Apophaticism and the Church — Matthew Nangle

Between the three major Abrahamic religions and among the many schools of thought that have spawned from them in the last two thousand years, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of the tradition of apophatic theology. And you’d be forgiven, as it’s difficult for a tradition as lacking in a charismatic frontman as this to reach the mainstream. However, it’s this exact rarity and its effect on me that has been on my mind the last few years, as I am a follower of the apophatic tradition. At its core, this tradition argues that the omnipotent, eternal God described in Abrahamic religion cannot have any descriptions attributed to it. Indeed, the apophatic mantra is that you cannot say what God is — only what God isn’t. Divinity is so far removed from the substance of our world that it is impossible for us humans, who have only ever known this world, to accurately describe it. Augustine of Hippo, a prominent early church theologian and proponent of apophatic thought describes trying to understand God as being an entirely futile action on par with a child attempting to fit the ocean in a seashell.

While I was raised in a Lutheran household attending a Lutheran church, I came to the apophatic tradition through my rejection of specificity in religion, as specificity is the enemy of statistical likelihood. In my mind, the more specific and detailed a concept of divinity is, the less likely that divinity is to exist. My most useful guides in this journey were Maimonides and Augustine of Hippo, whose works first made the case for apophaticism to me. This was most important as I sought what was to me the least arbitrary system of faith — a tradition requiring the fewest number of leaps of faith to provide me with an objective purpose to live.

My arrival at the apophatic tradition marked an abrupt change in my relationship with the Lutheran church I had grown up with. For one, there was the building itself and the services that went on there. The loud music and exclusively community-focused interior spaces of the church offered little space for quiet contemplation— a practice integral to the apophatic tradition. Even were I to branch out and consider the worship spaces of other Christian denominations, the incessant use of religious icons represents something antithetical to apophatic thought. Generally, places of worship are designed to emphasize some aspect of the divinity worshipped there, and the idea that you would emphasize the unknowable nature of God is relatively absent from Christian architecture. Indeed, Islamic art and architecture continue to be the best representatives of the apophatic tradition, with the rejection of icons and the embrace of complex geometry, calligraphy, and waterworks to point to divinity.

The Christian concept of the church is not limited to the place of worship but is also the body of worshipers — the community that fills the physical house of God. And this church, too, I have become separated from. The Lutheran insistence that the Bible is the literal word of God and that the narrative within it is literally true are incompatible with the apophatic tradition. In the church I grew up in, the notion that descriptions of God aren’t literally accurate, or that they describe the actions of God rather than the nature of God, were entirely alien. Because of my movement into apophaticism, which does not have its own “churches”, I lack a community that shares my beliefs. However, this does not diminish the role of apophatic thought in my life or my dedication to it. The core traditions of my faith are those done in isolation: contemplation, prayer, fasting, and reading.

In addition, others need not share my same faith for us to enjoy mutually beneficial conversation about apophatic thought. Explaining the reasoning behind my faith reminds me of the assumptions and leaps of faith I’ve made and the many questions I receive ensure that I continue to think critically about my beliefs. Meanwhile, my explanations of apophatic thought frequently help followers of Abrahamic religions to recognize the assumptions they’ve made about the nature of divinity. Ultimately, while I lack a church to worship at or with, I am certainly not alone. Whoever is willing to engage with me in discussion about apophaticism practices this tradition with me as we examine our beliefs and strive for a better understanding of divinity.

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