Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Illumination: Going Beyond Knowledge - Apophatic Knowledge

As we begin to approach an understanding of God we find that we cannot understand Him.  He is beyond our mental grasp.  This leads us to a critical step in our spiritual journey.  We need to go beyond all mental concepts to know God. This step is referred to as one requiring apophatic knowledge.  It is a mystical way of knowing that transcends the logical mind.


We began our journey with a  positive approach to knowing God only to find that this does not lead us to knowing Him.

Fr. Dimitru says,
So at the beginning the affirmative way is less dependent on the consciousness of the ineffable character of God;  later it is more so. After a long ascent, it becomes almost totally dependent on the consciousness of the inability to comprehend and express God in concepts.
Instead of identifying positive attributes of God we begin to try and use negative ones.  This is a way of expressing our feeling of the incomprehensibility of God that develops as we ascend in our spiritual growth.  It refers to an experience that cannot be described in positive terms, an experience that is referred to by the Church Fathers as vision of God or the divine light.  It is not a rejection of the idea of knowing God.  But one that is part of a transition to the realization that there is a higher kind of knowledge that permeates our being when we come into contact with God.

V. Lossky captures this idea in his well known book Mystical Theology where he explains the teaching of Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34).  
Fr. Dimitru summarizes it as follows:
Dionysius distinguishes two possible theological ways.  One––that of cataphatic or positive theology––proceeds by affirmations; the other ––apophatic or negative theology––by negations.  The first leads us to some knowledge of God, but in an imperfect way.  The perfect way, the only way which is fitting in regard to God, who is of His very nature unknowable, is the second––which leads us finally to total ignorance.  All knowledge has as its object that which is.  Now God is beyond all that exists. In order to approach Him, it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to Him, that is to say, all that which is. ... It is by unknowing that one may know Him who is above every possible object of knowledge. Proceeding by negations one ascends from the inferior degrees of being to the highest, by progressively setting aside all that can be known, in order to draw near to the Unknown in the darkness of absolute ignorance.
This is a major transition because we have to give up all we have conceived, all that was useful in our earlier spiritual development, so we can continue on our path to union with God.

Saint Dionysius writes,
One must abandon all that is impure and all that is pure.  One must then scale the most sublime heights of sanctity leaving behind all the divine luminaries, all the heavenly sounds and words.  It is only thus that one may penetrate to the darkness wherein He who is beyond all created things makes His dwelling.
This approach, called apophatic, is an attitude of mind which does not allow the formation of concepts about God. It is based on a mystical experience and not gained through a method of abstract thought.  It requires proper preparation and a purification.

Lossky summarizes as follows:
Unknowability does not mean agnosticism or refusal to know God.  Nevertheless, this knowledge will only be attained in the way which leads not to knowledge but to union––to deification.  Thus theology will never be abstract, working through concepts, but contemplative: raising mind to those realities which pass all understanding...
The knowledge of the divine nature is above knowledge.

Saint Gregory Palamas says,
It shouldn't be called knowledge, because it is much higher than all knowledge and the viewpoint from knowledge.
It is the lived embodiment of the unknowability of God.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 230 - 236

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