The Apophatic Rage and its Problems

It is all the rage among popular theological writers today to make the apophatic turn. Apophatic theology is basically being clear about what we do not know about God, and that our theology needs an “ unsaying” through a negating of the names we use for God. For example, we can say with confidence “God is my rock.” Apophatic theology reminds that we must also say “God is not a rock.”

In the wake of the Emergent Church movement these writers, exemplified in the work of Peter Rollins, have turned to Deconstruction in the mode of Jacques Derrida to raise up the importance of questioning often unquestioned dogma and culturally assumed ideas. Following Rollins’ book, there is a need to turn away from the idolatry of God.

What these followers of Derrida rarely acknowledge is that apophaticism, or negative theology, has historic roots in the Christian tradition itself. Basically, they say nothing new. Their method, however, barely echoes these historic roots. Instead, what Rollins and others present is a mental exercise of negating the terms within theological discourse. For the ancients, this couldn’t be further from the case. Rather, apophaticism was a formative process- an ascetic discipline.

For Pseudo-Dionysius, the early proponent of such a negative theology, there are two modes of talking about God- the naming of God or kataphatic theology, and the corresponding descent of un-naming God or apophatic theology. As Sarah Coakley argues in her recent book God, Sexuality, and the Self, the twin modes of theology were accompanied by the ascetic pursuit of contemplative prayer. In order to speak to God the theologian names God and then must negate those names in order to listen to God. This was far from a practice of theological discourse or thinking, rather it paralleled the reformation of self often called asceticism.

The work of Rollins and others falls into the modern trap of thinking the problem is with the way we think. Instead, I think the early apophatic writers were clear that we need to reform our practices and our thinking. The two are not to be separated. What is more, the apophatic turn- the negation of the names for God- was a means of clearing the ground of the mind in order to hear God in prayer. Simply put, apophaticism wasn’t a philosophical or rhetorical exercise. It was a way of life, based in waiting on God in prayer.

In our time, the seeds of the Enlightenment have taken full root. Coupled with the publishing market place for theology, we are often dealing more with the realm of ideas than we are with practices. Speak the word “theology” and we all assume we are talking about a way of thinking. Yet, as I have highlighted in other posts, these earlier writers were convinced that theology was comprised of practices and thinking. As Evagrius said, “the theologian is one who truly prays.” Theology in this frame is not about publishing books but praying to God. In fact, the very word “orthodoxy” was not about right dogma but about the right praising of God (doxa being the Greek word for praise).

Rollins and others are right in the impulse to reclaim the ancient practice of un-naming God. However, this practice is not a reclamation of Hegel’s full dialectic (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; antithesis corresponding to the new apophaticism). Nor is it a philosophical approach to writing made popular in the works of Derrida. The ascetic and contemplative of the early proponents of negative theology reveal just how mind focused our theological discourse has become. The contemporary apophatic writers miss the need to silence the world of words that hinder our very prayers.

Of course, I am biased in this assessment. Having read Dionysius and many others it is easy to see the gaps in Rollins’ approach. That is not to dismiss the role his writing plays in popular theology, but rather to name my own hope that his work is an entrance into contemplative tradition of the church. In short, bringing apophatic theology back into common, Protestant theology is not about questioning authority, but recognizing that our prayers are both filled with words and silence in the presence of God.


Filed under Theology

5 responses to “The Apophatic Rage and its Problems

  1. Scott Holland

    Hearing the rambling discourses of Rollins when he was on our joint campuses ar ESR, EC & BTS, you are likely right that he doesn’t get classical theological moves and motivations.

    However, many do get it and we have concluded that once we have understood what the apophatic meant in the world of ancient texts and traditions we must ask, with an analogical imagination, what it might mean for us today, if anything?

    Do we want the deconstructive moves and methods to carry us back to the patriarchal worlds of Plato’s ascetic gods of denial or might the encounters with Mystery teach us instead to persue the aesthetic for the Creator God of Genesis, unlike the moralist of the Republic, is both poet and potter making us out of the good earth, not shadows?

    Must the apophatic return us to the Old Fathers or can we freely proclaim The Coming Only is Sacred?

    • Joshua Brockway

      That’s just it Scott, I don’t hear any creative poesis from the good earth in our friends of Derrida and Caputo. I actually hear the echoes of Plato’s patriarchy, Descartes’ cogito, and hegel’s dialectic. Very little of that seems freeing, embodied or creative. I find more liberty in Dionysius’ restricting of Plato and nyssa’s turning of the Symposium back on it self. As Coakley says, some of these ancients allow us the critical space to see where our friend Freud (and his palls lacan and Zizek) are just as patriarchal and oppressive as Plato. We can indeed, turn Freud on his head.

      I don’t particularly buy the supposition that faith, practice, or ideals are either moving forward or are ultimately backwards. As you can see just from this comment I find some so called enlightened and progressive thinkers backwards. There certainly is much sifting to be done, and saying ancient writers are necessarily backwards is to buy a meta-narrative that has yet to pull the speck from its own eye.

      • Scott Holland

        Maybe with Peter Rollins, but Derrida has written and worked much in the areas of justice and hospitality. Jack Caputo, for example, has made very constructive use of Derrida and brought his work into conversation with even Emergent church circles. This year at the AAR a number of practicing Emergent church types reported on how they have made explicit use of Derrida and Caputo in their congregational practices. Caputo responded.

        Conversation with the ancients is useful but even with the rage to return to origins in Anabaptism-Pietism, one can get the impression that the scholars and preachers forget that much progress has been made since the 16th or 18th centuries in insights on gender, sex, anthropology and even ecclesiology in contemporary Free Church traditions.

        I just learned this weekend that a rather hipster evangelical couple is requesting to unite with the Conservative Mennonite Conference to plant an Anabaptist church in Boston. They are seeking to unite with the Conservatives because they have more successfully locked Anabaptist thought and practice in a cultural time capsule than the more liberal Mennonite Church USA.

        I’m interested in how apophatic thought and practice may open us to Mystery, but the Mystery of our present poetics of place, not some dead patriarch’s or matriarch’s mystery, as important as it was for their own bio-historical contexts. In fact, I’m preaching on this for Advent One this morning, “Don’t Tell Me There Is No Mystery.”

  2. Scott,

    I think you would be hard pressed to say that the likes of Nyssa were dodging the nature of mystery. Rather, I think much of the ancient apophaticism was about encountering mystery- or the cloud of unknowing in the ascent.

    What I find troubling about Caputo and Rollins, and those who work with their material, is that their discourse often takes the view from the mountain- looking down and providing a meta-narrative in negation. For the earlier writers, the negation was a built in way to avoid grand proclamations of who and what God is. Theirs was not an arbor-esque picture of reality but a true reasoning from experience and negation so that mystery was maintained. With Rollins and the little I have read of Caputo, that is not the case. In fact, it is more a working on the anti-thesis of the Hegelian dialectic so as to say something new- and nearly metaphysical.

    Thus, my comments about good creation were not to imply they were unconcerned with matters of real justice but to say that it still is a game of the mind. Get the right combination of ideas and the justice plays out. I am just not that Hegelian. Honestly, I think our current theologians are put to shame in the shadow of Basil whose theology and practice were one and the same.

    • Scott Holland

      Josh, I’m all for the dance of theology and practice. Basil did it well for his time and place. With an analogical imagination we might ask what we might learn from him about a spirituality for our context and contingencies in a world in which church, theology, and the God beyond the God we name are all being re-imagined.

      Some of us have tickets for the Bruce Cockburn concert next weekend in Pittsburgh. We shall hear him sing, “Don’t tell me there is no mystery, it’s everywhere I turn.”

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