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Seeking the God Beyond, by J.P. Williams

04 January 2019

John Binns on a guide to the via negativa

IF GOD is infinitely great how can we come to know him? This is an ultimate question of faith. As Augustine put it in a short sentence quoted in this book, “If you can understand it, it isn’t God.”

The apophatic tradition of theology is a rigorously logical approach to this situation that we all find ourselves in. It recognises that, if God is beyond and unknowable, then we have to find ways of knowing what can’t be known. The way is called apophaticism. This word comes from the Greek “apo” or “away from” and “phasis” or speech.

The book guides us through this rich tradition of apophatic theology. We start by looking at the passages of the Bible where God is intimately known — by Moses and John the Baptist; in that classic text of mystical theology, the Song of Songs; and in the life of Christ. Then we explore some of the metaphors used for this unknowing, such as stripping away of what is not necessary, climbing up a mountain, and growing close in a longing love. Among the practitioners of this method are Gregory of Nyssa, the pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa; and also some unexpected guides from other disciplines, the poet John Keats, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, and Zen Buddhist masters.

This book does not attempt to be a comprehensive history of apophatic theology, although for those who want to study further there is full reference to the available literature. The title makes clear that it’s about spirituality and it’s for everyone. It is very practical. There are quotations from the great theologians, insights into scripture, connections with the worlds of literature, scientific discovery, and much more, encouragement to draw on other faith traditions. It also helps us to enter fully into the life of the Church, with its public liturgy as well as methods of prayer and contemplation, to discover and deepen this relationship of intimate love of God.

If the Church is to live and grow, it must nurture the life-giving knowledge of God, and teach it to its members. This very practical guide sets out to do just that.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.

Seeking the God Beyond: A beginner’s guide to Christian apophatic spirituality
J. P. Williams
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

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