On the Universality of What Is Not
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On the Universality of What Is Not


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243 pages

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Branching out from his earlier works providing a history and a theory of apophatic thinking, William Franke's newest book pursues applications across a variety of communicative media, historical periods, geographical regions, and academic disciplines—moving from the literary humanities and cultural theory and politics to more empirical fields such as historical anthropology, evolutionary biology, and cognitive science. On the Universality of What Is Not: The Apophatic Turn in Critical Thinking is an original philosophical reflection that shows how intransigent deadlocks debated in each of these arenas can be broken through thanks to the uncanny insights of apophatic vision. Leveraging Franke's distinctive method of philosophical, religious, and literary thinking and practice, On the Universality of What Is Not proposes a radically unsettling approach to answering (or suspending) perennial questions of philosophy and religion, as well as to dealing with some of our most pressing dilemmas at present at the university and in the socio-political sphere. In a style of exposition that is as lucid as it is poetic, deep-rooted tensions between alterity and equality in all these areas are exposed and transcended.



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Date de parution 31 octobre 2020
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780268108830
Langue English

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The Apophatic Turn in
Critical Thinking

University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana
Copyright © 2020 by University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556
All Rights Reserved
Library of Congress Control Number:
ISBN: 978-0-268-10881-6 (Hardback)
ISBN: 978-0-268-10884-7 (WebPDF)
ISBN: 978-0-268-10883-0 (Epub)
This e-Book was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at undpress@nd.edu
To Steve Hammond, Peter Kline, Chance Woods, Jake Abell, Yong
Chen, Heather Garrett Pellettier, Luka Cheung, Travis Wang, Felix
Resch, Azucena Keatley, Nahum Brown, Dvir Melnik, David Dark,
and the Others
for believing and teaching (or rather disseminating)
“The Apophatic Gospel”
(the Good News of What Is Not)
(not mine, nor theirs)
CONTENTS Preface: Position, Purpose, and Structure of the Work Acknowledgments Part I. Thinking Theologically and the Apophatic One Introduction: Apophatic Thinking and Its Applications; Between Exhaustion and Explosion Two Outbound Reflection: Unsaying Theology in the Name of All Part II. The New Apophatic Universalism Three Apophatic Mysticism as Practical Philosophy: Nicholas of Cusa and the Applications of Ignorance Four Contemporary Atheist Philosophers and St. Paul’s Revolutionary Political Theology: A Genealogy of the New Universalism Part III. Comparative Philosophies of Culture Five Cosmopolitan Conviviality and Negative Theology: Europe’s Vocation to Universalism Six Except Asia: Agamben’s Logic of Exception and Its Apophatic Roots and Offshoots Part IV. Cross-Cultural and Transhistorical Interdisciplinarity Seven Liberal Arts Education Worldwide Unlimited Inc.: The Unspeakable Basis of Comparative Humanities Eight Apophasis and the Axial Age: Transcendent Origins of Critical Consciousness Part V. Emergences in Literary and Cultural Theory Nine The Canon Question and the Value of Theory: Toward a New (Non)Concept of Universality Ten World Literature: A Means or a Menace to the Encounter with the Other? Part VI. Critical Consciousness and Cognitive Science Eleven Postmodern Identity Politics and the Social Tyranny of the Definable Twelve Cognitive Universality between Science and the Humanities Concluding Elucidation: On the Extension and Intension of “Apophasis” Appendix: Analytic Table of Contents Notes Index
Position, Purpose, and Structure of the Work
This book marks a branching out of my work striving to develop an apophatic philosophy for our time. It builds on my interdisciplinary reconstruction of the traditions of apophatic discourse in On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, (2007, 2 vols.), edited with theoretical and critical essays by William Franke, as well as on my elaboration of an original theory of apophatic thinking in A Philosophy of the Unsayable (2014). It continues, furthermore, my extension of this project into an intercultural philosophy in Apophatic Paths from Europe to China: Regions without Borders (2018).
On the Universality of What Is Not pursues apophatic thinking in its applications across a variety of disciplines, media, historical periods, and geographical regions. The Introduction (chapter 1) explains why precisely this type of work and comprehensiveness is a necessary consummation of apophatic thinking in our time and begins to probe the key role of theology in originating and fostering apophatic consciousness. It also outlines, in more detail, how the various chapters contribute to the overall orchestration of the volume.
Each chapter embodies substantially the same vision of apophatic thinking, but as applied in diverse relations. The selected applications interconnect with and illuminate one another. Yet each chapter is also intelligible on its own terms. None presupposes prior knowledge of the aforementioned books. Applications can serve superlatively well as points of entry into the general concerns refracted into specific forms of apophatic insight. The most basic question, “What is apophatic thinking?,” cannot be answered, finally, except by showing what apophatic thinking, in its various employments, can do . Apophatic thinking does “the impossible,” and there is no explanation for that in general terms. Instead, it shows itself.
The structural parts of the volume evidently overlap and interpenetrate in their concerns and contents rather than dividing and distributing the material into discrete, separate baskets. The division into parts, nevertheless, serves to organize and integrate these wide-ranging topics into an intelligible shape and order. It aims to help make manifest the component chapters’ multiple lines of connection—their manifold significant (even if often submerged) common insights arrived at from divergent directions.
Synoptic, orienting paragraphs underscoring certain lines of coherence linking the chapters in sequence are embedded between the successive parts of the work. They help to unfold the logic of its partitioning and serve as connecting ligaments. They stand as intercalated, transitional guideposts leading from one part to the next. The first such connective link is inserted at the outset of part I, immediately preceding chapter 1, and alludes to all of the parts in summary, sketching the general design of the book.
I am indebted to the students and colleagues who debated with me the issues raised here in seminars and in conferences and lectures at universities around the world—in the Americas, Europe, East Asia, and Australia. Graduate seminars over the years at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School (Nashville, Tennessee) and in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Programme at the University of Macao (China, SAR) were home grounds on which many of these reflections—including self-reflections concerning our institutions of higher education and their politics—were incubated. I thank also the anonymous readers engaged by the University of Notre Dame Press and Professor Vincent Lloyd for their helpful suggestions. Finally, I am grateful to Professor Montserrat Herrero and the Instituto Cultura y Sociedad of the University of Navarra for hosting me as visiting professor and affording me opportunities for presentation and discussion of parts of this manuscript in the final stages of its preparation.
Part I

Part I sounds the present state of apophatic thought in relation especially to its theological matrices. Part II then broadens this apophatic paradigm into a new, but never definitively specifiable (always still open-ended) universalism. Part III extends this universality of the limit intrinsic to any system or discourse into the intercultural realm, while Part IV advances it into interdisciplinary and transhistorical applications. Part V treats all of these dimensions of recent critical discourse in their emergence from highly contested claims in literary and cultural theory revolving specifically around the literary canon and the idea of world literature . Exposure of certain contradictions—and of the ultimately fecund nullity inherent in both of these key concepts—enables us to see past the impasses of these debates.
Part VI, finally, applies apophatic insight and orientations to current challenges posed by politicized humanities and by cognitive science as movements having a powerful tendency to dominate the agendas of academic administrations and faculties at leading institutions of higher education and research. The apophatic perspectives developed in this book are thus made to serve, in the end, to uncover and to compensate for some of the blind spots lurking in certain insidious trends and to expose ideologies that are currently steering much crucial decision-making at the university.
Chapter One

Apophatic Thinking and Its Applications
Between Exhaustion and Explosion
In the ever more fragmented medley that is multicultural society, with its backlash against globalization, the desperate need for principles of cohesion, for some kind of universal code or credo, has been felt more and more acutely. The world has fallen prey to aggressive, exclusionary forms of sectarianism and identitarian politics. The consequences are seen in the proliferation of populist nationalisms and geopolitical regionalisms, in crippling ethnic antagonisms and cultural rivalries, and in militant religious fundamentalisms. The task of finding a universal frame of reference—or even just some kind of shared ethos—in our postmodern predicament has become daunting. Nonetheless, it is an imperative of the greatest urgency. All attempts to define and delineate the rules of the game—through a universal charter of human rights, for example—are at risk of becoming invidious and, in any case, prove implausible. 1 Such attempts are inevitably rejected, at least by some, who suspect them of being the means of elevating one ideology and its approach above others. The human need for a universal basis of consensus, together with the proven difficulty of establishing one, opens as a gaping abyss that threatens to engulf in bottomless vanity all of our most well-meaning endeavors to ensure order and dynamism in society and to regulate peacefully and freely our collective endeavors. Politics and diplomacy are driven into more and more desperate straits.

In the face of this pervasive predicament, this book makes a simple and practical proposal. It urges that we relinquish our drive to positively define our universe, or even just the arena of our relations with others, and, instead, render ourselves responsive, without preconceived limits, to all: this means also to the All that we cannot determine, even though we are surely determined by it as the undelimitable ambit of all our relations. Through this release of our grasp on the reality that we can define, we paradoxically find ourselves in touch with the sought-for basis of a common reality necessary for responsibly pursuing together with others our ongoing, open-ended, incalculably collective projects. We are thereby enabled to relate to an uncircumscribable whole via negative modalities that, nonetheless, prove efficacious. In fact, these modalities turn out to be just what we need—beyond our ability to account for why this is so or even to know exactly what we are going to do with them in advance. Integrating an “apophatic” (literally “negative,” but, in effect, eminently affirmative) detachment and awareness into our determinately, rigidly positive programs can make them open to others in ways that are critical to their success in generating consensus and the will to work together. The discretion of not saying (or knowing) is key to eliciting even just provisional acceptance from others rather than provoking resistance and retrenchment into oppositional camps and stances.
This book brings together several related concerns based on encounters with specific approaches and models for knowing and acting ethically and politically and places them into the frame of an extension of my project of apophatic thinking. The fate of the humanities in university education, given the latter’s increasing specialization, depends, as I perceive it, on reviving the sensibility for knowing our ignorance—in other words, a docta ignorantia . Since Socrates, this awareness of our limits has been essential to the open, inquiring mind and spirit that are necessary today to counterbalance the positivistic methods of empirical science and research. Crucial issues include the question of the disciplinarity of knowledge at the university, the resistance to pressures of isolating specialization, and particularly the relationship with cognitive science as an approach claiming to radically reposition, and even in some versions to supplant, traditional humanities knowledge. These areas of concern all present impasses and pitfalls that can be constructively dealt with only by recuperating a different model of knowing that is fundamentally molded, not by the positive sciences, but by wisdom traditions based on un knowing knowing, or learned ignorance.
The dialogue with other, in particular non-Western, cultures invites us to this refocusing of our own history and tradition. Intercultural philosophy and comparative religion and literature expose some of the frontiers that clearly call for a deeper understanding of apophatic aspects of human consciousness and existence. 2 The axes of geography and disciplinarity serve, accordingly, in this book to open the apophatic into the dimension of its universality. The intercultural and the interdisciplinary configure spaces of the “between” that most effectively challenge us to think beyond our accustomed models and frameworks. This reaching beyond and renunciation of closure already demonstrates what it means to think apophatically, since such thinking cannot be confined by any specifiable method. Negative or apophatic thinking is an essential resource also for confronting pressing issues of social justice, such as racial and gender equality, that tear us apart—unless the confines of identity can be broken through into a more encompassing nonidentity that excludes none, a nonidentity in which all can recognize their common interest, since it enables all to coexist.
The book in hand illustrates this negative or “apophatic” approach to seeking the universal by examining some select case studies drawn from philosophy, cultural history, and literature. Many other examples could be chosen to make this point, and the ones presented here, of course, reflect to a degree the author’s own predilections and even chance encounters. However, each has peculiar significance in a universal sense as well. Cognitive science, for instance, claims to discover mental structures and functions that are universally valid for all human beings and cultures. In the chapter (12) on that subject, I attempt to balance these pretensions by furnishing a humanities-based approach to the question of cultural and cognitive universals. I stress that science always explains some phenomena in terms of others assumed as already given, while necessarily leaving the ultimate explanation of All in its origins to be dealt with by irreducibly human and poetic means, such as myth and metaphor. Similar questions of universality surface in comparative philosophy, politics, and religion, and in literary and cultural criticism. The other chapters address those fields and emphasize how important it is to make a place for the negative as the unsaid—or even the unsayable—in order to keep reigning discourses productive, open, and humanly responsive and responsible, so as to prevent their becoming unwitting instruments of repression through reduction to merely classificatory schemas.
Impressive strides in the field(s) of apophatics have been made in recent years. Numerous, extensive, authoritative scholarly studies on key founding figures, such as Dionysius the Areopagite, John Scott Eriugena, Maimonides, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas Cusanus, Søren Kierkegaard, and many others, now appear regularly and turn explicit attention to the apophatic insights working at the heart of such masters’ projects. There are wide-ranging philosophical and theological works, often of highly original quality, marshaling rich resources of diverse apophatic traditions (Jewish and Islamic, Christian and Buddhist, Vedic, and more) and proving their acute pertinence to contemporary intellectual issues and current social problems. This interest in the apophatic paradigm may even have reached a point of saturation in some regards, after which looms the threat of exhaustion. However, an intrinsic refusal to become a paradigm, and even to be defined at all, is built into the apophatic as such. As Jacques Derrida astutely recognized, negative theology per se does not exist. If apophaticism is named, it is, at least in part and by necessity, betrayed. The quintessential apophatic gesture is that of unsaying itself . Consequently, to the extent that it becomes a paradigm—which cannot perhaps be avoided—it must be prepared also to forsake and repudiate itself.
What remains, then, above all, for apophaticism today is to show its creative potential by interacting with its innumerable “others,” including even its ostensible nemeses, such as power politics and scientific positivism. Deploying apophatic thought, with its incisive insights, is a project already far advanced in the pathbreaking works of Catherine Keller, Elliot Wolfson, Hent de Vries, Gregor Hoff, Thomas Carlson, Wesley Wildman, Joachim Bromand, Daniel Heller-Roazen, and numerous other thinkers pushing the limits of almost any field today. Delineating a general paradigm in more detail is unlikely at this stage to enhance the overall intelligibility of the models that have emerged. Nevertheless, the apophatic can still work potently as a catalyst at the interfaces between disciplines, cultures, rationalities, and faiths. In these contexts, the apophatic is not a theory, but a practice of receiving the Other in its otherness and of interacting and discovering something unprecedented through the release of whatever is held to be one’s own. Letting one’s own prejudices be contradicted in order to grow in increasingly interpenetrating understanding with others is a challenge for which the apophatic sensibility is indeed indispensable. In these connections and applications, we still have everything to gain from the study and cultivation of what I am calling the apophatic.
The new turn in apophatic thinking that I envisage, then, consists especially in emphasizing its productive applications. Considered from this angle, the apophatic functions not as a barricade to speech and expression, but rather as a limit that, in effect, turns into a threshold, thereby becoming its own opposite: it becomes an enabling condition and a bridge crossing to an unlimited “beyond” that invites exploration. 3 Much of the new current of apophatic reflection aims to untie the knots—or to dissolve the Nots and interdictions to expression—that seemed to be entailed or implied by traditional apophatics in the form of negative theology. Yet this spirit of denial was never the most authentic voice of apophaticism, and it has become increasingly untimely in our current cultural predicament clamoring for always more diverse expressions.
Illuminating cases include the development of an apophatic theology in the new phenomenology of the invisible after the theological turn; 4 the elaboration of an apophatics of the body (with its associated gender politics and sexual poetics); 5 an intensified reflection on and performance of apophatic aesthetics; 6 and new initiatives in ecocriticism. 7 Those working in such specialized fields as linguistics, 8 for example, have also witnessed richly to the fertility of apophatic models in fostering some of the most timely, but also the most enduringly significant, developments of these disciplines. Applications of apophatics in literary criticism and cultural studies are, of course, legion. 9
The most meaningful way to describe the purport of apophatic thinking is not by discourses about “nothing” that are left floating in the air. Instead, the relevance of apophatic thought stands to be tested and verified through engaging in debate on the burning issues of the humanities, and of humanity itself, inside and outside of the academy. The chapters in this book do not erase the traces of such engagement in the particular occasions for which they were originally composed. They are sometimes addressed to specific audiences and contexts. They manifest these diverse origins even in their concerted turn to the overarching problems of apophatic thinking and its peculiar claim to universality.
I propose apophatic thinking, or a philosophy of the unsayable, as the philosophy that most acutely answers to the challenges of thought in our age and, in some sense, in every age. Philosophy begins, with Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, and other pre-Socratic thinkers, by focusing on the problem of the one and the many and on the dilemma of reconciling a logically necessary unity of things—of all that is, or of all that can be thought—with an undeniable multiplicity of phenomenal manifestations. But what may at first have presented itself as a theoretical conundrum has over time become an eminently practical and political problem. In postmodern times, we face the difficulty of thinking and of living together in a world of multiple nations, ethnicities, cultures, and religions, a world that in spite of uncontainable proliferation of diversity is ever more tightly squeezed into one by the pressures of globalization. Hence the apparent need for common codes and practices that would enable cohabitation with a certain semblance of unity, or at least of compatibility. This minimal commonality seeks to find a way to emerge from across the gaping differences between clans and constituencies entrenched in their respective particularisms.
Yet, if this imperative implies eschewing tribalisms, it had best nevertheless not rule out the possibility that the model even of the tribe living in the openness of untamed nature might still illustrate superlatively well some of the virtues of conviviality. Particularly, living together with and honoring the sacredness of one’s environment, along with one’s ancestors and progeny, are virtues that may be necessary but that nonetheless are easily forgotten in our mass, industrialized, individual-based, and all-too-often alienated societies.

The problem of universalism has recently become clamorously topical again in philosophy and in cultural studies generally. 10 I wish to show how the key to, I believe, the most promising approach to it can be found in apophatics. An opening for the inconceivable can be produced through creating empty space around all definitions and their inevitable divergences that derive from different languages and their varying cultural and conceptual matrices. An apophatic sensibility or awareness is necessary to allow the virtual common ground, which cannot be grasped neutrally in any one of the participants’ own vocabularies, to operate fertilely between them so as to produce what none alone is capable of articulating. Required here is the emergence of some kind of shared existence and even a sense of a common project beyond the control and comprehension of any of the participating groups.
This indefinable dimension between discourses, which is brought out by reflection on discourse itself and its limits as a medium, is an indispensable resource also for interfaith dialogue. I take such dialogue to be one important instance that can model communication between diverse cultures. A gesture of opening up in a kind of faith or trust, with self-abandon to a common ground or common prospect in which all alike share, though none can command or define it, is the necessary premise for getting along together. It requires each person’s or party’s overcoming their own egotistical, isolationist instincts and rising above inescapable conflicts of interest, not to mention inevitable mutual incomprehension.
In arguing for an apophatic approach and outlook, I will review what I consider to be at least implicitly apophatic philosophies at crucial junctures in Western intellectual history. I will use them in analogy with our present predicament—which is multicultural, cosmopolitan, postcolonial, and menaced by daunting threats such as environmental apocalypse and endemic terrorist violence—to illuminate, at least indirectly, our own current choices and dilemmas. In some such manner, apophatic insight into the unsayable, impossible, inconceivable, and incommensurable has been deployed persistently throughout the past in order to foster an inspired, visionary intervention into human affairs. It lay, for instance, at the basis of the mutual understanding and reciprocal appreciation among the three Abrahamic faiths during the Middle Ages. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity communicated cross-culturally on the basis of a common recognition of intrinsic limits to their ability to conceptualize God, as was emphasized particularly by great mystics in each of these three monotheistic religions. 11 This common un ground has often been rediscovered anew over the course of the history of these and other faith traditions, for instance, in the baroque mysticism of the Spanish Carmelites and in the Teutonic mysticism channeled through Jakob Böhme to Silesius Angelus and German Romanticism. The Lurianic Kabbalah and the Wafa Sufi Order pursuing the legacy of Ibn al-Arabi in Egypt, or Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika Buddhism, represent further peaks of apophatic awareness serving to harmonize diverse cultural strands in their respective traditions. Nicholas of Cusa’s De pace fidei (1453) imagines and theorizes such an interfaith universalism.
Another conceptually distinguishable coordinate that shadows apophatic thinking and at times converges and even coalesces with this negative theological or mystical vein can be identified in its apocalyptic/prophetic axis. It reaches from Joachim of Flores and Dante in the Middle Ages to the aesthetic-religious vision of universal spirit at once human and divine of Jena Romantics such as Novalis and Schelling. Certain aspects of this vision are developed further by a strongly negative form of messianism that can be discerned in Franz Rosenzweig and Walter Benjamin and in other precursors of critical theory in the Frankfurt School, such as Ernst Bloch with his The Principle of Hope ( Das Prinzip Hoffnung , 1954–59). Some anticipations and prefigurations of it, furthermore, are made manifest by the civilizations of the Axial Age in the first millennium BC. Such points of reference will be evoked as revealing aspects of a perennial universalistic vision that issues in various sorts of political theologies that are best understood as negative or apophatic.
In each case, this is a vision of the All and the Infinite as humanly ungraspable, as uncanny and otherworldly, sometimes even as monstrously strange, but nevertheless as offering a necessary and compelling orientation for our errant endeavors on earth. This orientation is universalist in refusing all dichotomous delimitations and exclusiveness such as traditional, binary, conceptual thinking inevitably imposes. At the same time as it favors and fosters unity, this apophatic approach deliberately evades every exclusionary determination of that unity and practices an unconditional respect for diversity.

Such an apophatic ethos approaches the problem of dealing with often exclusivist ideologies and religious fundamentalisms in a non-exclusionary, non-oppositional manner. It asks, instead: Where is the undefined, unrealized common ground of conviction that can be found and affirmed with those who become radically opposed to others, and sometimes to the world virtually as a whole? Only such an attempt to find common bonds of understanding and interest behind all ideological formulations can reverse the radical separatism that is at work in militant movements, with their all too often deathly consequences.
I propose apophaticism not as the one true philosophy over and against other contenders, but rather as the common denominator, or, better, the disappearing mediator, of what philosophies are all aiming at. It furnishes the element of (un)truth or (non)sense in which their diverging trajectories, nevertheless, converge asymptotically toward infinity. At this level, philosophy is not sharply distinguishable from religion, so what I propose might also be considered a philosophy of religion or even, in some sense, a religious philosophy. 12 It falls within the domain of the philosophy of religion to the extent that it can be identified and classed at all. And yet, finally, it is neither exactly philosophy nor religion. In true apophatic manner, it aims, instead, at their common ground or un-ground, at what is diversely sought by each under the rubric of truth and yet can never be definitively attained in whatever disciplinary discourse. The truth is disclosed or happens—and an event of sense is thus made to occur—rather in the exceeding of all limits of every specific discourse toward what all alike fail to express adequately. The challenge is to see how all discourses aiming at truth and failing to grasp it are nonetheless normed by it and indirectly reveal it, even and precisely in failing to attain and articulate it.
The genre of such thinking needs to be appreciated also as poetic—it is that, too, and especially that, inasmuch as it can be situated within any specific kind of thought or writing at all. 13 Poetry, in this sense, as poiesis (or “making”), is not an aesthetic extra or a frill; instead, it makes our world what it is, at least in terms of its experience by human beings. My approach to apophatic thinking plays up the poetic aspect as fundamental to apophatics generally, as well as to its expressions across various disciplines and discourses. I distinguish my own approach on this basis from other approaches offering general paradigms of apophatic thinking developed out of different disciplinary matrices—especially philosophy and theology—and likewise bearing witness to apophaticism’s acute relevance to our own times. My poetic emphasis, however, makes apophaticism no less philosophical or theological or religious or political. Instead, it blends a cultural poetics of apophasis into its philosophical, theological, and political or social expressions. Apophatic rhetoric and linguistics inextricably underwrite all formulations of apophatic discourse, whatever its object and content: it can therefore never be confined to just a poetic or an aesthetic register.
Apophatic thinking in the Western tradition springs especially from theological matrices, even though these are at their origins hardly distinguishable from philosophy and literature or myth, or from the many other arenas of expression to which such thinking subsequently spreads. “Apophatics” becomes a “discourse” of quite general relevance throughout all fields of culture. This is acutely so in a postmodern age marked by certain phenomena of a “return of religion.” 14 It is, nevertheless, important to keep theology in focus as a form of thought that points more persistently and deliberately than perhaps any other to the Unsayable as its lodestar and driving obsession. Theology aims at the Unsayable in what is arguably its most world-historically significant sense—that of “divinity,” or of a transcendent, infinite source of life and being. Still, admittedly, there can be no one “right” way of discoursing about the unsayable, so theology serves here as no more than an exemplary and heuristic discourse. Most important in any discourse taken as medium are the nondiscursive and the intermedial elements that make up its enabling conditions. In the interstices between word, sound, and image, discourse blends out or turns to silent meditation, while meaning crystalizes from an inarticulate background that bears, often imperceptibly, yet no less indelibly, on the complex sense that discourse spawns.
Theology offers some baseline concepts and images—such as infinity, transcendence, unity, and being—for thinking about “God,” but all need to be relinquished in the apophatic movement of un thinking all that is thought about the Unthinkable. This negative or apophatic thinking is indiscernible from an apophatic speaking—which can take place, intensified, in writing—that unsays the Unsayable. As discourse about God, theology is about the Unsayable par excellence. Yet, like God, unsayability is not just a theme of discourse; it is not properly a theme at all. Like God, unsayability is unthematizably manifest, or more likely covered over, in virtually every form of discourse—in its constitutive lacks, in the gaps that dis-articulate it. In addition to (and hidden in) this general claim, unsayability is making its claim especially in the new brands of culture emerging at present in the form of the intercultural and interdisciplinary in philosophy, religion, literature, and other disciplines. Some of these are placed under the aegis of postmodernism, but in their most authentic form, they are under no category or classification whatsoever.
I have previously canvassed various contemporary theologies, as well as atheologies, which all tend to deny negative theology, in order to show how they actually, and more profoundly, depend on it. In chapters 4 and 5 of my A Philosophy of the Unsayable , postmodern a/theologies and radical orthodoxies serve as prime examples of such self-denying apophaticism. As to those types of thinking that affirm negative theology, whether consciously or unconsciously, I wish to draw on them for constructing what I discern as a distinctive approach to the problem of the universal—one that pivots on the universality of what is not . I aim, first, to situate the discussion of universality within a general cultural context of current criticism and of a certain social and conceptual revolution that I call “the new universalism.” What is new is that this universalism has to renounce exclusions, and thus cannot even define itself in a determinate concept, but rather embodies a style of relating oneself to others.
This ideal of universality has a theological genealogy. Still in our own time theology is paradoxically powering the social and cultural revolutions that are most responsible for advancing the secularization of the contemporary world. 15 We must focus on theology and on its un saying of itself in order to understand the plurality of discourses that, in the name of everything else besides theology, dominate the critical and, more generally, the cultural scene today. However, it is actually negative theology that is most pertinent to the transformation of society at present, no less than to the normative values clustering around universality. So these movements do indeed read correctly as a reversal of theology—albeit a reversal that is anticipated and indeed executed, often most rigorously, in and by theology itself .

By negating its theological origins, apophaticism moves itself into a more properly self-questioning philosophical mode. As negative theology, apophaticism is marked as theological in origin, yet it becomes a universal philosophy. Negative theology is a critical form of thinking that is critical first and foremost of theology. This is how philosophical reflection originates in ancient Greece—as a form of thought critiquing traditional religious mythologoumena in light of a newly discovered philosophical logos. This pattern is found in many other cultures, starting with those of the Axial Age: such cultures turn a self-reflexive, critical eye on age-old religious beliefs and rites, even while renewing and affirming them.
We see the apophatic angle of approach applied across a dizzying array of disciplines. The capillary nature of its penetration into concrete fields of culture is bewildering. The surging to prominence of such an interdisciplinary paradigm is itself an index of its vocation to a kind of universalism. The apophatic has a strong claim to be regarded as the new koiné of discourse stretching from the humanities to the sciences in the twenty-first century. This being the case, inevitably the question of universalism lies at its heart. One of the tasks of this book is to show how the decisive insights of many of our leading thinkers today, irrespective of their fields, tend to be essentially apophatic in nature. Michel Serres might be taken here as indicative. 16
The most urgent task of apophaticism in its present predicament is no longer to recover its tradition or to define its theoretical model and premises, since much in this vein has already been done, but rather to test and reflect on how its insights can be plied to deal with the most troubling and intransigent issues that we face in all arenas. These range from metaphysics to the environment and are found at all levels of our social existence. The apophatic becomes manifest as an art and science of dealing with difficulty and as a resource for finessing, or at least addressing, the irresolvable. The references to the apophatic as marking an insuperable impasse of language and the constitutive limits of knowing have become so pervasive in all academic disciplines in the opening decades of the twenty-first century that, like any revolutionary idea, it eventually becomes a victim of its own success. At this point, rather than occurring as an incisive and provocative innovation, reference to the apophatic (or “nothing” or “the ineffable”) easily falls prey to banality, to becoming a perfunctory and hackneyed cliché.
Consequently, in order to keep receiving the inspiration available in the thinking of unthinkability, we need to find new applications, and this endeavor is the specific undertaking of this book. The book demonstrates how apophatic insight can be used to illuminate impasses in a variety of fields ranging from comparative religions, intercultural philosophy, and critical theory to cognitive science. Apophasis hews close to the most difficult and unyielding of problems and brushes with the most formidable and prickly of paradoxes. In the last resort, any solutions that are possible to our dilemmas draw from and address what is apparently impossible.
Although, as a trend and paradigm, apophaticism may soon meet with a sense of its own exhaustion, the application of the apophatic, in its potential to pry open the knottiest of problems in an unlimited range of fields, is now swinging into full gear. It is turning up everywhere and is being discovered as a necessary resource—often as the only way of sustaining impossible antinomies and impasses with apparently no exit. Apophatic thought does not offer specific solutions to technical problems, but it changes our relation to the surrounding context; it alters the human understanding of problems in a way that enables reconceivings that emerge of themselves to be received and recognized as such—without the usual exclusions that otherwise restrict the very possibilities of perception.
This book develops an apophatic perspective specifically on how the issue of universality opens into a major philosophical preoccupation that demands an apophatic approach and handling at precisely our present juncture in intellectual history. It emphasizes the perspective of comparative or intercultural philosophy as indispensable and as an ineluctable challenge to which apophatic thought is now called to respond. It considers likewise the challenge of interdisciplinarity in an especially radical sense. In particular, the confrontation with the so-called cognitive sciences has called into question the legitimacy and the very existence of humanities studies. An adequate answer to this challenge, I believe, can be found only if we begin to understand both the humanities and the sciences through apophatic lenses. Otherwise, the claims of positive science threaten to obliterate the assumptions on which humanities studies are based, as well as everything that humanities scholars, not to mention human beings, hold to be most evident and dear—starting from free agents and spiritual values. No definitions or explanations can be fully adequate to the unformalizable factors of experience that apophasis highlights: as irreducible realities or irrealities, they can only be lived and experienced and cannot be scientifically demonstrated and proved.
It is through such encounters and applications that the perennial relevance of apophatic thought continues to demonstrate itself. Purely theoretical formulations working out formal models eventually exhaust and void themselves. The fertility of apophatic thinking can be shown only by its fruits in application to the full diversity of topics that call for thought at the present, especially those that present and display thought’s ultimate difficulties and dead-ends in our contemporary world. The theoretical model of apophaticism has already, in some cases, recognized its impotence purely as theory and has developed naturally into engagement on a sensory level with the body and with aesthetics at the opposite end of the spectrum from the desert of metaphysical abstraction. Emptiness and the void were and remain privileged themes of some of the matrices of apophaticism in Western culture, notably of its negative theologies and ascetic spiritual practices, and they are especially prominent in Asian, notably Buddhist, traditions. Yet contraries meet unexpectedly in the ambit of the apophatic, which situates itself before saying, and thus before articulation into differential oppositions. Hence concrete, saturated, pleonastic, and excessive forms of apophatic expression turn out to be no less forthcoming and insistent. These emphatic, hyper-positive expressions are dealt with in terms of specific discourses and disciplines in this volume.
This volume’s focusing of the field on a specific problematic—universality—is accompanied by a shift from attempting to define a general paradigm for apophatic thinking to exploring its potential for intervening effectively in a variety of fields of application. The thinking of apophatics warrants a shift of attention to such applications in order to avert the vanity of simply turning on itself in the void. The need for something concrete to work with is felt acutely as apophatic discourse continues to evolve. The (de)creative moment of putting everything in question and confronting the Nothing head-on is necessary and fruitful, but it cannot be sustained indefinitely on its own. It acquires its meaning and relevance only within the movement of thought that is constantly solicited and challenged by developments in the world surrounding it. Consequently, the purely theoretical moment understandably passes or metamorphoses into a phase of more specific applications such as those undertaken in the present work.
This is a natural and inevitable development. However, in order to keep the moment of fundamental thinking at the source of these currents open and alive, we need also somehow to adhere to the pre-positive moment of thinking in the abyss. This depth cannot be thought without gaining some form of traction in more concrete cultural vocabularies and discipline-specific concerns. And yet, reaching back to the originating negation inscribed in discourse as such and to the initial impotence that it imposes on thought is the necessary condition for truly original thinking—for thinking in and from the origin. This has been the task particularly of “theology” throughout the Western tradition in its many guises—as myth no less than as revealed Word. In whatever forms, such theological narratives invite us to “philosophy,” or to speculative thinking, with its universalist claims and aspirations.
Accordingly, the present book engages crucial debates in a diversity of disciplines and cultures from an apophatic angle that shows how apophasis can open avenues to a more comprehensive and coherent understanding of the most intransigent impasses and aporias that we face in various fields today. These include historiographical debates about the Axial Age, controversies over method in intercultural philosophy, universal claims (and their denials) for a literary canon or for an expanded field of world literature, and the extraordinary claims made for cognitive science as potentially unifying knowledge. All these areas can be projected into a very different perspective by considering them in the peculiar kind of light cast by the darkness of apophasis. Issues of class, race, and gender, or of justice in society, are utterly transformed by the luminosity of this darkness—or shadow-light. Claims to universal right or truth can be revealed in their validity—and at the same time in their limits—by bringing out the apophatic a/logic that implicitly and invisibly governs our ability to think limits. The inescapable, unaccountable presence or possibility of the un limited overshadows all such thinking and every attempt to delimit the field through an articulable system or paradigm.

As already intimated, I conceive of apophatic thinking as a philosophy of religion—to the extent that it is necessary to identify and place it in disciplinary terms at all. However, I also conceive of philosophy of religion as “first philosophy.” Our relations to others come first in enabling us to propound any type of philosophical discourse or reflection. A few decades ago, Emmanuel Levinas was able to overturn the hegemony of epistemology, as the foundational discourse dominating modern philosophy since Descartes, and to assert ethics as first philosophy. He thereby revised the original Aristotelian hierarchy according this preeminent status to metaphysics. Analogously, I propose that in our current intercultural and postsecular intellectual milieu, in effect, our most basic philosophical bearings are, and need to be, established in relational terms of how what we are saying “ties in” and “binds back” ( re-ligio ) to our relatedness with others in an unlimited context or open pluriverse. Philosophy of religion, thus conceived, is not just a narrow, specialized field coming late in history—and toward the end of the articulation of the Hegelian system as it branches out to encompass ever more specific and concrete areas of human culture and civilization. Such reflection is, instead, an origin for thinking per se. It reflects on our manner of relating ourselves knowingly to an unlimited range of contexts and cultures—and even to others beyond the range of our knowing altogether.
In these apophatic optics, then, philosophy of religion is about the basic orientation that enables us to proffer a philosophical perspective in the first place. In relation to whom or to what are we speaking? This determination does not correspond specifically to the traditional field of philosophy of religion, but traditional philosophy of religion offers pertinent models for negotiating this prior issue of positioning ourselves. Thus we avoid simply taking for granted and as established the surrounding ambit that alone accords meaning and pertinence to any of our interventions. By virtue of its intentional directedness toward the indefinable—toward divinity or “God”—religion is related in a prior sense to the apophatic. It can take a lead in introducing and in guiding this discourse. It must be emphasized that religion, in this sense, is not circumscribed by any content but is rather open to all manners of relating to others—and this entails even being exposed to the absolutely Other in its self-revelation beyond our control. So, philosophy of religion is no longer understood as just one discipline among others—one cordoned off from them within its own domain—but, instead, as an approach that puts relations with others first: and this includes even relations to an indefinable Other. Religion considers these relations as prior to an individual’s very existence, and thus to one’s being able to reflect and so define oneself and what is proper to one or one’s own.
In this perspective, for all the importance of philosophy and of rational reflection, the question of faith or belief remains inescapable. Our thought is animated by our belief. The decision to believe—to believe what we think—is an existential decision with all the destiny-laden drama of the decision of whether or not to believe in God or the good or in any meaning or purpose whatever for our lives. 17 What is being believed in apophatic thought is nothing determinate. Nevertheless, it remains decisive for every possible determinate thought and action. To believe, finally, is not merely and restrictively a cognitive act, but a commitment of one’s whole being. As love, this means to believe “all things,” as Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians 13:7: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It is not so much a matter of believing this or that—or this rather than that. Fundamental, instead, is the question of whether our believing is defined against something determinate, against some antithetical system or religion or political ideology, and is thus a relative belief, or is rather unqualified belief, unconditional belief in all, all that is (real or true). Such unlimited belief can entail taking this all as one or even, as some would say, “God.”
This latter mode of belief (in “God”) is one shape or figure of apophatic belief; it exemplifies what I consider to be properly religious faith in its intrinsic openness to tying all together under some kind of universal figure. The latter might be divine presence—but also emptiness, as for Buddhists. It must, in any case, be open also to the honest disbelief of atheists. Of course, any such belief in the universal must begin, at least from a certain point of view, with belief in oneself—yet also with dis belief, or recognition of one’s own intrinsic limits.
This formulation of apophaticism, then, as a philosophy of religion actually recoups its being universal philosophy while also being something more than just rational reflection. It entails existential knowing and, what is more, something of the order of what has been understood theologically as revelation . These modes of knowing and unknowing all coalesce inseparably in the apophatic. Hence its unlimited pertinence to us and to our world today in its relations to yesterday and tomorrow—and to other worlds elsewhere and everywhere. Such is the revisioning of the relevance of apophatic thinking that this book undertakes to demonstrate and to fecundate.
In effect, apophasis proves in its very exhaustion to be inexhaustible (“inépuisable épuisement”) because it means to say something other than simply “something.” 18 It does not say anything that can be comprehended in propositional or constative terms. It is a saying otherwise than saying as stating, and it opens upon a different kind of sense, one that displaces the sense of discourse as a whole. This is why its saying is only a name for the unsayable rather than its articulation and expression—nothing save the name . Negative theology is not just another discourse; instead, it takes discourse to another place—without being able to say what that place is. Nor what it itself is. The apophatic is only an “over-against” that twists and tropes the sense of other discourses. What it intends cannot be analyzed or described, but it can be named—as an Other can be named and can even be addressed as “Thou,” thereby leaving inexhaustible mystery intact.
Apophatics has a key role to play in interfaith dialogue. Most, if not all, religions have mystical dimensions and mystically inclined factions—at least at their fringes—that turn away from the more positive creedal formulations of doctrine and dogma in the interests of suitably honoring divinity in what they understand to be its transcendence of human thought and language. These mystical tendencies emphasize theology’s or religion’s less verbally and conceptually graspable, yet nonetheless most vital and pertinent, aspects. In their spiritual searchings, Sufis, Christian mystics, and Kabbalists, together with New Thought (neo-pagan) gnostics, not to mention Taoists, Brahma mystics, and Zen or Tantric Buddhists, have often found themselves in agreement on basics beyond the definitions and divisiveness of the orthodox faiths defined by the communities to which they nevertheless remain attached and whose traditions they grow out of and still cultivate.
As religious teachings empty themselves of specific doctrinal content in order to concentrate on essential ethical principles and on their deepest convictions concerning the divine, reaching to their inarticulate modes of relationship to this higher order, the barriers between them fall away. Their adherents find that they can join hands with members of other diverse and often apparently very disparate faiths, or even contradictory confessions. This generalized meeting of minds and uniting of spirits does not necessarily entail a loss of specificity of the beliefs of the different religions that thereby become partners in dialogue. On the contrary, it can and should go hand in hand with a return to “the concrete stories, practices, texts and traditions in which religious truth is lived and experienced.” 19 At stake is rather the manner of holding those beliefs. It entails a strategic distancing from their specific linguistic formulations and an attempt to look beyond what they say to what they do not say and perhaps cannot say as concealing the essential motivations behind their divergent discourses. In this manner, a large measure of common ground may be gained.
We live in the tension between a growing and ever more inescapable global community, on the one hand, and the more specific, potentially divisive allegiances of particular cultural and religious identities, on the other. Often it seems that their claims are incompatible and that we must choose between them. In this situation, John Hick has proposed a “pluralist” approach to religions through contesting the “myth of Christian uniqueness.” 20 My own apophatic approach aims not to refuse the claim of uniqueness, but rather to take it as exemplary of something at least latent in potentially all religions, not to mention other belief systems or ideologies. 21 Uniqueness is thus embraced but also generalized and, in effect, negated or exploded into an apophatic universal. Being unique is revealed as the common nature of all religions and even of truth itself.
Apophatics does not conspire to relativize religious belief but rather to relate all discourse to an absolute that it aims at and is attracted by, yet cannot grasp or encapsulate in any terms whatsoever, unique or not. 22 This is what enables the absolute to belong equally to other religious or nonreligious currents and approaches. Religions and visions of truth in general envisage something absolute, and this “something” is therefore apprehended inevitably as unique and incomparable. That it is so apprehended and experienced does not mean that it can be justified as such by explicit, objective criteria. For the absolutely unique is also absolutely unsayable—for lack of terms of comparison. And that precisely—paradoxically—is the universal.
Working from the Christian tradition, it is possible to find the paths of apophasis that open toward dialogue with other faiths in the common study of comparative religions and reaching, no less importantly, beyond the pale of faith to non-faith. Christianity turns out to be, in this regard, a historically decisive cultural phenomenon: it is often presented as the catalyst of a surpassing of religion itself. Christianity is deemed by Marcel Gauchet (extending Max Weber’s disenchantment thesis) to be “the religion of the exit from religion” (la religion de la sortie de la religion). 23 Jean-Luc Nancy follows him in this line of argument. 24 Gianni Vattimo concordantly propounds interpreting Christianity as the agent of its own “deconstruction.” 25 Christianity is historically the religion of the secularized West, and not by accident: it has often been said to be the chief architect or influence shaping the modern secular world. 26 Seminal here is work in the sociology of religions not only of Max Weber but also of Émile Durkheim. 27 Specifically, Reformation Christianity has had a leading role in affirming the individual’s worldly calling to productivity, in accordance with the famous Protestant work ethic. 28
The universalizable aspects of Christianity that have been so crucial for determining its central place in modern history call out to be understood apophatically. For it is not because of specific beliefs so much as the ability to suspend them (or to universalize them, hence broadening their specificity) that Christianity has been able to exert this pervasive influence. Especially as the religion of the death of God (from Hegel to Altizer), Christianity has opened apophatic avenues that are unique to the Christian gospel and its outlook on the world. Christianity has deployed uniquely universalizing energies that cannot be understood apart from apophasis and the apophatic underpinnings of this faith in particular and of other world religions more generally. The dialogue opens not only toward other religious faiths, but also in the direction of all other forms of knowledge endeavoring to understand the world and to gain access to its truths or to a higher consciousness.

This is a dialogue, then, equally with philosophy and with other types of wisdom, a dialogue that requires to be understood in terms of apophatic principles. Apophasis stands in close proximity even with atheism, with which its utterances may converge and, in some instances, actually coincide. This has sometimes become patent and has often been a cause for scandal, notoriously in cases such as those of Meister Eckhart and Silesius Angelus. Apophasis is, accordingly, key to the dialogue between religions and within the whole range of modern ideologies and secular creeds. These participants in dialogue include the humanities and the sciences as different cultures of knowledge with their own sets of presuppositions about what is real and about how it can be known. The present dialogical project includes also the cross-cultural comparisons that make up intercultural philosophy. Deeply considered, these are all exercises in “comparing the incomparable.” They are so understood by Marcel Detienne, who in Comparer l’incomparable excavates the fascinating story of the origin of the disciplines of comparative religions and philosophy, along with anthropology, as a challenge to a nineteenth-century, nationalist model of French historiography, in the struggle for legitimating comparison of ostensibly incomparable cultures. 29
If Christianity, in the modern West, has had this role as a catalyst in the evolution of religion and culture into a secularized world order, it is thanks especially to the strength of negative theology within the Christian tradition. Along with Hinduism, Christianity has led the troupe in dancing away from its own formalized doctrines, even as it has also produced some of the most hardcore fundamentalisms. These two opposed tendencies actually belong together. By opening up a gap vis-à-vis the empirical world and all that is given and stated in worldly terms, Christianity opens the possibility of a radical transcendence of culture per se toward the unity of all religions, but also toward a valorization of the transcendent uniqueness and incomparability of each.
Hence the crucial role here of the inter cultural. Intercultural philosopher François Jullien points to the madness inherent in the Greek philosophy of transcendence that is inherited and developed to extremes by Christianity. He illustrates the sanity and sagacity of a countervailing Chinese wisdom that remains grounded in the world and in ineluctable, inarrestable change. 30 This is a very apt and important call to consciousness, but it too needs to be negated and opened outward so as to embrace its own opposite. 31 If we have learned anything from Michel Foucault, we should be aware that we need to understand the reason in madness and not exclude the mad from the order of things.
Throughout my discussion of Jullien in Apophatic Paths —an exterior supplement to this book, one that extends particularly the book’s comparative philosophies axis—I take issue with his erasing and eradicating of theology through intercultural comparison with China and Chinese culture’s presumed lack of theological content and interest. I am trying to show why theology, above all, is necessary to this discussion, why both Western and Eastern cultural traditions begin with conceptions of the divine, and even more exactly with what cannot be conceived of at all and so gives rise to mysterious figures like “divinity.” The theological inspiration of culture, as envisaged by Apophatic Paths , rises like a phoenix from ancient and modern civilizations worldwide, even though the theology in question is a self-subverting, negative theology. The upshot is not an exaltation of theology over other disciplines and discourses but rather a recognition of negative theology’s distinction in leading all disciplinary and discursive formations forward in the process of their inevitable, but blessing-dispensing, dissolution . This involves not a definitive, irreversible dispersal but rather allows for a regrouping of forces in previously unsuspected and unprecedented ways.
So what is universality? I believe that it is not produced by humans alone, and that it cannot finally be achieved by merely human means. It is to be reached only by opening oneself to what is within one but also above and beyond one ( intra me but also supra me , in Augustine’s terms)—to what is one’s ground and un ground, in the sense of transcending one from within. The dimension of universality cannot be brought about and realized just by defining some particular belief, but neither through believing in nothing—unless this be a positive, ardent, and actively productive believing in nothing specific and delimited. Such believing entails more than just a determinate belief: it is rather a disposition to believe or to seek something beyond all that can be possessed in any determinate belief. Genuine universality can be accessed only by believing in what must reveal itself to us from beyond what we can formulate and encompass. Any defined , or finite, universal entails closure and exclusion, and so cannot be absolutely universal.
It is possible to conceive of such an unknowable universal not only in traditional theological terms but also in the more futurist terms of techno-science. One might see such universality as being produced specifically by means of informatics, if one takes information technology as an all-encompassing System that englobes humans entirely but is empty at its core and without any meaning or essence, as Mark Alizart does in his “celestial informatics.” 32 Many have underlined the fascinating analogies here with (negative) theology. 33 An analogous techno-scientific approach to religion and especially negative theology has been cultivated provocatively by Mark C. Taylor and Thomas A. Carlson. 34
My contention is not only that true universality does not come from human making alone, but also that any positive form attributed to it makes it not truly universal. A problem with orthodoxy, one with which John Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy creatively struggles, is its being exclusive of deviant forms. A truly universal orthodoxy must be one that cannot be defined and cannot dictate the one straight ( ortho ) way of belief ( doxy ), just as any true humanism must transcend “humanity.” It must grasp the human universal as the not-All. This is “revelation” in a sense that Eric Santner derived from Rosenzweig and that Slavoj Žižek elicits from Lacan, as is discussed below in chapters 4 and 11, respectively. The universal must be “revealed.”
However, this revelation can come from within and as underlying us—as the “intimate universal” 35 —and also from without and above. It is, in any case, a revelation not confined to any one church or school. It can happen anywhere and everywhere. The churches have had a leading role in teaching what revelation is and how to recognize it, but revelation as such is not identical with any particular tradition or confession or creed. It is, instead, what all are aiming at. My warrant for saying this is not any superior knowledge concerning what revelation is, but simply the ethical imperative of respecting others and their different approaches to the experience of God—or of the elusiveness or absence of God. The philosophical schools and their critical thinking certainly have their role here, too, in reflecting on conceptualities adapted to relating to the inconceivable.
Beyond the proliferating multiplicity of identities in the contemporary political arena based on cultures, languages, religions, regions, nations, sexes, classes, and special interests, what makes us truly one without limits, without exclusions and restrictions—is nothing. Precisely Nothing. And nothing is more important for us to grasp than this, in order to be able to live together on our shrinking, globalized planet. This nothing is the nothing specifiable or stateable of the single individual, the person herself or himself intimated or divined behind or beyond all categories and groupings into which his or her specific differences can be fit. It is the nakedness of our person. That is what is truly universal. All fundamentally are this nakedness: in it alone, all are equal. Without any support from outside, without superiority of class, gender, race, or social standing, the naked self stands alone in the dignity of having nothing to disguise it or to answer for it, no alibi but itself. As such, each of us can stand out, ex-ist (from the Greek ἵστημι, “to stand or make stand”) in the full stature of our uniqueness and, at the same time, our universality. This is a universality of being nothing—nothing that can be said or specified.
Chapter Two

Unsaying Theology in the Name of All
Where is apophatic thinking now, and where can it go from here? The last several years have seen some critical developments in this field. By assessing them, I aim to delineate the most plausible directions for the next phase of research and speculative thinking in this area. However, this alone is not my whole purpose, for I also wish to probe more broadly the question: What idea could possibly organize the whole cacophony of critical theory at present? My answer is that the “apophatic turn” is the crucially significant and epoch-making development that can best illuminate critical thinking in our time. It needs to be named in order to come clearly to consciousness, even though apophatic naming always evokes also the nameless and allows consciousness to grasp, most fundamentally, the escape of what is named.
The largest part of the enormous body of work on the apophatic, which has become far more intensive especially in the last decade, has been exegetical and is directed to elucidating specific works or authors (Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, among others) or movements or periods or cultures. Recently, however, perennial pressures have also pushed reflection on apophasis to rise to a more general level of speculation. Apophatic thinking has become increasingly conscious of its ambiguous potential to serve as a comprehensive philosophy or theology. In certain versions, the apophatic paradigm can become a panoptic literary-critical or cultural theory.
Although such a role prima facie stands in contradiction to its negative nature and character, nevertheless an apophatic paradigm seems capable in certain respects of furnishing a kind of koiné —a common language or overarching discourse for all different types of interpretation in our age and intellectual milieu, which, by and large, have been suspicious of comprehensive systems. Hermeneutics was promoted from being an exegetical method for interpreting texts to propounding a general theory of existence and history and culture when it became philosophical hermeneutics in the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer based on Martin Heidegger’s fundamental breakthroughs. Analogously, apophatics at the present moment is taking an audacious step of philosophical universalization in numerous individual initiatives that develop out of a variety of disciplines.
Yet, apophatic thinking can finally fulfill such a purpose, not by providing any general code or overarching paradigm, but rather by just the opposite. By demonstrating the impossibility of such a total system and the necessity of critiquing all pretensions to supply one, apophatic thought engenders greater tolerance for alterity and openness to inevitable plurality. It furnishes not a master code or universal language but an open space, a common ambit, in which all are in relation to one another in and through an undefined, unsayable, common (or “undercommon”), virtual and potential, “relatedness” of all to all. 1
The current maturity of the field of apophatics makes it ripe for taking yet a further step in turning its attention self-consciously toward applications. In this regard, apophatics follows a pattern of evolution that can be observed in “theory” in general as it has turned from the “high theory” of structuralism, hermeneutics, and deconstruction, which were also conceived as universal philosophies, to more concrete concerns with social and political, aesthetic and religious, material and scientific issues. Theory is no longer focused just on “difference,” as with Derrida and Deleuze, but on specific concrete forms of racial, gender, and class differences. No longer does it concentrate on the thinking of being, as with Heidegger, but rather on being political and convivial in active, local and global, forms of engagement, often in resistance or “counterpractice.”

Something analogous is called for presently in apophatic thinking, yet with a twist. Paradoxically, the coming to consciousness of apophatics as representing a universal paradigm responding to a universal predicament, in which all share in common, coincides with its dissolution into only applied forms of thinking. Yet this supposed displacement into applications actually only renders explicit what has, in fact, always been implicitly the case. Given its inherent recalcitrance to assuming fixed, general definition, in reality apophasis can hardly be approached in any other manner than through singular instances and applications.
In this chapter, I select three books written under the aegis of apophatic theology, each aiming at a certain kind of unsaying of theology. Together they explore the options that have emerged recently for plying this type of thinking to address pressing concerns across disciplines and in the world at large. They take up different stances regarding especially the relations of philosophy and theology. However, they bear also upon art, politics, and science insofar as all discursive disciplines are determined fundamentally by the threshold between what can and cannot be said within their specific languages. The current state of apophatic theology might be represented by these three contributions, all published in 2014 or 2015 by a generation of scholars now reaching their peak and each having recently produced comprehensive works expounding in detail their approaches to apophatic thinking. These include, prominently, Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible and Elliot Wolfson’s Giving beyond the Gift . 2 My own work, too, turns on delineating a certain way of unsaying theology. I include my A Philosophy of the Unsayable alongside them as representing another voice that in my case hails more from the experience of poetic language as potentially revelatory and even, at its limit, apocalyptic in import. 3
In these different modes, there has been prolific writing in the name of unsaying theology. And this is the current—with all its sharp internal divergences—to which my own book belongs. Wolfson’s project is governed by the demand for rigorous philosophical critique and purification from all forms of even just conceptual idolatry, while Keller is driven by a passion for theological vision as engaging the political and social exigencies of the present. Nevertheless, as I read them, it is the role of poetic language that in both cases also makes their personal approaches to apophatic thinking most fruitful and effective. In other words, from my perspective, it is the necessity of understanding language poetically that, above all, characterizes our common apophatic horizon and outlook.
The crucial innovations and solutions offered by all three authors are best understood as accessing the poetic resources of language, and attending to these resources is what enables each of us to make apophatic insight work to address problems in our respective spheres and centers of interest. This chapter compares these books and their different ways of (dis)engaging theology in order to catalyze apophatic insight, whether the latter is conceived of as a promiscuous opening of all in relation to all (Keller), or as a rigorous purging of transcendence through uncompromisingly eliminating all inevitably illusory representations (Wolfson).
The latter program is, in crucial respects, to be understood as deriving from a characteristically Jewish heritage that Wolfson transmits. Wolfson suggests that Levinas’s shift from image to discourse “is rooted in an adaptation of the biblical and rabbinic suspicion of images as a means of promoting idolatry” ( Giving beyond the Gift , 123). Of course, this is only part of Wolfson’s program, since he also retrieves imagination through Kabbalah as an eminent expression of the apophatic. I am even led to wonder whether philosophical critique and poetic thinking are at odds with one another and not quite integrated in his thinking. In any case, he hews very close to “the identity of opposites.” 4 Keller, on the other hand, is heir to the apophatic tradition especially of Christian negative theology (Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa), but with a strong inflection of feminist theological critique, which is in its own—yet similar—ways a negation of the dominant theological tradition.
There are, of course, numerous other outstanding representatives of apophatic thinking today across nations and regions and fields of research. Thomas Carlson works from apophatic traditions and asks how the imagining of divinity in the void of unrepresentability correlates with shaping human life and identity after the collapse of the discrete subject into a complex system of relations and connections with an outside working internally to produce feedback loops by which it is in turn constituted. 5 Hent de Vries has investigated, in depth and detail, various aspects of the apophatic, especially in contemporary philosophy. 6 William Connolly employs apophatically inflected ideas of negativity in political theory to defend democracy and pluralism. 7 Wesley Wildman makes his naturalistic religious philosophy turn on apophatic pivots. 8 William Desmond at Louvain, Gregor Hoff in Salzburg, and Ingolf Dalferth from Zürich, now active at Claremont, represent further notable currents. 9
The linguistics-based speculations of Barbara Cassin and Heinz Wismann raise the unsayable and untranslatable to the level of a general paradigm. 10 In addition, innumerable researchers in comparative philosophy and religions focusing on East Asian traditions (Daoist, Confucian, Buddhist), such as David Chai and Eske Møllgaard, are breaking ground on similar topics in relation to these and many other traditions. 11 These others include Indian traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, with Eliot Deutsch and Francis Clooney, and scholars such as Masao Abe working in the wake of the Kyoto school. Leveraging an ostensibly marginal, insular positionality in the Caribbean as a native of Martinique, Édouard Glissant shows the ungraspability of identity in Creole society and culture to be capable of taking on markedly apophatic connotations. 12
This list could go on indefinitely, 13 and that illustrates the point I wish to make initially about the capillary infiltration of apophatic modes of thinking in and across virtually all segments of culture and society. But I will concentrate in this chapter on a configuration of the selected American apophatic thinkers working from theology in very different ways and with different accents. They complement and contest each other and bring out exemplarily the stakes of the apophatic in our time. Although a crucial common resource of all is some form of theology and specifically the unsaying of theology, all are intent on pursuing this in a strongly universalistic direction. However, whereas Keller retrieves and revives theology in unsaying it, even after it has been largely rejected and surpassed by modern secular culture, Wolfson tends to want theology to be definitively unsaid and in principle aims to stop saying it, to overcome it.
My own position is that we do very much need theology in order to be able to keep unsaying it. Theology is exemplary in allowing for and even demanding this “treatment,” which can be also a technique of healing. As an apophatic undertaking, theology is intrinsically its own self-unsaying. Theology has for its essential matter what it cannot conceive (“God”); it must therefore un say all of its own conceptions. So understood, theology is even constituted by this kenotic penchant for self-unsaying.
Keller and Wolfson, then, have both developed extensive projects that, for all their differences, can be characterized as focused on or by the endeavor to unsay theology. Keller does this in order to bring out theology’s relevance, when taken in this apophatic key, for negotiating positive approaches to social and political problems, including race and gender equality and the threats of human-induced climate change. Wolfson is attempting to unsay theology, and even to do so definitively, so as to escape from metaphysical illusions and the falsities typically ascribed to “ontotheology.” He aims—following Heidegger, as he understands this towering thinker’s program—to finally overcome the theological impulse. He pursues this goal in a manner that owes much also to Mark C. Taylor’s a/theology and even to Thomas J. J. Altizer’s death of God theology.
This deconstructive purpose and its poststructuralist lineage at times seem to be at loggerheads with some other sources of Wolfson’s inspiration, considering that he works from the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. This makes for a tension between diverse loyalties that runs through Wolfson’s work. He is situated in a Jewish religious tradition, which, however, he takes as leading to and culminating in an a/theism that was and is espoused by certain avant-garde strains of this tradition. He is also deeply invested in the postmodern deconstructive philosophical critique that prolongs Heidegger’s battle to overcome not only metaphysics but the whole ontotheological cast of Western thinking. Wolfson joins a line of Jewish thinkers, including Levinas, Derrida, and Edith Wyschogrod, who have pursued this deconstructive project.
Both of these works selected here for consideration embrace vast swathes of culture and highlight how these traditions enfold and embosom apophatic modes of thinking. Keller brings in Whitehead’s process philosophy, Whitman’s singing self, Judith Butler’s cross-gendered bodies, Hadewich’s mystical ecstasies, and infinitely more, centering in many respects on Nicholas of Cusa’s learnedly relational ignorance. Theology remains a crucial theme in spite of being unsaid and even undone, if not foresworn. This is the case also with Wolfson and his vast amalgamation of Jewish sources with postmodern philosophy, even if his purpose is not to revive theology, but the opposite. Nevertheless, the harder you try to erase something like theology, the more conspicuous the spreading human stain becomes.
What is at stake here, for me, in unsaying theology is the potential for universal relatedness, the possibility of opening a relation of all with all. This is the positive side of negative theology, which writers such as Keller are at work making into a sort of “constructively theological contemplation.” Keller explains that “poststructuralist fascination with the apophatic has precipitated startlingly fresh engagements of theology. For the most part, however, it plies only the negative epistemology, not the relational cosmology, of the apophatic” ( Cloud of the Impossible , 18). A central aspect of Keller’s purpose is to develop a positive relational ontology. She finds its elements already inherent in apophatic tradition and especially in the legacy of Nicholas of Cusa, who articulated a universalistic vision for world peace in De pace fidei (1453).
Wolfson, too, addresses the question of the universal from the opening of his book. Although working especially from twentieth-century Jewish thinkers, this restricted choice of field is a particular way of raising universal questions. He chooses to “delve deeply into one tradition out of the conviction that the particular is indexical of what we are still compelled to call the universal” ( Giving beyond the Gift , xiii). Such is his strategy for mounting a universalist philosophy based on a specific religious and cultural tradition.
Apologies for Theology
Keller emphasizes theology’s “negative capability” as part of her constant, yet also qualified and self-negating, partisanship for this discipline and tradition. 14 In a world and culture that since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment have often understood themselves as based on overcoming religious myth and emancipating themselves from theological precepts and beliefs, theology may well seem to stand in need of defense and even of some apologies. Although far from endorsing dogmatic and bigoted forms of theology, Keller is willing to speak up for its rich tradition and culture and to defend the indispensable contribution that it can make to interdisciplinary discussion, as well as to the overarching, extra-academic mission of fostering justice in society. This is not theology as opposed to other forms of culture, but rather as inclusive of them and as covertly (cloudily) always folded into everything else.
In her “beginning” chapter, Keller positions her “unsaying of theology” between the radical feminist theology of Elizabeth Johnson and the deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Her conjugation of the two takes the shape of a “chiasmus” in which they play off each other, entangle, and then go their different directions. Johnson’s She Who Is remains related to a rather substantial God, the “I am that I am” of Exodus 3:14, a God approached in the lineage of the via eminentiae of Thomas Aquinas (minus, purportedly, the latter’s essentialism). 15 This is for Keller an “ontological relationalism” that proposes a reconstructive analogical practice of theology as “an im/possible feminist transformation of Christendom” ( Cloud of the Impossible , 44).
Keller’s own approach embraces the ontological she who is of Johnson while also offering hospitality to Derrida and deconstruction. This is a challenge, since Derrida reacts so allergically to anything smacking of substantiality that he misconstrues the “beyond being” or “beyond essence” of traditional negative theology, classically expressed by Dionysius, as a “hyperessentialism.” Keller acutely observes that Derrida’s position rests on a misprision: “The language used to move beyond being is reduced to an inflation of being” ( Cloud , 45; original italics). Yet Derrida’s later admission, in Sauf le nom , that he would “trust no text that is not in some way contaminated with negative theology, and even among those texts that apparently do not have, want, or believe they have any relation with theology in general” (cited by Keller, Cloud , 45) turns his stance in a rather different direction. Keller makes it her own in wittily sending the ironic compliment back to Derrida: “It is perhaps here that I cease to trust any theology that is not in some way contaminated with deconstruction” (45).

Just this sort of reconciliation of seemingly incompatible alternatives through insight into the coincidence of opposites—in this case ontology and deconstruction—is exactly the kind of displacement and re-visioning movement in which apophaticism excels. Apophatic vision, I submit, not only sees that seeming opposites depend on some common basis or assumption; it sees into why this is inevitably the case—by regressing to the preverbal stage before the distinction in question that enables the divided points of view can even be articulated.
These two very different strategies (the ontologically synthetic and the critically deconstructive), which seem impossible to unite, coalesce in another exemplary metaphorical transformation, one wrought upon the notion of the desert of theological language in our secular culture. Keller takes such language not as a place of sterility, but as pregnant with messianic meaning of the wild (im)possibilities of what is to come. This is an example of how Keller’s deconstructive apophaticism comes contaminated also “with some positively relational language” ( Cloud , 46), and by this she means socioeconomically and politically charged rhetoric, with racial coloring and gender inflection: “Mother Sophia, Black Christ, Queer God and all” (46).
Keller thereby accomplishes a distribution of the wholly (and holy) Other of negative theology into every im/possible other that we encounter anywhere and everywhere—in the street, at a drag show, in the workplace, or in our own homes. The tradition of negative theology and its “sublation” ( Aufhebung ; relève ) by deconstruction may have seemed to be barren of the crowds of “shrieking socialities,” but actually they are there under cover of the traditional cloud of unknowing. Making room for them is an important objective of Keller’s refashioning of theology. She wants apophatic theology to be occupied by crowds that previously were theologically homeless. And hence her reproach against contemporary French deconstruction, even in its long ante-Parisian prehistory:
And deconstruction, even in its antiquity as negative theology, does not much attend to the shrieking socialities making us up as subjects or as worlds. Too material, too cosmological, too many? The language on this apophatic side of our chiasmus remains elegantly bare of the cosmic crowds. But under cloud cover they may be sneaking into its desert. ( Cloud , 47)

The essential move Keller makes is that of folding the apophatic in its various expressions into the relational ( Cloud , 47). Deconstructive negation coincides with affirmative interrelation in her cloudy recasting of apophatic traditions so as to allow this heritage to yield its “deep dynamism of relation” (48). By “mindful unknowing,” she saves us from “God” (echoing Meister Eckhart’s prayer to God to deliver us from God) and thereby saves at least the name of God, integrating Derrida’s Sauf le nom ( Save the Name ). Thus she “rescues a space for the uncertainty of our God-relation and so of theology” (49). Theology is preserved as a possible impossibility. It certainly does not fit with our current secularized worldview. In those terms, theology is impossible. Nevertheless, thanks to this very incompatibility, theology has the virtue of calling this worldview and us into question—and into questioning. Theology, by Keller’s accounting, is at least entitled to the benefit of its own doubt (28).
Keller is well aware of the challenge before her in face of the strongly separative transcendence of the Neoplatonic One near the outset of the apophatic tradition that she wants to rehabilitate. “The tension unfolding in the present book, that of an apophatic relationality, means to unsay any separative transcendence, but the unsaying will come entangled in the alter-knowing, the darkening complexity, of the most transcendent early efforts” ( Cloud , 58). The Neoplatonic One was thought of as transcendent of all relation, most explicitly and insistently by Damascius. Of course, no definition of the Supreme can be final, or can even apply, ultimately. Keller follows and adopts as ancestors for her project especially Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing , and, most programmatically, Nicholas of Cusa. These figures, whom she emphasizes and embraces, manage to hold even this transcendence of all relation in relation to all that is—by a paradoxical logic and coincidence of opposites.
Christian metaphysics, in fact, combines a quest for the One beyond Being, which is characteristically Neoplatonist, together with the typically Scholastic recognition and identification of God as Being itself. This mediation is first forged in a Middle Platonic mode with Clement of Alexandria and Origen, among other early patristic writers. This synthesis holds from Augustine through Aquinas and thus becomes a mainstay of Christian orthodoxy. It suggests how integral even Neoplatonic negative theology is to orthodox Christian theology, particularly the Roman Catholic. This synthesis is related to the affirmation of God as supremely transcendent, with which Keller is in conflict. Her refusal of such a God powers her polemic against the creation ex nihilo doctrine already in her The Face of the Deep . 16
We might, nevertheless, discern in Keller a certain affinity for the Middle Platonic way—one that reappears in Aquinas’s ipsum esse formula for God—his identifying of God with Being itself ( esse ipsum ) or with the excellence and purity of being ( puritas essendi ). There is a crucial nuance of difference in such ontological theologies from a fully deontologized, deconstructive approach to theology hailing from Neoplatonic sources. In the end, Keller derives her apophaticism from process theology rather than from the radical separatism of the Neoplatonic School that is expressed most strongly and explicitly by Damascius and that still dominates apophatic thinking in Rosenzweig and Levinas. In this respect, Keller, with her “ontological relationalism,” is closer to the tradition of Middle Platonic apophaticism than to radical Neoplatonic negative theology. This commitment distances her also from the radical Jewish deconstruction of Levinas, Derrida, Wyschogrod, and Wolfson.
Perspectivism and Exemplarism
In this perspective, all that is said (and understood) about God is based on God’s relation to creatures and is true not directly, but only indirectly, about God. In reality, this is already clear in Aquinas and medieval Scholastic mysticism. But Keller attributes it to Cusa and highlights it as a great breakthrough to modernity. “Has Cusa’s nonknowing nonetheless rendered theology meaningless—no logos left for theos? His answer brings a fresh twist to the conversation: ‘if affirmative names apply, they apply to God only in relation to creatures. ’ For we take any attributes—creator, justice, father, son—from creatures and so ‘transfer names to God’” ( Cloud , 94; italics original).
Keller exaggerates the originality of this insight, but the universe does become infinite and does indeed play a new role in Cusa and his age. The universe has become more clearly incomprehensible in itself, even though Nyssa and his anthropology already moved decisively in the direction of rendering even the immanent and mundane, exemplarily the human body, an infinite mystery never to be exhausted ( epektasis ). In a creative misappropriation and misprision of her own, Keller takes Cusanus’s idea that “affirmative names . . . apply to God only in relation to creatures ” as a radically new, modern insight in order to construct her genealogy of how “affirmative relationality unfolds from negative theology as the fold, angle, or—in Cusa’s language—contraction, that is perspective itself” ( Cloud , 94).
One of Keller’s characteristic positions, accordingly, is to turn the unique and exceptional into the exemplary, thus emphasizing not divine difference, but rather the “enfolding” of the divine into the worldly, and vice versa. Her “Christography” emphasizes Jesus’s work of love as an exemplum valid for and to be repeated by all. She objects to Jesus’s loving example being congealed into an exception , reverenced as an inimitable event and an absolutely unique achievement, that none can possibly ever repeat. She quotes Jesus in the Gospel of John (14:12) as promising that those who believe will do even greater works than he himself has done. Most subtly and provocatively, she refigures the incarnation of Christ as an “intercarnation” that redistributes the divine act of self-giving in becoming flesh among all those who follow Jesus ( Cloud , 296). This entails that the incarnation of God occurs in many different relations and perspectives.
There is something eminently modern about perspectivism, since a perspective is presumably the perspective of a subject, and the subject is the modern postulate par excellence. However, even in medieval Kabbalah, the imagination of an invisible other world was vigorously developed without modern subjectivity. That everything affirmed about God is understood only in relation to his creatures is a cornerstone of the teaching of apophatic thinkers since antiquity (notably Proclus) and is given very precise analysis in Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy ( Summa theologiae Ia, q. 13), which Keller wishes to leave behind in turning to modern breakthroughs ( Cloud , 95). What is most momentously new in Cusanus (even if not without precedents, for example, in Stoicism) is his taking the creaturely world itself as infinite and so as fully and necessarily coinciding with the divine infinity. The participatory ontology that Cusanus takes over from Platonist tradition takes a new twist toward immanence when the transcendence in question is directed not beyond the world to an other world, but is operative rather on the (now infinite) plane of the world or cosmos itself. An infinite cosmos is a giant step in the direction of a modernity that materializes divinity, for example, with Spinoza.
Each of us is a finite infinity—by virtue of our endless entanglements—yet materialized here and now, in this mortal body and its perspective on the whole that is always viewed only from one embodied angle or another. Not only is all in God and God in all, but all creation is contracted into each creature (to use Cusa’s vocabulary). The universe is in each creature, and the universe is the creature. In these terms, apophatic theology leads to affirmative, constructive cosmology. This is the spirit of modern apophatics that emerges in different ways also in Jakob Böhme and the Carmelite mystics.
Remarkable about Renaissance apophasis is the leverage it gives for mounting elaborate discourses regarding the other world and even the inner workings of the Godhead (as one sees in Böhme) based on the microcosm especially of the human being. Teresa of Avila, too, confabulates otherworldly places or stages ( moradas ) beyond words and knowing. Michel de Certeau explores the experience of the limits of experience in his studies of classical age and baroque mysticism as opening the way already to postmodern discourses on the absolutely other. 17 New languages of mysticism and theosophy well up on the wave that overwhelms these ardent baroque believers in what they cannot know or say.
Keller’s Apophatic Relationalism
What Keller seeks to find in the apophatic ancestors she resuscitates, and especially in the Church fathers she “adopts,” is an apophatic relationalism that can mediate the exigency of transcendence and transform it into immanence and intimacy. An apophatic cosmology is lacking in Dionysius, the putative father of (Christian) negative or apophatic theology, and there is no trace in Dionysius of reciprocal influence of the creature on the Creator. Nevertheless, the erotic nature of the love of God’s yearning for all creation in Dionysius constitutes a kind of root for a universal apophatic relationalism to which even God would be no exception, in Keller’s estimation. Dionysius’s descriptions, especially in De divinis nominibus , of God’s ecstatic loving, his “being carried outside of himself in the loving care he has of everything,” is intensely and affectively relational.

According to Dionysius, God is “beguiled by goodness, by love, and by yearning and is enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things, and he does so by virtue of his supernatural and ecstatic capacity to remain, nevertheless, within himself” (712B). 18 On such bases, Keller concludes: “God beguiled: the silhouette of an apophatic relationalism begins to appear, it seems, where the negation of the negation of divine love folds the distance of its transcendence into intimacy” ( Cloud , 76). This folding back into the bosom of immanence is the sort of picture and language that she prefers.
Keller does not accept the God-Being identity that she attributes to Thomas Aquinas, and “well-nigh” to Jean-Luc Marion as well. This identification, which she equates with their third way of eminence, via eminentiae ( Cloud , 73), incurs the problems of ontotheology, despite Marion’s best intentions to do everything to overcome that. Yet even Thomas Aquinas can be read as avoiding hypostatization of divinity. 19 In any case, Keller reacts against the imperious oneness of Being, yet she remains very much attached to beings and to the relational ontology that is based on their unlimited mutual relations. So much so that Being is not God, but beings are indeed divine, at least in potential. Her God is the becoming God of process theology.
Keller wants to avoid pantheism, but that God is in all things—what can be called pan en theism—does hold for her. Yet God’s being in all things as the source and sustainer of their being is not really different from Aquinas’s position, even though Keller wishes to make this relation very much more reciprocal than Aquinas does. She has persuasive reasons for this, but perhaps they should not be heeded to the extent of excluding their opposite. Rather than a process divinity, the apophatic relational ontology she seeks should in principle, I submit, give us rather a more-than-in-process God. God should not simply be identified with process. A rigorously apophatic theology should treat process itself as an unknown, a mystery, one that is not separable from the mystery of eternity, the eternity of God.
The insistence on reciprocity applies so long as we are talking about distinct beings that can be conceptualized as distinct individuals. But if God transcends individuals, then the language of nonreciprocity expresses precisely this transcendence. It designates not the transcendence of any conceivable Supreme Being or “God,” but rather marks the apophatic space for acknowledging that all that can be conceived and set into relation still cannot completely exhaust the all. This dimension transcending all sayable and conceivable things must not be excluded. Whenever we are talking about things, “God” included, such things can be conceived only relationally. In terms of discourse, relational ontology is correct. But, viewed apophatically, the discourse of relational ontology exists in order to negate itself and point to what is not itself, not discursive, and perhaps not able to be absorbed completely into articulated relations.
Keller wants to understand the divine, if that is the subject of theology, not as an object abiding apart, self-sufficient in its aseity, and repellent of all dependencies: ab-solute. That would be the error that she constantly calls “separative transcendence.” And this is to be enthusiastically granted. God cannot be an object. And yet representations of God’s infinite distance are not without some validity alongside representations of God as process—no representation at all being remotely adequate. Representing God as transcendent object is erroneous, and yet images of transcendence may be necessary to capture some aspects of our relations with any other or even with ourselves, no less than with the divine. A kind of unsurpassable transcendence needs to be acknowledged even just in the face-to-face of our human encounters with others, as Emmanuel Levinas so powerfully insists.
In principle, Keller breaks the experience of God open to involving every kind of possible and impossible relation. Her spirit and her divinity is pluralist rather than fixed on any other-repellent One. God seems not to be—at least not simply to be—the one God or the God who is One. For Keller, rather, the reverse is true: “diversity implies, it implicates, divinity” ( Cloud , 265).
Of course, a lot can be said against the one-God idea, and indeed no idea of God could possibly be adequate. But are we going to forget all that has compelled so many of our ancestors throughout the ages to embrace some idea of God as One? Is there nothing in it that might be valid and necessary for us still? I suspect that totally rejecting it simply swings to the other side of a dialectic rather than transcending oppositional logic and marking, instead, the inadequacy of either alternative alone. In some respects, Wolfson errs or exaggerates in just the opposite direction of overemphasizing separation or lack of relationality, stressing the utter inaccessibility of the ultimate—to the exclusion of its implication in anything and everything.

Wolfson seemed to be fully in sympathy with the new wave of enthusiasm for apophatic theopoetic expressions after the turn of phenomenology to theology and the reclaiming of the body and imagination as sites for the realization of apophatic expressions open to the infinite and the abyss. He contributed an essay to Apophatic Bodies , 20 one of the landmarks of the latter turns in apophatic thought. The ostensibly kataphatic vocabularies of aesthetics and the body were injected with new life and vigor by being correlated with the dark apophatic ground that they cover over, but also allow to appear. In true phenomenological lineage, Wolfson follows painstakingly the dialectic of concealment and unconcealing, with Heidegger as his guide. But for all his attunement to the use of imagination in the Kabbalah, an imperious exigency of Wolfson’s project is to purify apophasis of metaphorical reappropriations of theism and of any residues of theism’s anthropomorphic personalization of divinity. The radical moment of apophasis that he hovers over is the epiphany of the Abgrund (abyss), the ungrounding that for Heidegger takes place in all-unsettling anxiety.
From this position of radical negativity, Wolfson argues against the postmodern apophasis of Keller, Caputo, and others such as Kearney as not radical enough. He pursues an uncompromising phenomenological critique designed to deny all false figurations particularly of the gift. The turn to theology in recent phenomenology is fraught with metaphorical language that personalizes transcendence. 21 Wolfson objects to these tendencies as “undermining the irreducible alterity and invisibility attributed to the transcendent other.” 22 Although willing to admit the reasonability of attempting to marshal the best metaphors for what nevertheless remains strictly speaking unrepresentable, Wolfson warns that often these efforts “ensnare the human mind in representing the unrepresentable and imaging the imageless by the production of images that, literally speaking, are false” ( Giving beyond the Gift , 227).
One senses in this stringency an aniconic rigor that has characterized Jewish philosophy since Maimonides. It weighs heavily in the Bible itself and is echoed in the Talmud. In keeping with impulses deeply embedded in Jewish tradition, Wolfson’s approach to apophasis is acutely heedful of the interdiction against images of God. And yet, he finds images not unacceptable as momentary manifestations of the divine in the Kabbalah. Together with Rosenzweig, he finds problematic not the use of images per se, but only their fixing in static forms ( Giving beyond the Gift , 31–33).
It is important to strive by means of metaphor after the abysmal unground, as Kabbalah so intriguingly does, but to give it a theistic face—that is the danger. This is the problematic that Wolfson works over through the image of the gift. Behind this image is the issue of the person. He is adamant against personalizing in theistic manner the ineffable source of all. Otherwise, Wolfson is willing to revel in the metaphorical energies poured out—exemplarily in the Kabbalah—with the aim of figuring the unfigurable and making the invisible visible. 23
Decisive here is that Wolfson, like Heidegger, personally struggles against theistic belief and acknowledgment of God. He views apophasis, instead, as an expression of the imagination vis-à-vis the abyss, and this is vital and exciting for him. But apophasis taken as somehow justifying theology, as intrinsically theological, contradicts some of his own fundamental commitments, notably to a/theism.
Wolfson’s Jewish Radicalization of Postmodernism
Fundamentally, Wolfson is criticizing the new turn in postmodern negative theology for not being rigorous enough in its critique of representation. He condemns its turn (back) to the theological as employing a metaphysical or ontotheological language that personalizes transcendence, thereby undermining the alterity and invisibility of the transcendent Other. In his words:
In my judgment, recent attempts to harness the apophatic tradition of Western Neoplatonism together with Derridean deconstruction in order to construct a viable postmodern negative theology, a religion without religion, are not radical enough. Not only are many of these philosophies of transcendence guilty of a turn to theology that defies the phenomenological presupposition of an immanent phenomenality, as Janicaud argued, but they fall short on their own terms inasmuch as they persist in employing metaphorical language that personalizes transcendence and thereby runs the risk of undermining the irreducible alterity and invisibility attributed to the transcendent other. ( Giving beyond the Gift , 227)
Wolfson refuses the new theological turn in phenomenology because he refuses theology. This refusal seems to be grounded more in his own philosophical commitment to radical anti- or a/theological postmodern thinking than in Jewish tradition. Some kind of theological commitment is fundamental to the Kabbalah, even if taken to its limits it becomes ambiguous and contradictory of any theology pretending to translate and state the divine nature. Nevertheless, Wolfson’s refusal is articulated in the terms of the traditional anti-idolatry polemic of Jewish sources since the prophets. His atheism is shared by numerous Jewish thinkers who have followed out monotheism to atheism as its final consequence. For them, God’s not being identified with anything worldly entails, ultimately, God’s not being at all.
Wolfson’s stance serves to check the slide toward “anything goes” that disqualifies postmodern thought in the eyes of many. Wolfson represents the backlash of radical aniconic critique against the new trend in apophatics to recuperate the body and the aesthetic and all manner of positive modes of expression as valid vehicles of apophasis. Wolfson is issuing a reminder that it cannot be that easy. We cannot simply redeploy all positive modes of expression freely—once the caveat of their necessary unsaying (dis)qualifies them.
But neither, I believe, can we avoid this turn to incarnational and especially inter carnational apophasis, where the incarnation of divinity takes place not in any one substance or person but in their relations and interactions with one another, indeed of all with all. Nor would its avoidance be desirable.
Wolfson resists the resuscitation of theology after ontotheology along lines proposed by Mary-Jane Rubenstein, and by many others such as Kevin Hart, John Caputo, and Jean-Luc Marion, whom, in contrast, Rubenstein specifically acknowledges as opening new apophatic paths. 24 For Wolfson, these postmodern writers fall short of Heidegger’s forsaking of security and peace by a plunge into the nocturnal of an “enactmental not” (vollzugsmäßiges Nicht) ( Giving beyond the Gift , 231). Bolder than Keller’s apophasis of gender would be a shattering of the icons even of the aniconic itself. Wolfson strives for complete transcendence and unmitigated erasure of the theological.
“Transcendence of transcendence” or “unsaying of unsaying itself” are the self-reflexive, self-critical moves Wolfson propounds. I emphatically agree that they are genuinely apophatic moves. But I do not agree that these moves should be made definitively against all kataphatic forms of transcendence or against all rhetoric of the unsayable. These apophatic moves should be deployed not to exclude what apophatic thought presumes to think beyond, but rather to think with its supposed others so as to move beyond its own limits.
Wolfson seems to take the language of the writers he opposes as necessarily descriptive and propositional rather than as transcending that function ( Giving beyond the Gift , 229). Indeed his criticisms apply only if the language of postmodern apophaticism is taken descriptively rather than performatively, and therefore as self-undermining in its positive positions. The authors he criticizes, when thinking apophatically, I submit, unsay their saying so as to dynamically dissolve what they have said and thereby effect a continuing movement and evolution of discourse beyond themselves and their own saying. And this must be true of any discourse whatsoever that aspires to apophatic validity, including Wolfson’s own.
Keller, in particular, might rejoin that Wolfson is setting up barriers to relations that presuppose a certain knowing of unsurpassable limits, a knowing that must itself be critically questioned. She writes: “What a constructive apophaticism in its solicitation of its past must avoid is both foreclosure by knowledge or by the knowledge of not-knowledge: the fixing of mystical ‘no trespassing’ signs on the boundary of the unknowable” ( Cloud of the Impossible , 61).
This statement contains an answer to Wolfson’s critique and makes Keller’s very different goals evident. Keller points to the endemic downfall of transcendental arguments that fix the boundaries of knowing by claiming to know its “conditions of possibility.” This, too, belongs to the realm of representation, and although it represents a condition prior to representation, it remains itself nevertheless only a representation and projection, and as such it is subject to critique and necessary revision.
Wolfson reacts allergically to all forms of reification of the ineffable ( Giving beyond the Gift , 228), but how can there be any other approach to the ineffable, at least for scholarly dialogue, except through representations and their negations? He aims to counter the turn to theology (in phenomenology or in philosophy) that employs a metaphorical language that personalizes transcendence as undermining the alterity and invisibility of the transcendent Other. Such language does this indeed if you take it descriptively, but that is exactly what apophatic thinking critiques and undoes. Used apophatically , the language of personhood is based on unknowing, not on knowledge, of persons. Known to us is only personhood as we experience it in finite persons. This experience does not disclose the nature of ultimate personhood, but it reveals something about a certain dimension of our relation to the unknown . We personalize even the Unknown, of which we have an uncanny sort of experience. How could we do otherwise, since we, as persons, experience others in relation to ourselves?
Wolfson, in effect, simply renders explicit the critique of anthropomorphism rather than actually practicing it by hearing anthropomorphic language differently. This is a purely philosophical approach such as has been familiar since Xenophanes of Colophon. Is it predicated on belief in philosophy and in critique? Are these discursive forms, then, the proper disclosure of truth, or even of God, and so to be preferred to false representations? Heidegger certainly saw poetry as the disclosure of Being, and even of the insuperable undisclosedness or truth of Being. Poetry, language, and thought in Heidegger are mediums of disclosure, even though the Ultimate eludes definitive formulation in words. Perhaps, for Heidegger, philosophical critique alone can preserve that awareness. But others have leveraged other resources of imagination and belief for that purpose.
Wolfson’s Jewish Heideggerianism
The driving force for Wolfson’s position comes from Heidegger’s meditations on the unrepresentable ground or un ground of being. He finds Heidegger to have already anticipated the purportedly more radical positions from which Levinas critiques Heidegger, his phenomenological predecessor. Wolfson emphasizes not the differences, but rather the similarity, between Levinas’s dia-chrony and Heidegger’s temporal ecstasies ( Giving beyond the Gift , 376). Heidegger’s ecstatic temporality of parousia enacts the Event’s present not by waiting for the future, but rather through discerning its eruption into the present. This happens through repetition ( Wiederholung ) as a new becoming ( neues Werden ) or “duplication.”

Heidegger became acquainted with the eschatological realization of repetition or duplication as a specifically Christian living of time in the primitive Christian experience excavated especially from Paul’s letters by Rudolf Bultmann. Heidegger does, of course, in Wolfson’s view, have to be criticized for convoying the age-old prejudice against Judaism as waiting for a literal event versus Christian spiritual enactment of salvation and the eschaton . But Wolfson himself, in drawing on the Kabbalistic sense of a purely present future, a “not-yet” that already is, brings Jewish messianism close to Christianity, and particularly to a Pauline living in the end-time, or in the time of the end.
Moreover, Heidegger is right and radical, according to Wolfson, in recognizing a necessary godlessness of the poet. It is necessary for the poet to stay near to the absence of God in order to hear and transmit an originating word. Wolfson’s overriding (and traditionally Jewish) concern is to avoid deriving gods from the divinization of nature or of human powers and drives. This line of attack repeats the Jewish-prophetic purge against idolatry. Wolfson thus aligns Heidegger rather with Entgötterung , or divestment of idolatrous objectifications ( Vergöttung ). This permits a restoration of the Abgrund (abyss), and thereby reverses metaphysical obliteration of the ground of Godhood ( Giving beyond the Gift , 234).
This more radical negation that Wolfson seeks is beyond effability and ineffability and results ideally in the definitive end of all God-talk or “theolatry.” There is simply nothing more of which to speak. This was also Jean-Luc Nancy’s position in Les lieux divins ( Of Divine Places ), among his most aggressively anti-theistic works. Such a position belongs also to the tradition of Jewish atheism that is described, among others, by Blanchot. 25 In the lineage of Jewish ethical transcendence, Wolfson thereby undermines the impulse to a relational cosmic transcendence. Wolfson dismisses Richard Kearney’s representing the givenness of being as divine ( Giving beyond the Gift , 235), and he vehemently rejects Caputo’s theopoiesis of the divine gift in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism (1999), which includes contributions by Kearney. Both authors remain for Wolfson covertly beholden to the theism that they ostensibly seek to subvert.
Wolfson writes in the wake of Heidegger and evidently follows “Heidegger’s insistence that authentic philosophical thought must rid itself of any theological impetus” ( Giving beyond the Gift , 23). This constitutes an early warning that, unlike Keller, who wishes to revive some form of theological discourse, Wolfson wishes to overcome theology and cure us of “theomania,” as he puts it. Wolfson wishes to defend radical apophasis and its transcendence (which should no longer perhaps be spoken of even as “transcendent” 26 ) even at the price of relinquishing or overcoming theology. Unlike mobile, dream-like imaginings, a logos of theos always runs the risk of fixing the transcendent.
Wolfson is a proponent of the imagination as he finds it at work in the Kabbalah, but he sees it as working against “theology”; thus he believes that the seeds of his own a theology are to be found in the Kabbalistic source texts. He writes of Wyschogrod’s “neo-kabbalistic atheology” ( Giving beyond the Gift , 226) as based rather on the “deep negation” of abyss and unground (436). For Wolfson, evidently, the anthropomorphic and erotic imaginings of Kabbalah are not compatible with theological, or at least with theistic, beliefs. Whereas, in the traditional sources, the wildest imaginings are still intended by and large as vehicles of theological belief, Wolfson gives instead the impression of being a modern secular spirit like the postmodern deconstructionist critics in which he is so versed—and even more so, since he resists precisely the quasi-religious inclinations that are expressed and explored by Derrida and Levinas, no less than by Kearney and Caputo.
Theological or Theomaniacal Imagination
On the one hand, against Maimonides and his extension into modern philosophy by Hermann Cohen (based on Kant), Wolfson is advocating “a far more active role of the theological imagination” ( Giving beyond the Gift , 25). He is objecting to Cohen’s restricting and impoverishing of theological imagination by paring down the legitimate representation of God to an austere ethical personhood. Revelation and reason must not be allowed to collapse together as they do in the neo-Kantian philosophical project of Cohen. This fails on Cohen’s own terms because a rationally reduced and purged notion of God is still an image of human fabrication and thus a mythologization of God.
Wolfson, with Martin Buber, is against any fixing of God’s image: he embraces instead an “exclusive immediacy” of relationship with God. For Buber, however, God is “‘the personally present One’ that can never become a figure,” as indicated by ehyeh asher ehyeh (“I am that I am”) in Exodus 3:11, and God is “the supreme subjectivity that cannot be objectified” ( Giving beyond the Gift , 27). For Wolfson, “It is precisely because God remains hidden in the ‘exclusive immediacy’ of this relationship that God is manifest in innumerable forms in space and time. To turn any of these manifestations into a fixed image is to subvert the prophetic truism that God is imageless” (27).
We might infer that what is necessary, in Wolfson’s view, is a wild imagining that can self-critically expose itself as imagining and not pretend to be an adequate concept or revelation of God. At the sources of Christian negative theology, Dionysius the Areopagite stressed the unlikeness of images such as “worm” and “mud” as making them paradoxically the most appropriate figures of God, since they most clearly signaled the lack of any likeness or even proportion between the infinite and the finite, between God’s glory and its vestigia here below. Endlessly proliferating images would be a way of unsaying the said and also the unsaying itself, so that we can heed the pregnant silence. However, Wolfson pronounces himself to be against excesses of imagination: “My thinking is very much in accord with philosophers who have taken a critical stance toward the excess of imagination on account of its potential for fostering idolatry and leading the masses deficient in reason to incorrect views.” 27
In explicating Buber’s revelation of God in the moment as the formless shining through innumerable forms ( Giving beyond the Gift , 28), Wolfson recognizes the “human predisposition to incarnate” as “a theopoetic propensity to imagine the transcendent in forms that are no more than a projection of our will to instantiate in form that which is formless” (29). Again, we are left to infer that God is made present through this imaginative process itself and not as any of its forms or products. Buber spoke of the process of “imagining the real,” and this participatory mode of being theopathically affected—as Abraham Heschel suggests—is perhaps an alternative to the impossible attempt to represent God and fix his (or any) reality in an image.
Wolfson takes note of Leo Strauss’s critique of Buber for asserting that images are both true and false. Such contradictoriness is evidently criticizable from Strauss’s Aristotelian point of view, but Wolfson points out that for Buber an image is to be taken also as a concealment and not unilaterally just as a purported revelation ( Giving beyond the Gift , 28–29). This inflection leads Wolfson to the solution developed by Rosenzweig. Unlike for Cohen and Maimonides, for Rosenzweig the problem with idolatry is not that it represents God in images, but rather that it fixes images. For this limits God’s freedom. An invisible divinity can manifest itself mythopoetically only in a constantly changing imagined reality. This may well be a figure, a Gestalt , as long as it is a representative ( Vertreter ) and not a representation ( Vorstellung ) of divinity, to use Leora Batnitzky’s exegesis of Rosenzweig, also cited by Wolfson (30). Such a figure can authentically stand in for and manifest God, but cannot fix his nature in a static image. Such a figure is not literal, but also “not merely metaphorical” (31). It is the authentic inscription of a momentary meeting in which God’s self-revelation, even God’s self-embodiment ( Selbstverleiblichung ) or self-spiritualization ( Selbstvergeistigung ), is achieved as a worldly happening and among humans (32).
For Rosenzweig, in his own words, manifestations of the divine have a “concrete and momentary character” (konkret-momentanen Charakter). In a theopathic encounter, divine reality is bodily and spiritually manifest in figures that are “a genuine present manifestation of the real God,” but are prevented from congealing into “a lasting image of God,” which would be idolatry and polytheism. 28
Rosenzweig insists on revelation in the present as necessary to give creation (past) and redemption (future) their reality or “ever-renewed actuality” (allzeiterneuerte Wirklichkeit). 29 God must take the initiative of self-disclosure and is not otherwise in any way available for human cognition. Ironically, this happens to be the emphasis also of Karl Barth’s radically Protestant theology, but for Wolfson such an understanding aligns Rosenzweig with Kabbalah imaginings of God, and indeed Rosenzweig saw Kabbalah as a reaction against the strict rejection of images for the divine that was imposed by Maimonides. Maimonides’s teaching led to a codification of the “incorporeality” of God, but even this became somewhat too fixed an attribute, erasing the mystery of the Ein Sof , “the Infinite,” which has no proper form. Being formless, Ein Sof is freed, in some regards, to manifest itself in unlimited corporeal, and spiritual, forms. Rosenzweig saw in the anthropomorphic propensities of what he called the high or late Kabbalah ( Hoch- und Spätkabbala ) affinities with Christian incarnationalism and saw therein a motive for the appeal of Christianity to Jews such as himself (Wolfson, Giving beyond the Gift , 32).

Representation of God, at least as a personality ( Persönlichkeit ) revealed as face ( Antlitz ), is basic to the Kabbalah and is, in fact, based on Scripture. Nevertheless, Wolfson raises the question of whether Rosenzweig, following the Kabbalah, can reclaim mythological representation of divinity as part of “meeting a real God ” without “reducing that reality to a metaphorical configuration of the imagination” ( Giving beyond the Gift , 33). This question is the final sentence of Wolfson’s chapter on Rosenzweig. It remains unclear whether Wolfson finds this type of solution valid. He is intrigued and disposed to valorize Rosenzweig, but remains unwilling to embrace his (or any) theism.
Philosophy and Imagination’s Role in Knowing
In his introduction, Wolfson opens a long historical perspective on this problem of imagination in its relation to idolatry and the typical condemnation of simulacra by philosophy. Since at least Plato, imagination has labored under the suspicion of philosophers who see it as producing deceptive likenesses, and thereby of being a deadly obstacle to truth. Nevertheless, Plato’s imagination bequeathed many undying myths to the textual treasury of Western culture. Ironically, it was Aristotle, in his much dryer, scientific style, who began actually to probe the role of imagination in cognition and to appreciate its essential contributions to perception and memory. Nonetheless, throughout the Middle Ages, imagination was still generally taken as the enemy of truth. Wolfson individuates Kant as the source of “the major shift in orientation” whereby imagination was clearly recognized as the synthetic mental function that is, in fact, a hidden condition of all possible knowing. In Kant (more precisely, in the Third Critique ), imagination encroaches upon, and in some ways even subjects, reason.
Kant thereby laid a basis for the Romantic exaltation of imagination as the creator of the world. Fichte emphasized the imagination as mediating between the determinate and the indeterminate, between the finite and the infinite, in ways running parallel to Jewish esoteric lore. Medieval Kabbalists, too, had exalted imagination rather than intellect as divine by virtue of its power to make the finite self coincide with the infinite. However, Romantic imagination has a tendency to establish this unity of reason and imagination on the basis of total immanence of the divine in the human, thus collapsing the difference between finite and infinite spirit. This is what, by most accounts, happens in Hegel and in Schleiermacher, and also in Romantics such as Blake, as well as in Goethe and his Faust . Jewish tradition has another orientation and other resources that insist on respecting the absolute difference of the divine.
Wolfson practices a strict critique of all ontotheological representations of the divine in this spirit of Jewish anti-idolatry fighting against all forms of paganism. He becomes stricter even than Levinas. In “Apophatic Vision and Overcoming the Dialogical,” Wolfson becomes critical even of the “dialogical thinking” of modern Jewish philosophers from Buber and Rosenzweig to Levinas as presupposing fixed personae as conditions of dialogue and of gift giving (chapter 2 of Giving beyond the Gift ). Like Derrida and Marion and those whose project is the overcoming of ontotheology, Wolfson wants to free giving from the gift and the giver. In this respect, he takes some important cues from Abraham Heschel.
The Jewish religious imagination is described by Heschel as “anthropotropic,” or prophetic, whereby God turns toward humanity, and also as “theotropic,” or mystic, whereby the human turns toward the divine. Heschel argues against using symbolism to reduce theology to aesthetics, thereby endangering true transcendence. Wolfson wants to follow Heschel’s intuition that the imagination with its symbols reaches beyond itself toward the ineffable. Heschel elicits from these religious traditions insight into how the imagination opens creatively to the impossible and therewith resists the modern tendency to interpret all religious phenomena in terms of radical immanence and a consequent eclipse of transcendence. These immanentist tendencies predominate in philosophical idealism following Hegel and in the atheistic humanisms of Feuerbach, Nietzsche, and Freud. Jewish philosophical speculation aims to counter them through a dialogical emphasis in Buber, Levinas, and Rosenzweig that refuses, at least in its intention, to allow the divine to be reduced to the human (Wolfson, Giving beyond the Gift , 7).
Religion pivots, instead, on a gift that is not fabricated by humans. Wolfson pursues this line even more rigorously than the Jewish dialectical philosophers, and without their theism. He conceives of the gift in terms owing more ultimately to Heideggerian phenomenology than to Jewish theological imagination. The Derridean and Levinasian extensions of Heidegger’s battle against ontotheology are taken up by him and pressed as the truth (or untruth) to be vindicated and upheld against all idolatry or “theomania” that theistically attributes especially personalized being to God—as Giver.
Overcoming Philosophical Idolatry: The Roles of Theology and Poetry
Wolfson’s overarching issue, consonant with Jewish critical philosophy, is that of how to escape idolatry. This concern comes especially from Maimonides in the Jewish tradition of negative theological reflection. Maimonides, in a medieval, proto-Scholastic frame of mind, tried to rationalize knowledge of divinity, and for this purpose he felt the exclusion of the imagination to be necessary. The imagination of divinity, nevertheless, took on vigorous development in the Kabbalah. Rosenzweig defends Kabbalah against Maimonides’s rejection of all forms of anthropomorphism. He even interprets Kabbalah as a natural reaction to this extreme Maimonidean asceticism of the imagination. But the question remains for Wolfson of whether Rosenzweig’s championing of revelation as God’s own religion is viable ( Giving beyond the Gift , 33). It does entail attributing agency to God, and Wolfson refuses to do that: he argues instead, adopting a phenomenological vocabulary, for giving without a Giver. For him, the absolutely transcendent must not be personalized—every personification counts as a crude anthropomorphization. His fundamental gesture is to radicalize critique by the rejection of any agency for giving, whether formulated in terms of transcendence or of immanence. Yet Wolfson also champions a phenomenology of absolute immanence.
Phenomenology beyond Theology, Apophasis beyond Atheology
Imagination is capable of a coincidentia oppositorum , of making the invisible visible—on condition that the invisible, like the transcendent, is not hypostatized into something else that preexists its being made immanent by being imagined. In this way, the absent becomes present, even though it is absent only in and through this presence fabricated in and by the imagination. Wolfson would then seem to recuperate the terms of transcendence and revelation reinterpreted in fully immanentist terms. There is a danger that this would liquidate the faith and the community out of which he works and thinks. This danger, in fact, haunts the previously cited interview “On Imagination & Narrative in Jewish Thought” that probes somewhat more directly Wolfson’s intentions.
Wolfson’s apophasis is not a negative theology so much as a negation of theology, and in this respect his position is comparable to that of certain of the self-declared atheistic apostles of postmodernism. An earlier work offers confirmation of this position that we infer for him:
Theopoiesis thus avoids the ontotheological by deobjectifying all discourse about the divine in a manner that coheres to some degree with the apophatic tradition of naming the unnameable, the gesture of speaking-not, which is to be distinguished from not-speaking. Theology, however, always runs the risk of literalizing the metaphor and turning the figurative trope into a reified idol of veneration. 30
Wolfson wishes to pursue, instead of theology, a strict and rigorous phenomenology, as if it could be a rigorous science, a “strenge Wissenschaft” such as Husserl envisaged, without any foundation in belief ( Giving beyond the Gift , 236). However, in an apophatic vein, he calls for surpassing all representations and sets as a goal, instead, remaining in aporetic suspension. Nothing can be said by rights of the giving of the event: “What is necessary, although by no means easy to achieve, is the termination of all representation, even the representation of nonrepresentability, a heeding of silence that outstrips the atheological as much as the theological, the unsaying of the unsaying that thinks transcendence as the immanent other beyond theism and atheism” (236).
Here, by not embracing either atheism or theism, Wolfson remains in an apophatic posture—as long as it does not become a stable position definitively excluding other options. For neither is simply avoiding commitment the apophatic way. Either position is possible to adopt as a standpoint for dancing beyond its confines toward what would encompass also the opposite position. Following Wyschogrod, Wolfson’s preferred position seems to be that of “Jewish immanent atheology” ( Giving beyond the Gift , 226) and its “immanent transcendence.” He does, however, take the “physical universe” as a given in affirming that “there is no recourse to a transcendence that is external to nature” (225).

Wolfson wants to escape all doxa and every recourse to representing transcendence and therewith any theopolitical agenda such as Keller’s apophaticism underwrites. He strikes out against analogical imagination and its outdated cosmos (as expressed in Cusa or Dante) and against all personification of the impersonal. In his extreme iconoclasm, he speaks of the need “to rid monotheism not only of the psychological tug to personify the impersonal but also of what Corbin called the ‘pious illusion of negative theology’ and the pitfall of ‘metaphysical idolatry’” ( Giving beyond the Gift , 228). But how can he know that God or reality is impersonal? Would it not be more thoroughly apophatic to allow God to be beyond personality and impersonality, even while giving rise to both?
Wolfson adheres to a constant philosophical exigency of rigorous anti-idolatrous or antimetaphysical critique expressed historically by Maimonides, Kant, and Cohen and, more recently, by Derrida and Marion. Wolfson also has strong affinities with the postmodern a/theological critique pursued by Mark Taylor. He avows his complete agreement with Taylor’s critical treatment of Altizer, whose death-of-God theology is another important influence and precursor. This is Wolfson’s genealogical line as it can be pieced together, in this book, together with, of course, the congenital line of contemporary Jewish philosophy of Levinas, Derrida, and Wyschogrod.
Yet Wolfson comes back to Heidegger in the “Heideggerian Afterthought” to his book on contemporary Jewish philosophy of apophasis from Rosenzweig through Levinas, Derrida, and Wyschogrod to himself because fundamentally his project is still one of overcoming ontotheology. He condemns ontology (alias metaphysics) together with theology as idolatrous, just as they were already condemned by Heidegger for losing and covering over the truth of being that had been revealed to thinking among the pre-Socratics.
Immanence and Apophasis
Wolfson aims to uphold as phenomenological truth the postulate of “immanent phenomenality,” giving priority to immanence in the style of Nietzsche and Deleuze. This outlook holds sway in the secular-minded modernity that dominates modern and contemporary philosophical critique. Its will to reduce everything to some “facet of immanence” to my mind fights shy of fully opening to the luminous darkness of the apophatic dawn. From the very cover (in the author’s own type of language), Giving beyond the Gift propounds the move back to immanence as “an apophasis of apophasis, based on accepting an absolute nothingness—to be distinguished from the nothingness of the absolute—that does not signify the unknowable One but rather the manifold that is the pleromatic abyss at being’s core.”
We can agree that the ultimate is what can be apprehended only as absolute nothingness, but that does not describe the ultimate nature of reality itself in any definitive terms. The desire to have and the impulse to seek such a description is what apophatic critical consciousness enables us to diffuse. “Being” and “core” and “abyss” are still operating as proper terms in this description. At least they are supposed to operate on an altogether different level of truth from that of personalized theistic metaphor. I am left to conclude that these formulations are still striving to say what reality ultimately is rather than giving up that quest, or at least recognizing it as impossible and letting the figures be free to interpret and mediate what we have no proper, especially no philosophical, language to describe and can only imagine. Theistic and personal terms, as witnessed by tradition, have great importance in conveying our relations to and experience of aspects of the real that no terms of ours, notably “divinity,” can properly describe.
I think we need an equally forceful critique of immanence and an undermining of its presumable self-sufficiency and self-evidence in the light that is shed from we know not where (as in James Turrell’s installations)—light that has been figured and fathomed in theological language and images throughout the ages (see Kosky, Arts of Wonder , in chapter 1 above, note 6). It is customary to speak of the “transcendent” in order to express this unknown. Wolfson opposes postmodern philosophies of transcendence, but I think that his position, as a postmodern philosopher of immanence, runs the risk of choosing just one side of this tension and thus failing to give full due to its coinciding with its opposite. He argues, with consequence, to a position of Jewish atheism, but does not acknowledge the extent to which atheism is a theism—it requires a concept of God to negate. Atheism, at its most lucid, means not excluding or overcoming theism, but rather reorienting theism to its unfathomable ground that cannot be apprehended except through figures, including figures of personhood, since being persons is surely constitutive of human relationships—including our relatedness to the unknowable.
In the end, Wolfson’s reason for being critical of language that fails to respect the transcendent is not that he wants to defend God against idolatry, but rather that he wants to put a stop to talk about God (theology) altogether. I suspect (or am given to feel) that, like Mark Taylor, he wants to unsay theology once and for all so that we can be done with it. Then it would seem that we were getting somewhere. In these optics, language for the transcendent is really language for nothing at all and should be exposed as such.
The Difference between Wolfson and Keller: Separative versus Relational Transcendence
Keller and Wolfson propose seemingly incompatible versions of apophaticism. Keller’s apophatic relationalism pivots on a rejection of “separative transcendence,” but this is what really inspires Wolfson in his uncompromising pursuit of Levinas’s thought of absolute alterity and its development as Derridean différance . Levinas thinks within the radical cleavage of the Same and the Other (“la séparation radicale entre le Même et l’Autre”). 31 For Levinas, the transcendent is absolutely separate (“absolument séparé”), wholly other, wholly apart from the desire for the other that drives metaphysics. This is necessary to rupture the totality that would otherwise form between Same and Other. Levinas is following Rosenzweig in this decisive move, and it is echoed by Adorno, among others. Separateness, in contrast, enables an ethical relation in exteriority between the same and the other, me and the other person. However, even while intending someone completely other, the intention and conception of the wholly other are formed within the one or the same (me) who is inhabited by this metaphysical desire.
There is thus something always impossible and compromised about the conception of the absolutely separate and transcendent. It is, after all, what cannot be conceived. The moment the Other is conceived by the Same it becomes no longer wholly other but, instead, is inevitably measured to the Same’s own means and possibilities of conceiving. Derrida pointed this out early on in his critique of Levinas’s Totalité et infini (1961). 32 And this led Levinas to a more radical formulation in terms of language, Saying and the Said, in his Autrement qu’être et au-delà de l’essence (1974). Only the moment of Saying can preserve an open address to the Other: the Other is always betrayed by any Said, any fixed content that accrues to the pure act of Saying.
Ostensibly, the spirit of Keller’s apophasis moves all in the opposite direction from this purge against theolatry. 33 She is not seeking separation from the compromised, the idolatrous, the anthropomorphic, but is affirming, instead, a credo of radical nonseparability. Keller’s “theology of apophatic entanglement, cosmopolitically developed” ( Cloud of the Impossible , 258), effects, or at least aims at, planetary solidarity between religions, races, sexes, classes, and, in general, all categories. Far from scrupling over the danger of falling into tainted forms of representation, Keller encourages all social groups to grow more free and spontaneous in their self-expression. She aims to promote peace through universal “removal of inhibition and not its introduction” (258).
In order to articulate the apophatic, Keller and Wolfson have used opposing and even contradictory languages and conceptualities. We seem to have incompatible apophaticisms, with a participatory relational ontology, on one side, and a separative, nonparticipatory atheology, on the other. However, viewed apophatically, systems and postulates that oppose each other may show up as ways of unsaying themselves that then shed light on a common ground or background. My strategy in juxtaposing these opposed approaches in order to elicit a horizon shared in common with my own is reminiscent of Hegel’s Differenzschrift . 34
In her championing of the many, the crowd, against the ideal of oneness and the One, Keller is actually in agreement with Wolfson. Wolfson, too, is concerned to deny that Ein Sof (or the Neoplatonic One or the Christian God) can exist without and in abstraction from the Many. This is certainly true, as far as representation is concerned. We only have any idea of the One through some kind of negation of the many. But why, then, deny the power to exist on its own to the One or God or Ein Sof ? This is a question that I would pose to both of these authors. By what right can we in any way deny this purely positive, in-finite being, which is thought of as more positive even than any being that we can imagine or think or say? What right do we have to delimit it? Why do we even want to do so? In order to assert our own mastery, no doubt. At least there is, then, some final limit, however minimal and marginal, to our impotence!
It is true that any assertion of almighty power attributed by us to the One will be infected with our own will to power. But so is any denial of the same. So we perhaps should just take stock of the formulations of our ancestors and admit that they correspond to proclivities in us and, to that extent, also in the real such as we can and do grasp and experience it. There is no warrant for us not to credit theistic belief in one God as expressing at least a certain kind of human experience and a stage of evolution in the relational capacity and acknowledgment of our predicament in all its potential abjectness and radiant glory. And can any of us lay claim to articulating a truth that is not deflected in some such way through our history and constitution?
Inviolable Separateness versus Cosmic Entanglement
Wolfson is extending, even while critiquing, Levinas’s take on separateness, which is itself taking cues from Rosenzweig’s separate elements: God, Man, and World—on which basis Rosenzweig builds his theosophy in Star of Redemption . By emphasizing radical separateness, Wolfson’s critique goes in the opposite direction from the cosmology and ontology championed by Keller. He critiques Levinas for not being rigorous enough in repudiating all anthropological language, and he levels a similar objection against Rosenzweig, trying to reconceive the latter’s thought as implicitly lending itself to a/theism.
Levinas insists on “radical separation” between self and other as the necessary condition for breaking the totality that precludes ethical relation to the infinitely other. The nature of language or discourse is to maintain this separation: “Discourse by the very fact of maintaining distance between me and the Other, the radical separation that prevents the reconstitution of totality . . .” (Le discours, du fait même qu’il maintient la distance entre moi et Autrui, la séparation radicale qui empêche la reconstitution de la totalité . . .) (Levinas, Totalité et infini , 29). Language is not simply continuous with nature. It is not to be folded into a seamless web of relations such as Keller typically envisions.
The separateness defended by Levinas is also an asymmetry. The infinite ethical obligation to the Other entails no reciprocity. In the theological register, God is not quite folded into the creation because God (or the Other) has to represent an unassimilable, inappropriable, absolute exteriority. Keller’s discourse of enfolding cosmic entanglement without limits would seem to reach a limit in being confronted with the ethical thinking of Levinas. The infinitely entangled, cosmic connectedness of all at the basis of her ethics of relationality is precisely what Levinas denies in affirming the absolute separateness of the Other from the Same as the fundamental principle of all ethical relation. The commandment against representing God turns, for Levinas, into an interdiction against in any way enfolding the Other into the Same.
Derrida and other radical Jewish thinkers’ thinking of difference, including Edith Wyschogrod’s, as Wolfson reconstructs her thought, would also seem to be incompatible with Keller’s apophaticism and its principle of nonseparative transcendence. Starting with Rosenzweig, the orientation of this current of thinking, which insists on the eternally separate “elements” of God, Man, and World, sets itself against the speculatively totalizing tendency of German idealism. Kierkegaard and the late Schelling loom in the background here for what is basically an existential orientation that makes knowing secondary to relationality. Of course, this relational emphasis is shared by Keller, but she sees endless connectedness or entanglement and does not wish to underscore any necessary break consisting in relation to an absolutely Other.
Behind this polarization of approaches stand debates that have been raging throughout the centuries between paganism and monotheism, or again between Catholic cosmological rationalism and radical Protestant voluntarism, with the latter insisting on God’s incalculable Will as transcending any idea of the Good. This debate took a particular shape in the Scholastic Middle Ages with Franciscans, prominently Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, arguing for univocity and contingency of being against the analogical participative ontology of Aquinas and Henry of Ghent.

Thinking separates and distinguishes its objects, yet it is in itself a synthetic process. This contradiction inherent to thinking as such produces the divergent directions pursued by Keller and Wolfson. The move of separating may be necessary, and indeed the essential apo-phatic gesture, but the question of what is separated cannot receive any determinate answer. Every specific answer identifies an element that can be folded back into what it was supposed to be separated from, since the distinction is made by the activity of thought in which the separated elements are united. Only the unthinkable lies definitively outside all definitions of thought. It cannot be thought, and yet it can be acknowledged. Keller and Wolfson are taking up different positions along a continuous process of radicalizing unsaying that has its moments of saying “not” and then of unsaying that very unsaying.
External Relation versus Participation: The Necessity of A/theism
Any idea of participation in transcendence will be rejected by Jewish thinkers such as Wyschogrod and Wolfson, following Levinas, as dependent on the myths of positive religion. Levinas embraces a “metaphysical” relation in which the infinite simply speaks to a completely separate being and thereby to an “atheist being” and so avoids the “sacred violence” of positive religion: “Only an atheist being can relate to the Other and already absolve itself of this relation” (Seul un être athée peut se rapporter à l’Autre et déjà s’absoudre de cette relation). “To relate to the absolute as an atheist is to receive the absolute purged of the violence of the sacred” (Se rapporter à l’absolu en athée, c’est accueillir l’absolu épuré de la violence du sacré). In this sense, “monotheistic faith, purified of myths, presupposes a metaphysical atheism” (la foi épurée des mythes, la foi monothéiste, suppose elle-même l’athéisme métaphysique). 35 The sacred relation of participation in divinity is replaced by an atheistic relation to the absolute. Monotheism is thus understood as the overcoming of paganism and of the latter’s sacralization of aspects of the creation and particularly of humanity.
This leads to Levinas’s affirmation that “revelation is discourse” (La révélation est discours) and that, to receive it, a separate being is necessary as interlocutor (“Il faut pour accueillir la révélation un être apte à ce rôle d’interlocuteur, un être séparé”). Revelation of the truly other cannot occur to a being enfolded into participation. In this manner, “atheism conditions the authentic relation with a true God, one present on its own terms, or καθ’αύτό” (L’athéisme conditionne une relation véritable avec un vrai Dieu καθ’αύτό), 36 one who thus is not produced by representation and is consequently not just a figment of human imagination.
In Levinas’s terms, revelation is necessarily a discourse directed to a separate being. Hearing the divine Word is not objective knowing, nor even some kind of ecstatic contact with the Transcendent or participation in the numinous, but rather a purely exterior relation, relation to the other human being in society, a relation calling for justice: “A relation with the Transcendent—and yet free of all domination by the Transcendent—is a social relation” (Une relation avec le Transcendent—cependant libre de toute emprise du Transcendant—est une relation sociale). Here, in the face of the other human being, “a revelation of an absolute presence” (révélation, d’une presence absolue) that is “disengaged from all relation” (dégagée de toute relation) “expresses itself” (s’exprime). 37
This Levinasian ethic is the basis for a paradoxically atheistic embrace of monotheism. Such a monotheism arises as an attack against paganism and its cult of divinities generally associated with natural and worldly powers. The countervailing thesis of monotheism is that divinity transcends the world. This has often been advocated as a great religious truth and used to justify violence. Islam and Christianity were very energetic and often violent in the suppression of pagan cults. Judaism, too, often understood itself as religiously superior because of its having conceived of God’s transcendence of everything worldly. However, on this basis, many modern Jewish thinkers have realized the potential confluence of Judaism and atheism. In order to carry out the undermining of pagan cults and their gods to the end, one has to transcend religious belief altogether, give up all pretenses concerning supernatural powers, and embrace a purely ethical interpretation of the real meaning of religion.
“Revelation,” in anything other than an ethical sense, thus needs to be overcome. The true revelation is only that of the ethical obligation of human beings to one another. This, then, would be what the Jewish idea of transcending natural divinities had been driving at all along. Levinas demands to be read this way. He uses these terms himself in Totalité et infini. He deepens philosophically the broader currents of Jewish atheism or atheologism that Wolfson is tapping into. Derrida and Wyschogrod, too, in many ways transform religion into ethics in order to evacuate all claims of an ontotheological nature.
But one can also go in the other direction under the influence of—and in reaction against—our modern secular global culture. Rather than reducing the sacred to the ethical and driving divinity out of the world, one can find the sacred in everything. The result is the extreme development of monotheism into denying to God any distinction whatsoever, even that of existence itself. Since God is nothing separate and distinct—nothing that we can know anyway—everything can be considered to participate in God. This is pushing to its limit the pagan tendency to multiply gods and cults. God might even be simply the connectedness and connectivity of all things. Unlimited relational enfolding. A sacramental cosmos. However, by eliminating God’s distinction, the sacredness of everything again is at risk of losing its theistic and even its religious dimension. The sacred is no different from the profane. A transcendent God might be missed at this point by those who wish to retain religion.
This second direction reaching toward all-inclusiveness is expressed in Keller’s rejection of “separative transcendence.” Apophatic thought, however, can keep both of these possibilities—along with what is compelling in each of them—in play. The logic and definitions of any religion can be taken to extremes where they lose their sense. All religious discourses (like all discourses) at some point have to be negated as diverging from the immediately real, which is eternally evolving, unlike the fixity of linguistic formulations. And just at that point is where the dimension of the unsayable and unthinkable opens and the ineffable truth of religion becomes manifest.
The connectedness of all, if it is formulated in a thought or concept, becomes totalitarian. The separateness of the other, if it is thought and said at all, no longer respects that alterity, but defines and appropriates it. Either way, it is not the intention of respecting the otherness of the Other or of acknowledging the connectedness of All that goes wrong, but rather the fact that formulating these intentions in thought and language perversely cancels out what they, in either case, envisage. This is the paradox of thinking—that it reverses and ruins what is thought by thinking it. In that case, what is necessary in order to attain to the dimension that is being aimed at by religion and ethics alike is for thought to be able to think against and negate itself.
Opposites Meet: The Separate Is Unsayably Related
Levinas speaks a language of separative transcendence. This can be found everywhere in his oeuvre, but we can turn especially to the subsection “Séparation et Discours” of Totalité et infini (45–79), where it is first focused thematically and is systematically worked out. Paradoxically, we find there that his separative transcendence is itself based on radical relationality: “The invisible God does not signify only an unimaginable God, but a God accessible through justice. Ethics is the spiritual optics” (Dieu invisible, cela ne signifie pas seulement un Dieu inimaginable, mais un Dieu accessible dans la justice. L’éthique est l’optique spirituelle). 38 This implies that there is no knowledge or experience of God, except via relations with humans. Levinas even expresses himself, ironically, in terms of nonseparation: “There can be no knowledge of God separate from the relation to humans” (Il ne peut y avoir, séparé de la relation avec les hommes, aucune “connaissance” de Dieu). 39 Thus, even Levinas aims to avoid separating discourse about the Transcendent from actual engagement among human beings held responsible to the demands of justice. This seems to be a version of what Keller would recognize as nonseparative transcendence.
By opposite conceptual paths, separatist and connectionist apophatic thinkers (represented by Wolfson and Keller, respectively) can arrive at some similar results. In fact, a discourse of separative transcendence à la Levinas, which is pushed even further and purified of all substantialist, personalist residues by Wolfson, proves to be necessary via the paths trod by Levinas and Wolfson to arrive at a vision of social justice and its irrecusable, transcendent claim on us. For the same purpose, Keller, in contrast, requires the vocabulary of relationality deployed against all separateness. The inescapable contradictoriness of discourse is what comes here to the fore. Either discourse, whether of insuperable separation or of inescapable connection, can hardly help but summon its opposite as included by exclusion. To talk about separative transcendence as excluded is to include it. Conversely, a Jewish condemnation of the fusion of all in one as unacceptably pagan necessarily includes just such a conception as negated in imagining what transcends discourse unutterably.

In developing a discourse in any conceptual terms whatsoever, one excludes one’s own opposite. Yet what is excluded is just as necessary to one’s own vision as what one discerns and articulates as one’s theme. The moment when this contradiction surges into view is the apophatic moment, a moment of truth—more than the discourse itself, which only seems to give coherent voice and vision to truth. The truth transpires in actually seeing this discourse collapse into a kind of unintended dependency on, or complicity with, its own opposite, with its contrary or contradiction. Of course, we cannot reach this vision without struggling to develop a coherent discourse. But the irony is that the vision comes in and through the failure and fissure of that discourse. We have to learn how to construct our discourses passionately and coherently, and at the same time to detach ourselves from them, so as to let go of them when they reach their inevitable limits vis-à-vis the unfathomable.
Toward a Poetic Perspective
Wolfson seems to want to translate theology, even apophatic theology, into a purely phenomenological or “neutral” language about “absolute nothingness,” a language used not “to signify the unknowable One but rather the manifold that is the pleromatic abyss at being’s core.” But these terms are not really more adequate by apophatic lights: they are still human, linguistic artifices that depend on differential opposition and exclusion in order to be meaningful at all. The most fundamental difference is not between one vocabulary and another, but rather between a poetic use of language and constative uses that purport to state what things really are. All metaphors, or at least a great variety of them, can be and are employed by apophatic thinkers.

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