The Mystical Approach to Theology (#2)

This is the second post in a series. Click here for part 1.


We have been discussing the Mystical Approach to Theology. We have presented that the infiniteness of God’s nature makes it impossible for us to comprehend Him. In fact, we have asserted, that the only thing we can truly affirm about God is what cannot be said about Him. We can say that God is not like anything that we can know intellectually, and that all of our attempts to reduce Him to a formula inevitably create mental images; perhaps mental idol at times. What ever we might say about God is already less than what God is. God then is a mystery that cannot be comprehended, but God is capable of being known and experienced.

God does not exist. (I will give you a minute to recover from the shock.) John Scotus Eriugena, a ninth century Irish theologian says: “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything [i.e. “not any created thing”]. Literally God is not, because He transcends being” Eriugena is not espousing Atheism, but rather poking at the fact that even our basic concept of being and existence fail to describe God in His essential nature. God “is not anything” because He eludes such categories. God is neither existing nor non-existing. His essence and nature transcend these ideas. If we are pushing the boundary of rationality and exhausting our comprehension, then that is the whole point. Mystical Theology intends to lead us to just such a place of intellectual surrender.

At this point you might be ready to raise a bit of a protest. Isn’t God suppose to be simple, easy to understand? Shouldn’t we be able to reduce God to a formula, something easy to remember and conducive to Sunday school? Think with me for a moment. Scientists are still at a loss for describing what our consciousness is. (For a good discussion see: How Do You Explain Consciousness by David Chalmers.) Quantum physics is enough to make brilliant minds scratch their heads. Then there is energy, gravity, space and time. What is light exactly? Take the time and research each of these concepts (if you are a nerd like myself), what you will discover is that while science can say some things about them, it cannot fully describe what they are. Further attempts to describe them become very technical and complex. So if we cannot even describe some of the basic components of our existence, how arrogant is it to suggest that we have God down to a mathematical equation?

I think the concern here may be that if we approach the nature of God as a Mystery, then would we not be making God unknowable? You might have noticed a phrase that I have repeated several times so far – it is essentially that God is incomprehensible, but He can be known. I do not need to see the entirety of the ocean in order to swim in it. Another way to say it is that God is untouchable through rationality, but is accessible through spirituality. God can be experienced, and this after all is the heart of theology. The monk and theologian Evagrius of Pontus says “The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays.” If our theological endeavors do not bring us to prayer, if they are not in fact a form of prayer, then perhaps we are not doing it right.

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The Mystical Approach to Theology (#1)


What is mysticism? To the average western Christian, this is a term that perhaps conjures magic and sorcery; all things unholy. There is little doubt that a simple mention of the term would be enough to send some Evangelical pastor into a fit of rage on his Pathos blog. (Shoot first and ask questions later seems to be the MO in some circles.) But what is Mysticism? In its most simple definition it refers to the mystery that is God. That’s right – mysticism simply refers to the fact that despite our best efforts God escapes the ability of our finite mind to grasp Him. God remains a mystery, and mysticism is an approach to understanding God that begins with this simple yet profound understanding.

When we speak of mystical theology, we are speaking of the inherent limitation of theology. We speak of the fact that our best efforts to formulate a description of God fails miserably short and we are left with the understanding that God is ever more beyond us “higher than the heavens are above the earth – past finding out.” Our best efforts to understand the Divine Mystery brings us to the ineffable void and we stare into the darkness of mystery aware of our finiteness and the infiniteness of God. In fact Christian spiritual masters and fathers of the days past felt that this was the very point of the Divine Mystery. To bring us to our knees in futility and frustration and reach beyond our intellect into a direct experience of God. God cannot be understood, but He can be known.

What we are discussing here is apophatic theology, in other words it approaches God from the position of what we cannot say about God. That sound’s a bit tricky at first, but it is a rather logical conclusion. When I say that God is “past finding out”, as the scriptures do, I am saying that the vast infiniteness of what God is lays beyond what I can say about Him. In other words you cannot compare God to anything that exists. You can’t say “God is as big as space and as long as time”, because as nearly infinite as those things are, God is greater still.What we are left with is saying that God is not limited to space and that God is not limited to time. We essentially acknowledge that our largest and most perfect concepts, terms and mental constructs fail miserably at describing God who is “higher than the heavens are above the earth.” In fact (to practice this approach a little) notice that the description “higher than the heavens” is apophatic; it is essentially saying that God is greater than and therefore not equal to the height of the heavens. (Take a moment and breath). What we can say about God is that God is beyond what we can say. He is beyond what we are “able to ask or THINK” says St. Paul. Our attempts to describe God only remind us of the futility of the effort. We stand gazing into the Divine mystery and are compelled to step beyond understanding and embrace knowing.

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