Again, from Father Stephen. (If you are not reading his blog, why not?)
Christian theology, particularly in the East, has long championed the
use of an “apophatic” approach to theology. The word “apophatic”
literally means, “what cannot be spoken.” It is a recognition that “what
cannot be spoken” is not the same thing as “what cannot be known.”
Apophaticism is a mystical approach to theology (and even to the world),
in which participation becomes the primary means of cognition.
We come to know something or someone because we have a share in its
existence. Rationality is not dismissed, but is made to serve the
primary life of participation.
One of my favorite apophatic statements comes from Fr. Thomas Hopko:
“You cannot know God. But you have to know Him to know that.” Just this
sort of “brain-teaser” is typical of apophaticism. We “unknowingly know”
God. God “causelessly causes.” Classical theology is filled with such
statements – some so familiar by now that we forget just how reasonably
impossible they are. Mary is a “Virgin Mother.” Christ is both “God and
man.” “God became man so that man could become God.” When such phrases
cease to bring us up short and stagger our reasoning, then they have
lost something of their original force. I do not think this to be the
fault of language so much as our habit of assuming that we actually
understand what is familiar.