Exploring apophatic approaches to mission

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Exploring apophatic approaches to mission: a conversation between Janet Williams and Richard Passmore

This is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place in April 2022 as part of a CMS Conversations Day. Richard Passmore invited Janet to be part of the Conversations Day as having heard her speak and read her book Seeking the God Beyond,[1] he was intrigued to explore how the apophatic tradition connected with pioneering missional practice and in particular practice rooted in an openness to journey with God and others to a new place.

Richard: Your work on the apophatic tradition gave me a language to start to describe the approach to mission I’ve been doing for the last 15 years, and I’ve been slowly trying to understand the concepts ever since and I’m loving the process. So, we’re going to explore this topic a bit more conversationally. Janet’s going to introduce herself and give a bit of an introduction and then I’m going to ask her questions that stem out of my missional practice, but it might help people to ground the notions of what apophatic theology is. Janet, over to you.

Janet: Thank you. It was great to listen to Israel opening the day by raising some really powerful questions: what does justice look like in a world that’s built on the proceeds of colonialism and heading toward climate catastrophe, and how do we draw on African approaches to refresh our understanding of the unity of life? What can we do in practice to live out our callings as witnesses to hope, the stewards of God creation? We all know that Israel could have said some much harsher things than he did about the way our inherited religious life has encouraged injustice and about the way we deal with injustice, so here we are at a time when change is urgently necessary. So the question is, where can we find the resources to be faithful as ministers and stewards in this time? And my guess is that you invited me partly because you have this intuition that the resources of the apophatic tradition are helpful because they relate to a spirituality of not knowing.

For me, the core of the apophatic tradition is the search for God: it’s as simple as that. It could be defined as the discipline of standing still long enough that God can have contact with us. To be really simplistic about it: if you want to get to know someone, broadly speaking there are two ways you can go about it. One is – you can find people who can talk about them or write about them or paint a picture of them; or alternatively you can hang about where they are likely to show up, in the hope of meeting. The point is this: when I want to get to know a person, if I spend too much time letting others tell me about them, I’ll end up seeing the person through their eyes, and my perception will become blinkered in a way by other people’s perceptions.

We know about confirmation bias, don’t we – so when I initially meet that person the things that they do that chime with what I’ve already been told will ring loud, and eventually instead of meeting the real person I find that what I have met is the person I expected to meet – and that’s the way relationships go sour very quickly. So, being aware of that danger, at the point where I am going to meet that person, I need to set aside what I’ve been told about them in order to come with an open mind; I need to un-know what I’ve been told. The same goes, of course, for meeting people for the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth time as well; in exactly the same way, my memories and expectations and processing of prior meetings can act as a blinker against the new encounter. The paradox is that the more you get to know a person, the more you realise that you don’t know the person. With persons, human beings and, it turns out, God, there isn’t a finite set of facts. The more you know someone, the more you see that there are as yet untapped depths in them – which is why people who’ve been friends for 30 years or people who’ve been spouses or who’ve been parents for a really long time are more likely to say “I really don’t know you” than someone who’s only met you a couple of times and is quite content with the little they know.

So, if that’s true with human beings, it is of course more true of God who is bigger – infinite! – and so we can’t ever end our process of getting to know God. When it comes to talking about God, there’s a great joy in sharing everything that we’ve learned; but there’s also great danger in talking about God, and I want to highlight two dangers that the apophatic tradition is really strong on. First, when we claim to know something about God or we claim to know God, whether we like it or not that’s a power-claim; if it’s true it means that we can speak with insight, that we can speak with some authority. It means that we’re claiming to be able to see by the light of God, to see the truth about ourselves and the world. From our knowledge of God we’re empowered to speak about God, but all too quickly that can become a power over others, and it can constrain or silence their voices – so we need to be really careful about how we talk about God.

Second, when we have some experience of God and we speak out of that, our experience of God is rightly precious, isn’t it? We go back to these moments for comfort, and we reflect on them deeply, but the way the human heart works is we start all too quickly to defend our precious insights and to set them apart and to deflect criticism from them, don’t we? And soon, before we know it, we’ve got this holy treasure – like a beautiful thing on a mantlepiece – and we’ve polished it and we’ve made a special place for it and we’ve kept it safe from harm. You know what the word for that is? It’s an idol – and we start to worship that instead of the God that it purportedly represents.

I think we can all point to examples in our own experiences where those dangers have been real, and we can point to the way that they’ve exacerbated the current crises that we face. So we need to make a determined effort to go beyond the God of human projection, to go beyond the God of human speaking, to go beyond the God of past experience, and to encounter holy reality. The apophatic tradition is about setting aside all those beautiful things in search of the more beautiful thing that is the God who is ever ancient, ever new – the apophatic tradition has some insights as to how we do that. So how do you move from sharing lots of exciting talk and dealing with the danger of that to hanging about in the hope of holy encounter, the real meeting with God? The Bible tells us that holy encounters happen in places like deserts, in places like dark clouds at the tops of mountains (that was Moses’ experience), by burning bushes when you’ve got no shoes on, in valleys of dry bones (Ezekiel), and there’s a set of thematic spiritual disciplines that come out of that. All of those places are spaces of vulnerability where we find that the resources that usually carry us through familiar places become burdens that need to be put down because they no longer fit. We find ourselves stumbling around, not quite sure where we’re going, stubbing our toes in the dark, getting smoke in our eyes – all those kinds of things and spaces are quite perilous: mountain tops are things you can fall off, they have crevices you can fall down; burning bushes have real flames that hurt if you get too close.

The apophatic spiritual tradition coming out of the Bible (and developed much more richly in eastern Christianity than in post-Reformation western Christianity, which is why you may not have heard of it) says that not knowing has always been part of God’s plan. This is because God wants us to meet God, and not just to pontificate about God; that exile, wilderness and fiery furnaces are places where God is present and drawing us further towards God’s self and that, in fact, it’s sometimes God who takes us into those places. Vulnerability and surrender, not knowing where you’re going and giving away any claim to power is and always has been a way of God. This is the way of the cross! The apophatic tradition maintains that all of those things, which are difficult and disempowering and not socially convenient, are bearable – even desirable – because that’s the way that many of us find ourselves drawn into the wilderness of the unexpected encounter with God.

Richard: I’ve got a whole series of questions to ask but I want to draw a little bit on some of my practice particularly before I moved to Cumbria. Part of the work that has always shaped my missional practice has been Vincent Donovan, the “What does it mean to go to a new place that neither you or they have been before?”,[2] reiterated by Koyama, who wrote Water Buffalo Theology (a more eastern view of Donovan),[3] and also E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road, and liberation theology.[4] They were all basically discovering a kind of apophatic language; they were discovering a way to talk about God that was new to them, leaving the language of the God they knew, to discover something being revealed, and I’m not sure whether it was a knowing or a feeling. So I was trying to place that idea of going to a new place in the practice of contemporary youth ministry with young people, and from this we developed what we called the Church of Flow because I asked a skater, “What does it feel like when you skate and ride?” and he said, “You just forget all the **** of life and you flow.” So I said, “Well, I think that’s God, but maybe we can go on a pilgrimage to discover what that means.” So there was always that tentative language, but I was always trapped between this idea of knowing what I should say (or what I have been told by others to say about God) and feeling my way forward to a new place. So much so that at one point back in the early 2000s, when Jonny Baker asked me to do some teaching on mission and what we were kind of discovering with Flow, I said, “You can’t teach it, you just feel it,” and it’s really hard to describe. But I think the apophatic begins to give some language to that feeling – does that make sense to people? Janet, can you talk a bit about that?

Janet: Yes, it’s a different kind of knowing; you might say “beyond knowing”, or “un-knowing”. There’s something about the kind of intellectual knowing that so quickly solidifies into something almost concrete, that then starts to have a weight of its own and to pull us away from God.

A couple of things: first, if you’re looking for a spirituality that says it’s okay to leave behind what you’ve already known and loved, then the apophatic tradition will help you to do that. It will give you a sense of comfort, that this has always been part of our spiritual tradition. It is not us suddenly saying, “Oh, at this point in our history we just need to give up on the past and move forward”!

And then, why did Christ give us a meal rather than a book? Because you have to eat it, digest it, excrete it and have another one; that’s the point of meals! This is the rhythm of our faith, to come and be fed afresh all the time. At one level, this is a great reassurance; it’s also endlessly challenging and I love it for that reason. I grew up in an environment where you got the impression that faith was fragile and you had to protect it; people were always terribly concerned about losing it, denying it, damaging it or something like that. For the apophatic tradition, faith in God is robust; you can question it, you can experiment with it, you can walk around it – you don’t have to be so careful of it in that way.

All of our language about God can feed us up to a point and then fails us if we try to push it too far, just as there comes a time when you’ve exhausted the calorific content of a meal and there’s nothing to do except excrete what’s left and move on to the next one. There are things that we know we say about God and things that in the past we’ve done in relation to God that we can see the inadequacy of. For instance, childish notions of God as living on a cloud somewhere beyond the sun: we all know that’s lovely up to a point, and then you do actually need to go beyond. Or notions of God as someone who will always keep me safe. However, the apophatic tradition won’t stop telling you to put down your ideas about God; there will come a point for all of us where that starts to feel adventurous. If you go to some of the classic texts, they’ll tell you, for example, that calling God good also needs to go. Meister Eckhart said, “No one can speak of God or know God. Accordingly, if I say that ‘God is good’, this is not true.… If I say again that ‘God is wise’, then this too is not true.… Or if I say that ‘God exists’, this is also not true. He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being. Therefore [Eckhart then quotes Augustine] ‘The finest thing that we can say of God is to be silent concerning him from the wisdom of inner riches.’ Be silent therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him you tell lies.”[5] That’s very challenging, isn’t it? And the apophatic tradition is quite good at that kind of really pointed challenge. Jesus was quite good at that pointed challenge as well, wasn’t he, in many ways? So, the lovely place where you land with Vincent Donovan and all the other friends as you discover a language will be for a time.

Richard: So that’s the bit that I want to move on to. So, for me, I would put that Donovan piece all against the notion of faith improvisation; I draw on the Bible, culture and the tradition and then I’m back to language and I’m back to quite defined knowns, and then alongside that I’m being quite experimental. So if you can imagine a skate park with a bunch of stoned skaters, and asking them to lie underneath the tree and be silent and then tell me what colour their silence is. At one level I’ve got this kind of known-ness; at another level I’ve got this un-known-ness and I’m trying to hold the tension between them, but in order to have the conversation I have to talk about the known-ness. So beyond silence as a kind of mechanism – what can we gleam from the apophatic tradition to help us practice mission in these tensions?

Janet: One of the best things I ever heard Jonny Baker say was, “Imagination is the missional muscle we most need to exercise.” When you realise that words and ideas can become that kind of blinker, taking you down the road of idolatry if you hold too strongly to them instead of to the open-hearted encounter with the living God, the most obvious thing to do is to move into silence. So many of us find silence is so helpful these days; so many people are hungry for it. You’re absolutely right, then: under the trees – notice the colour of the silence – that is such a powerful thing to do.

But silence can also be abusive; we will work with many people whose experience is of being silenced rather than of finding the release of silence. So the other thing that the apophatic tradition does is to use words against words, to use words to disrupt words in exactly the same way as people do when they go on a protest march with their banners. Words can be used to disrupt power claims and the way to do that is by playful, imaginative, exuberant use of words – in poetry and parable and paradox and story, and all the kinds of talking that can’t easily be crystallised into something that is constrictive. It’s supposing instead of telling, it’s asking instead of answering, it’s reflecting instead of explaining. My imagination keeps running back to one of the most powerful Biblical texts for the apophatic tradition, to the Song of Songs, which uses the metaphor of intimate encounter as a way of talking about our encounter with God. It seems to me that there are two things that very often happen when you find yourself up close and personal with the one you love the most. One is that you shut up because there are times when talking is not what’s required but actual just presence, exploratory presence and mutual revelling is what’s required. The other thing is, we talk – don’t we? And we don’t just talk, we write poetry, we sing love songs, we say the same stupid things over and over again and we develop silly names for one another, and language becomes playful and creative. So, silence and then playful, creative and imaginative use of language to draw people in rather than sit them down and tell them.

Richard: OK, confession time, in order to practice my imagination – I have a fake Twitter account called Mr Pink Umbrella, a fake tour guide who gives random facts on images, and I do it deliberately to train my imagination. My daughter loves it and hates it, but I think there’s a whole series of tricks that we need to use. As we close I want to think about the sustainability question. So although I hadn’t discovered the apophatic stuff back in the day, I borrowed the idea of Sobornost from a theologian called Lossky, who was an eastern theologian. Sobornost is the idea about “many people heading in the same direction together”. As I was leaving our work in Somerset, we were at a funeral for a young person who died and there were about 30 of us together in the pub afterwards; and they were wanting to take a picture as it’s the first time they were all in suits. One of the lads turns to me and says, “We might be the most dysfunctional family in Chard but we’re family,” and that sense of togetherness, it was a thin moment and it suddenly released all the pressure of “we’ve got to be this” or “we’ve got to be that”. It was playful language that captured where we were. So that was a bit of the eastern theology that helped me be sustainable, but it wasn’t until they put it into words that I put two and two together and understood just how far we had come. So I wonder, how can the apophatic help sustain us in the work that we’re doing is the final question.

Janet: This last term I’ve been teaching contemplative spirituality. If you teach something on a regular basis, every time the time comes to do it again, you think, “OK, what needs to be different now, what does this season require and what do these people require?” As I thought about it this term I thought, I have to make room for the connection between contemplative spirituality and activism, which is I think very pertinent to your question. So I invited Keith Hebden to come and talk – Keith wrote a fabulous book called Re-enchanting The Activist and his background in activism is enormously impressive.[6] If you’re an activist, you need to keep your roots somewhere where they’re going to be fed and nourished – so I knew that would be his link between contemplative spirituality and activism. But what really surprised me was that it was apophatic spirituality that he kept coming back to, for two reasons. The first thing is knowing it’s OK to feel, “My gosh, I’m hanging on to this by my fingertips and I don’t know where I’m going and it’s all a bit out of control really” – that it’s always been like that. This insight is embedded in the Bible and throughout our traditions. So, there’s a kind of comfort in that: yes, it’s terrifying, but this is God’s way. The second thing is it’s just the sheer excitement. There is no spiritual tradition as clear as the apophatic tradition in saying that your journey into God never ends; God is always, as St Augustine says, “ever ancient, ever new,” taking seriously the infinity of God. So, on the one hand, we have the revelation of God in Christ and in biblical witness, but that isn’t a matter of “and that, ladies and gentlemen, is everything about God!” It’s merely the foretaste to get you into the banquet, and the God we meet is just endlessly fascinating. It’s swimming in deep water, so there’s just the sheer adventure of it and the comfort of not knowing – that’s my understanding of it.

Richard: That’s great. Thank you so much. That adventure bit really connects with me. Something I haven’t mentioned is around the notion of missional spirituality so, for me, I’m not so good at the silence myself and all of that kind of stuff – but I love the adventure and I find the silence and stillness in the adventure, and there is something quite sustaining in that as well. Thank you very much, Janet. I really recommend her book.

Janet: Thank you! If you’re looking for a book on apophatic spirituality then Seeking the God Beyond might fit the bill.[7] But if you want a book on mission that just happens to be really wise about apophatic spirituality, then I thoroughly recommend Paul Bradbury’s Home by Another Route – chapter 3 makes the connection with apophatic spirituality brilliantly.[8]

About the conversationalists

Janet Williams is currently vice-principal of St Hild College in Yorkshire. Her academic interests include Christian and Buddhist spiritualities, with a particular focus on apophatic traditions.

Richard Passmore is currently employed by the Diocese of Carlisle as the director of the Northern Mission Centre, a collaboration between CMS and God For All (the ecumenical county of Cumbria). The NMC supports a pioneering ecosystem across the north of England and southern Scotland, helping missionally minded people in fresh expressions of church and in time-honoured churches innovate and connect with one another and their communities. He has written several books on youth work and mission, and is interested in the interaction of theology and pioneer practice and how you pioneer in and across systems to create a culture where others can thrive.

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[1] J. P. Williams, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality (Norwich: SCM Press, 2018).

[2] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai (London: SCM Press, 2019).

[3] Kōsuke Koyama, Water Buffalo Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999).

[4] E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road (New York: Abingdon Press, 2010).

[5] Meister Eckhart, Selected Writings, trans. Oliver Davies (London: Penguin Classics, 1994), sermon 28, 236.

[6] Keith Hebden, Re-Enchanting the Activist: Spirituality and Social Change (Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2016).

[7] Williams, Seeking the God Beyond.

[8] Paul Bradbury, Home by Another Route: Reimagining Today’s Church (Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2019).