THE MYSTICAL APPROACH TO THEOLOGY (#5)

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

Cataphatic theology – not just a word that is fun to say, but a key part of our Mystical Theology. Here is another term: paradox. The term paradox is defined as something (such as a situation) that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible. What we have been presenting thus far in our synthesis is two approaches to God that are seemingly incompatible, but in reality are essential.

To contemplate that which cannot be comprehended, to seek to understand that which escapes our faculties, this is the definition of a paradox. Of course if we were living a while ago in the days before Einstein and his relativity, in the age of good old Newtonian Mechanics, we might have pushed these sorts of notions into the realm of fantasy; perhaps madness. But that wild haired scientist peeled back the layer of reality that we wrapped ourselves in like a blanket and showed us a world where time and space, the very things that we cling to for identity, were not constant at all. Then comes quantum mechanics… now we have things existing in two states at once, being in two places at once. Things that ‘exist’ do not ‘exist’ and then ‘exist’ again. What all of this has shown us is that the very fabric of reality allows for the existence of paradoxes. In fact it may be the coming together of these apparent contradictions that give us the best view of reality. (Dizzy yet?)

It is hard not to be reminded of some of the wisdom of Taoist philosophy here. The idea that between two opposites lies truth. Or perhaps the koans of Zen Buddhism Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth.  How can something come from nothing? These sorts of riddles of paradox are used in Buddhist contemplation to “open the soul” of the contemplative. Don Dianda, author of “See for Your Self: Zen Mindfulness for the Next Generation,” put it this way in a blog for Elephant Journal:

The koan serves as a surgical tool used to cut into and then break through the mind of the practitioner… Koans aren’t just puzzles that your mind figures out suddenly and proclaims, “Aha! the answer is three!” They wait for you to open enough to allow the space necessary for them to enter into your depths—the inner regions beyond knowing.

So if we find our contemplation of God bringing us to the place of paradoxes, then we should not be surprised. Nature itself is fabricated by them, and they are perhaps passageways to enlightenment; union with God. (See Theosis)

So back to cataphaticism: which is making positive affirmations about God. Of course here we must be careful because there could perhaps be a fine line between contemplating God through making affirmations about God, and drawing dogmatic lines around God for the sake of poking out our tongue at those less enlightened than ourselves. This is perhaps where doctrinally centered paths, such as Christianity, can give some people just enough religion to harm themselves. (I am myself a Christian, so this is not a jab at anyone. It is an observation based on my own failures.) This brings us to the point of this series, a mystical approach to Theology. The entire purpose of Theology in this approach is inward transformation. The transmutation of our beings into the likeness of God. Here we must appeal again to St. Paul’s words as a definition: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Essentially what we say about God does not change God. We could say the most absurd things about God (and many have – myself included at times) and God would remain unchanged. We however are changed by what we say about God. This leads us to “Jacob’s Ladder” – the path to deification – cataphatic Theology. More to come …

Click here for the next post.

The Mystical Approach To Theology (#4)

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

 

We have spent a good deal in this series on Mystical Theology discussing the Divine Mystery. By this time we should have established the fact that our intellects are infinitely insufficient to the task of understanding God. God is ever more above us; incomprehensibility wrapped in paradoxes. The more we try to make sense of them, the more we create them. This is something that, as we have said, leaves us in utter frustration. So much so that we might be tempted to just throw our hands in the air and say “well if we cannot figure God out, then why even think about God at all!” As I have stated previously, this is to a degree the purpose of the Divine Mystery. To bring us to this point of surrender. We think of the words of Christ “unless you come to me as a little child, you cannot receive the Kingdom.” This childlike surrender of all our abilities and faculties to God is what we have been moving toward all along.

So then we are prompted to ask: is there any merit to contemplating God at all? The answer is – absolutely! St. Philaret of Moscow says to us “none of the mysteries of the most secret wisdom of God ought to appear alien or altogether transcendent to us, but in all humility we must apply our spirit to the contemplation of divine things.” Novelist Tom Robbins says, speaking of human life, that it is “…a Zen koan, that is, an unsolvable riddle. But the contemplation of that riddle – even though it cannot be solved – is, in itself, transformative. And if the contemplation is of high enough quality, you can merge with the divine.” What Robbins says about contemplating human existence, is even the more true of contemplating the source and ground of all existence. The objective is not so much to ‘figure God out’, but rather to be changed by the experience of filling our minds with Divine imagination. The contemplation of the Mystery is the ultimate purpose of human existence. It is a process that transforms us within. It is through this contemplation – what I like to call “prayerful thinking” – that we ourselves are transformed into the very image of God. St. Paul says “and we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. This method of contemplative theology, dwelling on the Divine Mystery , is an approach that demonstrates to us the true purpose of theology. Theologian Vladimir Lossky writing  about the purpose of theology says “There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism.” Theology should never be a merely academic endeavor. We are reminded of the admonition of St. Paul “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

What we are speaking of here is cataphatic theology, or the method of making positive statements about God. It is to say, in the humility of our limitations, that this is what God is. When we say ‘God is Love’, we are making a declaration about the nature of who and what God is. We make this statement knowing that God must transcend any human definition of Love that we could imagine. In this manner, cataphatic theology becomes a ladder by which we ascend inwardly toward the precipice of Divine Mystery. It is in these moments when we get it. When we see God in our spirit through the window of our intellect. In those moments we are, as St. Paul says, “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.”

Click here for the next post.

The Mystical Approach to Theology (#3)

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

 

So if you have been following along, you know that we are talking about the Divine Mystery – the God who “lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen nor can see” (1 Tim 6:16 ). We have been exploring this fundamental concept that must undergird all of our endeavors to contemplate God. St. Gregory of Nyssa says “The true knowledge and vision of God consists in this—in seeing that He is invisible, because what we seek lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility.” St. John of Damascus writes “God is infinite and incomprehensible and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility.”

Hopefully by this point you are feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps like a being cast out upon the waves of a vast ocean with no sense of direction. It is a point that I call spiritual vertigo. This is especially true for those of us who like to know things. We love to have the answer! Not only that, our Westernized approach to God (we will hopefully get into that a bit later) assures us that God can be reduced to a formula. Those who have tried to follow this path, to do the math on God so to speak, understand the utter futility and frustration that we can come to. Many, in fact, are drawn toward atheism and denying any existence of God at all. After all, God does not make sense and we have been taught that everything of value must be reduced to a repeatable, testable formula. The Atheists however may, in a roundabout way, be moving toward the greater reality themselves. For as we suggested in a previous post – God does not exist. That is God transcends any definition that we would place on Him; even existence. Remember when Moses encounters God and asks for a name, a definition, of God his answer is “I Am That I Am.” Which seems to say that God exists in eternal mystery. (So when an Atheist tells you God does not exist, tell them “you are right!”)

I say hopefully you feel overwhelmed because this is the highest aim of contemplation of the nature of God. Rather than figuring God out, we come to a place like Jeremiah where we cry aloud “you overpowered me and prevailed!” We are defeated in our pride and arrogance and we are left standing in awe of the Divine Mystery. What we are saying then is that true contemplation of God, theology, brings us into the spirit of prayer. It is a humbling experience. It challenges us to reach beyond intellect and to reach out with our spirit. We seek for unification with God, which is the highest of all goals. We become insatiably hungry for the Life of God. We understand the words of Christ when He says “I have food to eat that you know nothing about”. We are invited to eat of the Tree of Life and Live.

“So let’s just chunk reason and theology out” you might think “after all it is useless”. Now it is time for me to throw a curveball. Reasoning and theology are more than useful, they are essential. More to come …

Click here for the next post.