Like John’s “Dark Night” poem and commentary, When God Walks Away is replete with metaphor. Why? To answer that question, we’ll need to acquaint ourselves with a couple of terms. Among the tomes in a good theological library, you will find listings for “apophatic” and “kataphatic” theology. Kataphatic theology affirms what God is (God is the Good Shepherd, God is love). In contrast, apophatic theology posits that God is far beyond human conception, and is, therefore, best approached as mystery. We can only say God is more truth than I am capable of understanding, God is more love than any concept of love I can create. Any image of God we have is limiting and, to some degree, distorting.
The balanced faith life requires both. For instance, Jesus used imagery (kataphatic theology) to help His followers begin to understand the ways and character of God. He employed parables and spoke in metaphor. More to the point, Jesus was God with us; God whom people could touch and hear. On the other hand, Jesus often spoke in what sounds like riddles.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” [i]
Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” [ii]
We spend our lives pondering the meaning of such remarks. As Job discovered, God is beyond our comprehension. God responded to that suffering man’s questions from a whirlwind: as near as we can come to an apophatic image.
Scripture dances with both kataphatic and apophatic thought and, in this book, so shall we. Image is vital to belief: we must understand something of God to know what we are believing in. That’s why we need kataphatic imagery. Yet God does not always play by our rules. When God does not fix things according to our plan, we suffer a crisis of faith and feel like giving up on God. But something tells us there’s more to God than we’ve pictured. Maybe someday this side of physical death, we’ll make sense of it all, but maybe we won’t. Still, we choose to trust. That’s apophatic theology.
Metaphor helps us glean from both apophatic and kataphatic theology, because, through metaphor, what we experience directs our imaginations toward what is beyond us. [iii] Because metaphor both “is” and “is not” that which it represents, metaphor at once draws aspects of God closer for our inspection (kataphatic theology) while at the same time recognizing the beyondness of God (apophatic theology). For example, when we say, “God is Mother,” we indicate that in some ways God relates to us in what we understand as “mothering.” We recognize, however, that certain aspects of human mothering do not define God—for instance God is not limited to a single gender. Therefore, metaphor respects the mystery of God in ways direct explication of God’s attributes cannot. It is one of the great gifts of Christian mysticism. [iv]
[i] Matthew 10:34 NRSV.
[ii] John 9:39 NRSV.
[iii] “ . . . soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly . . . We achieve indirection by exploring that topic metaphorically, via a poem, a story, a piece of music, or a work of art that embodies it” (Palmer Wholeness 92-93).
[iv] A listing of terms used in this book may be found in Appendix E.