The Courthouse at Apophatics.


The Readings for the Memorial of St John Chrysostom
Thursday in the 23rd Week of Ordinary Time (B2)

Si quis autem se existimat scire aliquid, nondum cognovit quemadmodum oporteat eum scire.
If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 

There is a strong tradition of negation in Christian theology: of things we cannot know. We travel down this path quietly, patiently, humbly. The first step is abandoning childish ideas of God – Santa Claus, Magic Maker, Karmic Thunder Clap. We have to mourn the passing of these false gods. And then we let others die as well, the divine Therapist, the Matchmaker, the Life Pattern Writer. We give up each of these false gods for the purpose of knowing God as he has revealed himself.

But there are Johnny Rebs of this process too: they want to jettison everything, even the things God has revealed about himself. They want to strike out on their own and they insist that nothing can be known.

Imagine if you introduced yourself to me and I insisted that, even so, I cannot know your name because I cannot trust my knowledge. Or maybe you’ve told me your name, and I insist that I’ve discovered your name is actually something else because I sat alone in silence looking off into space and heard a voice saying, “The reader’s name is Zaphod.” So when you said, “Hi, I’m Samantha!” My response was “I can’t grasp knowledge about you at all, but I’ve understood your name is actually Zaphod.” Perhaps you introduce me to members of your family who back up your ludicrous claim of being named “Samantha”.  And I point out to them that their life-long association with you does not undo the need for humility and submission to the Unknowable, whose name is actually Zaphod. 

There is a strong tradition of negation in Christian theology. In fact, to claim that I know anything at all about God is silly. God as the very Is of being, the act of essence, the totality of real, the negation of unreality, the loss of nothing… is all beyond my comprehension (even though I have good, poetical mystic words to use).  I have words, but I can’t know it.

But to say God can’t reveal things about himself, to say that God can’t interact with us in any way, shape, or form is to deny the Incarnation. Even the most apophatic of Byzantine mystics will tell us that God is in relationship with us, that in his energies, he is knowable. I might actually go further, but the Neo-apophatics, these folks would deny the very existence of God as “unknowable.”

This is the state of most liberal Christian theology today: this trying to call Samantha Zaphod. My experience in the Episcopal Church and among liberal Orthodox and Catholic folks is that this tradition of negation is used, most often, to make room for heresy. “My personal point of view is just another Christian point of view because God is unknowable.” You can’t tell me I’m wrong: God can’t be known. James Martin is no different from Katharine Jefferts Schori or, at least recently, in terms of sexuality, Kalistos Ware. Free for all… 

St Paul has a whole other point for this: we can know nothing therefor we should be as conservative and careful as possible. Paul is quite sure there is no such thing as “Zeus” or “Hecate” and that eating meat from their temples (which is free…) is a good way to get a good meal. But someone might see him being “free in Christ” and be scandalized. So he will give up meat. Forever.

But it doesn’t mean he will let Christ be worshiped alongside Zeus because, “hey, we can’t know, right?” Paul’s quite clear about God’s revelation to the Church. Faith is not the same as Knowledge. Faith, rather, is the submission of my experience to the Church’s corrective teaching. If I’ve experienced God in a field of dandelions, that is good. But if I insist, then, that God is a dandelion, or this field of dandelions, or that God lives in this field in a sacramental, focused way. The Church is going to step in and say “No” to that. Faith is accepting that the Church’s position is an important, corrective part in this equation. The Church is the control group in my religious exploration.

God says, in the Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God.” The Hebrew word there is to “know in the Biblical Sense” as they used to say. It’s the same word for the sexual intimacy between man and wife. But also between Eve and the Apple. With God – as with Good and Evil – the experience is the knowledge. We can know something in book learning. We can stalk someone on the internet and think we know them. But we won’t know them until we are face to face.

When I surrender, when I stop rebelling and return to the divine union of God and Man that is the Church, when I give up my slavery to my own reasoning, then I can actually know – by revelation – what cannot be known by searching. When I come before God not in Questing Mode, but rather in Adoration Mode – adore from the Latin, “Ad – Ora” or mouth-to-mouth/face-to-face – then I can know God and be known by him, as two lovers to each other.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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