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Apophaticism, Postmodernism and Language: Two Similar Cases of Theological Imbalance

  • Daniel Bulzan (a1)


Postmodernism and apophaticism do not seem perhaps the most obvious association, even in a discussion about the nature of language. Indeed, the former is a complex phenomenon of culture, very hard to define and to a large degree still unassessed, while the latter is a specifically theological current, spread over many centuries and with relatively little impact on societies. However, as an anti-modern reaction, postmodernism seems drawn to almost any human endeavour that does not conform to the canons of modernity, thus being open for dialogue and comparison with varied movements of ideas. It is, of course, debateable whether this non-conformity is the main criterion for the postmodern interests, or whether the anti-modern rhetoric is in fact a cover-up for a larger agenda.



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1 Tracy, David, ‘Literary Theory and Return of the Forms for Naming and Thinking God in Theology’, The Journal ofReligion 74, 3 (1994), pp. 302319.

2 Tracy, op. cit.p. 314.

4 See Marion, Jean-Luc, God without Being: Hors-Texte, tr. by Carlson, Thomas A. (Chicago and London: Universityof Chicago Press, 1991); Budick, Sanford and Iser, Wolfgang (eds.), Languages of the Unsayabk: The Play of Negativity in Literatureand Literary Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), especially the essay of Derrida, Jacques, ‘How to Avoid Speaking: Denials’; Scharlemann, Robert P. (ed.), Negation and Theology (Charlottesvile: University Press of Virginia, 1992); Hart, Kevin, The Trespass of the Sign (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); etc.

5 Dumitru Staniloae differentiates between negativetheology, which is limited to the philosophic-theological level, and apophatic theology, which also includes mystical experience; Ascetica si mistica Otrodoxa, vol. II (Alba Iulia: Editura Deisis, 1993), pp. 45f. John Zizioulas views the difference between ‘apophatic’ and ‘negative’ in slightly different terms, asserting, on the basis of some quotations from Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, that apophatic theology includes in away the positive content of theology and that in fact ‘[i]t is a theology that transcends the opposition “positive versus negative” or “knowledge versus ignorance”,’ Being as Communion (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985), p. 92, n.76.

6 As Lossky points out, Clement borrows extensivelyfrom Greek philosophy, especially from Middle Platonism. See Lossky, Vladimir, In the Image and Likeness of God (New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974), p. 19.

7 Strom. VIII.23.1.

8 Strom. V.I 1.67.3.

9 Raoul Mortley believes that Clement's theorycontains a contradiction at its very heart. Thus, his Platonic inclination to diminish the importance of the sensible world, as wellas his low view of language seem to be contradicted by the act of incarnation. By sending the Son to become flesh God shows that he endorses not only time and history, but also the senses and language. This tension, which is typical of Christian Platonism, betweenthe idea of mystery and that of revelation is in the end irreducible; Mortley, Raoul, From Word to Silence, vol. II: The Way of Negation, Christian and Greek (Bonn: Hanstein, 1986), p. 37.

10 Mortley, Raoul, From Word to Silence, Vol. II, p. 39.

11 Strom. VI.17.150.4.

12 Strom. VI 1.71; quoted by Mortley, op.cit, p. 42.

13 See Patrologia Graeca (P.G.) 29, 524B; 29, 588B–589A; 30, 861 A; Gregory, of Nyssa, , Contra Eunomium I (Gregorii Nysseni Opera, Jaeger, Wernerus, ed., Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960), pp. 481, 545–546. Also, see the discussion of Eunomius' position over against those of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa in Mortley, op.cit., pp. 147–150, 165–170, 186–191.

14 Contra Eunomium II, p. 546.

15 See Mortley, op. cit., pp. 187f.

16 P.G. 29, 525AB; 29, 588B–589A. Mortley, op. cit., pp. 166–168.

17 P.G. 29, 544A.

18 See Mortley, op. cit., pp. 169ff.

19 Contra Eunomium II, p. 245. On the issue of the preexistence of language, Gregory faces difficulties in interpreting the passage of Genesis 1 where, before the creation of man and woman, God uses language to name, for instance, the light, ‘day’ and the darkness, ‘night’. In order to avoid the problem, he resorts to a very complicated exegesis, but in fact he leaves it unsolved. See Contra Eunomium II, p. 269ff.; Mortley, op. cit., p. 184.

20 Contra Eunomium I, p. 683.

21 Mortley, op. cit., p. 183.

22 Mortely, op. cit., p. 187. See Contra Eunomium II, p. 481.

23 Lossky makes an exegesisof Pseudo-Dionysius thatemphasises his Trinitarianism and implicitly the hypostatic aspect, trying to explain the relative absence of a more explicit Trinitarian language, but there is too little data to support his reading; In the Image and Likeness of God, pp. 23–29.

24 See Zizioulas, , Being as Communion, p. 91.

25 Mortley, op. cit., p. 223.

26 P.G. 3. 909B; I followed here partly Mortley's translation, op. cit. p. 224. The English translation of Luibheid, Colm reads: ‘They are divinely named images and we should now contemplate them as far as they are revealed to us.’ Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works (London: SPCK, 1987), p. 115.

27 Ideas of this kind can be found much earlier, in Plato's Parmenides, where the forms are seen as ‘name-giving’. See Parm. 130E–131A.

28 This argument is given by Mortley (op. cit. pp. 224f.) following Saffrey, H.-D, ‘Nouveau lieux objectifs entre le pseudo-Denys et Proclus’, Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques 63 (1979) pp. 316.They both discuss a passage from john of Scythopolis who comments on this aspect of Dionysius giving, if not a satisfactory explanation, at least a picture of the Neoplatonic intellectual framework that was the paradigm of the age.

29 Mortley notes the ‘ecumenical’ potential of such a theology, given its capacity to dissolve the differences between dogmas belonging to various groups; Mortley, op. cit., p. 229.

30 P.G. 3, 1045D–1048B; Pseudo-Dionysius, , The Compute Works, p. 141.

31 Mortley, op. cit., p. 229.

32 Mortley gives a short account of the use of these three terms from the time of Plato and Aristotle to late Platonism and of how they came to be associated with the via negativa; op. cit., pp. 18f.

33 P.G. 3, 1000B; Pseudo-Dionysius, op. cit., p. 136 (Mystical Theology Ch. I).

34 P.G. 3, 1025B; Pseudo-Dionysius, op. cit., p. 138 (Mystical Theology Ch. II).

35 P.C. 3, 1033C; Pseudo-Dionysius, op. cit., p. 139 (Mystical Theology Ch. III).

36 Privation might have come to Pseudo-Dionysius from Aristotle via Aetius and Eunomius, and from Proclus. For Aristotle a privation is the negation or removal of a characteristic which might reasonably be expected of a thing. In privation a substrate (ὐποκειμνη) is implied, of which it is predicated (Metaphysics, 1004a 16).For Plotinus privation, unlike abstraction, has no epistemological purposes. It has no existence by itself but is parasitic on the particular state which it qualifies—a view that will be used later by Augustine. Syrianus conceives privation, like negation, as a way of knowing rather than a state of being. In the vein of Aristotle, he differentiates between privation and negation in that negation ‘is true of everything beyond the one which is denied’ whereas privation implies a ‘state's absence from what is naturally disposed to bear it’. (Commentraria in Aristotelem Graeca, vol. VI, ed. Kroll, G., Berlin, 1902 p. 61; translated by Mortley, op. cit., p. 87.) On this view privation has a cataphatic dimension as it communicates what could logically belong to the subject under discussion and thus it makes a positive statement about its nature. For Proclus the concept of privation emerges from a clarification that he wishes to make about negation in general by distinguishing between lower and higher possibilities included in it. One form of negation points to a defect, to lack of the sort of being that is negated, and the other points to a superiority, to something greater than what is negated. It is the former aspect of negation that is understood by Proclus in the privative sense. Mortley, op. cit., pp. 58–59, 86–88, 106–108.

37 P.G. 3, 1000B.

38 According to Mortley's interpretation, op. cit., pp. 234, 260, 262.

39 P.G. 3, 728D, 732C–D; Pseudo-Dionysius, op. cit., pp. 92, 94 (Divine Names Ch. IV, 27, 32)

40 Mortley, op. cit., p. 240.

41 Johnson, Barbara, ‘Translator's Introduction’ in Derrida, Jacques, Dissemination (London: The Athlone Press, 1981), p. ix; Mortley, op. cit., vol II, p. 273.

42 Johnson, Barbara, ‘Translator's Introduction’ in Derrida, Dissemination, p. x.

43 Derrida, JacquesOf Grammatology (Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974), p. 24.

44 Steiner, George, Real Presences (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 119.

45 As quoted by Steiner, ibid.

46 Cupitt, Don, The long-Legged Fly: A Theology of Language and Desire (London: SCM, 1991), pp. 12.

47 Cupitt, Don, Creation out of Nothing? (London: SCM, 1991), p. 45.

48 Cupitt, Don, What is a Story? (LondonSCM, 1991), pp. 78f.

49 Cupitt, , The Long-legged Fly, p. 8.

50 Cupitt, op. cit., p. 35. Cupitt is himself aware of the circularity of such a model, but does not seem to be too bothered about it, though he promises in passing that he would try to solve the problem, ibid.

51 Cupitt, op. cit., pp. 13ff.

52 Cupitt, op. cit., pp. 45–47.

53 Mortley believes that ‘no real comparison can be drawn between the classical via negativa and the contemporary deconstructionist school’, op. cit., p. 274. Paul Ricoeur and Henri Meschonnic also maintain that any parallels between the two are illusory, see Ricoeur, Paul, ‘A Response’, Biblical Research, 24/25, p. 74 and Meschonnic, Henri, Le signe at le poéme (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), p. 403. On the contrary, the following works establish such parallels: Dufrenne, Mikel, La poétique: précédé de ‘Pour une philosphie non théologique’ (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1973) pp. 21ff.; Hartmann, Geoffrey, Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1981) p. 7; Handelman, Susan, ‘Jaques Derrida and the heretic hermeneutic’, in Krupnick, Mark (ed.) Displacement: Derrida and After (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983); cf. Hart, Kevin, The Trespass of the Sign (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 183f.

54 Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference, p. 337, n. 37; ‘How to Avoid Speaking: Denials’, in Buddick, Sanford and Iser, Wolfgang (eds.), Languages of the Unsayable (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989). This latter work refers extensively to negative theology and would deserve a separate discussion, but it does not affect the conclusions of this article.

55 Kevin Hart, op. cit., p. 186.

56 Derrida, Dissemination.

57 David Tracy, op. cit., p. 314.

58 Jean-Luc Marion for instance crosses out the word ‘God’ whenever he uses it, precisely in order to convey this idea, op. cit.

59 Mortley, op. at., p. 234.

60 See Steiner, , Real Presences, pp. 119f.

61 Staniloae, Dumitru, Teologia Dogmatica Ortodoxa, vol. I (Bucuresti: Ed. IBM al BOR, 1978), pp. 114116.

62 Staniloae, op. cit., p. 113.

63 Kenney, John Peter, ‘The Critical Value of Negative Theology’, Harvard Theological Review 86: 4 (1993), pp. 439453.

64 On the idea of a reconstruction for today of negative theology and about its so called ‘liberatory function’ and ‘capacity to emancipate’ see Myers, Max, ‘Toward What Is Religious Thinking Underway?’, in Altizer, Thomas J.J. et al. , Deconstruction and Theology pp. 109146 and Pelikan, Jaroslav, ‘Negative Theology and Positive Religion: A Study of Nicholas Cusanus, De pace fidei’, in Mortley, R. J. and Dockrill, D. W. (eds.), The Via Negativa. Prudentia supplement, vol. 1 (Auckland, 1981). References to the two works may be found in Mortley, op. at., pp. 275–277.

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Apophaticism, Postmodernism and Language: Two Similar Cases of Theological Imbalance

  • Daniel Bulzan (a1)


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