Whenever we talk about God, we are talking about mystery. Sometimes all our good thinking about God can domesticate God into a systematic, compartmentalized way of knowing and relating to God. While many of us would agree that God is much bigger than our biggest, best thoughts many of us live unwittingly as a hostage within these thoughts and the cultural, religious metaphors, and western ways of thinking about the divine.
We all use metaphors to help us relate in some way to the mystery that is God. These can include images of father, mother, light, darkness, gems, precious stones, defender, provider, etc. Jesus spoke about sheep and mustard seeds when he spoke about the Kingdom of God. John the Revelator spoke of thrones, white horses, a lamb, etc. Metaphor's, similies and alike are useful tools for us to communicate really big ideas in ways that we as people can understand as they attempt to translate the mystery that God is with things that we may better relate too. These work great until they don't!
I was leading a gathering a while ago, and we were talking about the kinds of ways we can know God. A lady present was talking about her father and how cruel he was, and how while she knew God was not like her bio dad, her image of a father for God certainly had some smudges on it. I asked her if it was easier for her to think of God in terms of mother (God's gender is not an orthodoxy issue). She laughed and said that as bad as her dad was, her dad never tried to kill her like her mom had tried!
In this case, neither metaphor was helpful for her, but she had found meaning in other metaphors like protector, light, beauty and creator. She is also rediscovering Jesus in the light of divine love, and healthier, historic atonement theories and Jesus is healing her image of God.
While some have difficulty with various metaphors as a result of terrible circumstances, there is a time in a healthy spiritual journey where the metaphors and stories that have been so very helpful in our development become a problem. This is not because we are wounded as much as it is that we begin to realize that they can no longer hold our experience of God. Eventually, even our best stories, metaphors, similes, parables can only carry so much of the reality of the mystery that is God. We start to see these metaphors, stories, etc. as a different kind of truth. They act as icons holding (pointing to) a truth much, much bigger than they are in and of themselves. Even the word "God" can carry baggage that can inhibit our knowing of God. This doesn't make them lies or untrue rather they point us to the greater depth of truth beyond themselves.
The practice of Negativia is rooted in an Eastern Christian tradition that explores the mystery of God by the ways God is not like something. For example, there are things that we can learn about the divine in how God is not like a father as much as we can as God as father, like when God is better understood as a mother. Sometimes our ideas of gender can get in the way of genuinely growing in experientially knowing God. Light is an image often associated with God and works great until those time where God is darkness (not to be confused with evil). There are experiences of hiddenness and experiences of the ever present and what can we learn when God the healer doesn't heal?
All this can be very beneficial to our spiritual formation but it is all a very observational, standing on the outside observational way of knowing - which is wonderful and helpful but all these good ideas can still get in the way of knowing God. It is helpful to begin to cultivate an unknowing- knowing. Instead of approaching God by what we know or don't know about God we simply (easier said than done) approach God empty, or if you prefer as a blank slate or in a posture of openness. In a very real sense, it is like a surrender. A surrender of our best thoughts and experiences ABOUT God and receive God as a gift. We do this as we become gift ourselves. A growing openness makes way for a growing awareness, glimpses of the mystery that is God within, through, around us.