Category: Apophatic Theology


by Andrea Elizabeth

up to page 70 of Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard.

Music is posited by the aesthetic speaker, A, to be demonic in its spiritual, abstract, sensuality. Words are concrete and superior, though tend to the lyrical and musical. Indeed where words leave off, music begins. Nature, architecture, paintings, and sculpture are silent. Their medium is the sensuous, and not an instrument as words are. Music was categorized as above only after Christianity, which detached itself from the sensual.

I’ll not quibble with the possible implication of anti-material dualism, but maybe the neoplatonic law of diminishing completeness. The pro column could include that

Jesus is The Word.

verbal thought necessitates a certain detachment from what is being experienced, leaving room for a free will response.

Although we seek to put the mind in the heart, this does not include a negation of the mind, and there is also the teaching that the senses are to be subject to the rational soul.

However, and maybe he’ll get to it when he talks more about the spiritual or the eternal, and I wonder if he’s intimated at it with his discussion of psychic immediacy, the teaching on the nous is that

Human reasoning is not enough: there will always remain an “irrational residue” which escapes analysis and which can not be expressed in concepts: it is this unknowable depth of things, that which constitutes their true, indefinable essence that also reflects the origin of things in God. In Eastern Christianity it is by faith or intuitive truth that this component of an objects existence is grasped.[71] Though God through his energies draws us to him, his essence remains inaccessible.[71] The operation of faith being the means of free will by which mankind faces the future or unknown, these noetic operations contained in the concept of insight or noesis.[72] Faith (pistis) is therefore sometimes used interchangeably with noesis in Eastern Christianity.

Regarding the silent mediums, could he be exaggeratedly rendering silent meditative contemplation unnecessary?

I suppose there is a time to speak, a time for silence, a time for music, and a time for painting. Who knows what it will be like when we enter timelessness.

I just realized these 445 pages are just part 1

by Andrea Elizabeth

I don’t even have part 2 of Either/Or. Reading it like Screwtape Letters on how not to think is inspiring. What to think instead is still a mystery.

How can he keep these self-defeating but humorous and poetic attitudes up for so many pages? Must be because they are also common? if uncommonly stated.

parts 2-8 of the Introductory first chapter

by Andrea Elizabeth

of Orthodox Interventions by Archimandrite Dr. Andrew deal with, in my impression, applying the western scientific method to Orthodox therapeutic measures such as prayer and fasting. The last section (9) of this chapter deals with a definition of the ancient terms surrounding our theology and man’s relationship to God. If this is what the rest of the book is about then I am disappointed that it is not more of a bridge with western psychology, but rather just using western methods of measurement to eastern psychology. This is why he makes a point to say how western psychiatry is giving credence to Asian meditation and how helpful that can be. I appreciate that prayer and one’s relationship with God is the number one way to healthily relate to self and others, but I would also like attention given to necessary needs for relationship with other people. He talks about proper self-consciousness in gaining control of your own thoughts and actions, but it sounds kind of lonely. I have heard some criticisms that the Orthodox approach relies heavily on monastic literature and that there isn’t much help in relating to family and other relationships “in the world”. Maybe this is a cop out, but if enlightenment comes by degrees, then shouldn’t attention be paid to the lower levels of being influenced by and needing to relate to others and not seeing this purely in terms of one’s own sinfulness?

Natural Law in St. Dionysius?

by Andrea Elizabeth

From Celestial Hierarchies, Chapter XIII:

The reason why the prophet Isaiah is said to have been purified by the Seraphim.

Moreover, It is revealed to all Intellectual Natures in due proportion, and bestows the radiance of Its Light upon the most exalted beings through whom, as leaders, It is imparted to the lower choirs in order according to their power of divine contemplation; or to speak in more simple terms, by way of illustration (for although natural things do not truly resemble God,who transcends all, yet they are more easily seen by us), the light of the sun passes readily through the first matter, for this is more transparent, and by means of this it displays more brightly its own brilliance; but when it falls upon some denser material it is shed forth again less brightly because the material which is illuminated is not adapted for the transmission of light, and after this it is little by little diminished until it hardly passes through at all. Similarly, the heat of fire imparts itself more readily to that which is more adapted to receive it, being yielding and conductive to its likeness; but upon substances of opposite nature which are resistant to it, either no effect at all or only a slight trace of the action of the fire appears; and what is more, when fire is applied to materials of opposite nature through the use of other substances receptive to it the fire first heats the material which is easily made hot, and through it, heats proportionately the water or other substance which does not so easily become hot.
Thus, according to the same law of the material order, the Fount of all order, visible and invisible, supernaturally shows forth the glory of Its own radiance in all-blessed outpourings of first manifestation to the highest beings, and through them those below them participate in the Divine Ray. For since these have the highest knowledge of God, and desire pre-eminently the Divine Goodness, they are thought worthy to become first workers, as far as can be attained, of the imitation of the Divine Power and Energy, and beneficently uplift those below them, as far as is in their power, to the same imitation by shedding abundantly upon them the splendour which has come upon themselves; while these, in turn, impart their light to lower choirs. And thus, throughout the whole Hierarchy, the higher impart that which they receive to the lower, and through the Divine Providence all are granted participation in the Divine Light in the measure of their receptivity.

It strikes me how much the Fathers use reason in their discourse. Modern Orthodox de-emphasize reason citing it as the culprit in modern humanism and the enlightenment, and how the Catholics got off course post-schism. Apophatic theology is said to be the surer route since God is above knowing, and we can only know through revelation. I’m considering that it’s both. St. Dionysius in the above relies on revelation as revealed in the Bible. What the Bible says about Isaiah’s testimony in the above chapter is a given. What conclusions can be drawn out of this given? We trust that the Orthodox Fathers were able to come to proper conclusions. To say that modern man doesn’t is full of implications.

Contra humanism, are we devolving? Was the immediate post Christian era the culmination of human evolution? The Greeks mastered philosophy, and the first millennium Christians used their method in their milieu to come to Christian conclusions? One can say that the west started to veer off with Augustine (and maybe Tertullian), but at the same time, perhaps even their veering is more impressive than modern cogitations?

Yet, in the next millenium, western evolution became dominant. Impressive things in the east that occurred since then can be said to be influenced, if not tainted, by the west. The eastern Church has spent most of its energy since then trying to maintain Orthodoxy despite the western influence, with the challenge of applying it in an eastern way, fighting context. It’s just the way it is. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen, nor that it had no effect.

Whether the west’s veering caused the worldwide devolution, or whether people lost the ability to purely, which is required to find Truth, apply themselves for some other degenerative reason, we still have to ground ourselves in the ancient Church. We can’t reinvent it according to our modern reason, but somehow some are still able to recognize it in them.

If you doubt that the west has lost the ability to discern truth because of respect for some modern great thinkers, then I will paradoxically say that moderns like Lewis, Derrida, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens are right in admitting the modern condition of ignorance in understanding the things of God. They are more pessimistic than Dionysius and Nyssa about men’s abilities.

Speaking of understanding

by Andrea Elizabeth

from today’s Prolog of Ohrid:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart; on your own understanding rely not” [Proverbs 3:5).

If all the mountains would move toward you, would you be able to push them back with your hands? You could not. If darkness after darkness of all the mysteries in the heavens and on the earth rushed to the small taper of your understanding would you, with your understanding, be able to illuminate the darkness? Even less! Do not rely on your understanding for, from the perishable matter which you call intellect, a greater portion of it is nothing more than dead ashes. O man, do not rely on your understanding for it is a road over which a mob rushes a hungry, thirsty, motley and curious mob of sensual impressions.

O man, trust in the Lord with all your heart. In Him is understanding without end and all-discerning. The Lord says: “I am understanding; mine is strength” (Proverbs 8:14). He looks on the paths on which your blood flows and all the crossroads on which your thoughts wander. With compassion and love He offers Himself to you as a leader and you rely on your darkened and perishable understanding. Where was your understanding before your birth? Where was your understanding when your body was taking form, when your heart began to beat and flow with blood, when your eyes began to open and when your voice began to flow from your throat? Whose understanding was all this while your mind was still sleeping as charcoal in a coal mine? Even when your understanding awoke, can you enumerate all the illusions which it has delivered to you, all the lies in which it has entangled you, all the dangers which it did not foresee? O my brother, trust only in the Lord with all your heart! Until now, He has rescued you numerous times from your own understanding, from illusions and its lies and from danger in which it has pushed you. A blind man is compared to the man who can see, so is your understanding compared to the understanding of God. O blind one, trust in the Leader. O brother, trust only in the Lord with all your heart.

O Lord, All-seeing, Eternal and Infallible Understanding, deeper than the universe and more radiant than the sun, deliver us, even now from the errors of our understanding.

Fr. Loudovikos in A Eucharistic Ontology also criticizes philosophy’s reliance on thinking. “Thus Heidegger in his testament entitled, ‘The end of philosophy and the task of thought’, talks directly about the end of philosophy, understood as the end of metaphysics or ontology in our times (these having anyway been swallowed up by the sciences), and locates the only future for thought in the free mythopoetic quest for truth through thinking; and he does not seem bothered by the fact that the linkage of thinking and truth is a survival of the same essential identification of thinking with being” (page 5). This reliance on thinking is very egocentric and subjective even though it opens itself to the unknowability of the other and ultimately one’s own annihilation, the end result of complete kenosis. Thus also destroying reciprocity in love, dialogue and gift giving which are the essential components of the Liturgy.

Back to being

by Andrea Elizabeth

2/3 through Bleak House and I spoiled it by watching the miniseries. 2/3 through The Hunger Games books, a little after starting the third, and I got tired of Katniss’ attitude as well as how important she was to the two factions. Fiction started seeming too presumptuous and non fiction too dry. Cross stitching is still king.

I don’t know what got in me yesterday, however, when I picked up a Christmas present from George and found myself getting into the language of, brace yourself, A Eucharistic Ontology: Maximus the Confessor’s Eschatological Ontology of Being as Dialogical Reciprocity by Fr. Nicholas Loudovikos. Sounds right to me. The first seven pages are definitions of these terms, and how close to then how far from the truth modern philosophers like Heideger, Derrida, and Levinas came.

Here’s my take on the truth: instead of their Buddhist hyper negation of self and our ability to know the other, we should simultaneously say “I know you, I don’t know you”. This acknowledges that beings actively seek to reveal themselves and that we have a capacity to understand while being sadly and blindly limited in our understanding.

So why keep reading? Because it reminds me to open myself and seek. The challenging language makes it seem like the truth is richer and deeper somehow. It makes me want to work harder to discover “the association of eschatology with the doctrine of the uncreated logoi of beings that forms the Maximian ontology.” (page 4)

I should make a new category for atheism

by Andrea Elizabeth

Just caught a rerun of this new-to-me series on consciousness on pbs this morning. I guess consciousness is a key issue in the debate on the origins of the universe. One thing Orthodoxy does is it makes you doubt more your own perceptions of things, making it easier to understand some of the atheist arguments. What I like about atheism is that it presents a humble view of what a person on their own can know about God. Yet I also believe in revelation that is available in the Church. And I believe that individuals outside the Church can experience God and his love. But even they still can’t say who God is in Trinity, nor even what to do next on their own.

To shift a bit, an emphasis on consciousness is discriminatory to me. What about unconscious people, where are they in this scheme? Or the mentally ill (of which all sinners are to some degree)? Not to mention plants and minerals, and animals, to some people’s minds. I was thinking yesterday that it would be wrong to plant a tree that you are going to neglect so that it dies. And what some do with rocks can be a misuse of God’s creation.

So if consciousness is not the end all be all of a limited existence – maybe it is in a limitless one – what do we do with it? Perhaps consciousness can be compared to the nous. Orthodoxy teaches that we are to train it on Christ through the Jesus Prayer. Thus we are to receive more revelation of ourselves, the universe, and God. To infinity and beyond, as it were. A Hindu was talking about this when I first caught today’s rerun (can’t find the specific episode, but the above links to lots of interesting topics. Listening to this one now.). I don’t know how much in common Hindu transcendence has with Orthodox teaching, but I think Orthodoxy doesn’t sound so gnostic. I don’t see how Hindu teachings of the consciousness of all atoms jives with their great void at the end of enlightenment.

The problem of uncertainty

by Andrea Elizabeth

Why would a loving God make uncertain people? Or certain, mistaken people?

It’s not his fault, it was the fall that did it.

Even Adam and Eve weren’t sure what the Tree of Life was about.

That’s because they were supposed to have faith and be obedient.

Then why do we have the capacity to rationalize?

To give us freedom, I suppose.

So we choose between living with uncertainty and obedience, or certainty with the probability of being mistaken?

Pretty much. This must be what apophaticism is about.

Some people take that to mean we can’t know anything at all about anything. Like that Monastery show on PBS where the former Buddhist said it depends on what you mean by “do”, “you”, “believe”, “in” and “God”. The monk replied that he wants him to consider what God incarnate means, which was a good answer, but he’s a Catholic, so does he even have it right?

If not Monarchianism, then what?

by Andrea Elizabeth

Back to God, History and Dialectic, by Dr. Joseph P. Farrell. I believe that Dr. Farrell is equating monarchianism and subordination as heresies in the following statement on p. 28:

In other words, if Christ was truly Who He claimed to be, then the
Lord of Redemption ought also to be the Lord of Creation. But here the
early fathers encountered a problem, which we may express simply by
asking what was asked then: Does this not imply that the Father and the
Son are really the same Person? But then came the immediate response:
that could not be, because when Christ died on the Cross, that would have
meant that God ceased to be; moreover, Christ prayed to His Father both
before and on the Cross. It was maintained that He repeatedly made
Himself unequal to the Father, and therefore, He was distinct from His
Father. And so the dilemma which, in one form or another, haunts the first
three centuries of Christian theology: if Christ is equal to God, then He
must be not only the same What but the same Who; but if He is really
distinct as a Who from God, then He cannot be fully God, or the same
“what”.62 The first opinion became known as the heresy of modalism, or
“Sabellianism”, because it held that there was really only one Person in
God, a “Son-Father”(uipater), Who appeared in different “guises” at
different times. The second option became known by a variety of names,
but “subordinationism” will suffice, since it maintained the traditional
doctrine that Christ was really a distinct Person from the Father, but not
equally divine with Him. This doctrine is sometimes known as
“monarchianism”, since it maintained that the Father was the “Mon-arch”,
or sole(monh) source(arch) not only of the Son, but of all things which had
beginning, namely, all of Creation. Thus, two concepts now became fused:
Fatherhood and Creatorhood on the one hand, and Sonship and
Creatorhod on the one hand, and Sonship and Creaturehood on the other.

In the following pages he then shifts to the implication of this heresy as leading to false Papal claims in Rome. I’m a bit unclear about his train of thought through page 40, where I am now.  I would like for him to have shown how these where false before his immediate shift to Apostolic Succession because I thought the Monarchial view was Orthodox. Not in the sense that Christ is not as much God as the Father, but that the Father is the Source of His deity.

The criticized implications are (if I understand it) that St. Clement of Rome taught that God sent the Son and the Son sent the Apostles so that the Apostles “become part of the work of redemption”. (p. 31) Perhaps he is saying that this leads to the false Vicar of Christ claim which confuses Christ’s work with the particular Apostle’s. One can see how this can be taken with passages like John 20:21, “Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” While there may be a fine line of distinction between the proper way to understand it and the improper, I think the problem is one of replacement. The Son replaces the Father and then the Apostle replaces the Son. I can see how this would lead to the filioque. So while I’m making a criticism, I’m hesitant to describe the Triadic relationship more accurately for fear of being presumptuous. Maybe that’s why Dr. Farrell didn’t either, at least yet. Such is Apophatic theology.

Ambiguity Is a Good Thing

by Andrea Elizabeth

I received a link to this article by Scott Cairns in my email from the new Orthodox St. Katherine College in California. Ambiguity is a trademark of Borderline Personality Disorder, according to Girl Interrupted. Maybe those with that diagnosis have a head start.

Ambiguity Is a Good Thing

December 21, 2010 

During the past dozen years or so, I have developed a healthy taste for ambiguity.

One of the reasons I enjoy poetry, for instance, is how a good poem pretty much insists that the reader learn to savor the swoon of ambiguity.  The productive ambiguity of good poems obliges the reader actually to participate with the text, that she collaborate as a co-maker of meaning.

That is to say, a great poem—even a pretty good one—isn’t ever done saying what it has to say, so long as successive generations of alert and energetic readers continue to pick it up.

Ambiguity in any substantial literary text, then, indicates that the significance of the telling doesn’t end with a single reading, and delivers a compelling nudge to the reader that she assist in the telling and the re-telling, the continuing labor of meaning-making.

I also have come to think that this goes for ambiguity in general, ambiguity in life.

And might serve as well for all flavors of uncertainty.

And for perplexity, to boot.

And it occurs to me that perplexity is not such a bad disposition to cultivate, considering the complex circumstances of our lives.  Perplexity is, at the very least, preferable to an array of clear, comprehensible, and mistaken certainties.


Confessing our uncertainties in the face of complex circumstances may prove finally to be a very good thing, even something of a gift.  They bring us face to face with the limit where human understanding fails—as it inevitably must do.   Apprehending that limit serves to make a healthy dent in our pride and sense of self-sufficiency.

Moreover, our noticing that limit of knowledge—that line across which we can never proceed—can nudge us into suspecting how the actual, the True, is immeasurably immense, how it necessarily exceeds us.

I love how W.H. Auden begins his wonderful poem, “Archaeology”:

The archaeologist’s spade

delves into dwellings

vacancied long ago,

unearthing evidence

of life-ways no one

would dream of leading now—


concerning which he has not much

to say that he can prove:—

the lucky man!


Knowledge may have its purposes,

but guessing is always

more fun than knowing. …


I have a very keen sense that our Mr. Auden—prince among poets—also had developed a very healthy taste for ambiguity.

Whatever the Truth turns out to be, it is not a comprehensible body of knowledge, even if that Truth is made manifest—is revealed—in the apprehensible Body of Christ.  We do not—will not ever—comprehend the Truth; rather, the Truth, presumably, comprehends us.

Scott Cairns is Catherine Paine Middlebush Chair in English at the University of Missouri.  His nine books include poetry collections, spiritual memoir, essays, and translations.  He serves as a reader/psalti at Saint Luke the Evangelist Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, Missouri, and will serve as Visiting Professor of English at Saint Katherine College in spring, 2012.