Be careful when you feel confident in your knowledge of God: '...But Jesus answered and said to them, "You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God..." (Matthew 22:29)'

Welcome to The Red Cell!

If this is your first visit here, please take a moment to peruse the posts and comments. Try to see things from the vantage point of someone who does not know God.

The "Red Cell Thoughts" are not to be taken as a position of this blog- they are meant to stir thought. Please feel free to post other thoughts, questions, and possible answers. All posts are anonymous, but feel free to provide your name if you so desire. The Red Cell facilitators reserve the right to edit comments that are rude or offensive. Having said that, a little bit of offensiveness may be allowed- because if we offend no-one, then we might not be working hard enough! Remember, the Christian religion was founded on questioning the prevailing wisdom of the day and the Protestant Reformation continued that tradition. Don't be afraid to question all your assumptions.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Cappadocian Fathers and "Negative" Theology

Recently I finished a book called Decoding Reality by Vlatko Vedral.  Vedral is a quantum physicist and the book has as its premise that the basic building block of "reality" is information- and especially information at the quantum level.  If you aren't up on your quantum mechanics, suffice it to say that scientists have for some time speculated that the smallest level of existence is something called a "quanta"- and at that level Newtonian Physics (what we are used to explaining our reality) doesn't work real well- much like it doesn't work at the massive macro level such as when light travels around large objects (the whole space-time thing and relativity).  At the quantum level things seem to do weird things like exist in two states at once, behave randomly, and take their cues from other "quanta".

In his book, Vedral notes that the early (4th Century) Christian "fathers" known as the Cappadocian Fathers- Basil the Great, who was bishop of Caesarea; Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa, who was bishop of Nyssa; and a close friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, who became Patriarch of Constantinople- used something very close to the scientific method to describe God and to think about Him (These "fathers" were famous for coming up with the explanation of the mystery and Orthodox definition of "the trinity" as well as being the force behind the Nicene Creed, among other things).

The Cappadocian Fathers reasoned that humans could not describe or explain God- as God was too complex and "high" an entity for humans to understand Him and how He worked.  By using human words to describe God, they felt, would thus limit God- because human language was by definition made by humans and thus limited to what humans have experienced.  Instead, they recommended that we describe God by what God is "not" (similar to the scientific method wherein someone comes up with a hypothesis and the hypothesis becomes stronger through others attempting to disprove the hypothesis through tests). 

So, for instance, one would not say God is "good", since that word has a certain limited connotation to humans and might not describe God very well at all.  A better way to describe God is that He is "not evil".  Another way the Cappadocian Fathers talked about God was to say that they believed in God, but that God did not exist.  Their reasoning was that to put the moniker of "existence" on God with the human understanding of that word was problematic- due to our lack of ability to understand how God exists, whether He really does exist like we know of existence, and whether that word even makes sense in God's "world" or reality.

(see this link for an interesting explanation of "Negative Theology": )

"The Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century said that they believed in God, but they did not believe that God exists in the same sense that everything else exists. That is to say, everything else that exists was created, but the Creator transcends even existence. The essence of God is completely unknowable; mankind can only know God through His energies."

B"ahya ibn Paquda shows that our inability to describe God is similarly related to the fact of His absolute unity. God, as the entity which is "truly One" (האחד האמת), must be free of properties and is thus unlike anything else and indescribable; see Divine simplicity. This idea is developed fully in later Jewish philosophy, especially in the thought of the medieval rationalists such as Maimonides and Samuel ibn Tibbon.
It is understood that although we cannot describe God directly (מצד עצמו) it is possible to describe Him indirectly via His attributes (תארים). The “negative attributes” (תארים שוללים) relate to God Himself, and specify what He is not. The “attributes of action” (תארים מצד פעולותיו), on the other hand, do not describe God directly, rather His interaction with creation. Maimonides was perhaps the first Jewish Thinker to explicitly articulate this doctrine."

This quote from an article on the Cappadocian Fathers on (, an on-line journal of Orthodox Christian Theology and Philosophy, states some more interesting ideas:

"...Further, the Cappadocians acknowledge two methods of understanding and experiencing God. The first is a method of knowledge by epinoia, an intellectual and rational approximation (a category of kataphatic knowledge). [3] It is used to describe God in a rational realm of the created world and formulates in language manifestations of God in His names and energies. The second is the method of knowledge by means of direct experience. It goes beyond sense perceptions (a category of apophaticism) towards union with God. This constitutes a paradox where God is seen as knowable (kataphasis) and unknowable (apophasis) at the same time.

Gregory of Nyssa agrees that a real knowledge of God is not to be found in the created world, but was careful not to make the cognitive knowledge, even if necessarily limited, seem unimportant. [4] He insists on the absolute transcendence and unknowability of the Trinity, while emphasizing the reasonable accuracy of words as verbal signifiers..."

My initial thoughts on all of this is that it echoes some of the ideas I've had in the past that we be wary of limiting God to what we think the Bible says or what we've grown up learning, or some kind of brilliant deduction we've arrived at in our enlightened years.  A thirst for knowledge first and humbleness a close second- realizing one is probably wrong even with new information- will probably serve us well as opposed to a haughty surety that we have arrived at some kind of final knowledge of God.

Other links on this subject:

The Vedral book concludes that we make our own reality.  That trees that fall in an empty forest really make no noise.  In other words, our interaction with information at the quanta level both reveals and becomes our reality.  He postulates that we are in a "Matrix-like" existence, but instead of Neo seeing a false reality constructed by computers, we see a "true" reality constructed by our own interaction with it ("it" being reality and our "seeing" limited to our 5 senses).  This dichotomy seems both counterintuitive and hard to understand.  And that is the same with attempting to understand God- much like the Cappadocian Fathers reckoned: that we have to have the two ways of understanding and experiencing God (apophatic and kataphatic) because of the paradox that He is both knowable and unknowable.


  1. Snap, crackle *POP* - uh-oh my brain just went kaput

  2. I just re-read this post and have come to the conclusion that this kind of logic is much like pistol shooting- very perishable. If you take a break from it for some time and come back to it, you are lost for a little while. I'm at that lost point --- again!