The apophatic and the cataphatic

That Thomas's theological starting point lies in the defeat of the human mind by the unknowability of God, whether in the mind's own nature as rational or as transformed by grace, will perhaps seem hard to reconcile with any case for the demonstration of the existence of God unaided by faith - for such a case, if any does, would seem to lay claim to 'know God', indeed to know God all too well. But this unknowability will seem, on the other side, just as hard to reconcile with the nature of that faith itself. Perhaps it will be conceded for the one part that it is right to say, as I shall argue shortly, that the apparent conflict between Thomas's severe apophaticism and his equally apparent confidence in the theological capacity of reason to know God is reconciled in his view of rational proof as demonstrating, precisely, the existence of an unknowable mystery of creation. But even if it were thus conceded, for the other part a problem would still remain: should we not say that even if reason shows us the darkness of God, the revelation of faith sheds upon that darkness the light of Christ? What reason can demonstrate that it cannot know, in a sort of self-subverting act of its own, it might be thought in Christ is made good, so that an apophaticism of reason might be thought defensible, but only if it is held in conjunction with a cataphaticism of faith.

On neither side of the 'reason/faith' distinction may such a proposition be defended as a reading of Thomas Aquinas. For the distinction and relation between the 'cataphatic' and the 'apophatic', between the necessity of speech about God and its equal deficiency, are, as we shall see more fully later, already given in reason's claim to know God, for the 'five ways' are intended to show both that we can speak truly of God and that all such talk falls radically short of him. In this chapter, however, our concerns are to take one step further, though along a subsidiary route, our claim that it is in faith itself that the demand is made for the possibility of rational proof, that subsidiary route leading us to see that the same complex interrelation between the cataphatic and the apophatic which structures a 'natural theology' (as Thomas conceives of it) is given in the very structure of faith itself.

That this is so should not be in the least surprising: after all, what is being examined, in seeking to determine that complexity of relation between the cataphatic and the apophatic, is the very nature of the theological act of knowing as such, so that any intellectual enquiry deserving of the name 'theology' is so structured, whether it is 'natural' or 'revealed'. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, that relationship is definitive in just such terms of an enquiry's epistemological character as 'mystical'.1 In short, on any grounds on which an enquiry deserves the name 'theology', whether in terms of reason alone or in terms of revelation, on just those same grounds does it require that articulation of the affirmative and the negative, and to deserve the name 'mystical'. At any rate, these things were thought to be so within a mainstream tradition extending from the Fathers to the late medieval period.

Therefore in this chapter I propose to examine briefly, and through two medieval test cases, just how a complex dialectic of 'affirmative' and 'negative' weaves its way through the distinctively Christian theological enterprise; through, that is to say, the articulation of faith's doctrinal formulation. This examination, however, meets with a preliminary problem of terminological and conceptual clarification. At various points in this essay I shall want to be able to say that Thomas's theology is a 'mystical theology' - or rather, though it is not characteristic of Thomas's style or vocabulary so to describe what he does, that his theology is thus well named. But without some clarification of how I intend that expression, together with a cluster of cognate terms, to be understood, there is great risk of the argument's being obscured.

For if today within the revival of interest in medieval theological models the acknowledgement of a theological apophaticism is once again fashionable, it is open to question whether our contemporary retrievals of medieval apophaticism have not sometimes missed the point. For though there are many who will acknowledge the claims of negative theology in what, it is thought, is its own sphere - located safely in the territory of the 'mystical' - there appears to be less evidence that this passion for 'unknowing' and 'deconstruction' has much tendency to realise its potential across the whole theological field. No more than at any time previously within the period of modern theology is there much acknowledgement of the need to do all theology under the constraint of these tensions between

1 See my The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, especially chapter eleven. Of course, the notion of the 'mystical' is not exhausted by its epistemological conditions. There is more to the 'mystical' than the account of theological language to which it is tied.

an apophatic parsimony and the superfluousness of the cataphatic, of this self-subversive excess of speech and of knowledge. Much in recent theology, as also in comparativist and historiographical scholarship, serves to reinforce a notion of a distinct territory marked out by the name 'mysticism', which is the proper homeland of some free-standing apophaticism, where disruption of speech can go its subversive way uninhibited, on condition that, thus confined, its capacity for generalised theological mayhem is thereby contained.

Many who will appear to concede the centrality of a negative theology for a 'mystical' purpose will have reservations about conceding its structural centrality to the whole theological project. We have already observed one reason why. The Christian scruple will make its presence felt in reaction to any case made for an ultimacy of the apophatic, especially if the apophatic is sheared off from its moorings in an equally ultimate cat-aphaticism. And to that extent the scruple is justified. For in so far as a 'mysticism' is tied into the 'apophatic' in isolation from its inner dynamic of tension with the cataphatic, it may with justice be asked how, within all this negativity and unknowing of God, due weight can be placed upon the positive revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is no better to postulate, in reaction to so exaggerated an apophaticism, some ultimacy of the cataphatic, as if free of the restraints of the apophatic, and as if to say that though God in himself is dark, Christ is light, the visibility of the Godhead, the source of all theological affirmativeness; hence, whatever licence may be given to the apophatic in the meantime, in the end is the Word as it was in the beginning, therefore in the end there is speech, not silence. For in this way to postulate an absolutism of the cataphatic is the same error of theological epistemology as that of an absolutism of the apophatic, just the reverse side of the same counterfeit coin. Worst of all is to indulge the connected thought - it is an ancient doubt which is drawn on here, stretching back at least to the high Middle Ages, and further into the earliest years of Christian intellectual history - that negative theology, indeed, 'mysticism' itself, is really but an alien import into Christian theology, a concession made to pagan and especially Neoplat-onic sources, mainly to Plotinus and Proclus.2 For then a whole cluster of thoughts falls into a familiar pattern of complex and historically misleading linkages: that 'negative theology' equals 'mysticism', that 'mysticism' equals Platonism, and that theologies which mix Christian revelation with

2 Typically, Jean Gerson (1363-1429) thought that the 'unknowing' of the philosophers was 'Socratic', the simple recognition that after all its efforts an exhausted reason hits upon a boundary, a theological ne plus ultra. This is no apophatic entry into a mystery, but is rather the denial that the reason of the philosophers can make any headway with God at all, and at best acknowledges this. See below, pp. 77-8, for more on Gerson.

Platonic mysticism produce an unacceptable, distorting theological hybrid, unrecognisable in the thoroughbred purity of a gospel Christianity- perhaps above all that such 'mysticisms' reveal their pagan provenance in preferring God to Christ, the one God to the Trinity.3 It is perhaps from some such concatenation of scruples that the doubts of a Gunton proceed concerning the intrusions of philosophy in general, and so of 'natural theology' in particular, within the project of an authentically Christian theology.

In the last chapter I did no more than initiate a case for rejecting any such interpretation of Thomas. It became clear that the articulation of Thomas's natural theology forces into open prominence a complex interplay, or dialectic, of affirmative and negative tensions, which are the architectonic principles at once of his natural as of his revealed Christian theology proper. Now because in the last chapter the manner of my presentation may have suggested otherwise, the purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate that within some key representative theological sources of the high Middle Ages - in Bonaventure in one way, in Thomas in another -it is far from the case that this architectonic dialectic finds its justification principally in any philosophical doctrine of'God', Platonic or otherwise, but that it arises first and foremost out of strictly Christian theological, above all Christological, necessities. That is to say, even if it is the case -and without any doubt it is - that there are Greek philosophical sources on which the apophaticisms of Bonaventure and Thomas directly or indirectly draw, that they do so derives not from some willingness to superimpose an alien conceptual framework distortingly upon a pure source of authentic Christian faith in Christ. Rather, these two authorities inherit conceptual opportunities already embedded in the patristic articulations of Christian teaching which bear witness to tensions of knowing and unknowing inherent within the structure and dynamic of that faith itself. In the case of Thomas Aquinas, therefore, it is not his natural theology which presses this dialectic upon sacra doctrina; rather, that natural theology reflects and replicates within reason the tensions between affirmative and negative moments which structure the inner nature of belief itself. For Thomas, then, reason already, and in its own nature, as it were 'anticipates' the structurally 'mystical' character of faith itself. Nor are Thomas's priorities unique among medieval theologians; for, though in so many other ways differing from Thomas in respects which place him with majority theological opinion in his times, Thomas's Franciscan contemporary and friend, Bonaventure, shares this much with Thomas that for him too,

3 See, typically, Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros: A Study of the Christian Idea of Love, Part I, trans. A.G. Herbert, London: SPCK, 1932, especially pp. 23-27.

this Neoplatonic, 'mystical' dialectic of affirmative and negative derives from, just as it structures the articulation of, his most central theological teachings. For Bonaventure, the dialectic of affirmative and negative derives, as the structuring principle of all revealed theology, from its ultimate, Christological, source. In a later chapter4 we shall see that a 'Chris-tocentric apophaticism' is crucially determinative of theological method also for Thomas, while here we pause to note that for Thomas, that same dialectic of affirmative and negative is shown to derive as much from his eschatological account of the relations of the 'presence' and 'absence' of Christ in the Eucharist. The reason for the emphasis in this chapter on Thomas's Eucharistic teaching will become clear in chapter six.

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  • ruth
    What does the tension between cataphatic and apophatic theological?
    1 year ago

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