Following-up on our previous post regarding apophaticism, let me say that I think Turner’s description of the apophatic-cataphatic ‘dialectic’ (and the two have to be exercised together as a dialectic, that’s the point) as “the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God” is the best phrase I’ve seen which gets at what apophatic theology is about. We’ll certainly explore this more in time, but I wanted to emphasize again that this “way of negation” isn’t merely glorying in contradiction and irrationality, nor is it going out of one’s way to ascribe incomprehensibilities to God. It is, as Turner says, an exercise meant to demonstrate to us “the failure of what we must say about God.”
As such this dialectic is a particular kind of failing, carefully approached and constructed since there are things to say of God and other things which cannot be said of God. Not just any failure of rationality will do. Apophasis isn’t attributing to God every nonsensical proposition one can imagine and then taking comfort in having faithfully demonstrated the infinity of God, nor is it simply prefixing every positive truth about God with the negating “It is not the case that….” It is rather ‘experiencing’, not just ‘saying’ (though saying it is the discipline by which one brings oneself to the experience of it), the inadequacy of human categories to ‘define’ God. God always exceeds, as it were, even that which we must say about God, and the saying aids us in approaching just the right ledge, the right precipice, from where the Spirit takes us off the map.
To assure you we’re not making this up or violating what the Fathers mean by apophaticism, check out this very interesting comment by Pseudo-Dionysius (5th/6th century CE). In The Mystical Theology, he explains:
What has actually to be said about the Cause of everything is this—Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and more importantly we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.
There you are. Pseudo-Denys clearly explains that apophatic negations are not simply contradictions of affirmations. We are not simply placing the logical operator (~) for negation in front of all we affirm about God.
Let me suggest an analogy for the sense in which God transcends all that we must say about him. Think of the similarities and dissimilarities between ‘maps’ and the ‘territories’ they describe. Are maps good and useful? Most certainly. Do they speak accurately so far as they are able? Yes. Can just any lines or circles be drawn on a map and it remain a good and useful map? Certainly not. But is the map the territory? No. Can any map of the Grand Canyon be the Grand Canyon? Can even the best map of the Grand Canyon ‘say’ (because ‘saying’ is what maps do) the Grand Canyon, that is, say ‘what’ the actual terrain of the Grand Canyon is (so that the ‘saying’ and the ‘being’ of the Canyon are the same)? Most certainly not. In this sense it may be helpful to conceive of the cataphatic/apophatic dialectic as an aid in experiencing the transcendent. And that’s the good news in this — we do experience the ‘territory’ we call God.
(Picture from here.)