Animate: Week 1

God | Faith is a Quest • Brian McLaren
“If you ask me, ‘Is God real?’ I first have to ask, ‘Which God are we talking about?’” With these words, Brian McLaren gives voice to a common struggle among people of faith—who exactly is this God we worship? Is God a mighty fortress, solid and unchanging? Is God a mystical, unknowable force that floats around us like a vapor? How can we speak of faith if we can’t even speak of God with any certainty? How can we chart a course through the often-murky waters of Christian tradition and find our way to God?

Well – we covered a lot yesterday morning. Sorry if it felt a bit rushed – we did have some introductions to do that I think were important. Next week (and all of the remaining 6 weeks), we’re going to be starting the video RIGHT at 9:05am, to make sure that we have a solid 30+ minutes after the video for discussion.

So, first off I’d just be interested to know what your overall thoughts were on this topic of God, apophatic vs kataphatic theology, fortress people vs cloud people, etc. What did you hold onto from this morning, and what lingering questions do you still have?

And if anyone is really, really interested in this apophatic theology (and I mean really interested, you can read my seminary paper, entitled “Apo(cata)phatic Interplay: An Analysis of the Role of Apophatic Theology and the Interplay Between Apophatic and Cataphatic Theologies in Pseudo-Dionysius’ Mystical Theologyhere). Also, if you want to read a blog post and see some photos of that Play-Doh prayer activity I did with youth, you can find that here.

I don’t know about the rest of you – but I am really drawn to the apophatic way of understanding God. I think that we can still say things about God, make kataphatic statements of God, as long as we hold them very loosely in our palms, always ready to let go, always ready to give them up, in acknowledgment that we can never come close to describing the ineffable God.

And that’s why if I had to choose – I’d end up going with the apophatic way of thinking about God. A book I mentioned yesterday, “How (Not) to Speak of God” is written by Peter Rollins, who has done a lot of work in apophatic theology, and along with a worship community he used to lead in Ireland, came up with this piece below called “God, Rid me of God.”

The idea is similar to the story I shared about the youth smashing the images of God that they had made with the Play-Doh. This was a prayer by mystic Meister Eckhart: “God, rid me of God.” Rid me of all of the false conceptions that I have of God. Rid me of even the good ideas and good names that I have for God, because they will never fully come close to being able to express or convey who God truly is.

But not everyone connects with the apophatic way.

What remaining questions are you thinking about today? What did you take away from yesterday’s class? What did you like? What did you NOT like?


3 thoughts on “Animate: Week 1

  1. Shirley D. Patton

    Hi, Everyone! Those were new words to me—kataphatic and apophatic. Always fun to learn something new. I think I’ve been thinking more apophatically for the last few decades. Some time ago I was introduced to the writings of Abraham Heschl where I first was introduced to describing God as “the ineffable.” Somehow that clarified for me at least one way to deal with the mysterious nature of God which is beyond our use of words to fully describe. I also realize that it is probably our nature to try to describe that which is important to us even if we know at the outset that a person, experience, divine essence is indescribable. I suppose others of you have had the frustrating experience of realizing how difficult it is to discuss matters deeply with someone whose language you don’t know. Well, there’s that same feeling with me surrounding God, but some time along the way I came to let the inadequacy sit easily–and in addition to embrace ambiguity and paradox. The world and life are filled with both and so to delight in the tension between the expressed and inexpressible is OK for me. I’ll continue to seek for words to describe my experience of God, but not get out of shape when the vocabulary doesn’t exist.

    1. firstpresashland Post author

      I think that’s a good way to think about it Shirley. You said:

      “I’ll continue to seek for words to describe my experience of God, but not get out of shape when the vocabulary doesn’t exist.”

      That’s similar to the quote that I shared from Peter Rollins: “That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.”

      I think even if you lean more toward the apophatic side of things, like I mentioned that I do, it still doesn’t mean that we stop ever trying to describe the “ineffable.” Otherwise, my sermons would be 12-15 minutes of silence, which probably wouldn’t go over all that well.

      So it really is that paradox – that we know that we cannot speak of God, but we also know that we MUST speak of God. We know that we cannot ever come even close to even beginning to describe who God is, but we must try and continue to seek for the words.


  2. Carolyn

    They were new words to me as well. I wrote just two words in my journal – Imagining and Image. (I think they were both used in the video) With “imagining” there is a sense of fantasy / non-reality. Yet the word “image” seems to often represent the literal description. And looking at those words today I realize that kataphatic is like the image and apophatic is imagining. Both have their place and both are connected.


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