Apophasis: uncertain theses about the knowledge of God

Gorazd Kocijančič

(Article from the symposium organized by International Institute Jacques Maritain, Trieste, in frame of Forum Orient-Occident in May 2004 in Rozzaco, Italy)

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Friends,

after listening yesterday and today to this series of extremely interesting lectures, filled with deep insight, I would like to apologize that I dare at all speak before you. But you live only once: “deuteri zoi den echi” as Odysseus Elitis, a famous Greek poet, wrote in his touching poem To parapono (A Compaint). That is why already a few months ago I chose for the topic of my presentation a few uncertain theses about the knowledge of God: I was afraid that such an insightful company of scholars (who knows if I ever get a chance to talk to some of you again) would part without raising the questions which concern me deeply, and I am sure, not only me.
My theses are centered on the apophatic character of knowledge of God which forms the focal point of a contemporary dialogue between philosophy and theology (let me just mention the names of Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion), and this dialogue interests me personally as well – so much so that the apophatic thought is the center of the conceptualization of various domains of Christian philosophy in my book Mediations, and the provides definition of the topos of the Christian, Eastern-Western thought in my book Between East and West: Four Contributions to Ecstatics.
Of course, in this circle there is no need for any introductory remarks on what the apophatic thought is. Prof. Yannaras undoubtedly remains the central figure who moved this concept with splendid energy into the center of theological discussion (and was consequently in Greece subjected to sharp criticism); prof. Biffi in his books often evokes the sense of mystery which is described in St. Thomas’s theological projects. (In this colloquium also Nike Pokorn yesterday presented one of the most important Western expressions of via negativa.)
Therefore, without detailed classifications, let me clarify some of the concepts I’ll use briefly – to avoid bringing owls to Athens. The word “apophatic” denotes in Greek a “technique” of thought, a technique of denial and attitude of spiritual openness for the mystery of the Principle of reality. The word is related to the Greek word “apo-phasko”, “apo-phemi”, which means ‘I say no’, ‘I deny’, and the noun “apophasis” which means ‘denial’, ‘negation’. Apophatic thought then denotes such a specific attitude towards Absolute in which we experience that Absolute is so completely and infinitely different from all our words, conceptions and notions that its otherness is better expressed by negation and not by affirmation, however elevated it might be. This utter negation is not just the opposite of affirmation but also the negation of negation and the negation of negation of negation etc. From the very beginning also the Christian thought has been aware that God, as Christian thought named its vision of absolute (in the footsteps of antiquity and especially of Judaism), infinitely transcends the highest and the deepest human thoughts and categories. It adopted the tradition of Platonic theology and from St. Justin, martyr and philosopher, who spoke about God above the essence, it spoke about God who in himself incomparably transcends everything that we experience as being.
And yet, and that is where my problematization begins, some of the most important theologians from the West and the East, in particular St Thomas and St Gregory Palamas, claimed that in spite of all the necessity of apophatic thought, we can or even should surpass it, whether with the system of analogical thinking, as it is found with St Thomas, or with the sharp claim that we should transfer the pair of categories of ousia and energia on the divinity itself. Evangelical thought, on the contrary, recognizes a radical “no” to the human idol of unspeakability in the Biblical revelation of the living God and his word.
The questions which are raised by the following theses could thus be put forward in the following words: Are claims of these various theological thoughts justified? What is the meaning of their surpassing of the apophasis? Is it really well founded? Or does it only want to be well founded? Is it only (and I assume it is) founded differently and in some other place as there and differently to the way it wants to be founded? How should we think nowadays the relation between the radical otherness of God and his revelation? How should we think the relationship between knowledge of otherness and the self-revelation of the nearness of the Other which is attested in Biblical events? What is the relation between the shift from apophasis to kataphasis and all too human need to attain some certainty in knowledge?
My theses are not, as you shall see, only uncertain in themselves but they also wish to reveal some apparently essential uncertainty of theological discourse which is being again and again transformed into certainty in the course of history. My thought might thus seem to some people too critical, although I assure you that I am not interested in the criticism of theology, my concerns are utterly personal. The short time that is at my disposal does not allow me to go any further, so some of the notions which I will use shall, unfortunately, remain undefined. I hope that I’ll be able to clear them up in the following discussion and despite this shortcoming nevertheless make some sense. The uncertain assertions I suggest are the following:

  1. Theological kataphasis is not the surpassing of apophasis; it is not its fulfillment and upgrading, its accomplishment. On the contrary, apophasis and cataphasis are, because of the absoluteness of reality they are referring to, in completely asymmetric and illogical relationship.

  2. Apophasis is the truth of cataphasis, and not vice-versa, not the other way around.

  3. Apophasis does not express the reality which would need the human expectations of perfection but the reality itself which is above all expectations and therefore also above all certainties. And certainty is not connected only with the Cartesian conception of truth, but is inscribed already in the conceptual articulations of Christian dogmatics. Radically unexpected certainty does not exist.

  4. The problem of knowledge of God, of “theognosia”, and of its expression, stems out of the fact that the human being as being who essentially originates from the Principle of all reality is paradoxically capable of the reality of this principle which completely and utterly transcends all his/her expectations and all possible certainties. Certainty is the category of this world and is connected with apparent evidence of the finite.

  5. The experience of radical absoluteness, the realization of this capacity of a human being is not in itself apophatic. The apophatic reality offers/donates itself to the human being apophatically.

  6. The other name for this offering/donation is revelation.

  7. This offering/donation is real (this conviction, of course, could not be forced upon someone intellectually or rationally, it is solely a matter of faith). But this reality does not mean that it happens in the manner of things, in the manner of finite objectivity, and in the scheme of finite logics and ontologies – on the contrary: it appears as an apophatic reality of absolute. Apophatic experience is more real than experiences of this world and this fact does not make it certain.

  8. Kataphatic formulation of self disclosure, of apophatic realities, is always in a way arbitrary and uncertain. The certainty of its formulation and its vehement opposition to the endeavors to reveal its logical insufficiencies seems, if we may use here a psychoanalytical concept, always a mere Verneinung.

  9. The problem of kataphatic relationship to apophatic thought is not a problem of reality of spiritual experience and inner spiritual knowledge, but the problem of logical and verbal expression and articulation of this real apophatic insight. The arbitrariness which is evoked by this Verneinung, is not the matter of deficient formulation or faulty thought or expression but stems from the nature of language and from the fundamental structures of human world.

  10. Nevertheless, we do not need to remain silent about that which cannot be spoken about. In spite of the fact that a human being as a human being is paradoxically and mystically capable of approaching the reality of infinite (or to put in better of entering into self-donation of unspeakable), the theognosia is actualized gradually in different persons in various degrees.

  11. We are ourselves capable of theognosia but our knowledge is nevertheless connected with other persons which have actualized this capacity of approaching the infinite in far greater degree than ourselves. The spiritual thought assumes for its own criteria the spiritual experiences of prophets, mystics and saints.

  12. This acknowledging of reality of the knowledge of God, of theognosia, in other human beings, which forms the cognitive foundations of ecclesiality, is ambivalent, that means that it could be understood in two different ways. In the history of Christianity it is mainly transformed into principal reversal that could be found in theological discourse; according to that reversal in kataphatical articulation of theognosia which stems from that actual spiritual experience of these people, the truth of the apophatic thought itself is expressed in the defining, conclusive way. The other way of acknowledging and respecting the reality of theognosia in other human beings which was not so often explored in the history of Christianity is poetical reading of the articulation of our own knowledge and the knowledge of others. The poetical does not mean the fictitious – which is often associated with the word. The poet always endeavors to utter this what is, the reality, but in a personal way. Logos is encompassed in personal truth. The acknowledging of theognosia in other human beings does not mean by itself the acceptance of reversal of kataphasis and apophasis in the articulation of theognosia: it is just aiming at communication above Logos and therefore above certainty.

  13. Poetical reading of theognosia sees in its logical and verbal articulation above all a system of metaphors which participate in the unconceivable and unspeakable reality: the poetical reading of theognosia acknowledges this reality, but it is always aware that there is a structural and essential distance between this system of metaphors and the reality it utters/addresses.

  14. Poetry transcends every individuality, it is personal and at the same time super-personal, “koinonical”, comm-unal representation of reality. The important, profound theology is also in a similar way personal and at the same time super-personal. Whoever reads good poetry, does not say that one is real and the other is false, even if the basic moods of two poems may differ.

  15. The polarity of poetical expressions is inscribed in the essence of the poetry itself. Our radical responsibility of a reader which cannot be assumed by the poet instead of us is inscribed in the essence of the poetry reading. This is the responsibility that leads us through the text in its diversity and sometimes contradictoriness to the poetical thing itself. By analogy: in poetical reading of theognosia we can see – in the heart of different theologies – the articulation of the genuine experience of God’s self-revelation which because it radically transcends any finite expression also allows a co-existence of various ways and which does not deliver us, even if we are a part of some well-defined tradition, from the duty to recognize in different discourses at the same time certain and uncertain, appropriate and relative, deficient and nevertheless fascinating articulations of the transcendent, unconceivable truth of the Absolute.

Thank you for your attention.