Eastern Orthodoxy commonly describes its theology as “apophatic.” The word means, “Unspeakable.” It is perhaps the most important point within Orthodox thought: when speaking of God, we are always saying things that cannot be said. It does not mean that nothing should be said (though this is often a good idea). It means that no matter what we say, the subject that lies at the heart of our speech is not the same thing as our speech. We do not worship words – we worship the Word.
The various forms of rationalism that have come to dominate modern Christian thought have almost destroyed true theology. Fundamentalist rationalism speaks with an assurance that borders on blasphemy, while liberal angst loses itself within its own rational conundrums. God is not an idea. He cannot be manipulated, studied, poked and prodded nor is the text of Scripture a rational cookbook for the knowledge of God. God transcends human thought, and when known, is only known by way of personal gift.
Such statements are normative in Orthodox teaching. As we approach God we are told to walk slowly, and finally, to stand still. More than “standing” still, we are told to “be still.” The calmness and silence of such stillness refers to the noise of our own reason and emotions. The inner conflict produced by life in the world is easily projected onto the screen of the universe, yielding an imaginary God. Only true stillness can allow the projection to dissipate.
The so-called “Masters of Suspicion” (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche) have long ago demolished certain “gods of men” (in the words of philosopher Paul Ricouer). There is a recognition that many images of God are nothing more than our cultural or psychological projections. Whether as divinized “father figure,” or “wish fulfillment,” such imaginary gods are less than useless for believers. Many things that are attributed to God today (think, “Facebook Meme”), are simply cultural values underwritten with the cachet of religion.
The struggle to know God goes to the very core of our existence. It is not a struggle to believe an idea. It is as much a struggle to know ourselves and our place within creation. It is in this context that the Elder Sophrony will write and speak of “standing before the abyss.” The “abyss” can be many things: human suffering, our own death, the existence/non-existence of God, the opacity of the universe.
The witness of the Christian faith is that the God-who-cannot-be-spoken has made Himself known in the God/Man, Jesus Christ. It also witnesses that through Christ we can have true communion/participation in the life of the God-who-cannot-be-spoken. But this great mystery, which we “proclaim from the rooftops,” remains a mystery into which we enter. The Incarnation does not reduce the mystery and make it manageable: it opens the mystery and makes it accessible.
I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:24-27).
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