I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation about the Spirit. In it, we talk a little about the difficulty of creating an “ology” around the Spirit and the uncatchable nature of this wind, the untamable nature of the fire that is the Spirit. Because of this, I have been thinking about the ways in which we try to know about the Sacred.

Western Christianity has tended toward “cataphatic” ways of knowing — namely, trying really hard to name God, thereby knowing something of God (even if we can admit that we know very little).

Eastern Christianity has tended toward “apophatic” ways of knowing — namely, trying to point at the experience of God, in part by naming all the things God is not.

It struck me that we ran up against this even in our discussion. The more we tried to name the Spirit, the more we had to un-name the Spirit. We could say that the spirit inspires holy chaos. But then we had to quickly say that the Spirit also inspires order. The Spirit disturbs and pushes us beyond our nicely prescribed religious categories, but the Spirit perhaps leads toward tradition when we are too used to chaos. We talked about the Spirit speaking within individuals. But then we quickly felt the need to counter that with the recognition that the Spirit also corrects individuals through discernment within the community. It seemed to me, in retrospect, that there was nothing we could say about the Spirit that we did not have to quickly un-say.

Here’s where cataphatic and apophatic come in — in our search for cataphatic ways of knowing the Spirit, when we push it honestly to the edge, we run up against apophatic ways of knowing the Spirit (or not knowing the Spirit).

I find myself in awe of this God we worship — our study and language are acts of devotion that we must not neglect, but at the same time, when we continue toward “knowing,” and when we are able to keep our hearts open wide, we are ushered gently and implacably towards un-knowing. We are guided, ever so subtly but magnificently to the edge where only wonder, communion, and faith remain. And in those fleeting moments when the ground of “knowing” falls away… We are plunged head first into love.

And, of course, here’s me trying to put words on it again, and finding myself again desiring to un-say and re-say endlessly.
So for now…
Until the devotion of study calls me toward the unknowable God again…
Silence and staring at new, crisp snow.

6 thoughts on “Apo-what-ic?”

  1. “ushered gently and implacably towards un-knowing” and “desiring to un-say and re-say endlessly”: yes, yes, yes. I was in another conversation where the precipice we’re forced to in our strivings to know got named as “confession” – that when you press far enough, all that’s left, all that’s able to be said, is confession. You call it love.

    But the process doesn’t start in unbounded love/confession/un-knowing, I don’t think…we need those theological categories and strivings (and studying!) toward understanding to push us into wonder, communion, confession, faith, love. Awful. Awe-ful.

    Thanks for writing, sister.

  2. From a more philosophical angle, I’m reminded of the seemingly inescapably linguistic character of human nature. Wittgenstein said “the limits of my language means the limits of my world.” So in a sense, we have to speak of – it’s who we are and how a significant part of us is constituted. Yet in a theological sense – being pushed far enough out “into wonder, communion, confession, faith, love” – we have to fall silent, humbled by our limits. Such is the dance.

  3. Also, Sister Dana, thank you especially for pointing to confession. I will do much more thinking about the connection between the pursuit of theology and confession. Btw, perhaps confession can be one of the NuDunker topics… it’s such a Brethren thing!

  4. I love thinking about this… can we have thoughts without language? I’m noticing this in conversations about gender and God. We have no personal, non-gendered, singular pronoun, in part because we are only starting to have a concept of that. But we can’t form a full concept of that in part because we don’t have good language for it. We are such linguistic beings!
    And then what do we do with the seeming trend toward shortening of language and thought, as well as toward visual media?
    Humility and confession…

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