SPIRITUALITY COLLOQUIUM: Difference Between Cataphatic and Apophatic Theology as a Framework for the


Posted Apr 25, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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(In response to a question from Bob Crane)

Cataphatic Theology describes God positively according to what He has revealed of Himself to humanity in Scripture and nature. The word comes from the Greek preposition “kata” meaning “down from” or “down into.”  The word “phatic” comes from Greek “phasis” (“utterance”) and refers to communication which expresses feelings rather than propositions. (In fact, most human communication is “phatic”, not propositional - that it, it seeks to establish relationships rather than to convey ideas. One of the characteristics of autism - and the societal or cultural version of this malady which is distinguished by isolationism - is a deficit in phatic communication.) According to the cataphatic perspective, God can be known to humans through what He manifests of Himself in His Signs, which is another way of saying that humans can experience a direct relationship with God.

Cataphatic Theology could be defined in terms of Arabic tashbih (“similarity”) - i.e. God “closer to you than your jugular vein” (Qur’an 50:16).

It therefore inclines towards Beauty and Mercy rather than Majesty and Justice, and towards diversity rather than singularity.

Apophatic Theology, on the other hand, considers God as totally beyond human understanding and language. To emphasize the “otherness” of God, this system only defines God negatively in terms of what He is not. The word comes from the Greek preposition “apo” meaning “from” or “away from” (as in the word apostate).  Apophatic theology sees God as wholly apart and remote from mankind and indescribable in human terms, for human language is only capable of describing what God is not. 

Apophatic theology could be defined in terms of Arabic tanzih (“incomparability”) - “Utterly remote is God, in His limitless glory, from anything to which men may ascribe a share in His divinity!” (Qur’an 59:23).

It therefore inclines towards Majesty and Justice (Severity) rather than Beauty and Mercy.

The two poles can also be characterised as the two poles of gender - feminine (tashbih - intimacy) and masculine (tanzih - remoteness). Imbalances in gender relations occur in both situations where either tanzih ot tashbih is disproportionately emphasized. Hence, the oppression of women where tanzih is over-emphasised in many Muslim societies (and hence Amina Wadud’s rebellion), but also the oppression of women in other ways where tashbih is overemphasised to such an extent that differences between the sexes are obliterated and feminine attributes no longer valued. By over-emphasizing incomparability (tanzih, apophasis), the positive “separation” between men and women which is the fundamental polarity in Creation becomes an oppressive inequity, but by over-emphasizing similarity (tashbih, cataphasis), the positive “identity” between men and women can become an oppressive uniformity which denies to each their dissimilarity.

The metaphor of gender relations is perhaps the best way to understand the distinction between cataphasis and apophasis. But ultimately the synthesis of the two principles can only occur in the Heart through Spiritual Insight (basirah, albab) and Love.

My own understanding of Islam is that it teaches me to strive to find the balance between tashbih and tanzih so that we abide in the paradox that God is simultaneously “closer to you than your jugular vein” and yet “utterly remote in His limitless glory”. The Qur’an tells us that “everything He created in pairs” and that the two sexes “incline towards one another”.

In other words, Islam for me is a spiritual path which inclines neither disproportionately to cataphatic theology nor to apophatic theology. The Muslim (as the true human being) stands upright (Arabic root QWM, which gives us “istaqama” and “mustaqim”) in a vertical position. It is true that in Islam (as in all religions) there are different “inclinations” according to the needs of specific individuals and communities, some favoring tashbih and others favoring tanzih, and there is a need at this time to emphasise the beautiful and merciful aspects of Islam (as embodied in Sufism) as a counterbalance or corrective to the over-emphasis on tanzih (i.e. apophatic theology) which, in its most extreme and distorted form, gives rise to oppressive religious fundamentalism, bigotry, legalistic severity, hudud punishments, theocracy and absolutism. (After all, His Mercy precedes His Wrath, so it could even be upheld that the balance it itself loaded in the direction of tashbih).  The challenge is to apply these “correctives” and “inclinations” in order to restore the balance between “cataphasis” and “apophasis” without bending so far in either direction so as to become “one-sided”.

This, I believe, is also the challenge for “progressive” Muslims today, as much as it is a challenge for the “authoritarian” ones. Or rather, it might be more fairly stated that the challenge for the authoritarian ones is greater, because it is they who have disproportionately emphasized tanzih to such a degree that they have unbalanced Islam, confusing divine immutability with human immovability and fixity, and divine authority with human authoritarianism.

You suggest a reassessment of Teilhard, but it seems to me that he is a prime example of the other kind of imbalance: of precedence so disproportionately attributed to tashbih, that he is no longer interested in God, but becomes swallowed up by the “beauty” of the world.  He makes this clear in his own confession: ’ If in consequence of some inner subversion, I should lose successively my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, my faith in the Spirit, it seems to me that I would continue to believe I the world. The world - the value, the infallibility and the goodness of the world - this is, in the last analysis, the first and only thing in which I believe’.”

This is the statement of a man unbalanced by cataphasis, the statement of a man who believed in the infallibility of the world, not of God, faith in Whom can even be dispensed with, and his entire corpus is an attempt to subvert faith in God to a belief in the infallibility and pre-eminence of the world. As Titus Burckhardt says, the novelty of the thesis of Teilhard de Chardin lies in its being “a Trojan horse to introduce materialism and progressivism into the very bosom of religion”. According to Teilhard, “intelligence itself, including all that is deepest in it, all that is implicitly divine, is subject to change; it ‘evolves’and thus it has “no fixed and immutable content”, an idea utterly at variance with the form and spirit of Christanity and with all religious faith. The “immutable” content is, of course, the dimension of tanzih.

For two opposing views on whether cataphatic or apophatic theology should have precedence, have a look at

1. http://eclecticsatyr.hostultra.com/cataphatic.htm
which gives precedence to cataphatic theology (i.e. tashbih - lit. “similarity”, the nearness of God) over apophatic theology (tanzih - the incomparability and remoteness of God).  Interesting reference to Ibn Taimiyyah here.

2. Osho’s Commentary on Dionysius the Areopagite, Bishop of Athens 9-117 which gives precedence to apophatic theology (i.e. the via negativa, or “neti, neti”).

For me, this is a false dialectic between two positions which are synthesised in Islam.
Here is an extract from Osho:

“Dionysius uses two kinds of language. One he calls “cataphatic.” “Cataphatic” means a positive language which speaks of God as Father, light, spirit, power and being; it tells us what God is like. But remember, it is only a finger pointing to the moon - the finger is not the moon. The cataphatic language is useful, at least useful for those who are very childish in their approach towards life. A child can understand God only as Father, hence all childish religions talk about God as Father. When religion reaches maturity it drops that idea completely.

“Jainism does not talk about God as Father; in fact, it does not talk about God at all. Buddhism emphatically denies talking about God, because to talk about God you have to use cataphatic language and a cataphatic language is at the most approximate. But as far as truth is concerned you cannot be approximately true: either you are true or you are not true.

“The second kind of language Dionysius calls “apophatic.” It is negative language which speaks of God in terms of what he is not. This brings you closer to the truth because it does not say anything about God; it does not affirm anything. It is not via positiva, it is via negativa. It simply says, “God is not this, God is not this.” It simply denies.
Dionysius says it is like a man who is trying to make a statue out of a marble rock. He goes on chipping, cutting pieces of rock, goes on throwing pieces of rock, chunk by chunk. Slowly slowly the statue emerges.

“When you are with a Master who knows the art of apophatic language… and a Master cannot be a Master without knowing the use of apophatic language. All Masters are via negativa, neti neti, neither this nor that. If they sometimes speak in descriptive language, that is only for the newcomers, for the initiates, but not for the adepts not for those who are getting a little more mature, a little more centered. For them they always speak the language of negation. They always say, “This is not, this is not, this is not…” They go on eliminating the unnecessary. And finally, when they have eliminated all, they say, “Now this is it!” But still they will not describe it, they will only say, “This is it! Now, here… this silence… this agnosia… this is it!”

Osho’s rejection of “approximate” descriptions of Truth contradicts everything the Qur’an tells us about the way God speaks to Man in signs (ayat) and similitudes (amthal). But then I guess all false prophets need to convince their followers that they speak the “whole” truth.


  In the spiritual life the two basic opposites are cataphatic theology, popularly known as the “yes” mentality, and the apophatic, popularly known as the “no” mentality or via negativa.  But these two are one in contrast to the non-spiritual mentality perhaps best mirrored in John Stuart MillŒs book Utilitarianism, published in 1861 just as the traditionalist movement in America was taking a nosedive, and the writings of Meister Eckhart as the master of cataphatic theology were not yet known.  His writings were condemned by arch-conservatives in the Church, so his wisdom was preserved as samizdat or underground writings and not published until 1886, more than half a millennium after his death. 

  Both Mills and Eckhart argued that in order to justify any course of action in personal or social life one must appeal to a basic principle or set of principles justifying ones position.  Saint Augustine argued a millennium before Eckhart that no-one can deliberately choose evil without justifying it by some principle in order to make it appear good.  Both of these arguments may be over-generalized but they provide a useful key to understanding the human role in reality, for both good and bad.

    MillҒs principle was that mans sole purpose was personal happiness, and this can be measured only by increase in pleasure and decrease in pain.  This solipsistic or self-centered perspective on man was buttressed by the coeval theories of Darwin that among what Maslow later argued were the five needs of man the dominant one was survival.  Survival requires the avoidance of pain and the search for pleasure.

    The opposite view, taught by all the world religions, is that every person by nature is philanthropic, based on the Greek words philos (loving) and anthropos (man), because every person was created to love God, Who loves every person.  In other words, a person does not care about and help others in a selfish way simply because this makes him happy, but because this is everyoneҒs nature, and one can be happy only when one is true to ones own nature and purpose created by God.  This approach is reflected in the Islamic concept of infaq, which is the natural human inclination to give rather than take in life and is the basis of charity (sadaqa and zakah).

  This view is quintessentially Christian, as well as Islamic.  The early Christians used the word agape, the unconditional love for every person because God loves us first.  In his new book, Agape: First and Foremost, Timothy P. Jackson writes that in early Christianity ғagape love is a metavalue, that virtue without which one has no access to other goods, either moral or non-moral.  He notes that this does not rule out self-fulfilling love, nor does it rule out justice, either divine or retributive.  One function of love is to set limits on counter-violence through the doctrines of just war.

The primacy of agape gave rise over the centuries to what is known as cataphatic theology or what Meister Eckhart called ԓCreation Spirituality, which is the love and celebration of all GodԒs Creation.  Ralph Waldo Emerson was attacked in the 1820s as a pantheistic atheist, which would mean that he worshipped nature as god, whereas he was at most panentheistic, which would mean that he worshipped God as expressed in and present in His Creation.  Metaphorically, his followers said that nature is the body of Gods soul.  Emerson himself called his new system of thought a ғmetaphysics proclaiming that nature, and by derivation physical science, is a theology of incarnation.

Meister Eckhart, who was born in 1260 and died in 1329, lived at a time very much like the present one, mired in decadence, corruption, extreme economic injustices, and violence.  Barbara TuchmanԒs classic and best-selling study, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, was designed to show the extent to which the entire world today mirrors in its social sins and apocalyptic upheavals probably the worst century in European history.

His message was appropriate for his time and still is for ours.  Meister Eckharts influence no doubt will reverberate down through the millennia.  He influenced Saint John of the Cross, perhaps Western ChristianityҒs most revered saint, who served as the spiritual link for centuries between Muslim and Christian saints, since all his teachings in Andalucia had been well developed by Muslims centuries earlier.  Meister Eckhart still serves as the counter-weight to Augustinian dualism, which presupposes an almost Manichean dichotomy between heaven and earth, the City of God being good, and the city of man being evil.  Muslims exhibit this same dualism in the standoff between the Wahhabis, who claim that the material world or dunya is evil, nothing but a toilet,Ӕ and the Sufis, who generally claim that everything that God has created is inherently good and beautiful.

Major modern thinkers credit Meister Eckhart with deeply influencing their entire outlook on life.  They range from the Hindu, Ananda Coomaraswamy, who represents the traditionalist movement among the educated Hindus; to Carl Jung, who credits Eckhart with giving him the keyӔ to opening the way to grasp what liberation means for modern psychology; to Teilhard de Chardin, the paleontologist who introduced the concept of spiritual evolution; to Thomas Merton, who in his final years introduced the wisdom of Buddhism into Christian theology during the l960s and may still be the most influential single theologian in Christianity today. 

Meister Eckhart is influential today not so much directly, but because his cataphatic or hope-filled and joy-radiating Christianity fed the most significant movements of Western cultural and intellectual history.  It has even been credited with the Protestant Reformation inaugurated by one of his followers, Martin Luther.  Eckharts theology has served for centuries as the undercover yet highly influential counter to the apophatic or catastrophist theology that spawned Hobbes and Hitler and Osama bin Laden. 

EckhartҒs creation-centered spirituality does not constitute worship of Creation but rather of its Creator.  Its reverence for nature is a path to God.  This contrasts with the view of the immensely influential theologian, Thomas a Kempis, who wrote in his The Imitation of Christ, Book III, chapter 42, If you look at the creation, the Creator withdraws from you.Ӕ

For Eckhart, compassion, agape, and its translation into social justice are more important than contemplation.  Justice is essential to both order and freedom, and its practice is the key to happiness.  Eckhart was a forerunner of the modern eco-revolutionaries because he held all Creation sacred, and he waged war all his life against institutional bigness, impersonalness, and hierarchical structures, whether internal or external, that interfered with the expansion of each person as the center of the universe.

In 1982, at a conference of the Aspen Institute in Baca, Colorado, two newly arrived Tibetan monks were asked to explain in five minutes the principles of Buddhism.  They laughed and said they can explain Buddhism in one minute.  Hinayana Buddhism teaches that one should distance oneself from ones attachments to the world.  Mahayana Buddhism teaches that, once this is accomplished, one should become aware of what is beyond the world, call it nothing, or no-thing, or the non-material, or nirvana; and Tantrayana Buddhism teaches that once one has done this, one will want to bring compassion and social justice to the world and everyone in it. One Muslim laughed in return and remarked, ғYou have just summarized Islam in thirty seconds.

The four-fold path of Meister Eckhart is nearly identical, except that he phrases it differently.  Once one has experienced the divine in Creation, the first path is to experience God by letting go and letting be.  The second is to experience God in breakthrough and giving birth to Self and God.  And the third is to experience God by way of compassion and justice.

He taught that because of the goodness of God, the Word of God, which is Creation, is also good, which gives the cataphatic or yesӔ dimension to his spirituality.  He redefined humanity and every human being as a blessing to others by way of creativity and compassion, and taught that other creatures on earth and throughout the universe bless the rest of us unconsciously, as the Quran says ғin ways you do not understand.  His key words for the nature of the universe are ԓrejoicing and ԓcelebration.  If we can let go of our fear of nothingness and our resulting tendency to grab, control, dictate, and possess, then we can ԓsink into the blessing and grace that Creation is all about, and into its Creator and even more deeply into the God beyond the Creator God who is the Godhead.  In this he was reflecting the Islamically acceptable teaching that the three principal attributes of Allah, the Creator (Father), Compassionate and Forgiver (Son), and the All-knowing and Giver of Grace (the Holy Spirit) are just that, the essential attributes but not the Being of God, and that we, like God, can create and be compassionate.  Creativity is the work of God within us, which we must let flow out of us so that beauty and blessing may be shared.  Compassion, derivative from God, involves ԓmystical consciousness of the interdependence of all beings, and the ԓprophetic birthing of justice.  Perhaps the most well-known Roman Catholic theologian today, Hans Kung, has been forbidden to teach in any Catholic university because he teaches precisely what Meister Eckhart pioneered in Christian theology centuries ago.

Eckhart taught that to create justice one must have experienced oneness and mystical compassion.  The spiritual journey is from creation to a new creation, from compassion as the source of our origin to compassion as our purpose for being. 

For this we need what Eckhard called a Durchbruch or breakthrough, and Rabbi Michael Lerner calls the vision of a ԓnew bottom line. Both of these spiritual giants call for prophecy with mysticism, that is, a compassionately oriented spirituality that leads to social justice along with a deep growth in consciousness.  They invoke a deep reverence for the mystery and artist in us and in our midst, and for laughter and joy as core elements of spirituality.  They call for simplicity instead of fanciful spiritual methods, and for a recognition that everyone, not only organized spiritual adepts, can be mystics and give birth to the divine.  They call for what one might call Franciscan spirituality, after St. Francis of Assisi, whose life mission was not only to revive Christianity in a disintegrating European civilization but to overcome the triumphalist crusading mentality of his era and seek God together with the Muslims.

Meister Eckhart emphasized nine major issues in the essence of spirituality and in the resulting practice of moral theology: the holiness of being, the basic goodness of creation, trust in human nature, the harmony of soul and body, the potential of human nature to develop, the equality and dignity of woman, the role of anger and moral outrage, both moral and institutional injustice as a sin, and the reconcilability of mysticism and prophecy.

He developed further AquinasԒs exploration of topics that earned Aquinas official condemnation by the Church at least three different times, namely, panentheism, realized eschatology, the divinization of humanity, creativity, and the marriage of being and consciousness resulting in compassion as the culmination of spiritual experience.  He believed, as do the Muslim Sufis, that transcendence is not necessarily upӔ Olympian style as in Hellenistic Christianity, but rather within, as in the Celtic spirituality, expressed in one of the great heresiesӔ of Christianity, Pelagianism, which stemmed perhaps originally from the Bhagavad-Gita in India.

Eckharts creation centered spirituality, which focused on creative birthing rather than on ascetic denial, was perhaps the opposite of the fall/redemption tradition focused on original sin, on cleansing from this sin, on actual sin (particularly in pride and lust), heaven versus hell, body versus soul, woman as temptress, introverted versus extroverted meditation, and contemplation versus action, especially commitment and action to provide alternatives to religious, political, and economic systems of injustice and oppression.  He opposed equally Jansenist dualisms, Cartesian rationalisms, and emotional sentimentality.

Meister Eckhart inherited Thomas AquinasҒs chair at the University of Paris, who died just as Eckhart was entering the Dominican Order.  Eckhart was a German populist at a time when the dry scholasticism of Thomas Aquinass early years, which he borrowed from the Muslim philosophers, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina, was becoming irrelevant to EuropeҒs deep societal crises.  Only in his last months of life, did Thomas Aquinas understand Eckharts heartfelt invocation: ғI pray God to rid me of God.

Like the mystic expressions of the Sufi saint, Hallaj, who was hung for associating himself with Allah, EckhartԒs language, or any language, is not adequate to express the inexpressible.  Nevertheless, those who understand him can understand him.  The great writer is said to be the one who can say what others understand but cannot express.  Tragedy may befall the person who follows experientially-based thinking and theology and is only part way along a path, such as Hallaj, who was perhaps part way along the equivalent of the Mahayana path but in his wahdat al shuhud was blinded to a higher awareness of the infinite difference between the Creator and the Created.

All such dialectical thinking produces paradoxical and even oxymoronic language.  Eckhart was condemned posthumously in the Inquisition by one of the Roman Catholic Churchs worst popes, because in matters of religion such language is shocking, especially to those who for their own personal gain dare to pose as intermediaries between man and truth.  Considering the source, EckhartҒs condemnation was a great honor.  Both the literalists and the rationalists of today react in the same way.  And both are being marginalized by tens of millions of people who are arising from the margins and the bottom in every civilization in their search for what their own civilizations once already had but have forgotten.