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Blog from Jordan Barrows

September 1, 2016

Cataphatic vs. Apophatic: Where do you find yourself?

The start of the new semester, as always, has ushered in a plethora of new thoughts and ideas about the world around me, including how I view faith from the eyes of myself and others. At last night’s Vespers discussion, Pastor Ron (PR) led us in an intellectual exploration of, among other things, a dichotomy that is often used to describe extremes of how we perceive God: cataphatic (kataphatic) vs. apophatic. For this blog post, I thought that I would share a reflection of my own perceptions about and experiences with these concepts and some commentary on how they might affect myself and others in the future.

            Let’s begin with a brief explanation of each of the terms I described above to motivate this discussion. First, the cataphatic theology. Defined by Orthodoxwiki as a theology that “seeks to understand God in positive terms, emphasizing God's revelations,” wherein one “learns about God by learning facts about God,” it is often characterized by the use of images to describe God and His actions. For example, God is sometimes thought of as being a bearded old man, or a fortress, or a temple. He is also referred to by more abstract images such as the embodiment of love or mercy, or being three persons in one to form the Holy Trinity. Even the widely used and anthropomorphic pronoun ‘Him’ is an example of this theology. These and other images help characterize God and make Him more relatable to us, His followers, and they give comfort to those who would otherwise be overwhelmed by the sublime nature of the Almighty.

            On the contrary, the apophatic theology, or “negative theology,” is defined by Orthodoxwiki as “a theology that attempts to describe God by negation, to speak of God only in absolutely certain terms and to avoid what may not be said.” This is the opposite of the cataphatic perspective, involving no imagery whatsoever, perhaps in an attempt to refrain from limiting the extent or grandeur of God by reducing Him to the confines of a single image or construct. In fact, even the assertion that God exists is somewhat contrary to this perspective, since He is thought of as existing in a manner profoundly different from that which you or I or anyone else can possibly conceive. Describing any feature of God is both difficult and meaningless, as no human parameter can completely, or even partially, capture any aspect of His divine nature. Thus, apothatic theologians instead choose to think of God without the restraints of images or words that evoke them.

            Both of these theologies are complex and difficult to fully understand, but I am willing to posit that few people, if any, reside completely within one or the other. At some point, in certain situations, I think we all find ourselves acting or thinking in the fashion of either, or perhaps both simultaneously. One of the reasons for this might be because of the combination of the necessity of relating to God and the relatively undisputed assertion that God is completely beyond our understanding. With both of these in mind, one can understand why faith and perceptions of God are so complex and fluid. On the one hand, what is the point of having faith in a God who is completely unreachable and inconceivable? On the other, who are we to even try to accomplish such a task? These questions seem nearly irreconcilable, so naturally my reaction is to try to reconcile them anyway. To start, allow me to take a look back and tell the abridged story of how my foremost perception of God has changed over the years.

            When I was younger, before high school, I honestly did not put a whole lot of thought into what, or who, God was. God was God, and that was that. That being said, when I did think about Him in more detail, I tended to think of God as a graying, old man sitting in the clouds, looking down from the heavens and smiling occasionally when one of his children did something nice. God as Watcher. While attentive, He played a generally passive role in the Universe. This is not unlike the God as Watchmaker perspective, which suggests that God set up the conditions for the Universe and then proceeded to let it run its course, interfering little, if at all, since its inception. Relating to the Holy Trinity, this would be best described as God the Father. In regards to our discussion, God as Watcher is clearly a cataphatic notion. Not only is He defined by the image of a human, but He is also restricted from having a great deal of influence in the Universe, both of which strongly contradict the apophatic ideology. Although the image varies, this seems to be a common theme among young children, as they are generally taught simplified stories of God and His people and have little with which to build an understanding beyond the images that they extract from these narratives. Although no adult can reasonably claim to fully grasp the concept of the sublime either, this type of thinking is usually far beyond what most children are exposed to. Thus, it is no surprise whatsoever that I fit right in with this trend.

As I transitioned from middle school to high school and learned more about the Bible and my faith, my perception of God began to shift toward Him having a more active role in our world, lovingly guiding us along the path of righteousness in accordance with His will. God as Teacher. At this point, I was learning more and more about Jesus, who became a much more prominent figure in my faith than the humble shepherd that he was (and still remains) during my childhood. It was during this period that I was Confirmed in the Lutheran Church, and I was intrigued by the message that Jesus had for me and the rest of his followers: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). This had a huge effect on me, revealing to me the idea that above all, we are called to love one another for and through God, caring for and being present in each other’s lives in the fashion of Jesus. I understood the gravity of Jesus’ love for us through his willingness to die for our sake, but even more so through the humility, kindness, and empathy that he showed while he was alive. Needless to say, the Son was now the part of the Trinity that stood out, and I felt a strong desire to follow in his example, both in terms of his love and his willingness to share it with everyone around him. This, I think, was the most prominent result of this period in my faith journey, which was markedly cataphatic, perhaps to an even greater extent than early in my life. I say this because unlike before this point, I was extraordinarily moved by the example of Jesus, which was catalyzed in large part by the image of him as a teacher, a guide, and a friend. This signified a prominent transition for me, and inspired me to engage deeper in my faith and integrate it further into the rest of my life.

Moving away from home and beginning college was, needless to say, a significant change in all aspects of my life, including my faith. Leaving my home church and joining the Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Arizona was a bittersweet experience. Life was rapidly turned on its head as I was faced with a host of new ideas and priorities. PR’s global perspective and the interconnectedness that I suddenly felt with the rest of the world awoke in me a perception of God that I am surprised was never prominent in the past, given my love of and familiarity with nature. God as Creation. Now, it seemed, He had evolved from being an embodiment of human activity to being integral in something much larger, that is to say, everything. I had an amazing sensation of God surrounding me at all times, wherever I went. While not always at the forefront of my mind (or even on the backburner at some points …we all have doldrums, even in the most fervent of times), He was always there, all around me and within me, part of each and every experience. One of the most striking examples of this was when I was standing at the edge of a plaza in Rome one evening, watching the night sky being split by vicious bolts of lightning over St. Peter’s Basilica. Seemingly out of the blue, I felt as if someone, or perhaps all of Creation, was giving me a gentle hug, embracing me in its beauty and grace. At other times, I experienced a profound sense of joy at being connected somehow with the world around me. The wheel of the Trinity had turned once again, although now it was unclear to me whether God the Father or Holy Spirit was the most prominent. This perspective is without a doubt the most apophatic that I had ever held, although still cataphatic in the sense of Creation being a tangible object. While ethereal and pervasive, God existed as part of the Universe He had made, albeit now beyond general comprehension. However, it was during this period of time that I gained a sense of the massiveness and overarching nature of God, rather than thinking of Him existing in a larger vacuum. I also noticed that instead of following, it now seemed as if I was simply coexisting with God. God was everywhere and part of everything, and I felt directly connected to Him from nearly every perspective.

Since starting college and gaining a vastly expanded idea of God, I have developed a somewhat related, yet more refined and abstract perception, which I continue to hold currently: God is Love. Although similar to God as Creation, this novel idea characterizes God in terms of a concept that I am unable to define. Unlike Creation, which is a relatively simple concept, love is simultaneously calm and wild, intangible and visceral. It is fleeting and amorphous, just like my perceptions of God, and while I cannot fully comprehend it, it is something I feel intimately connected to and comfortable with. There are some days when I feel as if I understand God, almost as thoroughly as He understands me, and others when I feel like an ant trying to comprehend the feeling of falling into a black hole. And yet, He is always there, always just a thought away, and reveals Himself in the sincerest acts of kindness and compassion. Although I think little about the Holy Trinity these days, this is probably most akin to the Holy Spirit, which has always been the most mysterious in my opinion, and is arguably the most apophatic of the three. Now, I find myself leaning toward the apophatic side of the spectrum, although unable to relinquish my attempts to conceptualize God in terms of even abstract notions like love. I also find that my place on this spectrum is quite variable, depending on the situation I am in or the way in which I am trying to think about God. For instance, in my musings about the meaning of life, or even what it means to ‘be alive,’ I often adopt a highly apophatic view, which I have found nearly eliminates God from the picture completely. It is hard to conceive of God as being incomprehensible while still maintaining a belief in His reality, since my sense of what it means for something to be part of reality includes the ability for me to comprehend it. Conversely, when thinking about God in terms of people, it is nearly impossible for me to think of Him as anything other than a force of love, longing to bring peace and compassion into our relationships with Him, one another, and Creation. It is at times like these when I feel that God is the most relatable and familiar to me, someone who is always by my side, watching, smiling, teaching, surrounding, loving.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of each and every perspective I have held, nor is it an apt description of my personal theology. Additionally, I have no doubt whatsoever that my perception of God will continue to change throughout my life. However, I do think it lends well to the discussion of how I and other people perceive God, and how that in turn can affect our faith. Although I have so far failed to completely reconcile the cataphatic and apophatic theologies for myself, all of the parts of my faith journey have led to the idea that perhaps we can begin to do so by thinking of God in a fluid manner, sometimes seeming familiar and intimate, while at other times and in other contexts sublime and beyond description. I have no way of knowing where this hypothesis will lead, but I am eager to find out, and I invite you to think about these concepts for yourself, and to explore how they have affected your own life and faith.