Thursday, November 18, 2010

Apophatic Theology.

In my HDS class, we've been discussing the eastern fathers and their understanding of apophatic theology. The discussion began in some depth when the class started reading Psuedo Dionysius. During the particular lecture on Psuedo Dionysius' writings, particularly "The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy", I was struck by the almost unquestioned assumption that God does not and can not become an object of human knowledge. Since God is totally transcendent for Dionysius, one must fall back upon this type of ecstatic experience via contemplation. It is a rather complicated cycle that I feel wholly inadequate to describe. Sidenote: this entire discussion made me realize the importance of the filioque clause even though I think Spain could have been a bit more tactful about it!

Anyhow, I raised my hand and asked why this assumption is made and why we are just accepting it. To increase my concern, my professor said that the encounter one has with God is void of all epistemological content. Back up a bit, and in the beginning of the chapter we were assigned to read for Dionysius, he states that Scripture is divine revelation. Through Scripture, God has revealed Himself to humanity. I take no issue with this belief. However, I began to wonder how Dionysius can then go on to have any confidence that the God he encounters via contemplation is the God revealed in Scripture if 1) the encounter is void of all epistemological content - i.e. no propositional knowledge 2) God is not an object of knowledge. It seemed unclear to me how Dionysius could be confident that the God revealed in Scripture, the Christian God, would be the same God that is "unknowable." How would Dionysius be able to say that this God he is encountering is not Buddha, Krishna, or any other god for that matter? To me, the rejection of the idea that God can be and does become an object of knowledge and that encounters with him are void of all epistemological content lead one into complete skepticism. There is no confidence to be had.

My question was brought up again during class today. Most everyone agreed that God can't be an object of knowledge. However, I became rather concerned. Isn't it by faith that the Church confesses that God has become an object of knowledge in Jesus Christ? Isn't Jesus Christ homoousia with the Father and hasn't Christ stepped into time and space, uniting himself with human flesh? Post council of Nicaea, doesn't the Church believe that Jesus Christ is the objective reality of revelation? In a way, the idea that God becomes an object of knowledge is a miracle because the Incarnation does not compromise His transcendence at all. I admire the eastern commitment to God's transcendence - I think it is totally correct. However, precisely because God is transcendent, He can then become the God for us, the God revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ via the Incarnation. It seems that God does not want us to tell Him what He is able to do - He makes it possible to become an object of knowledge in Christ.

I realized, as I was explaining all of this to my dear Mom on the phone this afternoon, that the understanding of God making Himself an object of knowledge in Christ is truly radical to believe! While Barth certainly wasn't the first theologian to confess this, he did deny the modern Christian belief that God is epistemologically unknowable since for Barth, God has made Himself an object of knowledge in Christ. Furthermore, for Barth, God remains in control of the knowing event. In this way, God's sovereignty is not compromised. For this reason, I'm excited to read Church Dogmatics I.2 next semester. We didn't touch volume one in the Barth seminar at HDS. This might be why I'm having great difficulty understanding this conversation to a certain extent.

More personally, I also came to understand in an entirely new way how this sort of confession has claims upon the individual's life. The evangelical theological orientation in this way is truly radical! To confess that Jesus Christ is the eternal begotten Son of God, homoousia with the Father, that He lived, died on a cross, and rose again from the dead is not a simple nodding of the head. To believe all of this and to understand that God has become an object of knowledge in Jesus Christ necessarily means that I am called to be an obedient witness to this Gospel message. That is quite a humbling reality, to say the least.

Photo credit: David Richards