The prophet Isaiah describes the apophatic perspective with characteristic beauty in this passage: "For My thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts” -Isaiah 55:8-9
Christ understood how the Father might be known. He did not leave us with a syllogism, or a philosophical treatise, but with men who knew Him, a Gospel, and a path. Walking along that path is an essential aspect of retaining the knowledge of God: "Walk while you have the light, that darkness may not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes." -John 12:35
The way to God revealed by scripture overlaps our cognition because as beings our mind like our body is an inseparable part of our whole person. However it is not reducible to cognition, but how we respond to the grace of God in a manner that is evidenced in our doings:
John 3:19-21: "And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God."
"To obtain anything from God, the outward must be joined to the inward; that is to say we must kneel and pray alone, etc. so that proud man, who would not submit to God, may now be subject to the body. To expect any help from this outward act is superstition; a refusal to join it to our inward acts is pride. “ -Blaise Pascal
Notice in particular that practice of the truth, not its mere apprehension, is said in John, to distinguish seekers who come into the light from those who do not. Not those who merely study, but “he who practices the truth comes into the light…” (John 3:21). Whereas in most Protestant theology practice of the truth is only important after justification in the form of sanctification/fruitbearing, John clearly states practice of the truth is actually integral to our coming into the light before we are actually in the light: “he who practices the truth comes into the light…” (John 3:21). That is why Orthodox emphasize praxis as an essential non-negotiable aspect of coming into the light as well as theosis after one has come into the light. This scriptural truth is not taught in Protestantism.
“FIRE: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars. God of Jesus Christ… He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospel… He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.” -Blaise Pascal
Apophatic theology emphasizes that God is hidden as well as revealed; God’s hiddeness is affirmed as adamantly in scripture as His self-revelation: “Scripture speaks, which has a better knowledge of the things of God. It says… that God is a hidden God; and that since nature was corrupted He has left men in a blindness from which they can only escape by Jesus Christ, without whom all communication with God is severed. 'Neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him' (Matt 11:27). This is what Scripture declares to us when it says in so many places that those who seek God find Him (Matt 7:7). We do not speak thus of a light like the midday sun. We do not say that those who seek the sun at noon, or water in the sea, will find it... And it declares elsewhere: 'Verily thou art a God that hidest Thyself' (Is 45:15)." -Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 366).
From Kallistos Ware's chapter "God as Mystery":
THE OTHERNESS YET NEARNESS OF THE ETERNAL
“The traveler on the spiritual Way, the further he advances, becomes increasingly conscious of two contrasting facts: of the ‘otherness’ and yet the ‘nearness’ of the Eternal. In the first place he notices more and more that God is mystery. God is ‘the wholly Other’, invisible, inconceivable, radically transcendent, beyond all words, beyond all understanding… As the Greek Fathers insisted, ‘A God who is comprehensible is not God.’ A God, that is to say, whom we claim to understand exhaustively through the resources of our reasoning brain turns out to be no more than an idol, fashioned in our own image. Such a ‘God’ is most emphatically not the true and living God of the Bible and the church. Man is made in God’s image, but the reverse is not true. Yet in the second place this God of mystery is at the same time uniquely close to us, filling all things, present everywhere around us and within us. He is present, not merely as an atmosphere or nameless force, but in a personal way. The God who is infinitely beyond our understanding reveals himself to us as a person: he calls us each by our name and we answer him. Between ourselves and the transcendent God there is a relationship of love similar in kind to that between each of us and those other human beings dearest to us. We know other humans through our love for them, and through theirs for us. So it is with God. In the words of St. Nicholas Cabasilas, God our King is
‘more affectionate than any friend,
more just than any ruler,
more loving than any father,
more a part of us than our own limbs,
more necessary to us than our own heart’
These then are the two ‘poles’ in man’s experience of the Divine, God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than anything else. And we find, paradoxically, that these two ‘poles’ do not cancel one another out: on the contrary, the more we are attracted to the one ‘pole’, the more vividly we become aware of the other at the same time. Advancing on the Way, each finds that God grows ever more intimate and ever more distant, well known and yet unknown –well known in the smallest child, incomprehensible to the most brilliant theologian. God dwells in ‘light unapproachable’, yet man stands in his presence with loving confidence and addresses him as friend… We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery, God is not so much the object of knowledge as the cause of our wonder… Our theology is to a large extent symbolic. Yet symbols alone are insufficient to convey transcendence and the ‘otherness’ of God. To point at the mysterium we need to use negative as well as affirmative statements, saying what God is not rather than what He is. Without this use of the way of negation, or what is called the apopathic approach our talk about God becomes gravely misleading. All that we affirm concerning God, however correct, however, falls far short of the living truth… In the Creed we do not say ‘I believe that there is a God,’ we say ‘I believe in one God.’ Between belief that and belief in there is a crucial distinction. It is possible for me to believe that someone or something exists, and yet for this belief to have no practical effect on my life… I say to a much-loved friend, ‘I believe in you,’ I am doing far more than expressing a belief that this person exists. ‘I believe in you’ means: I rely upon you, I put my full trust in you and hope in you. And that is what we are saying to God in the Creed.
Faith in God, then, is not at all the same as the kind of logical certainty that we attain in Euclidian geometry. God is not the conclusion to an end process of reasoning, the solution to a mathematical problem. To believe in God is not to accept the possibility of his existence because it has been ‘proved’ but it is to put our trust in the One whom we know and love. Faith is not the supposition that something might be true, but the assurance that someone is there.
ESSENCE AND ENERGIES
“To indicate the two ‘poles’ of God’s relationship to us –unknown and yet well known, hidden yet revealed- the Orthodox tradition draws a distinction between the essence, nature or inner being of God, on the one hand, and his energies, operations or acts of power, on the other.
‘He is outside all things according to his essence’ writes St. Athanasius, ‘but he is in all things through his acts of power.’ ‘We know the essence through the energy’, St. Basil affirms. ‘No one has ever seen the essence of God, but we believe in the essence because we experience the energy.’ By the essence of God is meant his otherness, by the energies, his nearness. Because God is a mystery beyond our understanding, we shall never know his essence or inner being, either in this life or in the Age to come. If we know the divine essence, it would follow that we knew God in the same way he knows himself, and this we cannot ever do, since he is Creator and we are created. But while God’s inner essence is for ever beyond our comprehension, his energies, grace, life and power fill the whole universe, and are directly accessible to us.
“The essence, then, signifies the radical transcendence of God; the energies, his immanence and omnipresence. When Orthodox speak of divine energies, they do not mean by this an emanation from God, an ‘intermediary’ between God and man, or a ‘thing’ or ‘gift’ that God bestows. On the contrary, the energies are God himself in his activity and self manifestation. When a man knows or participates in the divine energies, he truly knows or participates in God himself, so far as this is possible for a created being. But God is God, and we are human; and so, while he possesses us, we cannot in the same way possess him…
Such, then, is our God: unknowable in his essence, yet known in his energies; beyond and above all that we can think or express, yet closer to us than our own heart. Through the apophatic way we smash in pieces all the idols or mental images that we form of him, for we know that all are unworthy of his surpassing greatness. Yet at the same time, through our prayer and through our active services in the world, we discover at every moment his divine energies, his immediate presence in each person, and each thing…
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee -Francis Thompson”
-from Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, Chapt 1: "God as Mystery" pp. 11-23.
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts” -Isaiah 55:8-9
Aquinas denied long ago that any finite concept was adequate to describe an infinite essence of God. How could a finite concept express the infinitude of the Creator? Univocal predication (100% correspondence) between any attribute common to God and his creatures, said Aquinas, was not possible in principle (Summa Theologica I.13.5). Aquinas held our language about God is “almost equivocal.” Current phenomenological, linguistic, and hermeneutical theories (that is, theories dealing with the human sciences of appearances, language, and meaning respectively) unanimously affirm anything describable in words is in principle more than what can be circumscribed by verbal description. This stricture, it is claimed, applies to all phenomena within human perception, including physical objects. One of the most startling results of the twentieth century was the conclusion that demonstration of univocal predication has even collapsed in basic mathematics! (see Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty (Oxford, 1980); cf. Gödel’s Theorem etc.). Pertaining to God, “Either the Creator must be thought of via finite conceptualizations (i.e. purely anthropomorphically) or else the creature will be viewed via infinite concepts. The former is skepticism and the latter is conceptual deification.
Theologically the validity of religious knowledge is contingent,; i.e. it is not an autonomous human epistemological category but is fundamentally related to God’s ONGOING revelation of Himself correlative to our abiding in Him: "Walk while you have the light, that darkness may not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes." -John 12:35. Orthodoxy affirms God in his essence is ineffable, but that religious language does have meaning; He has revealed Himself in his apostles, prophets, and in the history, search, and experience of the people of God. Theologically appropriate cognizance of analogical knowledge is contingent (cf. the danger of analogical fallacy in logic); i.e. it is not an autonomous human epistemological category but is fundamentally related to God’s ONGOING revelation of Himself correlative to our abiding in Him: "Walk while you have the light, that darkness may not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes." -John 12:35 Our knowledge of God and the meaning of His self-revelation is never autonomous (cf. also the collapse of Enlightenment foundationalism) and can never be regarded as mere knowledge, as is also well understood by Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Donald Bloesch, et al.
The true "Word within the words" is mysterious and revealed to us only by the Spirit as we abide in Him: Psalm 119:18-19 "Open my eyes, that I may behold Wonderful things from Thy law. I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Thy commandments from me." The true Word of God is Jesus, and we do not perceive the Word of God for us in Scripture without His illumination. Nor do we continue to truly receive who trample it underfoot (John 12:35); "For whoever has, to him shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, 'You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; For the heart of this people has become dull, And with their ears they scarcely hear, And they have closed their eyes Lest they should see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart and return, And I should heal them.' But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear" (Matthew 13:12-16).
We should not cease to seek the Word of God through the scriptures which are God's chosen witness to the Living Word (Proverbs 28:9 "He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, Even his prayer is an abomination"); but we should not think ourselves autonomously apart from either the Spirit of God or the necessity of right praxis: "Walk while you have the light, that darkness may not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes." -John 12:35