Big Picture Consideration: the Apophatic & the Cataphatic

A somewhat trite folk song and an amazing section of the bible say it well:

There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.

Maybe this points to a really important distinction, one that sometimes feels as though it were a hidden, a thing that modern Christianity sometimes seems to want to treat like a dirty little secret.

On the one hand are the things we can speak of.  This side of the spectrum is characterized by understanding and light.  It is built on the assumption that the world is knowable.  It is associated with happiness and explanations.  This has been called the Cataphatic.

On the other hand, there is the truth that words only get us so far.  This side of the specrum is characterized by the not-knowing and darkness.  It is built on the understanding that there are some (many?) things that we can not comprehend.  It is associated with a lack of joy and a reluctance to explain.  This has been called the Apophatic.

To whatever extent these things are true about reality in general, they are doubly true about The Ground of All Being/God/Spirit/ Jesus/Truth/Allah….

The Cataphatic is easier for most people today.  I don’t know if it is a sign of modernity.  Or the evangelical church.  Or one of the inheritances of the age of “Enlightenment.”  Or simple and universal human nature…  Probably a bit of each.

Much of what we do in modern faith context is built around words (sermons, singing words, small group discussions) and happiness (upbeat melodies to worship music, cherry picking the happy parts of psalms)   There are lots of powerful spiritual exercises to explore this side of the spectrum.  But it seems to me they are a little less necessary than apophatic spiritual exercises.

Because we don’t spend much time in the apophatic.   We don’t have too many options open to us.  We have lost the art of lamenting.  We are so tempted to view agnosticism as a sign of weakness and ambiguity as a sign of the weak.  I think these are all the signs of a mature spirituality.  Perhaps we could enter into them earlier if we had more avenues for it.

Or maybe not.  Maybe it requires some life experience, some humiliation, some dying in order to be able to recognize that this all can not be out prayed, out sang, and out worshipped.

Regardless, this is where it is.  Give a try to an apophatic meditation today.

 

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