Hello Father, I hope this email finds you well.
I’ve been thinking about apophatic approaches to God a lot over the past few years, and I’ve arrived at some interesting conclusions. I know from reading your blog that you are a fan of apophatic mystery and so I thought I’d run it all by you and see what you think. Only respond if you have time of course.
For a bit of context, I went on a mission trip to China back when I was an evangelical (2014) and during my time in China I got talking with the local Christians about Chinese bible translations. I was fascinated to learn that when Catholic missionaries came to China and started to translate the bible, they chose the word Chinese word “Tao” to translate the Greek word “Logos”. As such, the first chapter of John reads “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God and the Tao was God…. and the Tao became flesh and dwelt among us”. This excited me to no end. The concept of “Tao” is central to the native Chinese philosophical religion of Daoism. This choice of translation by the missionaries seemed to me to be an absolutely ultimate example of inculturation. By choosing this word “Tao” the translators were intentionally importing all sorts of Daoist preconceptions into the biblical text. When a Daoist reads the book of John, they will receive it very strongly, as they read that the important and historic Chinese philosophical concept of “the Tao” – with all that it implies – has apparently “taken on flesh!”
In any case, upon learning about this move of the translators my interest in learning more about Daoism immediately peaked. On the way back from China, I bought a copy of the DaoDeJing with a parallel English translation and I read through the whole thing on the plane ride home. The very first line of the very first chapter resonates with me strongly to this day:
“The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao”
To me this comes across as the ultimate apophatic statement. I interpret it as saying that it is simply impossible to talk about God. Or in other words, you can talk about God, but what you’re talking about is not actually God. The moment you start putting words on God, you have gone wrong. To call God a “Trinity” and attempt to think of him as such, is to get God wrong. To call God a “Unity” is to get God wrong. To say that “God is love” is to get God wrong. And so on.
Following this train of thought, I’ve arrived at my first conclusion. Apophatically speaking the only completely accurate descriptions of God are silence and a blank page. God is a complete and utter mystery and we simply can’t say anything about him. Of course the idea of revelation changes things a lot, as God reveals himself to us in a way that we can relate to. This is why I love to pair the DaoDeJing with the Chinese translation of John: The Tao that cannot be talked about took on flesh and now we can behold it. The unknowable God becomes knowable through Christ. But nevertheless in pure apophatic terms, we literally cannot say anything about God: The most accurate way in which we can speak of God is to remain silent.
I’m wondering what you think about this idea?
God does not exist
Another thing I’ve been musing about, is that if God transcends all language, classification, conception and categorisation, then doesn’t this mean he transcends the categories of “existence” and “non existence”? To put it bluntly, is it not fair to say that “God does not exist”? Or perhaps we could say “there is no such thing as God”. I suspect that we can apophatically assert these statements as being completely true. To elaborate, God does not exist because “existing” is something that “things” do and God is not a thing and so it is not correct to say “God exists”. Of course the flip side is true too: it is not accurate to say “God is non-existent” because God transcends that category too. God transcends all categories.
My question to you at this point, is what do the church fathers have to say about this as far as you know? Does what I’m saying make sense to you? I know that Aquinas liked to talk about God as if he was pure existence, but I feel like this compromises pure apophaticism. If you are going to be dogmatically apophatic, surely we cannot even speak of God as existing; surely God transcends the notion of existence as well.
Another question I have for you regarding this point: If it is true, does this not mean that Atheism is correct to a degree? Atheists say “God does not exist”: shouldn’t apophatically-minded Christians be able to respond to this with agreement? Or perhaps are they making a different category mistake by reducing God to a “thing” and then putting him in the category of “things that do not exist”?
Following on from these thoughts about God not existing. Tonight I had a rather interesting thought about how this all relates to the incarnation. If we can be allowed to say that “God does not exist” in his Divine nature, then it would seem that we have to say that God only began to exist at the point of the incarnation. The incarnation was not only when God took on flesh, it was also when he began to exist! Logically prior to the incarnation, there is simply no meaningful sense in which you can talk about God “existing”, because as I laid out in the last paragraph, apophatically speaking (and prior to the incarnation this is the only way we can speak about God) it is inaccurate to say that God exists. So to summarise in a sentence: The incarnation was not merely God becoming a man, it was God actually coming into existence. Prior to the incarnation God transcended both existence and non-existence – it is only because of the incarnation that we can speak of God as “existing” – God exists in his human nature, but not his divine nature.
What do you think about this notion?
Following on from this idea that God only took on existence at the incarnation. My personal theology of Holy Saturday includes both the traditional “Harrowing of Hades” but also a more Calvinist/Von Balthasarian view that Jesus descended to the “Hell of the damned”. As a Catholic I affirm both Purgatory, and the Hell of the damned. I view Purgatory as basically being “the traditional Hell” except that it is purifying and not everlasting (think “Gehenna”), whereas I view Hell as “total separation from God”. Of course, “total separation from God” implies ceasing to exist, because the only way to be completely separate from God is for him to withdraw his creative energies from you. To put it simply, I believe that Hell consists of total metaphysical annihilation. Now, I believe that Jesus descended to this Hell in order to fully balance the scales of justice/pay the price for our mortal sins. Which is to say I believe that Jesus was annihilated. Which is to say that I believe that Jesus ceased to exist. Which is to say that I believe that God ceased to exist.
I was watching a debate between a Muslim and a Christian tonight about the Trinity, and the Muslim raised the following point “If Jesus was God, and he died on the cross, then who was sustaining the universe while he was dead?” I think that if this Muslim read what I just wrote at the end of the last paragraph, he might be even more baffled! How can God possibly cease to exist?
Well, I think I’ve found an answer to that: God ceasing to exist really doesn’t pose any problem, because “existence” is not one of his essential properties. “Existence” is instead something that he took on during the incarnation. Prior to the incarnation, we are constrained by apophaticism and according to apophaticism, God does not exist (as I outlined a few paragraphs back). If God is able to sustain creation without being “alive” and without “existing”, then surely he is able to continue to sustain creation during death and annihilation on Holy Saturday.
I’m wondering what you think of this train of thought?
(I should also note here that you have successfully converted me to universalism, so I believe that the only person to go to Hell and suffer annihilation is Jesus, pretty much everyone else goes to purgatory. Also interesting to note is that in my view Jesus was not merely resurrected from death to life, but also from non-existence to existence!)
My final apophatic musing concerns the nature of God. I read somewhere that the Jewish theologian Mamonides came to an ultimate apophatic insight about God: “God has no attributes”. I absolutely love this statement. There is only one other concept that I can think of which has no attributes: “nothingness” or “nothing”. I find that I can substitute the word “nothing” for the word “God” in many apophatic statements and they still make complete sense. For example
- “God has no attributes” <-> “Nothing has no attributes”
- “It is impossible to imagine God” <-> “It is impossible to imagine nothing”
- “It is impossible to talk about God” <-> “It is impossible to talk about nothing”
- “God is outside of space and time” <-> “Nothing is outside of space and time”
- “God does not exist” <-> “Nothing does not exist”
- “God is ineffable” <-> “Nothing is ineffable”
Also interesting to note is that there are two ways of interpreting the “nothing” statements. You can take the word “nothing” to mean “no thing” as in “there is no thing which is red”. Or you can take the word “nothing” to mean the concept of “nothingness”, as in “Nothingness is ineffable”. No matter which definition you use you still come up with a true and (to my mind) profound statement. This leads me to the most profound statement of all:
- “God is nothing” <-> “Nothing is God”
What do you think about this? Is it apophatically accurate to say that “God is nothing”? as if the ideas of “God” and “Nothing” are literally equivalent concepts? You end up with some more interesting sentences:
- “God is omnipotent” <-> “Nothing is omnipotent”
- “God is omniscient” <-> “Nothing is omniscient”
etc. I find this idea about God to be fascinating because it would seem to extend an ecumenical bridge to the Buddhists: They strive to empty themselves in contemplative meditation and achieve nirvana, which I understand to be a state of “nothingness”. But if God is nothing, then aren’t the Buddhists essentially doing exactly the same things as the contemplative monks and nuns of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity? With this “Nothingness/God equivalence” in mind, the Christian contemplative tradition could be said to be aiming at “Union with nothingness”, which sounds a lot like Buddhism, and the Buddhist contemplative tradition could be said to be aiming at “Union with God”, which sounds a lot like theosis.
Another point which lends support to this idea is that I have come across many anecdotes from people who have practised contemplative prayer where they talk about an “emptying of the mind” and when they encounter God they describe this encounter as a terrifying encounter with some sort of void. In fact there is lots of supremely apophatic talk from people in the contemplative tradition and a lot of it seems to point to this idea of “God as nothingness”
What do you think about all this? Perhaps “nothingness” is just yet another category which God transcends, however I find it interesting how similar the ideas of “nothing” and “God” are at an apophatic conceptual level.
Apologies for a long and rambling email. I hope you find some time to chew on what I’ve written and respond. Hopefully some of it is stimulating. I hope none of it is offensive. Perhaps you have encountered these trains of thought somewhere before. In any case I hope you and you family are well. I will be praying for your good health!