Quid mirum si non comprehendis? Si enim comprehendis, non est Deus. “Why wonder that you do not understand? For if you understand, it is not God.” — St. Augustine
I’ll never forget when my dogmatic theology professor quoted this text the day he introduced us to “apophatic theology.” Apophatic is another way of saying that everything we say about God we must at once also un-say (the literal meaning of the Greek word apophasis) to make it clear God infinitely transcends the confines of every analogy drawn from finite human experience.
Here is some of what he said that day, put through Neal Translate that turns bullet points into edible English (thank God I kept my class notes!):
God is intelligible to man, but never exhaustively so. He is absolute mystery, as opposed to a conditional mystery which can be solved. Mystery isn’t illogical, a mere violation of reason. It’s excessive, like a waterfall that transgresses limits. Mystery is always beyond our grasp, always more. The prefixes ‘supra’ and ‘hyper’ [over, above, beyond] should always be attached to every true conceptual claim about God. Apophatic theologians follow their profession of faith with, ‘Yes, true, but…’
Theologians should never dare pray without the humility implicit in those prefixes, should never convince themselves that their knowledge is adequate to God. 1 Samuel 5 is for all those theologians who think they can pray without the prefixes. We dare to speak of God in our language because He chose to speak of Himself in our language, but we can still never forget the infinite distance between God and creation
… In the mystical tradition, the saints say that it is love that takes us beyond the ideas about God, beyond even our un-saying of those ideas, into the Reality. Love itself, they say, is a form of knowing more profound than the intellect’s speculative powers. Love turns knowledge from a cold artifact into a fiery bridal chamber, and love alone effects union with the One who is known.
St. John of the Cross says that in the progression of spiritual growth, one should move from the dialectical rigor of scholastic theology to the contemplative rapture of mystical theology; which for him is evidenced by the move from prose to poetry to stammering to silence.
“Speech is the organ of this present world. Silence is the mystery of the world to come.” –St. Isaac the Syrian
If we risk exile from our self-imposed limits out into the borderlands of our longing, we will meet the living God; the true God; the Unchained Mystery whose surpassing beauty is ever ancient, ever new.
O Come, God-with-us, and lead us beyond the limits of our minds, beyond language, through the infinite longings of our hearts into the fathomless depths of your boundless Mystery…