bold. If you are among the odd people who, like me, has seen this movie you may recall there is not an ending to the movie. For those who have not seen the movie, I should clarify - it has more than one ending. Like I said, bold.

left to right: Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren), Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Wadsworth (Tim Curry), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), and Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan)

left to right: Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren), Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Wadsworth (Tim Curry), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), and Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan)

The end of "Clue" is what you might call a mystery - the irony is not lost on the filmmakers that a 'who done it" movie leaves you wondering "who did done it?" It is not a mystery because you don't know the end but it is a mystery because there is more than one ending. 

(Insert smooth pivot and classy theological language here so the reader makes the transition from a weird movie to spiritual formation...) 

Richard Rohr's book, Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, has a great little line near the beginning of the book about mystery:

"Remember, mystery isn't something that you cannot understand - it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, "I've got it." Always and forever, mystery gets you!"

Part of why so many people are captured by the movie and board game of "Clue" is the mystery. It is not the one answer, but the endless answers to the question of "who done it?" that draw people in until it "gets you!"

(Head nod to the reader that they are smart enough to see how this relates to God.)

To my fellow sisters and brothers in my believed UMC, let us remember that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are mystery not because we cannot understand them but because we can endlessly understand them! There is not one interpretation of scripture that is "it". There is not one version of the Bible that is "it".

My heart aches not when we disagree but when we reduce a mystery to something that we cannot know and thus become content with the first answer that "feels right."

There is more than one ending to this story.