Understanding God/gods (and other things).

Just as it is necessary to engage with the terms “dyophysite/diaphysite” and “miaphysite” if we wish to understand how Christians are encouraged to interpret the nature of Jesus, to understand the concept or character or nature of God, it is necessary to engage with “cataphatic” and “apophatic” theology.

Cataphatic theology seeks to characterise God positively, while its apophatic counterpart chooses the via negativa, approaching knowledge of God by understanding what God is not.

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

It is perhaps in Buddhism that apophatic interpretation is most often encountered in a so-called world religion, but such interpretation is not applied to the concept of God, of course. The Buddhist concept most often subject to apophatic interpretation is probably that of Nirvana (liberation), which Buddhists regularly define in ways that explain what it is definitely not (it is not Heaven or Paradise. Nor is it somewhere where the body and the soul will reunite and where those who attain Nirvana will secure all the material “rewards” they may have been denied during life on planet Earth. Nor is it somewhere where God or gods will be encountered, etc.). This said, it might be argued that the very thing Buddhists are encouraged to believe will transfer from one life form to another when the first life form dies, or that will escape from the potentially endless cycle of birth, life and rebirth because it has achieved enlightenment and thereby enters Nirvana, is itself subject to apophatic interpretation in so far as Buddhists are encouraged to call the thing “anatta” or “anatman”, terms often translated to mean “not the atman or soul”. The term “atman” is well-known to Hindus, among others, and the term “soul” to Jewish people, Christians and Muslims, among others. The terms “anatta” and “anatman” are also translated to mean “the absence of self” or “not-self” or “the absence of a self or essence”.

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if the divine exists at all, of course)?

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if the divine exists at all, of course)?

Apophatic theology works in this way. Subtract from discussion or definitions everything that does not do justice to a concept until what remains says it all. But do such reductive methods lead to understandings of such a modest or mundane or generalised nature that you are left wondering what all the fuss is about? However, perhaps this is not a bad thing. Reason and rationality may have more chance of thriving than mystery and misinformation!

There is another thing worth considering. Even where apophatic interpretation, as in Buddhism, plays a key role in reaching conclusions about genuinely or seemingly important matters, satisfactory answers to questions do not always (ever?) emerge. For example, do Buddhists broadly agree what Nirvana or anatta/anatman are? Most emphatically not.

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

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2 thoughts on “Understanding God/gods (and other things).

  1. Blodeuwedd

    Of course, Hinduism also has a deep apophatic tradition, generally referred to as “Neti neti” (“Not this, not this”).
    Not sure of the relevance of the last photo. Of course, the whole issue of Shivaism and gender equality (in Shaivite and wider Hindu thinking) is a whole blog post in its own right, I would have thought! Let me put it this way: rather Parvati than Lakshmi!! Hope you are well!

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