2. Clearing up

Clearing up misunderstandings

An important element of approaching ‘God’ correctly is to eliminate false notions. We have to erase from our mind the false idea that we can say anything about ‘God’ directly, i.e. anything that is not wrapped in image. God’s Reality is just too far above our human power of understanding. 



The necessity of ‘clearing up’ has been stressed in Christian tradition. St Augustine put it like this:

“God is ineffable. We can more easily say what God is not than what God is.” Talking about the Psalms 85,12.

“What then shall we say of God? For if you have been able to understand what you would say, it is not God. If you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else than God. If you have been able to comprehend God as you think, by thinking you have deceived yourself. This then is not God if you have comprehended it; but if this be God, you have not comprehended it. How therefore would you speak of that which you cannot comprehend?” Sermons on New Testament Scripture 52, 6, 16.

This is often called ‘negative theology’, in the sense that what we say is full of negations, of denials, of refuting positive statements about God. It is a very necessary part of having a true grasp of ‘God’. We cannot hope to get close to God’s Reality if we do not understand that ‘God’ is a mystery too great for the human mind to grasp.

I recommend this reading from a 6th-century treatise called Mystical Theology. The author, a  Christian monk attributed his work to Dennis the Areopagite. Carefully reflect especially on the last paragraph.

The cause of all things 
embraces all 
and is above all, 
is not without being or without life.

He does not lack reason or intelligence. 
he is not an object. 
He has no form or shape, 
no quality, no quantity, no weight. 
He is not restricted to any place. 
He cannot be seen.
He cannot be touched. 
Our sense cannot perceive him, 
our mind cannot grasp him. 
He is not swayed by needs or drives or inner emotions. 
Things or events that take place in our world can never upset him. 
He needs no light. 
He suffers neither change
nor corruption nor division. 
He lacks nothing 
and remains always the same.

He is neither soul nor intellect. 
He does not imagine, consider, argue or understand. 
He cannot be expressed in words 
or conceived in thoughts. 
He does not fall into any category of number or order. 
He possesses no greatness or smallness
no equality or inequality
no similarity or dissimilarity. 
He does not stand, or move, nor is he addressed.

He does not yield power, 
neither is he power itself
nor is he light. 
He does not live 
nor is he life itself.
He may not be identified with being,
nor with eternity or time.

He is not subject to the reach of the mind. 
He is not knowledge, 
or truth, 
or kingship, 
or wisdom. 
He is not the one, or oneness;
not Godhead or goodness. 
He is not even spirit 
in the way we understand it, 
or sonship or fatherhood.

He is not anything else known to us 
or to any other being. 
He has nothing in common with things that exist 
or things that do not exist. 
Nothing that exists 
knows him as he really is. 
Nor does he know things that exist
through a knowledge 
existing outside himself. 
Reason cannot reach him, or know him. 
He is neither darkness nor light, 
neither falsehood nor truth.

All statements affirmed about him 
or denied about him 
are equally wrong. 
For although we can make positive or negative statements
about all things below him, 
We can neither affirm; 
nor deny him himself 
because the all-perfect and unique cause of all things
is beyond all affirmation.

Moreover, by the simple pre-eminence 
of his absolute nature, 
he falls outside the scope 
of any negation. 
He is free from every limitation and beyond them all.

The higher we rise in contemplation the more words fail. 
Words cannot express pure mind. 
When we enter the darkness that lies beyond our grasp 
we are forced, not merely to say little, 
but rather to maintain an absolute silence, 
a silence of thought 
as well as of words . . . 
As we move up from below
to that which is higher
in the order of being,
our power of speech decreases,
when we reach the top,
we find ourselves totally speechless.
We are then overcome
by him who is wholly ineffable.

From Mystical Theology, ch. 4 & 5; translation by John Wijngaards