In the Beginning, God created; and eventually that led to you and me (Genesis 1:1). When God created the world, he had you and me in mind. We are here for a reason. God created the world with more meaning than we could imagine. It’s our God-given purpose to discover that meaning, and how we fit within it. That, to me, is the Gospel.
When I was nine years old, I became a Christian. When I was nine, I was baptized into The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. I wasn’t baptized into a religion, a cultural phenomenon, a social club, or a human community. I was reconnected to the source and fullness of all created and non-created reality. That’s pretty big. That’s too big to comprehend.
When something is too big to comprehend, we make it smaller, so we can understand it. Religion is the attempt to make the unexplainable explainable. The Christian religion has a rich and diverse history of trying to explain an unexplainable God. That’s what we call Christian tradition. There are different aspects and approaches in that attempt. The best way I’ve found to explain those different approaches, in the broadest terms, is through these two words; Cataphatic and Apophatic. Cataphatic means “positive,” and Apophatic means “negative.” In more clear terms, Cataphatic refers to what can be known of God, and Apophatic refers to what can’t be known. Why is there any focus dedicated to what can’t be known about God? If we can’t know it, what is there to talk about? God is not a theology, or a tradition. God is a Being. God as Being is more than we could comprehend. To know God is to know the unknowable. There’s a lot of mystery in that. The Apophatic deals with the mystery of knowing an unknowable God.
Christian theology and tradition are useful in helping us understand things about God. But that’s not the point of Christianity. The point of Christianity is to be like Christ. Christ had a real, intimate relationship with God. Christ knew God, and came to teach us how to know God. Cataphatic tradition is what we can know about God. Apophatic tradition is knowing God Himself. In practical terms, the Cataphatic should naturally lead us to the Apophatic. Before we can know God, we must spend a lot of time learning about God. Learning about God in the Cataphatic is for the purpose of coming to know God in the Apophatic.
We live in an enchanted universe. All of creation is full and overflowing with the presence of God. And yet, we don’t start out knowing how to see or recognize God. We don’t have the ears to hear the Spirit, as Jesus put it (Matt. 11:15, Mark 4:9,23, Luke 8:8, Rev. 2:7,11,17). We don’t have the eyes to see God, the mind to know God, the heart to love God, or the proper spiritual awareness to connect with God. We need to become a completely new creation in order to be able to know our Creator (2 Corinthians 5:17).
When I was twenty-two, I realized something about the Christian Religion. I realized that it was a lot more Cataphatic than Apophatic. I realized this in a very simple way. When I was twenty-two, I had a spiritual awakening. My spiritual awakening was the realization that I knew a lot about God, but didn’t know God Himself. God, through the Holy Spirit, whet my appetite in a new way, to a new hunger. When I was twenty-two, I became hungry to reconnect with God the way Jesus taught, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
When I was nine, I was baptized into the Christian Religion. From that time on, I was taught and trained in the Cataphatic side of Christian tradition. When I was twenty-two, I was more fully baptized into Christ through the Spirit. When I was twenty-two, I began learning more about the Apophatic side of Christian tradition. But it was just an introduction. God was whetting my appetite for something different, something more. I hardly understood what that different thing was. But I knew I wanted to find out. To find out, I also knew I had to go further than what I’d been taught in my Christianity thus far, and start on a journey towards something else.
Sometimes, there is a wide gap between our Christianity and Christ. That gap, in my view, is the space between the Cataphatic and Apophatic. At different times in the history of the Church, that gap has been more and less. At different times in the history of the Church the Cataphatic has dominated to more and less degrees. But it has been the dominant side of the Church for most of its history. Most Christians, Churches, and denominations have been a lot more focused on what can be known about God, than knowing God Himself.
What can be known about God is easier to know. The Cataphatic is the low hanging fruit, the Apophatic requires a lot more climbing to get to. It’s harder to follow the path into a God beyond our comprehension. We often find it easier to stay in the realm of what we can understand and control.
When I was Twenty-nine, I went to Bible College for the second time. At that time, I was a lot more prepared to observe the gap between the Cataphatic and the Apophatic in that place. I remember one afternoon, walking through the library of that Bible College. I’d gone there looking for a quiet place to be. I walked around, taking in the tall bookshelves. Row after row, book after book. There must have been thousands of books in that place. Then I came upon the commentary section. I walked down and wound around the shelves and rows, looking at book after book bent on explaining what the Bible means. I was struck by the massive attempt to expound and explain a precise theology, in row after row of neatly bound books.
Later that day, I went to my favorite spot of woods to walk and pray. There had been storms the last few days. On this day, the storms were past, but the wind was whipping around as I walked, rustling tree branches and loose leaves. After walking a while, I stopped, and sat down on a large tree trunk that had been toppled long ago, probably by a storm. In that moment, I felt God in that place. I felt the Spirit whispering through the wind. Everywhere I looked, I saw the wonder and the glory of God. In that moment, God felt near.
I thought about that tree I was sitting on. Once strong and mighty, it had weathered many storms. But then, something happened. The tree grew weak. The roots grew sick. From the outside, it probably looked the same. But on the inside, where no one could see, it was slowly dying. Then, one day, a strong wind came and knocked it over.
Sometimes, it’s hard to see what’s wrong. Sometimes, the Church is like a tree. It can be withering from the inside for a long time, while appearing to be fine on the outside. The health of the Church is deeper than the surface. It takes a kind of seeing deeper than our seeing to gauge the health of the Church. It takes the Spirit piercing to the heart of things to show what’s at the heart of the Church. But a Church unable to connect with the Spirit will miss it. A Church too dominated by the Cataphatic won’t have enough of the Apophatic to see where it stands before God.
The Church needs both of these sides to be what Christ intended. The Cataphatic is the necessary means to the Apophatic. But what happens when the Apophatic grows less a part of the Church? Then, the Church becomes unbalanced. What happens when we lose the Apophatic altogether? Then the Church loses its way.
In modern times, I think the gap between the Cataphatic and Apophatic has grown very wide. But there is still a cross by which we can span it; a death, burial, and resurrection by which to enter into new life with Christ.
The Christian life is about more than human knowledge and understanding. It’s about a real, indwelling, and growing connection with God through the Holy Spirit. What is Christianity without that connection? What are Christians who have the Spirit, but have yet to learn how to walk with the Spirit? They are Christian’s who have yet to be born again.
Is it possible to be a Christian, and not born again in Christ? Is the current state of the Church really more dominated by the Cataphatic than the Apophatic? Is our current Christianity really that off-base from what Christ intended?
Is it really that bad?