A student's perspective

A personal apophatic experience by Ragamuffinag
(Posted 5 August 2009)

Apophatic theology is often a touchstone for controversy in Introduction to Theology or Christian Heritage classes. The concept of meaning something by positing and then negating it seems foreign and, to some, meaningless. It is my contention that negative theology anticipates 20th century philosophical hermeneutics in its method, and to a certain extent, its goals. Through an in depth look at the apophatic discourse in the first twelve stanzas of St. John’s florid and descriptive writing, The Spiritual Canticles, I will demonstrate how the author’s use of unsaying and apophasis create an excess of meaning that encourage the devotee to push past the bounds of language and sense into the realm of new spiritual possibilities. In this essay, I will first explore contemporary theories regarding historical Christian negative theology, drawing primarily on the works of Denys Turner and Michael Sells. I will then connect historical Christian negative theologians to 20th century philosophical hermeneutics in the work of John Caputo and Jacques Derrida, by demonstrating the correlation between their method and the method of apophatic Christian theologians. I will use Caputo’s own words to move forward with confidence regarding the explicated parallels between St. John’s writings and Caputian/Derridean deconstruction. In the end, I will show how, despite a widely divergent context, St. John accomplishes very similar goals to Caputo’s using a correlating method of unsaying.

The mainstream of the Christian creedal tradition has almost always affirmed the existence of a God “in the highest.” The Western (and neo-Platonic) concepts of what a god essentially is combined with the Judeo-Christian idea of the one, true God to form concept of the transcendent Godhead – that part of God which is utterly inaccessible to creation, unless revealed by God’s self. The very concept of this transcendence, however, is rooted in an aporia, an “unresolvable dilemma,” for the “transcendent must be beyond names, ineffable.” One way of responding to this paradox is an acceptance of it, which, “instead of leading to silence, leads to a new mode of discourse… called negative theology.” Negative theology, or apophasis, is essentially a way of speaking of the unspeakable. Apophasis literally means “speaking away,” or “unsaying.” Unsaying always already requires saying, for the goal of apophasis is not to say nothing, but to demonstrate—in a sense, to perform—the excess of meaning that overflows from language. Negative theology does not seek to simply deny the ability of language to convey meaning, but desires to push past language into more meaning.

Importantly, negative theology can never be purely negative. One cannot “speak away” without also and always “speaking towards.” Apophatic and cataphatic language are thus caught up intimately and intricately at the very base level of their existence. One cannot speak without silence, else all is noise; nor can one only remain silent, else nothing exists. Denys Turner goes as far as to say that it is “this interplay of negativity and affirmation which structures all theological discourse precisely as theological.” Indeed, the apophatic is not given in some negative vocabulary which takes over from the affirmative when we get a mystical urge; it is not engaged in by means of some negative chasing game with the affirmative up the ladder of speech about God, thus at the top either to win or to lose out to the affirmative.

Apophasis, then, does not seek to mute or to silence positive claims, but to work with them to transcend into that which cannot be truly spoken. While it is tempting then to subsume all language into one unified method, it is important to maintain the distinction between the two modes – cataphatic and apophatic – in order to better understand what is happening in a text. In fact, this “interplay of negation and affirmation... [is] the defining characteristic of the medieval apophatic mystical tradition.”

The apophatic Christian tradition runs from Pauline epistles all the way up through contemporary Christian negative theologians. Interestingly, another form of apophasis has developed in the field of recent and contemporary philosophy, especially hermeneutics and linguistic philosophy. Michael Sells notes that “the question of apophasis in our own cultural world becomes particularly intriguing in view of the burgeoning of contemporary languages of the unsayable.” Two major figures in this trend are Jacques Derrida and John D. Caputo. A detailed analysis of either of these figures would require an expansive volume; however, since Caputo often speaks for Derrida as well as himself in his work, More Radical Hermeneutics, this essay will focus primarily on this particular text. At the root of Caputo’s hermeneutics is the concept of the Secret. If there is a secret unitary truth behind all meaning, we are not in on it. The “absolute secret keeps things safely secreted away … in principle;” or “even if the secret is, there is no Secret.” The inability to access that which could theoretically unify meaning in effect nullifies any hope for an originary unity of meaning. This deconstructive move sets up the non-foundation for both Derrida and Caputo: “the passion of the secret and of non-knowledge.” Caputo, then, establishes that any one text claiming to explain that-which-is-behind-it-all must be exposed for the fraud that it is.

In order to do this, Caputo—in an examination of the nature of the Secret—defines and describes the concepts of Derridean différance and Caputian devilish-ness. If the other is “safe on a shore we will never reach,” then the other is actually tout autre, wholly other. As the secret keeps us from possessing or wrongly claiming the other for ourself, so too with God, the name of the wholliest/Holiest other, where the “absolute secret keeps us safe.” The Secret, to Caputo, is not the problem, but the solution. Just as the impenetrable abyss between our self and the other leads to a pursuit of the endlessly withdrawing other, so too does the absolute Secret keep us always progressing, seeking, moving. The Secret is the tool of deconstruction, and Caputo’s “radical hermeneutics [is] a kind of intellectual fire department that arrives on the scene to douse the flames of essentialism wherever they flare up and threaten to consume us.” This abyss, this absolute secret, “leaves us on our knees, praying like mad…”

As Derrida acknowledged, one must deconstruct from within the structures which one is always already located. Or in Caputo’s words, “we have said yes to language before we say yes to anything else… we are caught up in the secret, but not in on The Secret.” This unavoidable conundrum does not effect a giving up on the task of finding meaning, as some might do (and have done), but instead leads Caputo to claim that “we get the best results if we do not dodge the arrows of the trace, the displacement of the subject, the dissemination of meaning, the real difficulty in factical life.” In other words, we lean into the abyss, while always already acknowledging its impenetrability. In this leaning, we participate in the world of meaning.

It is this leaning into the abyss, this “praying like the devil,” that John of the Cross proposes in the first twelve stanzas of The Spiritual Canticles. These first twelve stanzas are the section of the text wherein the bride, who is the soul, is engaged in the search for her Beloved, who is God. While the second and third sections of the work might present a more challenging connection to philosophical hermeneutics and thus possibly more unique insight, this first section connects clearly and fundamentally with the method of unsaying, and thus sets up the rest of the text as springing from (and indeed returning to) unsaying. In this text, St. John employs the same concept of the inaccessible Secret throughout his writings, in order to underscore the inadequacy of language. St. John also describes the ways in which this unknowing, this felt absence, actually draws the soul on toward the Secret, rather than repulsing it. Finally, St. John makes it abundantly clear that this searching for that which cannot be found is not an act of futility, but the ultimate goal of the human soul.

The Secret, for St. John, is clearly the transcendent essence of God. For the “substance of the secrets is God himself, for God is the substance and concept of faith, and faith is the secret and the mystery.” It is important to note that while St. John did speak of this “secret” God, John was always already caught up in the practice of Catholic Christianity in early modern Spain. Thus, St. John does not toss out the window all the positive claims to knowing God in the Eucharist, through grace, and the other sacraments. Instead, working within the framework of Christianity, John undermines claims of absolute experience of God’s essential nature, or full knowledge thereof. St. John is explicit about this idea, saying that “all the knowledge of God possible in this life, however extensive it may be, is inadequate, for it is only partial knowledge and very remote.” Yet, as St. John explains, God has left “some trace of who he is” in the created order. This trace does not satisfy our soul, however, but actually creates the desire for the full knowledge of God we, by his own definition, cannot have in this life.

This hiddenness is part of the very quality of the Beloved, according to St. John. For even if one enters a hiding place where a treasure lays secreted away, the treasure-hunter becomes hidden along with the treasure, rather than vice-versa. For despite the fact that the Secret Beloved is hidden within the very soul which seeks him, “he is hidden.” Therefore, any experience of the Beloved, of the Secret God, will be experienced in secret, “in a way transcending all language and feeling.” Thus, the Secret that is sought after will not be exposed when found, but will instead draw the seeker into secrecy. Even the “saintly doctors, no matter how much they have said or will say, can never furnish an exhaustive explanation… since the abundant meanings of the Holy Spirit cannot be caught in words.” This inability to put into words what is hidden does not lead to silence, however, but to an “overflow in figures, comparisons, and similitudes,” which “from the abundance of their spirit pour out secrets and mysteries rather than rational explanations.” Therefore, John’s commentary on his poem is an explanation of the secret experience of the hidden God, although “there is no reason to be bound to this explanation.”

Furthermore, the hiddenness of the Secret Beloved does not lead to silence or despair. Instead, when the soul is “wounded with love through a trace of the beauty of her Beloved, which she has known through creatures,” she desires that which is impossible in this life, to know the fullness of the beauty of her Beloved. Love and longing are tied intimately together in this scenario, as the soul’s love for the hidden Beloved causes the soul “sorrow at his absence.” This sorrow will not be fully abated in this life. Instead, the absence of the Beloved constantly and continually wounds the soul who loves him. The language of absence is not an atheistic metaphor, though, since “just as the ‘mystical’ is … characterized by its transcendence of both affirmation and negation, so too are the signs of presence and the signs of absence equally signs, are equally material conditions which signify.” Therefore, St. John negates his own affirmation of absence by reassuring the soul that God is actually always and already within the soul, although perfectly hidden. Thus absence and hiddenness are conflated into a quasi-absence of God, wherein the loving soul “must suffer her Beloved’s absence” but still always asks where he has hidden.

The soul, being wounded by the quasi-absent God, suffers and seeks, suffering while seeking, seeking the quasi-presence of her hidden/present Beloved bridegroom. This predicament is portrayed by John as a state of “moaning,” wherein the soul, having been wounded by love, moans for the one who wounded her. This intensely imagistic depiction, so reminiscent of bodily sexuality, is a reminder that John is caught in the same struggle between “facticity” and the “other,” who is God. St. John attempts to depict the absent, hidden God’s fleeting encounters in such a way that captures the intensity and desire felt by the soul, and thus turns to a cataphatic description of bodily sensuality. The soul is struck by “arrows,” which are “touches of love” that “impregnate the soul and heart with the knowledge of God.” Through the use of the clearly physical language of sexual physicality, St. John effectively “pour[s] out secrets and mysteries rather than rational expalanations.” Sells points out that “birth and sexual union are two human experiences that have commonly been associated with the overcoming of subject-object dichotomy,” and St. John does this through the whole of his poem and commentary, by placing the soul’s search for God in the contextual framework of the Song of Songs. This erotic language, however, is complicated – if not contradicted – by St. John’s self-gendering and the Beloved’s quasi-absence, thus creating another aporia. For, having established that all his attempts at description will fall short, St. John’s descriptions self-consciously look beyond themselves to a deeper meaning than the literal. Thus, despite the physical, embodied language (or more precisely, because of it), the reader does not attempt to extrapolate a rational explanation, but instead leans into the same abyss as the soul in the text. The reader does not explain away the physical erotic analogy, but participates in it through reading it and allowing it to contradict itself.

In the act of reading and participating in the excess of meaning created by the cataphatic and apophatic language of St. John, the devotee also leans into the abyss of the hidden Beloved. Caputo points to this “hope against hope,” or praying against all odds, as the mode of being/understanding in which one encounters the tout autre. Both Caputo and St. John do not cease their prayer when encountering the infinite other-ness, but instead press even harder into the abyss. St. John takes care to caution his readers:

Do not be like the many foolish ones who, in their lowly understanding of God, think that when they do not understand, taste, or experience him, he is far away and utterly concealed. The contrary belief would be truer. The less distinct is their understanding of him, the closer they approach him, since in the words of the prophet David, he made darkness his hiding place… Thus in drawing near him you will experience darkness because of the weakness of your eye. 
Caputo, similarly, discourages hesitation at the edge of this unknowing, instead claiming that this mystery goes “hand in hand with desire, with the desire of language, the language of desire, with what Derrida in one place calls the ‘promise’ inscribed in language.” Both Johns encourage their readers to press into the great Secret of unknowing.

While it is clear that St. John believed that the hidden God to whom one presses into is undoubtedly the Christian God, John also firmly believed in maintaining the absolute mystery of the hidden Beloved. Although negative theologians such as John are often “accused of posing a ‘being’ beyond being, a kind of metabeing,” any reference to this metabeing is undone “by a disorienting … of standard rules of reference and antecedence.” John uses language that turns back in on itself, and in doing so, keeps any absolute claims from “hardening into a fixed system.” Thus, John performs a de-constructive theology in the text, by “pushing language to its very limits, to its breaking point.” This broken-language is not the divine speaking absolute truths beyond reproach, but is the “language of our desire for, our affirmation of the tout autre.” For despite St. John’s saintly status, he does only that which any of us can and should do: pray for the impossible.

The practitioner of mystical prayer has not been hoisted aloft by some Extraterrestial Secret and absolved from the human condition; she has not been relieved of the difficulties of factical life. Mystics who fall to their knees before the living God in praise and prayer develop calluses on their knees and in any case pull their pants on one leg at a time. They are, like the rest of us, doing the best they can in an impossible situation, all along praying for the impossible.

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