fallible language II: How (not) to speak of God, Orthodox style

“He [God] cannot be numbered among ‘beings,’ not because hè does not exist, but because He transcends all beings and even being itself.” – St. John the Damascene

People who have been following this blog for a while will have noticed earlier that I’m flirting sometimes with Orthodox theology and the ideas of the Church fathers. It’s very interesting sometimes to look at Christianity from a perspective that’s really different from yours I guess… And I must say, sometimes it even feels more natural and logical what those old saints (literally!) say than some of the stuff I’ve grown up with or that I’ve encountered online from more protestant traditions. I have noticed that I especially have nothing at all with Calvinism, dispensationalism and modern-pragmatic evangelicalism (think purpose driven stuff)… The more people try to convince me they are the real Christian faith, the less I am interested in Christianity I’m afraid.

So this week I was rereading some chapters  of a book about Orthodoxy (Light from the Christian East, by James R. Payton Jr., which I recommend!) written about the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity, and something reminded me of the words of Chesterton that I quoted last weekend:

Whenever a man says to another, “Prove your case; defend your faith,” he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that a man has a word for every reality in earth, or heaven, or hell.

One of things where this becomes a real problem is in our speaking about the Ultimate Reality, which we call God. God is by definition a difficult subject to speak of as a human, because He is the whole Other, the Creator of All we know, and what words derived from what we know in creation can be used to describe the Eternal Creator? But still some people seem to be able to explain and map out everything there is to say about God… What a small and impotent God it is, that can exist completely in someone’s theology!

So I’ve always tried to had a more humble approach in speaking and thinking about God, something which I appreciate enormous in some parts of the emergent conversation, but it’s not at all like the postmoderns have invented this. It is probably as old as Christianity itself, and I actually quite liked the Orthodox perspective, as described here by James Payton:

These Orthodox distinctives invite us to deepen our recognition of the chasm that separates all of creation—even human beings—from God. Too often in Western Christian thinking, God has be-come another member in some category of thought—although the most exalted member, to be sure. Whether it is in a chain of being or as one bound by some laws (of logic, morality or whatever), we too often subsume God into a category with creatures. He is not bound by what binds us. Were we to keep that constantly in mind, we would unquestionably speak more humbly about him and avoid many problems provoked by our own careless thought. This would not result in an unpredictable tyrant being unleashed in the realm of our discussions: Orthodoxy re-minds us that the one who is absolutely distinct from us is ever near us in an immanence we cannot begin to fathom. We live and move and have our being in him—the one who sustains us in every moment because of his love for his creation. Rather than another member to include in sophisticated discussion and subject to our theodicies, God is our Creator who loves us and calls us unto himself.

What we can know about God has a direct influence on what we can say about God. In orthodoxy there is a distinction between positive theology (what we can say about God), also called cathophatic theology, and negative or apophatic theology. The second one is much more important in Orthodoxy, because what we can say about God is actually quite limited.

I think we as Western Christians can and should learn a lot about this humbleness… Even the enlightenment project will fail, and it might have given us mighty works of science and technology, it doesn’t give us much advantage in approaching God. Quite the opposite even: we though we could understand, describe and tame everything, and we’ve lost God in that. We went from realism/nominalism in scholasticism over the protestant form of scholasticism to liberal Christianity, which led to deism and finally atheism…

Now if we could get back to where we took the wrong turn, accept that God is bigger than what we can think of or explain in human terms derived from all things created (which is all we can know as humans) and develop a more humble way of doing theology.

Sometimes the only thing possible is be still, and know that He Is!



7 responses to “fallible language II: How (not) to speak of God, Orthodox style

  1. Thanks for those wonderful quotes! And your reflections around them. I am a strong advocate for a rediscovery of the apophatic: http://tinyurl.com/7qcu9k4



  2. What we know about God is far exceeded by what we do not know. In a brief summary:

    Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

    Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

    Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.

    (quoted from “the greatest achievement in life,” my free ebook on comparative mysticism)

  3. Pingback: An apophatic video interlude with Peter Rollins… | Brambonius' blog in english

  4. Have you read anything by Vladimir Lossky? If not I recommend him – I also share an interest in the Eastern Christian perspective and found that Lossky (an Orthodox theologian) was very dense but well worth the read.

  5. Pingback: fallible language III: experience of God? | Brambonius' blog in english

  6. Pingback: fallible language IV: The bible contains everything? | Brambonius' blog in english

  7. Pingback: fallible language V: speaking about creation | Brambonius' blog in english

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