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The Limits of Language in Theology

The Christian apophatic mysticism, also known as “via negative,” teaches to approach the divine using a negation, indicating what God is believed not to be. This form of religious practice and thinking contrasts with the cataphatic approach that requires affirmations when referring to or describing God (Lane, 1998). There is indeed a lack of evidence and information to affirm what God actually is; he seems to be everything. I agree with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite that when people try to define the divine nature or apply all-encompassing concepts regarding Lord, they just try to limit something unlimited. Gregory of Nyssa argues, “When we give a thing a name we imagine we have got hold of it. We imagine that we have got hold of being. Perhaps we should do better not to flatter ourselves too soon that we can name God” (Lane, 1998, p. 62). Indeed, since our intelligence is not capable of fully understanding the Lord, we cannot meet and see him in an ordinary way; our language is also limited and useless. Although the latter is true, art can express or direct somebody to discovering something special that escapes language.

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To begin with, apophatic theology suggests that everyone should try to reach beyond the image someone creates when speaking about God, his essence, or plans regarding humanity. According to it, the divine has incomprehensible character as Moses experienced it on Mount Sinai. The prophet could not grasp the image of God despite standing so close to him. Lane (1998) reasserts, “No one can see God and live” (p. 63). This Biblical example reveals that it is impossible to comprehend and explain God’s ways and judgments in the strict sense.

On the contrary, this mystical approach suggests that believers may become closer or one with God only by relinquishing self and emptying their mind and ego. It also supports limiting the use of language since God is hiding beyond “thick darkness” (Ex. 24:15). Christian religion commands not to create idols avoiding language that confirms the presence of the divine. Lane (1998) writes, “God can only be met in emptiness, by those who come in love, abandoning all effort to control, every need to astound” (p. 63). Considering Gregory of Nyssa’s saying cited earlier, language is perceived here as a practical tool helping us control, comprehend, and explain everything around us. It becomes useless when we try to name and explain something incomprehensible to our mind, like God. In such cases, we just should wonder, free our mind, and open our souls and hearts to the divine power accepting shortcomings of our intelligence.

When rendering this notion in our daily life, the first that comes to my mind is the inability to share and fully comprehend strong and even destructive feelings someone experience. Even highly empathetic people cannot experience precisely the same emotions and states other individuals may do only listening to the latter’s explanation. Turning to my own experience, I faced the challenge to console my best friends who were grieving two times in my life. When I was recently told my friend that his father died in a car accident, I was confused and did not know how to help him with the words, how to heal his wounds. It was the situation when we both were almost speechless: I could not find words to console him, while he was not able to explain his grief and frustrations. Ultimately, I decided to hug him and take him for a walk in the closest park. This place was almost desolate at the moment due to the COVID-19 restrictions and specific daytime. When some time passed, he became calmer, and we began to discuss other things to distract from the tragedy.

In general, this simple experience reasserts the notion that sometimes language is impotent, and we need other means to express what seems inexpressible. In this case, the peacefulness of nature around and tangency worked better than any speech would. We reached the point where silence began and revealed my honest intentions to console him. It somehow correlates with the idea of contemplative prayer explained by Pseudo-Dionysius, which defies language as a protective interference (Lane, 1998). Lane (1998) continues, “It is impossible for human intelligence to comprehend God, yet certain places may allow people to experience the necessary risk that opens them, body and soul, to what their minds cannot entertain” (p. 65). In other cases, such landscapes provide the necessary solace that able to heal, release us from our own ego, and bring us spiritual control.

Although the language is limited, the art can convey the meaning of something inexpressible since it uses a mix of visual and audio dimensions. For instance, the well-known film Titanic by James Cameron evokes compassion to the people who died or were harmed due to the infamous ship crush. The viewers do not need to hear endless dialogues to grasp the essence of the event and understand what it means in passengers’ lives. Instead, it is enough to watch one of the final scenes where people struggle to escape from the thinking ship. In this case, the image, music, and audio effects express a way more than language can.

From my own experience, the film turned to be more informative, at least emotionally, than our discussion regarding it with my friend. Once more, a similar idea can be found in apophatic tradition, which uses “the imagery of threatening places as a way of challenging the ego and leaving one at a loss for words” (Lane, 1998, p. 66). To my mind, music and films can have a similar effect applying images of a lonely desert or high mountain exerts on a believer, who practices contemplative prayer following the abandonment of self. It helps to depict events or things from a different angle, to reveal something not available in the written or oral form of expression. The same occurs when one listens to classical music and frees his/her mind and ego, forgetting about minor life issues.

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To conclude, negative theology rightly criticizes the excessive use of language in defining and referring to God. In many cases and life events, speech becomes obsolete and unable to convey the message or particular emotions. Unique places such as deserts and mountains or their images can play the role of the trigger to abandon odd things, stay “naked” in front of God, and wonder about his glory. Art pieces, especially films and music, can tell us more about deep feelings, the nature of everything around, and other things that cannot be communicated by speech. Our own everyday life is full of events that reveal limits of oral communication, especially when dealing with something unknown or unlimited. Is it possible to follow the apophatic practice of praying by totally rejecting language and limit imagination? This is the question I would like to delve further into next time.

Reference

Lane, B. C. (1998). The solace of fierce landscapes: Exploring desert and mountain spirituality. Oxford University Press.

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