Apophatic humility…

In Scholastic theology, three methods of analogical inquiry were used in discussion of God: the via causalitatis, the via remotionis, and the via eminentiae (or, excellentiae). St. Thomas, for instance, treads the via causalitatis in the first ten or so chapters of the Summa Contra Gentes, where he argues from the effects of the Creator to the existence and nature of the Creator. Since, however, His effects are woefully inadequate to convey God’s nature in a fitting way, the other two viae are invoked by the Scholastics to balance out the limited gains of the via causalitatis. God is a maker of effects, yes, but He is very “remote” from the limitations of makers as we think of them. His divine remoteness as Creator stands out principally in the way that He creates ex nihilo, whereas lesser makers always have to rely on some medium or tool or model outside themselves. The method of remotion is a constant reminder to us that our best arguments about God and our highest praises of Him are still far removed from what and how He actually is in se. As the IVth Lateran Council stated in 1215, “between the Creator and the creature there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater [semper maior dissimilitudo in tanta similitudine].”

Further, the aspects which we can ascribe to God by analogy with lesser created things (by way of the viae causalitatis et remotionis), we must ascribe to God in an “eminent” or “excellent” way. Thus, by invoking the via eminentiae, we speak of God as a wise artisan, but eminently and supremely so. God is not simply a rough idea of love, but supereminently love; the Father not simply a paternal pattern, but a supereminently good father, etc. This trifold methodological tension is integral to Scholastic theology.

Critics of Scholastic theology, and Christian theology in general, often mistakenly assume that apophatic, or “negative”,  theology is a specifically Christian sort of obfuscation (as they would call it). But I believe apophatic limitations are a part and parcel of basic human thought, and that the Scholastic emphasis on God’s transcendent “otherness”, safeguarded by the via remotionis, is just a forthright way of connecting existential apophaticism to its Source.

Daoism is among the most apophatic belief systems known to humanity. The locus classicus is of course chapter 1 of the Daodejing: “道可道, 非常道。名可名, 非常名。Dao ke dao, feichang dao. Ming ke ming, feichang ming.” (I leave it to the reader to view the translation via the link.) The basic idea is that, whatever you can think or say about the power (德) and the way (道), and however close you might get to it, you are still far from describing or knowing the highest reality in itself.

Similarly, in chapter 28 the ‘power of the way’ (道之德 Daozhide) is portrayed as an uncarved block (or “unwrought material,” J. Legge) which, though formless and empty, yet holds within itself the fullness of all possible forms. Hence, the Dao defies our attempts to visualize and explain it. In the same chapter, the infant (or fetus) is lauded as a symbol of Daoist strength; though weak, immobile, untrained and unshaped, yet the infant possesses greater power than all just by being open to all forms and all levels of growth. Likewise, while God is entirely simple, yet He contains within Himself the fullness of being and all possible forms of created beings. Consider William Riordan’s comments in Divine Light (2008, Ignatius Press, p. 128) on Denys the Areopagite’s theology of the divine names:

God is described as great [μέγας] because of the multitude of His gifts (δορεάς: doreas), which are the perfections that He gives to His creatures. The myriads of creatures come forth as outgushings or springs (τὰς πεγαίας: tas pegaias) from Him, and yet He is in no way diminished. … But God is celebrated as small [μιχρός: micros] because He, in His perfections, “penetrates without hindrance through everything” (το διὰ πάντων αχωλύτως χωροΰν: to dia panton akolutos choroun). … Denys is drawing attention to God as the Small, who as Wisdom, permeates all beings.

Nor is there any shortness of apophaticism in Hinduism. Indeed, I think this sort of “natural apophatic-theology” is a classical component of all great human traditions. Even modern exact science has come to realize, grudgingly for some, perhaps, that even our best models are always true-but-only-rough and tentative approximations of natural reality. Our most secular theories, then, are subject to the a kind of Scholastic via remotionis. As Niels Bohr said, “If you think you can talk about quantum theory without feeling dizzy, you haven’t understood the first word about it (Wenn es Ihnen beim Studium der Quantenmechanik nicht schwindelig wird, dann haben Sie sie nicht wirklich verstanden).” Coincidentally enough, Bohr was a Daoist most famous for his Taiji-like principle of complementarity.

There is, thus, an apophatic humility proper not only to most philosophical traditions but also to modern natural science itself. I think this is so because all reality stems from God in variously analogical levels of likeness to and conformity with His own supernature. Even in personal relationships, we come to see that there is an inner mystery about even our most intimate friends which surpasses, remotionally, as it were, our most complete descriptions of them and our most vivid experiences with them. Nothing fully discloses itself in purely cataphatic terms, not even a stone. Thus, existence reflects the Creator’s revealed hiddenness in levels of analogy proper to their own corresponding laws of being.

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