Via Negativa


One of the strongest hallmarks of Orthodox theology is its preference for the apophatic approach to God. By apophatic is meant, “that which cannot be spoken.” There are certain positive affirmations we can make about God, but there are many more things that we can affirm by what we do not say. Fr. Thomas Hopko is famously quoted as saying, “You cannot know God. But you have to know Him to know that.” In a marvelous twist his statement goes to the heart of the Orthodox way. We understand that God utterly transcends anything we may think or even predicate of Him. If we say He is good, He is good in a way that utterly transcends any good we can know. His goodness is beyond our ability to conceive. The same can be said of any predicate we use. And thus, we do not know Him.

And yet, this unknowable God has made Himself known.

This is the unique claim of Jesus Christ – that He has made known the unknowable God. It is for this reason that He says, “No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6). He was not trying to make some exclusive claim to the religion business, but simply to state that there is no other revelation of the Father given to mankind than the revelation in Jesus Christ. “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9).

All of this is difficult to share outside the confines of believing Christians (and sometimes difficult even there). The most proper discipline required at all times of all Orthodox Christians, is the discipline of sobriety, learning to live without delusion. Frequently this can mean learning that there are things you thought you knew about God that, in fact, you do not know. This can be quite difficult.

There is a “disease of religion” spoken of by some Orthodox writers, by which they mean using all the “stuff” of religion as a substitute for a living and true God. Sometimes the “stuff” can be so rich and wonderful by itself (what could be more dazzling than the array of canon laws?) that people are able to satisfy themselves with abstractions. But this is not the same thing as knowing God. Knowledge of God – true knowledge of God – will always be marked by humility – by an admission of what we do not know – by love – truly loving and praying good things for our enemies – by kindness and true joy (which is sometimes quite sorrowful). It also comes from God and is given to us slowly and over a significant period of time. Books, which can be mastered in relatively short amounts of time cannot give such knowledge, even though they may have been written by someone who possessed such knowledge.

If it were God we wanted to know, we would read quite slowly, I think, and pray even more slowly.

I recall last summer as I visited the Monastery of John the Baptist in Essex, England – the services that were comprised largely of the repetition of the Jesus Prayer – were surprisingly slow in pace. What I was hearing was the authentic tradition of the Jesus Prayer, as taught on Mt. Athos, transplanted to England’s grassy fields. I learned more about the Prayer in a single service lasting 2 hours, than hours of reading had given me over the past 27 years.

And so it is with God. You can’t know Him, but you have to know Him to know that. It this makes sense to you, then I need say no more. If it doesn’t make sense, then I have no idea what to say.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


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