Mapping the Divine

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.

48bed5e8ad0c5_58263bThere 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.)


4 comments on “Mapping the Divine

  1. Jacob says:

    Hey Tom,

    I remember us having this conversation a while back, but I’ll bring it up again, being as I’ve clarified my thoughts on this more, and maybe you’ve developed yours some.

    In the map and territory analogy, the map is not the territory, and we can’t mistake the map for the territory or we’ll run into problems. And language/thoughts are like a map of reality, and depict it so. Thus, we run into the same problems if we mistake our language/thoughts for the reality they depict. We must avoid this mistake in doing theology.

    Very well. I understand that analogy just fine. But:

    1) I’ve never met anybody who mistakes their thoughts or language about God for God Himself. And I often work in psych wards… still haven’t seen anybody do this.

    2) The transcendence of God is very different from the transcendence of everything else… and yet… the analogy works equally well when applied to everything else. To use an image that you used with me… describing the taste of an apple doesn’t give you the experience of actually tasting it. The experience of tasting the apple transcends our conceptualization of it. It is no different with God. So what does the map/territory analogy bring out the difference in God’s transcendence compared to the transcendence of created things?

    Here’s my best way of bringing out the kind of transcendence God has, and why/how our concepts fail us.

    God is, in a sense, multidimensional. Imagine a (ficticious) inhabitant of a two-dimensional world. This being recieves a revelation from a three-dimensional creature who speaks of circular triangles. When our two-dimensional guy takes this talk literally, he finds it contradictory. But, turns out, the three dimentional being was speaking of conically-shaped objects.

    So perhaps God is infinitely-dimensional, and we just can’t take language of him to be literal… only the best depiction that our limited minds can grasp. Thus… we say that God knows, believes, loves, etc… but in senses that far outstrip our limited categories.


  2. tgbelt says:

    Jacob, your (2) is right. My analogy of map/territory falls short of paralleling the God/world relationship because both maps and territories stand within one and the same ‘world’ (or ‘ontology’), which leaves us with no parallel for God. But that’s just going to be the case with any analogy. I hope this isn’t fatal though. What we want is help in conceiving of the possibility that God can be spoken of analogically without having to assume that created and uncreated being are just two modes or versions of ‘one and the same being’.

    Re: your (1), I didn’t mean to suppose that anyone ever makes the mistake of believing their ‘God-talk’ to actually be ‘God’. Rather, I think we make the mistake of assuming the relationship between our ‘talk’ about God and ‘God’ (on the one hand) is exactly the sort of relationship that obtains between our ‘talk’ about any created entity and that ‘entity’ itself.


  3. Jacob says:

    Okay… I understand your point better now. I think your analogy does bring out that mere language doesn’t “say” God as experiencing Him does. There is a kind of “experiencing for yourself” that must take place for both the territory and God to be understood. But even if we “experience” God, we fail to understand Him, and arguably, we don’t fail to understand the streets and sidewalks after experiencing them. One might be able to use experiences that put us “at a loss for words” to liken God’s relation to our understanding. Falling in love, contemplating the distance between Earth and Andromeda, or trying to imagine the speed of light.

    But those experiences are still on a continuum (of what I would call “ineffability”). What we are looking for is rare and *qualitatively different* relationships to our cognitive faculties. If you don’t like the “us trying to comprehend God with human language is more difficult than a two-dimensional being trying to comprehend a conically-shaped object with the concept of a circular triangle,” try this: “trying to understand whether or not there is something empty space “beyond” the edge of the universe,” or “trying to understand how quantum mechanics and relativity theory, which contradict each other, are still both true.”

    I’m curious what you think of these ideas.


    • tgbelt says:

      I actually do agree all our experience lies on a continuum of ineffability. Perhaps that’s because all our language is to some extent analogous. But God transcends that too. He’s not a kind of thing that’s circumscribed by our categories, like all other things are. So to that extend, God’s not just another example of the kind of ineffability we face trying to describe things within the created order. He transcends that as well. But wouldn’t it have to be? 8)


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