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The Apophatic and Cataphatic Approaches to God 

The apophatic approach to theology and mysticism, also called at various times negative theology and dark mysticism, has never been considered a central feature in the Latin West and has long been treated suspiciously by the church hierarchy (Johnston, 1970, 131). The roots of this ambiguity are historical, reaching back to the earliest church communities when church leaders first battled with the Gnostic, Manichean, and Arian heresies. In both the New and Old Testaments, we find passages that support an apophatic mystical approach whose goal is a deeper union with the Divine. 

To understand the unique insights and limits of an apophatic approach to the Roman Catholic tradition, it needs to be placed in its proper relationship to the cataphatic. C. Northrop Frye notes that throughout Christian history both Gnosticism and agnosticism have always been unacceptable (Frye, 1982, 65). Christianity has always struggled to find appropriate language that maintains a creative balance or tension between knowing and unknowing; of maintaining a language that is a paradoxical combination of knowing and unknowing (in Moran, 2002, 54).[1]

The apophatic tradition emphasizes the mystery and unknowability of God, while the cataphatic tradition emphasizes the equally important theological precept that God can be known: specifically, can be known through Holy Scripture, church tradition, and, most fully, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholic tradition has generally been characterized by a more positive, or cataphatic theology.  It stresses the ideal that God can be known, however limited, through words, analogy, and theological concepts and doctrine (LaCugna, 1990, 158).  This is held in contrast to the Eastern Orthodox tradition where there is a more developed sense of the apophatic and the limits of words.

Most theologians recognize the need to balance both of these two contrasting ways of knowing and expressing God.  It will be shown that how God is imaged and “known” by the person of faith has implications to one’s personal Roman Catholic identity. Similar to Zen Buddhist and Taoist thought, it is important to recognize that regardless of which approach is employed, neither can be detached from the other.  Negation must therefore always be a way of affirmation, just as affirmation needs to always be open to limited forms of negation (LaCugna, 158).  An apophatic approach to mysticism needs to be aware that to exclusively and excessively pursue an apophatic approach (as Zen does in its truest form) can lead to a dangerous negation of such core doctrines and beliefs such as the Trinity, the Paschal Mystery and the Incarnation itself.  To reduce the core, defining aspects of the Christian faith into abstract, empty forms, runs the risk of slipping into a type of agnosticism or a highly personal and vague spiritualism.  Such a reduction could lead to a disintegration of any meaningful Roman Catholic identity.

In contrast, an excessively cataphatic or analogical approach to theology can lead to a disruptive, even corrupting overconfidence in one’s ability to accurately describe the divine mystery and intent of God, and runs the risk of a unique kind of idolatry (LaCugna, 158). Such an approach could lead to a rigid, artificial identity that, among other things, excludes any meaningful presence of the Other; the mystical, mysterious core present in all of us, both Catholic and non-Catholic.

Christian mystics and many theologians affirm that, in the end, it is through an apophatic approach that one stands the best chance of realizing an authentic experience with the divine.  As LaCugna states,

“By emptying ourselves of concepts and images of God, or of expectations about what God is or should be or should be doing, we become free to know and love the real loving God instead of the God of our projections.  [This emptying leads us not into absence but into the presence of the God who far exceeds our thoughts and words and even our desires” (LaCugna, 157).

 

Gawronski notes that the apophatic way can never be an end in itself but must be used together with the cataphatic to lead to what he calls correct vision (Gawronski, 1995, 52).  Quoting Dionysius, he reminds us that we cannot assume that our negations comprehend God any better than do our affirmations (Gawronski, 53). 

 

2. Mysticism and Contemplation Clarified 

McGinn describes mysticism as an element within Christianity centering on certain beliefs and practices primarily concerned with preparing for and bringing forth a direct and transformative encounter with the presence of the divine, or God (McGinn, 2003, 10).  McGinn notes how many mystics spoke of attaining union with God while others tended to avoid such language; preferring to speak of presence.  However, he astutely points out how this concept of presence is also problematic since God can never be present in the way a thing is present since God is literally “no-thing” (McGinn, 10).  For our purposes, this essentially non-dualistic conception of God found in the contemplative and mystical traditions of Christianity can be a key bridge linking the gifts Zen Buddhism has to offer today’s Roman Catholics.  

The term contemplation is intimately associated with that of mysticism to the point that neither can be clearly explained without reference to the other, nor completely distinguished from the other.  Thomas Merton refers to Christian contemplation as the direct intuition of reality and pure awareness, and argues that such awareness must be the ground of all genuine metaphysical speculation, as well as the ground for all mature religious experience (Merton, 1967, 203).  He notes how the word contemplation has long been disliked and held in suspicion by Church leaders due to its association with Neo-Platonism and its subsequent associations to Gnostic and Arian heresies (Merton, 1967, 205).

Contemplation is further viewed as inhabiting the later stages of the mystical journey. This apophatic mystical journey is described by Johnston as being made up of four progressive types of prayer: 1) discursive prayer, 2) affective prayer, 3) ordinary contemplative prayer, and 4) infused contemplative prayer (Johnston, 1970, 28). 

The Christian life of prayer begins with discursive prayer.  Here, the devout Christian begins with active meditation on Holy Scripture and the life of Christ and employs the three powers of the soul: memory, understanding, and will (Johnston, 1970, 29).  As progress is made, this active, word-centered prayer gradually gives way to affective prayer where the mind is much less active and reasoning decreases.  Here, one makes more gentle acts of love and affection toward God, tending to rest quietly and simply be with God.  The next step is what might be called ordinary contemplative prayer, or acquired prayer, called so because it was traditionally thought such prayer could be acquired through one’s own efforts aided by one’s faculties and ordinary grace.  Contemplation is viewed here as a condition of simply resting in one’s thought or idea of the reality of God’s presence, both within and without (Johnston, 1970, 29). 

The next stage, infused contemplation, is traditionally viewed as the beginning of the mystical life and the last stage before mystical union.  Infused prayer is a profoundly simple form of prayer where, after repeating one word or aspiration over and over for an extended period of time (similar to the Zen Buddhist koan-meditation), one eventually pauses, and remains in silence, or within the silentium mysticum (Johnston, 1970, 29).  This silent, wordless, and thoughtless state is paradoxically thought to be full with a divine and mysterious Presence: again, strongly reminiscent of the Buddhist realization of emptiness.  In the Christian context there is a profound sense that God is both within the depths of ones’ self as well as present in all that is around. In other words, this mysterious Presence is increasingly experienced as being at the core of all things and all creation.  The anonymous medieval mystic described this dawning awareness is increasingly experienced as a dark cloud of unknowing. 

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Homeworks and Outline: Sacred Paths

[1] Gabriel Moran, Both Sides: The Story of Revelation (New York, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

 

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D. “The more I am able to affirm others, to say ‘yes” to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone” Thomas Merton