Williams: Seeking the God Beyond
Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality
London: SCM, 2018. 203 p.
ISBN: 978-0-334-05701 7, £19.99
The Christian seeks God. This very utterance—so obvious and so true—constitutes the central problem of being a Christian. For to seek God is not to seek something, but to seek nothing—that is, not to seek “a thing,” but to seek “no thing” amongst the other things within the created order. To state this somewhat infelicitously but, perhaps, with a little accuracy, Christians are to seek into that which they call “God.” Commitment to the Christian faith comprises a journey along an unusual path. Christian travellers do not acquire greater familiarity with the environment through which they travel. Rather, the terrain increasingly is defamiliarised. For the being, the “no thing” that one is endeavouring to follow requires a repeated stripping of the known and an iterated re-entry into the unknown. It demands the rescinding of all designations for, and the withdrawal of all epithets that are attributed to, this “attractive power” of a light that is darkened into a darkness that is “brilliant,” to advert to both Pseudo-Dionysius and John of the Cross, who are amongst the guides in this timely book. The only way in which one’s possible progress on the journey into this inceptive and final mystery may be observed, is that one is engaged in the practice of continually un-naming that which one names. Again and again, the task is to withdraw each name with which one names the being that lies both “behind and before”, as the Psalmist says.
This guidebook may well be of particular importance for those entering ministry or, perhaps even more so, for the numerous pontificating ordained, because it would remind clergy to resist the dogmatism to which they often are prone. The disputes that continue to divide Christians frequently are caused and fueled by theological certitude about God, about understanding who God is, about knowing God’s will for the world, for the Church, and for men and women. J. P. Williams’s care in probing this self-silencing spiritual tradition is generous in its breadth of teachers and teaching, and demonstrates the vital lessons of the apophatic way: that theological saying must be unsaid, and then inflectedly disordered so as to destabilise the sayer’s speech. Not only does this shatter hubristic egos, it also is instructive because human speech simply cannot say the being of which the Christian most wants to speak.
Frank England, College of the Transfiguration (Grahamstown, South Africa)