Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God: Apophaticism and Transcendence

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.

Silence

636055187297825102916759234_silence-1[1].jpgFor 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

quote-god-does-not-exist-he-is-being-itself-beyond-essence-and-existence-therefore-to-argue-paul-tillich-68-97-35[1]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”?

Incarnation

van_hornthorst_adoration_children_800x583[1].jpgFollowing 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?

Annihilation

quasar_space_blackhole_bright_light_duying-SEXr[1].jpgFollowing 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!)

Nothingness

nothingness[1]

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!

God Bless

The Second Epistle to Dominican Brother Reginald OP (Order of Preachers)

52984124_117642846042761_8701216142372372480_n[1](Go to The First Epistle to Dominican Brother Reginald OP (Order of Preachers))

By the way, random thing: I went to confession with Father Laurie today. He’s such a champion, I love him so much. Ever since he and you arrived in Sydney my opinion of the Dominicans has improved tremendously. I also had a great chat with Sister Mary Helen. She’s so lovely.

I confessed that I was an hour late to a date with my girlfriend. Not a grave sin, but I felt guilty about it.

I also confessed that I’m still having trouble finding the wisdom to know when it’s appropriate to proclaim the Gospel promise and when to remain silent. Because often I get into discussions and can’t help either proclaiming the promise or at least describing it. But then the listener gets offended and then it turns into an antagonistic and unproductive argument or debate.

Father Laurie said I should pray and ask for the same wisdom that Jesus had when he was talking to people. Jesus knew exactly what to say, when to say it, how to say it, and who to say it to. He was a master.

I know I’m already getting better at this. I spend more time listening and asking questions than preaching these days. But inevitably the discussion turns in that direction and I struggle to contain myself. I reveal too much, too soon, and it is confronting and scary for the listener and they close off and get defensive. I’m trying so hard to become all things to all people. It’s tough. Need the wisdom to know when to agree, when to question, when to preach, and when to remain silent.

But I’m optimistic and confident that I will succeed. I know that Jesus will give me this gift of wisdom at some point, in his own good timing. If not now, then later. This is incredibly reassuring and helps me to relax. It also fans the flames of the divine love in my soul.

But my faith isn’t perfected enough yet that I can say with certainty that I will be a conduit of efficacious grace in every conversation that I enter into. I wish I could just say exactly what needs to be said, always, and witness a wave of salvation emanate from me and ripple out to everyone around me, infallibly drawing them all up into the eschaton through the freedom of faith. I know that this is possible, because with God all things are possible, but my faith is not strong enough yet. Pray for me Brother Reginald. My faith can give me certainty of salvation for all, yet it can’t even do something as simple and mundane as the moving of mountains. Clearly I have the cart before the horse.

But Jesus says that asking with true faith will always obtain the desired gift. So from my existing faith comes a prayer for more faith. I don’t want a faith that propels me alone into heaven, I want a faith that can also capture the hearts of everyone else.

Tenzing told me that in Buddhism, when one person achieves nirvana, everyone achieves nirvana. I feel like this with my faith. I am in the eschaton already, and I can clearly see that everyone else is as well, but I know that not everyone else can perceive what I perceive. Ignorance mysteriously veils everyone from seeing reality as it truly is: that we are all already in heaven. This is a such a frustrating paradox. I can see that they are saved, but because they can’t see it themselves all of us get dragged back down into the Epektasis.

“I will not be saved without you” speaks God in the promise. Until all of us are saved, none of us are. And yet when one of us are saved, all of us are. This is a mystery I can’t fathom.

Anyway, lots of love for you. I hope you’re running and galloping towards the Eschaton yourself! Always learning and loving more and more. I look forward to when we next meet.

With the divine love,
Alex

The First Epistle to Dominican Brother Reginald OP (Order of Preachers)

52984124_117642846042761_8701216142372372480_n[1]I’m totes mega-devs that you’re about to be whisked away back to Melbourne within the next two months or so. You’re the first Dominican that I’ve really gelled with and there’s a special place for you in my heart. Previously my only exposure was Father Manes, and his accusations of heresy came across as being drenched in anger and dripping with poison. Whereas you and me are able to just have a laugh about it all, as is charitable and loving to do. I hope we will be able to stay in touch once you disappear back down south. You’ll definitely be in my prayers. If I get rich again with both time and money, I will try to visit Melbourne regularly to catch up with you! You strike me as someone with a soft heart who is willing to listen, and so I find myself spontaneously writing this message and exhortation to you.

As your friend I want to do whatever I can to help you be a good and faithful Dominican, Catholic and Christian. But I also want to help you to understand and trust the Gospel promise, which transcends all religious categorisations and labellings. Because nothing else matters. Catholic law and tradition is true and good and beautiful, and both you and I should do our best to follow it, praying the divine office, saying the rosary, serving mass, getting baptised, going to confession and all the rest of it. But without trusting that divine promise this is all just dead works and empty piety; without faith in the gospel we end up just burning rubber at 300kph and not actually moving anywhere.

The promise is that salvation is well and truly unconditional; you literally don’t have to do anything whatsoever and God just gives heaven to you for nothing; Trust that promise and enter into heavenly joy right damn now, skipping death and purgatory. And once you realise that you don’t have to be Dominican, Catholic, and Christian, all of a sudden these three things come alive with colour and symphony and you do them purely out of love and without a trace of fearful obedience. You also become freed to become all things to all people, knowing that nothing can snatch your salvation away from you.

For there is only one mortal sin, which is to fail to trust the gospel promise that I am now speaking to you. Not because failing to trust it will send you to Hell, but because in failing to have faith you are already there; lost and wandering in the outer darkness, and burning in the lake of fire. The Catholic moral law is merely commentary on this fact: there is only one “sin that leads to death”, and it is the failure to understand and trust my promise. This is not a retributive punishment, it is merely a sad brute fact of reality. But God is sovereign, and his promise cannot fail, even though he refuses to force it on us. God’s word achieves what it sets out to achieve, and he promises that his love will hunt you down wherever you may run to, and woo you until you can’t help but say “I love you” back to him.

So I have total and absolute certainty that one day you will be saved (“anathema! anathema!” scream the Fathers of Trent), but why wait? Why not just do it right now? Now is the only moment that matters: We shouldn’t be concerned with trying to “get to heaven” and “avoid Hell” in the future; for these two things are present realities and so we should strive to enter Heaven right now. The eschaton is infinitely distant into the future, and we will never get there, as the eastern church fathers confess; but the eschaton can also explode in our hearts today, at this very hour, if only we would trust that good news and promise. By faith in the promise, our souls cross the uncrossable chasm from Hell to Heaven, and the infinite distance between now and that final victory which lies at the end of the age.

When you truly trust the promise, you realise that not only are you already in heaven, but everyone else is too, and yet they do not realise it. And so evangelism becomes painfully easy for the missionary; all they need do is articulate the promise and proclaim it to the people around them, trusting that God is sovereign, and his promise is effective, and that the Holy Spirit is sowing seeds in the heart of the listener that will infallibly blossom into faith and love at some point in the future. There is no need to thrust 2000 years of Catholic tradition onto the poor neophyte; that comes later. Start with the simple Gospel promise, finish with the sacraments. To do it in reverse is utterly disastrous, as the billions of scrupulous and indifferent Catholics attest.

And lest there be some confusion about the content of this promise, here it is: “I, Alex, in the name of the resurrected Christ, Love you with the divine love, and we promise you that God is with you, even as you wander in Hell. We promise you that God will rescue you from the darkness, and he will use us as his instruments in this battle. We promise you that if you should somehow find yourself trapped in the eschatalogical, everlasting, eternal Hell-fire that lies beyond death, not even this will stop us from saving you. God is eternally more eternal than eternity, and infinitely more infinite than infinity. and so not even the everlasting Hell can prevent us from rescuing you. Christ and the church – the army of God – are with me as I proclaim this promise to you: We are prepared to make the charge against the fortress of Hell. And as Christ promised; the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us. We will rescue you, and no rebellion, death, sin, “freedom”, demons nor devils can ultimately separate you from our love.” This promise will not fail: trust it! And if you doubt the promise, do not ignore your questions and objections; instead confront them and crush them with prayer and meditation. You will not truly appreciate the power of God until you see him face to face, but we do not have to wait till we die to do that. Do it right now, by faith in the Gospel.

Forgive my long and presumptuous ramblings. I tend to get doxological and theological after my morning coffee. And in any case I myself am constantly enthralled by the beautiful Gospel promise in every hour of my existence; whether sleeping or waking. I can’t help but gush about it to you, as the divine love and Joy can’t help but bubble up and overflow out of my heart and attempt to penetrate yours. I want nothing more than to share this love with you. It is a love that explodes all theological and philosophical language, transcending all of our precious dogmas and anathemas. For it is God himself, and both I and he want nothing more than to explode out of my soul and save the world.

But even after all of this has been said, in truth we are trying to pursue a holy silence. I cannot speak this silence to you, but I can direct you to it. And when you trust the promise, we will both be dwelling in that divine silence, where words become unnecessary and impossible, communion is complete, the bliss never ends, and the joy can never again be snatched from us. And so the bottom line is truly as simple as this, I love you, and on the basis of the resurrection, I promise to save you. Please, trust me!

Through, with and in the divine love of Christ,

Alex

(Go to The Second Epistle to Brother Reginald)

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: “God is Perfectly and Entirely Free, and yet he can not Do Other than what he Does: Create us, Love us, Save us.”

Hi Father,

I’ve finally got around to reading the Dionysian ponderings series on your blog. I’ve been saving it for some months until I could find a time to properly settle into the armchair by the fireplace with the pipe and cheese and appreciate it. It was well worth the wait.

I’m currently up to the part about whether or not God was forced to create the world (or whether he could have not created the world). I want to try and summarise my understanding of what you’ve written in a few sentences and send it off to you for marking:

  1. God had to create necessarily, in the sense that if he did not create he would not be “creator” and therefore would be some other God. However the notion of “some other God” is incoherent because there is only one true God, which is the God revealed to us in this reality and therefore “some other God” is really no God at all.
  2. Despite the fact that God had to create, this necessity of creation is not necessity in the sense that God is “compelled” or “forced” to create. Instead, God made an 100% libertarian uncompelled “free” choice to create. In this way, creation remains 100% contingent upon Gods free choice and in that sense, creation “need not have been”
  3. Divine simplicity helps to frame the issue: God is what God does. Therefore God is both the one who creates and the free choice (to create) itself. If the choice had been different, we would be dealing with a different God. But as already mentioned, this is incoherent.
  4. Divine freedom should not be construed in the same way that we conceive of creaturely freedom, ie, as a deliberation and selection between multiple alternatives. Instead we should think of divine freedom as a movement of will which is completely uncoerced, uncompelled, unconstrained, unforced etc. in this way, there was only ever “one” possible “alternative” for God to “select”, but the crucial point is that his “selection” of this “choice” is completely and entirely free; completely and entirely uncoerced.
  5. So Could God have decided not to create? No. Does this mean that there is some necessity imposed on his will? Also no. The only necessity that it is reasonable to speak of here is the necessity that God be as God is, and this necessity encapsulates a perfect and infinite divine freedom; the total transcendence of all restrictions and constraints. God is perfectly and entirely free, and yet he can not do other than what he does: create us, love us, save us.
  6. Side point, often with creaturely freedom our choices are entirely compelled and coerced, even when there are multiple options on offer: for example when presented with a large variety of icecream flavours, I will always choose the mint choc; I simply don’t have the “free will power” to branch out and sample the other flavours on offer. Whereas God has only a single option: to create. And the crucial point is that his “selection” of this “option” is the most free movement of will conceivable

Thank you as always for your wonderful writings. Such a joy and source of edification in my life over the past four years. While I never pray as much as I should, I do try to keep you and your family in mind as you’ve been such a large influence in my spiritual journey despite the fact that we’ve never properly met.

Stay strong in Christ, with infinite joy and invincible hope,

Alex Herlihy