Mystical Theology & the Sublimation of Gender
Suppose an ecstatic lover (voluble but sincere) were to tell his beloved, “Darling, my love for you surpasses the bounds of human understanding—in fact, the strength of my affection is of such transcendent intensity that ‘love’ as used in human discourse does not suffice to describe my feelings for you.” Suppose then she snorted back, “You see there, I knew it all along—you don’t really love me at all!” Would she not have inferred the very antithesis of what he meant? Similarly, what are we to make of the claim that ecstatic theology’s insistence that human thoughts and words cannot contain or describe God means that the words and thoughts we apply to him must be denials of the reality for which they stand? Let us think that here, too, something has gone far wrong.
In his response to my article “God, Gender and the Pastoral Office,” Steven L. Foster, serenely inspecting a field of battle his knowledge of mysticism and semantic philosophy allows him to remain above, suggests that I consign the mystical tradition to heresy and dally with idolatry by defining God within the confines of patriarchy. This, indeed, is one of the principal charges leveled these days against those who defend the Christian tradition in these matters: We do not understand the way in which what is unutterable—here, the relation of God to gender—does away with the merely utterable—such as the gender aspect of titles like “Father” and “Son.” Since we fail to perceive how gender terms cannot be applied to God as he truly is, naturally we fail to grasp the deeper things of the doctrine of the ministry, where in like manner the law of gender distinction is allegedly to be relativized by the gospel of sexual equality.
While he does not confess full agreement with Thomas Torrance’s argument for women’s ordination [from “The Minstry of Women,” in the same issue], Foster apparently concurs with this part of it.
Here Professor Torrance lays claim to a venerable Christian teaching on the nature of God—that his transcendence places him beyond human gender, thought and speech—connecting this to our own happy discovery of the transcendence of gender as touching pastoral ministry.
I think that Dr. Torrance and Mr. Foster (who really has joined the battle) have erred, but precisely how have they done it? The difficulty in explaining the error as an error arises from the fact that what they affirm is correct; it is what they deny or will not profess consequent to their affirmation that causes the problem. They are as right as the Arians who insisted that Jesus was a man, as right as the Docetists who claimed that he was God, as right as the feminists who confess that the woman is the man’s equal. In the same sense, those who are invoking apophaticism on feminism’s behalf are right: it is true that human language and conceptualization cannot define or contain God. The attempt to do this is idolatry. One cannot, however, leave it at that. To be half right on such matters is to be wholly wrong.1
Apophaticism, the theological method associated particularly with the mystical theology of Eastern Orthodoxy, emphasizes that God in his uncreated essence lies beyond categories we can entertain, that the symbols through which his life is conveyed to us—whether they be words or other elements of creation—must be understood as provisional, standing for the Divine Life into which we are called to enter in an ever deeper and more intense way, but ultimately unable to hold it in its fullness. This being the case, the most accurate statements that we can make about God are not to say what he is (kataphatic theology), but what he is not (apophatic theology).
Apophatic theology, however, cannot stand alone. It can never become, to use Dr. Torrance’s word, “independent.” To express the fullness of the faith, negative theology must be accompanied by the positive. The dark rays of the Light beyond light may fall upon the mystic, but what they touch and affect in him is the flesh and blood and senses of someone who exists in a human body, and will for eternity. When mystical theology thinks to slip its moorings in creation, when kataphatic theology—the theology of icon, Scripture, confession and creed—is replaced by an apophatic theology that claims to leave it behind, something is amiss. It is, I think, no accident that Eastern Orthodoxy preserves alongside its mystical element a devotion to iconic, “material” theology so dogged and emphatic that to the Western eye it appears to verge upon idolatry. (And one should wonder, if apophatic theology teaches us what is being alleged here, why the Eastern Church—which, after all, named it to begin with—remains the part of Christendom most implacably opposed to all these new revelations!)
Mystical theology denies no tenet of confessional theology. In Christian mysticism “negation” is supercession, not variance or deletion, a point which must be eliminated or made ambiguous by those who are using the mystical to obscure the iconic. Positive theology is fulfilled (in the same sense that the gospel fulfills the law), not exterminated, in the negative. The transcendence of gender is not its destruction, but its perfection. We also need to understand this clearly: something that uses the language of apophaticism, and can pass for it among those who are not sufficiently alert, may be actually anti-Christian and must be tested by observing its response to the Christian confession, that is, in accordance with what it does when turned loose in the realm of kataphatic theology. If apophaticism “moves toward God by asserting that he is not, in fact, any of the things he is called” (R. C. Bondi), and in doing so cuts itself loose from the positive theology—the theology of word and symbol, of earth, water, body, and blood—that must accompany it in order for it to be true, then it must be rejected.
Here again is one of those perils in which something true falls from grace when it denies or destructively assimilates that which must stand with it. When the humanity of Christ is used to overcome his deity, when gender equality consumes and digests the hierarchy in which it rests, when “divine darkness” is employed to eclipse “that which we have heard, we have seen with our eyes, felt with our hands and preach to you,” it is no longer true. When it is forgotten that even in his final beatitude redeemed man remains man, and contemplates the glory of God with senses and categories still those of the creature—this being his peculiar glory!—then Christian doctrine has been corrupted.
Proclamations declaring the inadequacy of human language to express the being of God must be given close scrutiny, for they are analogous to assertions of the inadequacy of human flesh to contain him. On one hand it is true (this we dare not forget) that there is a radical separation between Creator and creature, and from this point of view the incarnation of God, the salvation of men, the inspiration of humanly produced Scriptures, or the application of human categories of understanding to God, are indeed impossible. On the other hand, however, the great Paradox of our faith is that all these things are not only possible with God, but have actually happened through the Lamb who was slain at the world’s foundation,2 and by happening open the way for human conceptualizations and metaphors about God to partake, in accordance with their nature, in the truth of their divine object.
What we are hearing from people who wish to advance feminism in the churches is, however, the insinuation that because metaphors are “merely” metaphors, they must in some sense be false—that if “Father” is a metaphor, God is not “really” Father. But true words about God (or anything else) are never “merely human” in the sense that my interlocutors imply here, for the very possibility of human discourse, that is, of the interchange of true words, words that have meaning, is based upon the incarnation of God. The divine act that makes it possible for human words to contain truth is the same one that made it possible for human flesh to contain God, and is dependent upon it. And yes, this is to say that semantics rests upon a Christological basis, and that philosophies of language may ultimately be judged on the clarity of their consciousness of how this may be.
No true word is merely human, but partakes truly in the Truth of God, who is Christ. And this is true a fortiori of divine titles like “Father” given by God through the mouth of his Son. They have the character of their giver and are therefore also both human and divine. From a “merely human” point of view, they are indeed inadequate to express their object, but no merely human point of view is under consideration here, for we are charged to speak as the oracles of God—that is, to speak the truth, to speak every word as a symbol in which heaven and earth are bound together. Words given to man by God, or procreated by man made in God’s image in obedience to the divine command, have a sacramental character, partaking fully in both the human and divine nature, thus incorporating and relating, through the person of Christ himself, what we can and cannot say about God and his creation—that is, apophatic and kataphatic theology. Will anyone dare say that even to redeemed humanity in the glory of its final blessedness, God will no longer be “Father”? Or is it more likely that instead we will be entering more deeply into the inexpressible mystery of what the metaphor means? Does all this patriarchal imagery, Dr. Torrance, become false in statu beatitudinis? And if not, might it be among the irreplaceably important things given by God to connect us to eternity while we will dwell here among the tombs?
If male gender terms as applied to God in Scripture are both meaningful and true, then the invocation of apophatic theology (and with it the God we are assured is beyond gender) to relativize them out of existence is clear case of the defeat of the confessional, the iconic, the sacramental, and the symbolic aspect of the faith, and hence a defeat, in the character of docetism, of the enfleshment of the God whom the heaven of heavens cannot hold. Thy mystics should be consulted with caution on these matters, for the claim, such as that of Pseudo-Dionysus, that kataphatic theology is a primer that leads one to superior levels is, if presented by itself, ambiguous. If it points to the destruction of positive theology in the negative, teaching that only once we abandon the merely human we can begin to reach into the truly divine, then it cannot be allowed, for this is a Gnostic, not a Christian, idea. Believers, when they become divine, become new creatures, not un-creatures. They do not leave their humanity (and all that entails with regard to words, conceptualizations, and so forth) behind them. Philip Schaff’s Terentian epigram comes to mind here as a truth of the faith that abides on both this and the other side of eternity: Christianus sum; nihil humani alienum me puto.3
Who can deny that mere creatures cannot contain or express God? Here we speak apophatically. And yet, the heart of our life and confession as Christians is that the creature did, does, and can contain and express God in Christ Jesus and the power of his resurrection. Here we speak kataphatically. Hold them together, brothers—hold them together.4 The argument against feminism and for the traditional doctrine of ministry I have put forward against Dr. Torrance in the pages of this journal depends on the belief that human gender terms applied to God are icons that serve as open windows, not closed doors, upon the reality they depict. Diaphanous they are, but one cannot use their “see-through” character to dissolve them into non-existence by declaring them independent of the reality they represent. It is the uncreated light which, passing through them, partakes in creation and formed these words within us to begin with, as true descriptions of what cannot be described.
1. In describing the relationship between what God is and the thought and language we use about him, Dr. Torrance does soften what he maintains about their independence by saying the former are to be considered “diaphanous” rather than illusory, and that our problems lie in having to employ “ordinary mundane usage” rather than in the inherent inadequacy of human thought and language. At the end of the day, however, his argument for the ministry of women is based upon the independence at the expense of the connection. If the words and concepts we use for God are diaphanous (which I think is an accurate way to speak of them), then they must in some way partake of the reality they describe. If they are independent, then they cannot. One may have both at once only by accepting a paradox in which human words and concepts are both equal and not equal to the task—something I think orthodox theologians do instinctively. But if one does this he must play fair and not attempt to claim that in one theological instance this is the case while in another it isn’t. You cannot say that the language of theology may be true and meaningful (this is implied by Dr. Torrance’s willingness to write theology in the first place), and then turn around and claim that in the case of using Father and Son to describe God we must suspend the rules for a bit to make theological terminology independent of the reality it portrays.
2. In the Odyssey the shades in Hades cannot speak with Odysseus until they have drunk of the blood of the animals he brings. Perhaps the intuition that discourse is a gift gained through sacrifice is deeply fixed in the heart of the race.
3. “I am a Christian, therefore discard nothing human.” Terence’s original: “Homo sum . . . .”
4. Utterances of a professedly apophatic theology should be treated with profound suspicion, bearing intense scrutiny for Gnostic elements before they are “passed” for Christian use. I would suggest that they very point at which they show themselves false is where the symbols in which the greater theology must reveal itself are destructively subsumed. Dionysius says that “In the humanity of Christ the super-essential was manifested in human substance without ceasing to be hidden after this manifestation, or, to express myself after a more heavenly fashion, in this manifestation itself” [cited in Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 39]. This, to my mind, is a nearly perfect example of formally correct apophatic and kataphatic superimposition. The solidly iconic persists (“manifested in human substance”), within the greater sphere of the “super-essential.” I do not know of an aspect of theology where the theologian must exercise greater care in thinking or caution in articulation. The “essential” and the “super-essential” must both be put forward, yet without erosion of one by the other.
—S. M. Hutchens
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Mystical Theology & the Sublimation of Gender” first appeared in the Spring 1993 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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