So you’re going to be leading a discussion of the great Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church for an adult Sunday school group at your church, and you write to ask whether I have any suggestions? NO! What else could the answer be to a question about apophatic theology?!
But in all seriousness, there’s no way to make the rarified truths of this classic book “user friendly” (your phrase), especially when the users are pious faithful whose relationship with their Lord is almost certainly founded upon images and comforting thoughts. Your audience will—or at least should—be suspicious from the get-go, given where I assume they’re coming from: a solid basis in Scripture.
What you might do, I suppose—speaking of Scripture—is to preface your discussion of Lossky by pointing out that the Name God gives Himself in the Bible—”I am what I am”—proves He is incomparable to anything else; as His own predicate, He conforms to no category: “If He is, we aren’t,” as certain Fathers were wont to insist; “and if we are, He isn’t.” Or again you might try opening your students’ hearts to the operative implications of Philippians 2:5-7. We’re to have the “mind” of Christ, says St Paul, who, “because”—not in spite of the fact that—He was in “the form of God” emptied Himself. One could spend a few decades pondering that single admonition.
In any case, there’s no way to make this dense and demanding text unconfusing without depriving it of its intended effect. The whole point is to be amazed—using that too-often-used word with its full etymological force—by what the Areopagite calls “the unchangeable mysteries of heavenly Truth”, which, he koanically declaims, “lie hidden in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories which exceed all beauty”.
The “problem”, of course—I speak now with a serious playfulness!—is that once a person has drunk deeply at this apophatic well and started adopting Christ’s mushin no shin, it’s a slippery slope to becoming … a Christian perennialist! It’s surely no accident that Lossky’s dissertation was on Eckhart, however unfairly critical he may have been of the Master, and there’s a reason Metropolitan Anthony Bloom was able to stump him with a few pearls from the Hindu tradition. Do you know that story? It’s recounted in the 2005 biography, This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony.
It seems that as a young man the Metropolitan (then Andre) wrote out a list of eight quotations from the Upanishads and took them to Lossky with an apparently innocent inquiry: “Could you help me? I have some sayings from the Fathers here, and I can’t remember who said what. Can you identity them for me, please?” The biographer continues: “Lossky went through the list and without hesitation wrote beside each quotation the relevant name: St John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great, and so on. When the theologian had attributed them all, Andre dropped his bombshell, ‘It’s the Upanishads.’ From then on, he said, Lossky began to look much more sympathetically at other faiths and came to find in them truths he had never before been able to acknowledge” (p. 85).
The moral of this story is that you (and your priest!) mustn’t go blaming me if your Sunday school class decides the next book on their list should be The Transcendent Unity of Religions. 2 + 2 = 4.