Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Apophaticism and the limits of human reason

The divine, being incomprehensible, is also necessarily nameless. [St John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith: A New Translation of An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Popular Patristics Series 62; trans. Norman Russell; Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2022, 88]

… [God's essence - DHC] it is superessential and beyond beings, beyond the divine, beyond the good, beyond fullness, and is set apart from all principles and classes as a whole, and is superior to every principle and class, since it is more than essence, life, word, and concepts; it is light itself, goodness itself, life itself, essence itself, since it does not have its being, or anything in the category of existents, from another, being the source itself of the being of that which exists, of the life of that which lives, of the rationality of that which participates in reason, .... (Ibid., 71)

… ὡς ὑπερούσιον καὶ ὑπὲρ τὰ ὄντα οὖσαν, ὑπέρθεον, ὑπεράγαθον, ὑπερπλήρη, τὰς ὅλας ἀρχὰς καὶ τάξεις ἀφορίζουσαν καὶ πάσης ἀρχῆς και τάξεως ὑπεριδρυμένην ὑπερ οὐσίαν καὶ λόγον καὶ ἔννοιαν, αὐτοφῶς, αὐτοαγαθότητα, αὐτοζωήν, αὐτοουσίαν ὡς μὴ παρ' ἑτέρου τὸ εἶναι τοῖς οὖσι, τοῖς ζῶσι τῆς ζωῆς, τοῖς λόγου μετέχουσι τοῦ λογου , … (Ibid., 71)

Apophatism is the manner of deriving truths about God through negation. God is stated as being "not X." Apophatism comes about through influence from Neo-Platonic philosophy as it meditates upon the one "beyond (or above) being" (ὑπερούσιον). Simply stated, Neoplatonic philosophy finds the inadequacy its philosophy to comprehend the One, which is appropriated by Christians as the one God.

There can be many things that a Christian can find problematic about apophaticism, since it seems to make God unknowable. Absolute apophaticism seems to imply agnosticism on the one side (we cannot know anything about God since "we cannot say anything true about God") and mysticism on the other (we cannot know anything about God so we must bypass the mind and approach God through mystical encounter). Or we can go the "classical theist" route and use apophaticism to reject any ideas or implications of cataphatic ("positive") theology that we do not like. Thus, in the case of much of "classical theism," certain dogmas of what they deem to be orthodoxy is maintained to be true. But if pressed and if any contradictions are shown, they retreat to "mystery" and apophatic language, claiming that the objector is being a "rationalist" and embracing "univocity," thus evading any examination of their system by attacking the opposition.

There is therefore a prima facie reason to reject apophaticism. But if one thinks about the issues, there is another way to embrace apophaticism despite its questionable legacy, and despite its origin in Neo-Platonism. If one sees apophaticism as the realization of the finitude of human reason and human philosophy to truly grasp the nature of God, thus needing the revelation of God to truly reveal who He is, then we can embrace this form of apophaticism. We can say that God is "beyond being," meaning by that He is beyond all philosophical discussions of ontology. God is thus sui generis in this sense: Any discussion of God and His being must be from Scripture, and Scripture alone. All objections based upon Man's philosophy are necessarily corrupted, including those found in "classical theism," a system which is very much Aristotelian in its philosophy. This is not to deny that we can "spoil the Egyptians" of their philosophical riches, both Platonism and Aristotelianism, but to deny that any one philosophy should be considered definitive for the Christian doctrine of God, and that includes both Plato and Aristotle.

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