Theologizing in a Vacuum: The Apophatic Way of Mercy

We can’t see with God’s eyes, but we can learn to give people benefit of the doubt. That, it seems to me, is at the heart of mercy.

(photo: Fritz von Uhde, “Christ and Nicodemus” (c. 1896))

In what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem

My Pandora shuffle is a mix of Gregorian chant, polyphony, and New-Agey chill, with a dash of what we plebeians call “classical music” thrown in for good measure. George Winston follows Palestrina, then a selection of Byzantine liturgy trailed by a Bach encore. It’s all soothing, meditative stuff, and ideal for pensive brooders like me.

The other day I was tuned in and Keith Jarrett’s “Köln Concert” led into something called “Motet for 5 Voices” by one “Clemens non Papa (Jacob Clemens)” from the 16th century. I confess I can’t recall the motet itself, but the composer’s unconventional surname (requiring a parenthetical clarification) made me curious: Who was this guy? I checked out the biographical profile – here’s what it said:

The nickname “non Papa” seems to have been given to the Dutch composer Jacob Clemens by his publisher as a joke, to distinguish him either from the poet Jacobus Papa, or from the recently deceased Pope Clement VII.

Regardless of its origin, it’s a nickname that seriously stuck, and today Clemens is always referenced in terms of who he was not. In positive terms, this prolific musical artist from the Renaissance is remembered as Jacob Clemens, a designation he received from his folks; in negative terms, he is better remembered for not being somebody else.

A similar twofold descriptive approach has a place in our theologizing as well. On the one hand, positive, dogmatic assertions about God, rooted in Revelation, are front and center in our Faith. Sacred Scripture witnesses to such assertions, and we also have Sacred Tradition as expressed in the Liturgy and the Creeds, Conciliar and Magisterial pronouncements, and, since 1989, the Catechism – a modern trove of propositional claims that summarizes two thousand years of reflection and doctrinal development. This concrete, rational dimension of encountering the Divine Mystery is the particular legacy of the ecclesial Latin West, and it’s a bonanza for those who ask of the Church straightforward answers to honest questions. Speaking of Latin, this direct theological method has a name: the via positiva, or, in Greek, cataphasis.

On the other hand, there’s the via negativa, or what we might call the “Clemens non Papa” theological school. The Greek term for this is apophasis, and it’s a largely mystical embrace of the Ineffable by means of shedding human affirmations as being ultimately inadequate. The church of the East has always given this tradition of negation special emphasis, although it has its place in the West as well. “Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so,” the Catechism teaches us. “Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.” In short, “If you have been able to comprehend,” as St. Augustine noted, “it is not God.”

I think this is what Fr. Cavanaugh (Robert Prosky) was getting at in the 1993 movie Rudy – remember his famous line? “In 35 years of religious studies, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts: There is a God, and I’m not him.” Such is the core of the apophatic way, but it’s primarily in reference to divine inner reality – that which John Chrysostom labeled as “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” (CCC 42). Certainly in our prayer, we do well to practice a measure of via negativa, seeking to immerse ourselves in God’s presence and allowing ourselves to be led by his Spirit with childlike abandonment.

We also adopt a negative theology of sorts when we fix our thoughts and imagination on Jesus as we encounter him in the Gospels – everything else, to borrow from Whitehead’s Platonic aphorism, is a footnote, if not a distraction. This is why Lectio Divina, the ancient monastic practice of meditative dwelling on Scriptural passages, is so widely promoted today. It helps us focus on the Who of our faith instead of the what.

Yet Christianity’s apophatic traditions don’t halt at the edges of theology and spirituality. They’re at the heart of our moral traditions, particularly with reference to how we serve as instruments of God’s mercy in the lives of others.

Consider the Gospel from earlier this month, in which Jesus is depicted as hanging around with “tax collectors and sinners.” Luke relates that “the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” – no doubt, they were right! It was Jesus’ thing, his modus operandi it seems, and not merely the despised, greedy, traitorous tax collectors. He also associated with prostitutes, adulterers, murderous revolutionaries, and pariahs of every description. And we do well to remember that, in most cases, these were unrepentant outcasts, those still on the way toward virtue and holy living, and many still a long ways off.

If you’re like me, you probably can’t remember the first time you heard these stories, but try listening to them afresh next time one comes up in the liturgy. When I do, I can’t help siding with the Pharisees a bit – what’s Jesus up to anyway? He claims to be the Messiah and the Son of God, but he’s constantly gravitating to the fallen and the frayed, mingling with those at the moral bottom instead of leading from above as we might expect.

That’s where the apophasis comes in, the way of negation with regards to judging one another. Whereas we can only see what’s on the outside – the grasping of the greedy and the lassitude of the dissolute – Jesus attends to what’s happening within. He sees the miracle moments of minute moral victories, no matter how small; we only observe brute facts and actions. We see sinners; he sees potential saints.

Nowhere is this clearer than in his selection of his closest followers – another recent Gospel in the liturgy. “When day came, he called his disciples to himself,” Luke records, “and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named Apostles.” This group included a tax collector and a political rebel, rough-hewn fishermen and the scheming Judas Iscariot – the very one who would betray Jesus to his death. Didn’t he know that? He was God incarnate after all, right?

Of course he knew that, but he chose him anyway! Again, from the outside, we can’t figure it out. The Lord could’ve chosen his disciples from among the virtuous elite and groomed them to be a powerful evangelizing force, but he didn’t. Instead, I suspect Jesus looked each one of his imperfect, sinful apostolic candidates in the eye and saw himself – or at least the potential of himself, even in Judas.

And that means that, if we’re followers of Jesus, we can’t write anyone off. No one is beyond the bounds of his mercy and love, and we must extend ourselves accordingly, even if we do so in the dark.

Anne Tyler provides the perfect image of what I mean in her delicate tale of redemption, Saint Maybe (1991). There’s a scene in which Rita, a professional de-clutterer, has consigned a box of ceramic tiles to the trash heap, and Ian, an artisan, pleads to retain them.

“Do you have a specific bathroom in mind that’s in need of those tiles within the next ten days?” Rita asked him.

“Well, not exactly, but—”

“Then I suggest you walk them straight back out to the trash can,” she said, “or else I’ll have to tack them onto my estimate here.”

“But these are from Spain,” Ian told her. He bent to lift one from the box – a geometric design of turquoise and royal blue. “How could I put something like this in the trash?”

In God’s eyes, there is no trash; only latent treasure. We can’t see with God’s eyes, but we can apophatically adopt his benefit-of-the-doubt ethic. That, it seems to me, is at the heart of mercy.