Apophaticism and the Church — Matthew Nangle

Between the three major Abrahamic religions and among the many schools of thought that have spawned from them in the last two thousand years, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of the tradition of apophatic theology. And you’d be forgiven, as it’s difficult for a tradition as lacking in a charismatic frontman as this to reach the mainstream. However, it’s this exact rarity and its effect on me that has been on my mind the last few years, as I am a follower of the apophatic tradition. At its core, this tradition argues that the omnipotent, eternal God described in Abrahamic religion cannot have any descriptions attributed to it. Indeed, the apophatic mantra is that you cannot say what God is — only what God isn’t. Divinity is so far removed from the substance of our world that it is impossible for us humans, who have only ever known this world, to accurately describe it. Augustine of Hippo, a prominent early church theologian and proponent of apophatic thought describes trying to understand God as being an entirely futile action on par with a child attempting to fit the ocean in a seashell.

While I was raised in a Lutheran household attending a Lutheran church, I came to the apophatic tradition through my rejection of specificity in religion, as specificity is the enemy of statistical likelihood. In my mind, the more specific and detailed a concept of divinity is, the less likely that divinity is to exist. My most useful guides in this journey were Maimonides and Augustine of Hippo, whose works first made the case for apophaticism to me. This was most important as I sought what was to me the least arbitrary system of faith — a tradition requiring the fewest number of leaps of faith to provide me with an objective purpose to live.

My arrival at the apophatic tradition marked an abrupt change in my relationship with the Lutheran church I had grown up with. For one, there was the building itself and the services that went on there. The loud music and exclusively community-focused interior spaces of the church offered little space for quiet contemplation— a practice integral to the apophatic tradition. Even were I to branch out and consider the worship spaces of other Christian denominations, the incessant use of religious icons represents something antithetical to apophatic thought. Generally, places of worship are designed to emphasize some aspect of the divinity worshipped there, and the idea that you would emphasize the unknowable nature of God is relatively absent from Christian architecture. Indeed, Islamic art and architecture continue to be the best representatives of the apophatic tradition, with the rejection of icons and the embrace of complex geometry, calligraphy, and waterworks to point to divinity.

The Christian concept of the church is not limited to the place of worship but is also the body of worshipers — the community that fills the physical house of God. And this church, too, I have become separated from. The Lutheran insistence that the Bible is the literal word of God and that the narrative within it is literally true are incompatible with the apophatic tradition. In the church I grew up in, the notion that descriptions of God aren’t literally accurate, or that they describe the actions of God rather than the nature of God, were entirely alien. Because of my movement into apophaticism, which does not have its own “churches”, I lack a community that shares my beliefs. However, this does not diminish the role of apophatic thought in my life or my dedication to it. The core traditions of my faith are those done in isolation: contemplation, prayer, fasting, and reading.

In addition, others need not share my same faith for us to enjoy mutually beneficial conversation about apophatic thought. Explaining the reasoning behind my faith reminds me of the assumptions and leaps of faith I’ve made and the many questions I receive ensure that I continue to think critically about my beliefs. Meanwhile, my explanations of apophatic thought frequently help followers of Abrahamic religions to recognize the assumptions they’ve made about the nature of divinity. Ultimately, while I lack a church to worship at or with, I am certainly not alone. Whoever is willing to engage with me in discussion about apophaticism practices this tradition with me as we examine our beliefs and strive for a better understanding of divinity.

5 thoughts on “Apophaticism and the Church — Matthew Nangle”

  1. I would love to talk with you more about this. I also have struggled with labels with God, and have also found a lot of help in the teachings of Maimonides.

  2. Great journal, Matthew! I think an important part of understanding your faith is the part at the end, where you mention that you might not have a physical space or group to worship with, but by engaging with others and discussing apophatic perspectives, you engage and share. Thank you for this journal, I feel like I learn something new each time we talk, I would love to continue learning.

  3. I will be honest, I have never heard of Apophaticism before this post. I find that you did a really good job explaining the topic for a first time learner. I agree that the best time for personal prayer and introspection in a church is probably in between services when it is quiet. But then again the services are more focused on engaging as a community rather than an individual. Your post has really given me a lot to think about, so thank you for this!

  4. Matthew, I have a lot of respect for the amount of contemplation you have put forth into exploring and questioning faith. As someone who has not found a religion that resonates with me, I think the research you have done in finding a belief system that suits your needs is so valuable.

  5. Hi Matthew! Thank you for introducing me to the idea of apophatic thought. I personally never heard of this tradition before, but from what you have described of it, I think I can draw similarities between apophaticism theology and some of the beliefs we hold in Sikhism. In Sikhism, we are supposed to believe in a greater divine power that has no form whatsoever. There are many excerpts from our holy book that try to describe Waheguru (what we call God) but also many excerpts that remind us Waheguru is indescribable and beyond our understanding. I think I have experienced some conflict and confusion between what I have been told to believe in my religion and what actually gets practiced and preached because sometimes the two thoughts don’t align. I would love to have more conversations with you about apophatic thought!

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