The main danger is that of supposing that the thing to do is get a mind on the scale of Thomas Aquinas into your head, a task of compression that will be achieved only at your head’s peril. The only safe thing to do is to find a way of getting your mind into his, wherein yours has room to expand and grow, and explore the worlds his contains. — Denys Turner
I am a great fan of Denys Turner, who teaches at Yale University. He gave me invaluable feedback on my dissertation back in 2007, and helped me to see the ways that St. John of the Cross utilized the apophatic tradition to critique both popular piety and the charismatic renewal (alumbrados) that swept the Iberian peninsula in the 16th century. The “apophatic tradition,” from the Greek word apophasis, meaning “un-saying,” is a philosophical-theological methodological means of coming to knowledge of God by way of saying what God is not rather than by means of affirming what God is. St. Augustine famously expressed this Christian form of agnosticism thus: “If you comprehend, it is not God. If you are able to comprehend, it is because you mistook something else for God. If you almost comprehend, it is again because you allowed your own thoughts to deceive you.” Though Christian theologians affirm we can come to a real, true and saving knowledge of God, who has indeed revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, they likewise affirm that God infinitely exceeds all of the limits of finite human (and angelic) knowing.
Along with their careful qualifiers to all affirmations about the nature of God, apophatic thinkers also like to employ flourishes of paradoxical metaphors (God is a “dazzling darkness” or “silent speech”) or excessive superlatives (God is above/supra-, beyond/trans-). They also oscillate between linguistic reserve (saying as little as possible) and linguistic excess (saying far more than they should) to facilitate the mind’s openness to God’s limitlessness. In other words, apophatic authors are literary strategists who aim to deconstruct our childishly opaque conceptual idols and transform them into mature and translucent icons open to the living God (1 Cor 13:11-12).
Here’s a sample of an apophatic text written by the highly influential 6th century Syrian apophatic theologian (psuedo)Denys the Areopagate:
Again, ascending yet higher, we maintain that He is neither soul nor intellect; nor has He imagination, opinion, reason or understanding; nor can He be expressed or conceived, since He is neither number nor order; nor greatness nor smallness; nor equality nor inequality; nor similarity nor dissimilarity; neither is He standing, nor moving, nor at rest; neither has He power nor is power, nor is light; neither does He live nor is He life; neither is He essence, nor eternity nor time; nor is He subject to intelligible contact; nor is He science nor truth, nor kingship, nor wisdom; neither one nor oneness, nor godhead nor goodness; nor is He spirit according to our understanding, nor filiation, nor paternity; nor anything else known to us or to any other beings of the things that are or the things that are not; neither does anything that is know Him as He is; nor does He know existing things according to existing knowledge; neither can the reason attain to Him, nor name Him, nor know Him; neither is He darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to Him, for although we may affirm or deny the things below Him, we can neither affirm nor deny Him, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of His absolute nature is outside of every negation — free from every limitation and beyond them all.
Okay, let me stop here and share with you two gems from Denys Turner.
Dr. Turner is a very careful thinker and has in the last 20 years made important contributions to the dialogue between atheism and Christianity, especially in his 2004 book: Faith, Reason and the Existence of God. Like Fr. Frederick Copleston, Fr. Henri de Lubac and David Bentley Hart, Turner is a great example of how a Christian thinker can find in atheist critiques of Christian belief an important path to deeper and more honest reflection. Here’s a 14 minute clip of Turner’s dialogue with British atheist, Jonathan Miller. If I may encourage you, persevere to the end:
Second, Dr. Turner came to our seminary in January to give a lecture on St. Thomas Aquinas’ apophatic theology: ‘One with God as to the Unknown:’ Thomas and the Pseudo-Denys on the Darkness of God. It was one of the highlights of my academic career to meet him, hear him lecture on Aquinas and (!) talk about St. John of the Cross’ apophatic mysticism over a Guinness. Could I possibly restrain my hyperbole over this last point? Absolutely, unquestionably not. I am very happy to say we recorded his lecture and if you are interested here it is for your podcast-able listening pleasure. Click here.