Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Apophatic and Kataphatic Theology: Can God Change His Mind?

Abram, Sarai and Hagar...what is it with saints and their families?  When I was in middle school I became obsessed with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I know...normal reading for a 12 to 13 year old.  Anyhow, I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for their beliefs and accomplishments.  However, I'm not one to smooth over people's darker attributes just because I respect them.  In fact, I respect Gandhi and MLK, Jr. all the more because they are a mixture of accomplishments and failures.  Gandhi was a horrible father and husband.  MLK, Jr. was unfaithful to his wife.  Both were very flawed men.  They were human.  I can relate to that.  It does strike me as odd, though, how so many great men and women, who can be remarkably selfless and self-sacrificing, can be absolutely atrocious with their own families.

That having been said, I want to talk a bit about apophatic and kataphatic theology.   Both of these terms are Greek in origin.  Apo in Greek can be translated "away from," and kata as "according to."  Apophatic theology is the attempt to understand God by seeing how he is different then the people and objects around us.  It is describing God in a negative relationship to existence.  So, for example, my moods (largely dependent on caffeine, sleep, how my day at work went, whether my dog got into Shepherd's diapers again, etc.) can be all over the place.  God, since he is not like me, must not be moody.  In comparison, kataphatic theology attempts to understand God by looking for similarities between God and the people and objects around us.  It describes God in a positive relationship to existence.  So, the universe is an ordered place that functions by rules, therefore God must be a God of order.  If I can love others, God must also be able to love others.  At a fundamental level, apophatic and kataphatic theology are pretty simple.

However, I think apophatic and kataphatic theology can oversimplify things.  Theology is, after all, an attempt to put into tangible terms something that is not tangible.  One area this has played itself out is in the misunderstanding that God cannot change his mind.  We humans change our minds all the time.  When viewed negatively, this means we can break promises, fail in our commitments, and lie through our teeth.  Apophatic theology would argue that God cannot be like that, and therefore must not be able to change his mind.  The problem with that line of reasoning is that changing our minds isn't always a sign of unfaithfulness.  Sometimes its a sign that our situation has changed and we need to change accordingly.  Changing our mind shows that we aren't stiff-necked and stubborn.

Many unknowingly carry all this apophatic and kataphatic baggage with them when they read Genesis 18.  Some people read this passage with the preconceived notion that God cannot change his mind, therefore he intended for Abraham to talk him down.  God never intended to act on what he first told Abraham.  It was just an empty threat, but Genesis doesn't say that.  Genesis tells us that Abraham changed God's mind, and I'm glad it does.  If God can change his mind, he can change his mind about me.  He can change his mind about us.  Isn't that what we want?  Everyone who is a self-aware, decent person with a conscience has done something terrible that they knew deserved punishment, be it in regard to another person or to God.  A god who cannot change his mind is stuck giving us punishment because forgiveness requires a change in direction.  Instead, what we find is a God who wants to change his mind, who wants to forgive, and who wants to provide us with a chance to live a different, better life.  I'm glad Abraham changed God's mind.  I'm glad God can change his mind, period.  It means there is hope for me yet.

So, apophatic and kataphatic theology.  They're helpful in finding ways to understand and describe God, but they aren't perfect.  I'm glad about that, otherwise I might be in a pretty tight situation.

Stopping Point: Genesis 18


  1. Thank you for your wonderings. I would not have had the opportunity to read your thoughts unless I was studying centering prayer and wondered how the kata and the apo correlated with each other. Are you into centering prayer? Thanks for the insight I will continue to wonder and to research. Mary

  2. Mary,

    Thank you so much for posting! My "following" isn't very large, so I'm always excited to hear from someone I don't know. I'm not sure I know what you mean by centering prayer, so I guess that means I'm not into it, but the phrase "centering prayer" makes me think of the Jesus Prayer and the monastic Christian practice of hesychia. I'm guessing you've already looked into that, but if not, hesychia was a practice of calming the mind and centering yourself in silence. The idea was that if we can quiet our own inner dialogues, we might be able to hear God trying to speak to us. The Desert Fathers also have quite a bit to say about silence and prayer. You might want to research there also. Good luck in your research.