Negative theology (also known as Apophatic theology) is a method of describing God by negation, in which one avers only what may not be said about God. This approach, often called the via negativa, is a favorite among mystics who often insist that their experiences of divinity are beyond the realm of language and concepts. The purpose of Negative Theology is to gain a glimpse of God (divinity) by articulating what God is not (apophasis), rather than by describing what God is.
Negative theology is found in various world religions and is based on two common presuppositions: Given the vast magnitude of divinity, it is assumed that any human descriptions of the Divine should be based on utter humility; secondly, if the human mind cannot entirely grasp the infinity of God, then all the words and concepts presumably fail to adequately describe God. At best, human languages provide a limited description of divinity, like seeing the tip of an iceberg. Those who espouse Negative theology, therefore, claim that it is better to avoid making affirmations about God in order to prevent placing God in a "cage of concepts," which may limit human understanding of God and "become a type of intellectual idolatry."
Negative theology is differentiated from Cataphatic theology (Positive Theology), which describes God through affirming specific Godly attributes such as Love and Mercy.
Many religions teach that the Divine is ineffable (ultimately beyond description). Some theologians, like Saint Anselm (Saint Anselm famously wrote, "God is greater than anything that we can conceive"), recognized that if human beings cannot describe the essence of God, then all descriptions of God will be ultimately limited and conceptualization should be avoided. Typically, theologians make positive statements about the nature of God such as saying that God is omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving, all-good, and so on. However, in doing so, several problems of theodicy and logic arise. For example, if God is all powerful, then could God create a rock that even He could not lift? Negative theology recognizes the limits and failings of human logic to understand the sheer magnitude of divinity. In this light, in the ethos of negative theology, it is more appropriate to say that "God is not evil" rather than to say that God is "good," because this word may place limits on what God means to human beings.
In ancient Greek philosophy, both Plato and Aristotle refer to the "One" (Greek: To Hen), the ineffable God. Plotinus advocated negative theology in his strand of Neoplatonism: "Our thought cannot grasp the One as long as any other image remains active in the soul… To this end, you must set free your soul from all outward things and turn wholly within yourself, with no more leaning to what lies outside, and lay your mind bare of ideal forms, as before of the objects of sense, and forget even yourself, and so come within sight of that One" (Enneads).
In the Jewish tradition, God is the Creator of the universe (Genesis 1:1), yet separate from the physical universe and thus exists outside of space and time. Alternatively, the construct of God incorporating all of reality is also offered in some schools of Jewish mysticism. Notably, in the Tanya (the Chabad Lubavitch book of wisdom), it is stated that to consider anything outside of God is tantamount to idolatry. The paradox that this introduces is noted by Chabad thinkers (how can an entity be a creator of itself), but the resolution is considered outside of the potential realm of human understanding.
Bahya ibn Paquda shows that the human inability to describe God is similarly related to the fact of His absolute unity. God, as the entity which is "truly One" (האחד האמת), must be free of properties and is, thus, unlike anything else and indescribable. This idea is developed fully in later Jewish philosophy, especially in the thought of the medieval rationalists such as Maimonides and Samuel ibn Tibbon.
It is understood that although humans cannot describe God directly (מצד עצמו), it is possible to describe Him indirectly via His attributes (תארים). The “negative attributes” (תארים שוללים) relate to God Himself, and specify what He is not. The “attributes of action” (תארים מצד פעולותיו), on the other hand, do not describe God directly, rather His interaction with creation. Maimonides was perhaps the first Jewish Thinker to explicitly articulate this doctrine:
God's existence is absolute and it includes no composition and we comprehend only the fact that He exists, not His essence. Consequently it is a false assumption to hold that He has any positive attribute… still less has He accidents (מקרה), which could be described by an attribute. Hence it is clear that He has no positive attribute whatever. The negative attributes are necessary to direct the mind to the truths which we must believe… When we say of this being, that it exists, we mean that its non-existence is impossible; it is living—it is not dead; …it is the first—its existence is not due to any cause; it has power, wisdom, and will—it is not feeble or ignorant; He is One—there are not more Gods than one… Every attribute predicated of God denotes either the quality of an action, or, when the attribute is intended to convey some idea of the Divine Being itself—and not of His actions—the negation of the opposite.
In line with this formulation, attributes commonly used in describing God in Rabbinic literature, in fact refer to the "negative attributes"—omniscience, for example, refers to non-ignorance; omnipotence to non-impotence; unity to non-plurality, eternity to non-temporality. Examples of the “attributes of action” are God as Creator, Revealer, Redeemer, Mighty and Merciful. Similarly, God’s perfection is generally considered an attribute of action. Joseph Albo (Ikkarim) points out that there are a number of attributes that fall under both categories simultaneously. Note that the various Names of God in Judaism, generally, correspond to the “attributes of action”—in that they represent God as he is known. The exceptions are the Tetragrammaton (Y-H-W-H) and the closely related "I Am the One I Am" (אהיה אשר אהיה—Exodus 3:13-14), both of which refer to God in his "negative attributes," as absolutely independent and uncreated.
Negative theology has a place in the Christianity as well, although it is definitely much more of a counter-current to the prevailing positive or cataphatic traditions central to Western Christianity. Portions of scripture that are said to articulate apophatic theology include God's appearance to Moses in the Burning Bush, and the ineffable Name of God (יהוה) which was revealed at that time. Another example is the theophany to Elijah, where God reveals Himself in a "still, small voice," but not in the powerful wind, earthquake, or fire (1 Kings 19:11-13). St. Paul used negative definitions to say that God is not served by human hands although this may be seen as a specific response to the human tendency to create psychological idols or shrines for the gods. In his First Epistle to Timothy, Paul argues that God is incomprehensible in His essence, "dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see" (1 Timothy 6:16). These and other such mystical examples in scripture underly apophatic theology.
Adherents of the apophatic tradition in Christianity hold that, outside of directly-revealed knowledge through Scripture and Sacred Tradition (such as the Trinitarian nature of God), God in His essence is beyond the limits of what human beings (or even angels) can understand; He is transcendent in essence (ousia). The early Church Fathers also utilized the manner of negative theology. For example, Tertullian stated, “That which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions—our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once known and unknown.” Negative theology played an important role in the works of Clement of Alexandria.
In his Catechetical Homilies, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem says, "For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge."
The Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century said that they believed in God, but they did not believe that God exists in the same sense that everything else exists. That is to say, everything else that exists was created, but the Creator transcends even existence. The essence of God is completely unknowable; mankind can only know God through His energies. In Eastern Christianity, God is immanent in his hypostasis or existences.
In Orthodox theology, apophatic theology is taught as superior to cataphatic theology. This is expressed in the idea that mysticism is the expression of dogmatic theology par excellence. Apophatic theology found its most influential expression in works such as those of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor (Pseudo-Dionysius is quoted by Thomas Aquinas 1,760 times in his Summa Theologica). Three more theologians who emphasized the importance of negative theology to an orthodox understanding of God were Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great. John of Damascus employed it when he wrote that positive statements about God reveal "not the nature, but the things around the nature." It continues to be prominent in Eastern Christianity (see Gregory Palamas). Apophatic statements are crucial to much modern theologians in Orthodox Christianity (see Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorff, John S. Romanides and Georges Florovsky). In addition, theologians like Meister Eckhart and Saint John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz), exemplify some aspects of, or tendencies towards, the apophatic tradition in the West. The medieval works, The Cloud of Unknowing and St John's Dark Night of the Soul are particularly well-known in the West. In recent times, C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, advocates the use of negative theology when first thinking about God, in order to cleanse the mind of misconceptions. He goes on to say one must then refill the mind with the truth about God, untainted by mythology, bad analogies, or false mind-pictures.
In Islam, the Arabic term for "Negative theology" is Lahoot salbi. Different schools in Islam (called Kalam) use different theological methods (Nizaam al lahoot) in approaching Allah (God). The Lahoot salbi or "Negative theology" involves the use of ta'til, which means "negation," and the followers of the Mu'tazili school of Kalam, founded by Imam Wasil ibn Ata, are often called the Mu'attili, because they are frequent users of the ta'til methodology.
Shia Islam is the sect that adopted Mu'tazili theological views. Most Salafi/Athari adherents reject this methodology because they believe in a literal anthropomorphic image of Allah, but the majority of orthodox Muslims, who are Ashari by Kalam use ta'til to some extent, if not completely. The Sufis greatly depend on the use of ta'til in their spirituality, though they often also use Cataphatic theology.
Widespread use of Negative theology occurs in the Hindu scriptures, such as the Upanishads, where the nature of Brahman is often said to be beyond human comprehension. Perhaps the most famous expression of this negative theology in Upanishads is found in the chant, neti neti', meaning "not this, not this," or "neither this, nor that." In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is questioned by his students on the nature of Brahman. He states, "It is not this and it is not that" (neti, neti). In this sense, neti-neti is not a denial. Rather, it is an assertion that whatever the Divine may be, universally or personally, when people attempt to conceptualize or describe it, they limit their transcendent experience of "it."
Subsequent reflection on the Upanishads by the great Advaita philosopher Shankara, also spoke of the great Brahman as ineffable. For Shankara, the highest level of Brahman as nirguna meaning "without strand/attribute."
In the Buddhist scriptures, Gautama Buddha is recorded as describing Nirvana in terms of what it is not. The apophatic, or via negativa philosophical methodology is extremely common in earliest existing Buddhist doctrine, the Nikayas: "There is, monks, an unborn—unbecome—unmade—unfabricated" (Udana VIII.3). Furthermore, one of the key doctrines of Buddhism is Anatta, meaning "not-Soul," which is the core adjective that forms the basis for most of Buddhist negative dialectics, wherein the core message to point to the Absolute and the soul in Buddhism is to deny Subjectivity and spiritual reality to any and all phenomena. Such as: "Form is anatta (not-Soul), feelings are anatta, so too are perceptions, experiences, and empirical consciousness" (Samyutta Nikaya 3.196). It is of course true that the Buddha denied the existence of the mere empirical “self” in the very meaning of “my-self” (this person, so-and-so, namo-rupa, an-atta), one might say in accordance the Buddha frequently speaks of this Self, or Spirit (mahapurisha), and nowhere more clearly than in the too often repeated formula "na me so atta," “This/these are not my Soul” (na me so atta’= anatta/anatman), excluding body (rupa) and the components of empirical consciousness (vinnana/nama), a statement to which the words of Sankhara are peculiarly apposite. “None of these (aggregates) are my Soul indeed,” is the most common passage in Buddhism. No place in Sutta does the context of anatta forward or imply the negation, the denial of the Soul "most dear, the light, the only refuge" (Samyutta Nikaya 2.100, Anguttara Nikaya 4.97), but rather, instructs and illuminates to the unlearned what the Soul was not.
Sunyata, the concept of the Void, "is" beyond conceptionns of presence and absence, beyond categorical thought, yet, like the Dao, remains inexhaustible and ever-present. Many other East Asian traditions present something very similar to the apophatic approach: For example, the Dao De Jing, the source book of the Chinese Daoist tradition, asserts in its first statement: The Dao ("way" or "truth") that can be described is not the constant/true Tao.
It should be noted that while negative theology is used in Christianity as a means of dispelling misconceptions about God, and of approaching Him beyond the limits of human reasoning, an uninformed or extreme negative theology can lead one outside the pale of Christianity. The Bible teaches emphatically that God exists, and speaks of God as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit. The Christian God has certain positive attributes, and Christians believe that these are knowable to men in some measure, if only in a limited way. Thus, Christians believe God is indeed good, but that His goodness is above and beyond humanity's understanding of goodness and is, thus, only partially comprehensible.
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