Seeking the God Beyond by J P Williams
A readable introduction to apophasis, an often misunderstood form of spirituality which many Baptists will not be acquainted with
Seeking the God Beyond – a beginner’s guide to Christian apophatic spirituality
By J P Williams
Reviewed by John Matthews
Apophatic theology and spirituality seeks to describe God by negation, speaking only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God - ‘apophasis’ literally meaning ‘away from speech’. It is natural to think that this is about using negative words with which to do theology, but the author argues that it is not about thinking that negative words are always and intrinsically better than positive ones. They are not.
Rather, it is about pointing beyond the words to the source, ‘that we might find ourselves moving away from speech into encounter, and thereafter be a little more able to speak of God as God is’ (xix). This book offers an introduction to this emphasis, which has played a role in Christian spirituality down the centuries, if not in non-conformity. The author aims to make sense of the idea that we might treasure apophasis and find it life-giving.
An outline of the contents indicates the wide range of the book. Part One, entitled ‘Biblical Roots’, includes chapters on Moses encountering God at the burning bush, the Song of Songs, John the Baptist – apophatic prophet, and Jesus – drawing on the gospels and Paul. Part Two, ‘The “Negative Way”’, focuses on stripping, ascent, unsaying and union. Part Three is about ‘Pioneers of Apophatic Faith’; Gregory of Nyssa, The Dionysian Corpus, Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa. In Part Four we meet a variety of ‘Allies on the Journey’; Athens, Keats’ Negative Capability, Narnia and Zen’s ‘Don’t-Know Mind’. The final part expounds ‘Apophatic Practices’ of exuberance: saying and not saying in poetry and prose, pilgrimage, liturgy and prayer ‘in the cave of the heart’.
For most Baptists, whose emphasis on the Word of God also means emphasising words about God, much of this will be new territory, which there may be a reluctance to explore. But if we truly ‘limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind’ and if we really believe that ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word’ (Baptist Praise & Worship, 107), then should we not be open to the possibility of deepening our experience and understanding of God through this particular stream of Christian spirituality, however strange it may seem.
The readable text is complemented by five pen and charcoal drawings by Carole Bury, an annotated list of further reading, and indices of biblical references and names and subjects.
John Matthews is a retired Baptist minister living in Rushden, Northants