I have been terribly busy of late, and so had slotted this issue into the “to blog” tray and not got around to writing anything till now (between Lutheran Small Group, getting the kid’s dinner, and picking my wife up from the airport – bring back Sabbath Observance, I say!).
Last week, John Allan ran this piece – U.S. bishops blast book by feminist theologian – on the USCCB Doctrinal Committee’s condemnation of aspects of Sr Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God. I had never heard of the book before, and won’t pretend to have read it or to offer an opinion on it. Fr Zuhlsdorf has a comment, and he also posts Sr Elizabeth’s response.
So, I won’t discuss the book itself, but I was interested especially in this comment by the bishops committee:
While God is a mystery that cannot be fully comprehended and thus fully articulated, nonetheless, according to the Catholic theological tradition it is possible to make statements about God that are true even if they do not express the fullness of the mystery. That tradition acknowledges that there is a difference between God’s being incomprehensible and God’s being unknowable. To say that God is not comprehensible is to say that he cannot be completely known and understood. On the other hand, God is knowable in the sense that human concepts do reflect some real if limited knowledge of God. For Sr. Johnson, if God is incomphensible he is unknowable. This is incorrect.
In effect, this is about the use of the “apophatic” method, or the via negativa in Catholic theology. Karl Rahner was the theologian in the 20th Century who popularised this method. Over against this method is its opposite, the “cataphatic” method, which was to be found more in the writings, for eg., of Hans Urs von Balthasar. While the apophatic method has commended itself especially to post-modern and liberal theology, it really has its place in the mystical and monastic tradition rather than (historically, anyway) Catholic dogmatic theology.
At essence is the question of whether or not God has really revealed himself and whether or not what God has revealed of himself can be said to be postively “known” as true. I am no fan of apophatic theology, although I acknowledge its place in the Catholic tradition. The fact is that this method is practically useless for any kind of kerygmatic, didactic, or catechetical expression of the faith. The consequence of that is that it is useless for the purposes of evangelisation. I see the adoption of a apophatic stance as one of the key sources of dissent from defined Catholic doctrine in the academy today.
From it flows a number of other issues that the USCCB committee picked up about Sr Johnson’s book, including treating the language of scripture and revelation about God as largely “metaphorical”, denying the uniqueness of the revelation of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the idea that we are free to find other “ways of speaking” about God that are more to our social or political liking.
The apophatic method may commend itself to a person in their spiritual life as a particularly “humble” way of approaching God, but if it results in the actual denial of God’s acts of revelation, then it is actually a manifestation of a kind of perverse “pride”.
The apophatic method has a venerable history – especially among the monastic Fathers. But the method of theology most suited to calling a world that truly knows nothing positive about God at all, and moreover does not believe that anything positive about God CAN be known, needs the cataphatic approach up front.
After all, did not our Lord say (Jn 17:3):
3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.