There are two ways to create something; as a potter or as a sculptor. A potter takes a batch of clay and adds bits while shaping it to create his finished work. A sculptor takes a slab of some type of material and removes everything that is not the work he is creating. There are technical terms for these two methods; the potter’s process by affirmation is called cataphatic (sometimes spelled kataphatic) and the sculptor’s process by negation is called apophatic.
Both of these processes are useful in theology. To proceed cataphatically is to try to describe all that is God, discovering all the attributes that apply to God, just as the potter adds bits of clay until the figure is finished. The apophatic method of “negative theology” is to try to strip away everything that is not attributable to God, just as the sculptor chisels away everything that should not be part of the figure.
Both methods can form a healthy cycle of belief in a Christian. We typically begin our faith journey cataphatically learning about God, his character, and what he has done. Eventually, we come to an apophatic moment, often seen as a challenge or shaking of our faith. A concept or idea we have is tested either by experience or by the appearance of a different idea and we either drop our original idea or we clarify it.
These phases often occur based on our surroundings. If we are in the presence of others who share similar beliefs, we often find ourselves in the cataphatic phase. We are learning and adding and we may even say we are “being fed.” If we are in the presence of those with whom we disagree, we may be in a more apophatic phase. We are clarifying our faith by the doctrines and beliefs we refuse to give up or modify, even though it would makes us more like those around us. This can be a tiring and often lonely time. We may even feel that we are being stripped down.
The back-and-forth of affirmation and negation creates clarity over time. It is like telling your son, “You may play outside (affirmative) but you may not leave the fenced in yard (negative).” That gives a pretty clear picture of where the boy can be and where he is not to be. This balance maintains health. To be solely cataphatic can leave us without boundaries, casting too wide of a net. To be solely apophatic is to be defined only by what we don’t practice or believe. We do well to be aware of who we are, knowing our freedom as well as our boundaries.