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Negative theology—also known as the Via Negativa (Latin for "Negative Way") and Apophatic theology—is a theology that attempts to describe God, the Divine Good, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God.
In brief, negative theology is an attempt to achieve unity with the Divine Good through discernment, gaining knowledge of what God is not (apophasis), rather than by describing what God is. The apophatic tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, which focuses on a spontaneous or cultivated individual experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception, an experience often unmediated by the structures of traditional organized religion or the conditioned role playing and learned defensive behavior of the outer man.
Apophatic description of God
In negative theology, it is accepted that the Divine is ineffable, an abstract experience that can only be recognized or remembered—that is, human beings cannot describe in words the essence of the perfect good that is unique to the individual, nor can they define the Divine, in its immense complexity, related to the entire field of reality, and therefore all descriptions if attempted will be ultimately false and conceptualization should be avoided; in effect, it eludes definition by definition:
- Neither existence nor nonexistence as we understand it in the physical realm, applies to God; i.e., the Divine is abstract to the individual, beyond existing or not existing, and beyond conceptualization regarding the whole (one cannot say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; nor can we say that God is nonexistent).
- God is divinely simple (one should not claim that God is one, or three, or any type of being.)
- God is not ignorant (one should not say that God is wise since that word arrogantly implies we know what "wisdom" means on a divine scale, whereas we only know what wisdom is believed to mean in a confined cultural context).
- Likewise, God is not evil (to say that God can be described by the word 'good' limits God to what good behavior means to human beings individually and en masse).
- God is not a creation (but beyond that we cannot define how God exists or operates in relation to the whole of humanity).
- God is not conceptually definable in terms of space and location.
- God is not conceptually confinable to assumptions based on time.
Even though the via negativa essentially rejects theological understanding as a path to God, some have sought to make it into an intellectual exercise, by describing God only in terms of what God is not. One problem noted with this approach, is that there seems to be no fixed basis on deciding what God is not, unless the Divine is understood as an abstract experience of full aliveness unique to each individual consciousness, and universally, the perfect goodness applicable to the whole field of reality.
Plato and Aristotle both have various references to the 'One' (Greek: To Hen) and the Henads of the ineffable Godhead. Hesiod has in his creation ontology (see Theogony) that Chaos begot the Protogenoi: Eros, Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus, who begot Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night). Plato repeats this ontology in Timaeus 40e, 41e. Plotinus advocated negative theology in his strand of Neoplatonism. From the Enneads: "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."
The Arabic term for "Negative theology" is Lahoot salbi, which is a "System of theology" or Nizaam al lahoot in Arabic. Different traditions/doctrine schools in Islam called Kalam schools (see Divisions of Islam) use different theological approaches or Nizaam al lahoot in approaching God or the ultimate reality. 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 and hence "Negative theology". Most Salafi/Athari adherents reject this methodology because they believe in a literal anthropomorphic image of God, 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.
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Perhaps the most widespread use of Negative theology occurs in the Hindu scriptures, mainly the Upanishads, where Vedantic theologians speak of the nature of Brahman - Supreme Cosmic Spirit as beyond human comprehension. “Whenever we deny something unreal, is it in reference to something real”[Br. Sutra III.2.22].
The Taittiriya hymn speak of Brahman as 'one where the mind does not reach'. Yet the scriptures themselves speak of Brahman's positive aspect also such as, "Brahman is Bliss". The idea of using these contradictory descriptions is to show that the attributes of Brahman is "similar" to one experienced by mortals but not exactly the "same" in quality or quantity.
Negative theology figures in the Buddhist and Hindu polemics. The arguments go something like this - Is Brahman an object of experience? If so, how do you convey this experience to others who have not had a similar experience? The only way possible is to relate this "unique" experience to common experiences but explicitly negating their sameness.
The most famous expression of Negative theology in Upanishads is found in the chant, neti neti, meaning "not this, not this", or "neither this, nor that" . In Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is questioned by his students on the nature of God. He states, "It is not this and it is not that" (neti, neti). Thus, God is not real as we are real, nor is He unreal. He is not living in the sense humans live, nor is he dead. He is not compassionate (as we use the term), nor is he uncompassionate. And so on. We can never truly define the Divine in words. In this sense, neti-neti is not a denial. Rather, it is an assertion that whatever the Divine may be, universally or personally, when we attempt to conceptualize or describe it, we limit our transcendent experience of "it."
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Most schools do admit negative definitions of nirvana, which is unconfined to time, space, or even existence and non-existence. In the Nikayas, the Buddhist canon of scriptures, Gautama Buddha is recorded as describing Nirvana in terms of what it is not: "There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated." (Udana VIII.3).
Anatta, understood as "not-Soul," 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." [SN 3.196].
Anatta as a nihilistic dogma is a relatively modern secular conception only, of what was in earliest Buddhism, the methodology of negating (neti neti) all objective attributes falsely seen as Self/Soul, but which were in fact not the Soul (anatta). “None of these (aggregates) are my Soul indeed,” 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" [SN 2.100, AN 4.97], but rather, instructs and illuminates to the unlearned what the Soul was not.
The anatta taught in the Nikayas has merely relative value, it is not an absolute one. It does not say simply that the Soul (atta, Atman) has no reality at all, but that ego-conceptions (the 5 aggregates), with which the unlearned man identifies himself, are not the Soul (anatta) and that is why one should grow beyond them, become detached from them and be liberated. Yet becoming attached to "detachment" continues to turn the wheel of samsara. Since this kind of anatta does not negate the Soul as such, but rather, ensnares it more deeply into the ego's attachment to desire, the root of all suffering. The concept of annata, then, denies cognitive reality to those ego-conceptions that constitute the non-self (anatta), yet at the same time sets up another conception of "self" based on the delusional pursuit of "non-self." In this way, both the conception of "self" and the pursuit of "non-self" reveal themselves to be of no ultimate value. Instead of nullifying the atta doctrine--the pursuit of the "non-self," by negation as it were, the doctrine of the "non-self" proves itself to be a Way illuminated by the darkness that results from all mental conceptions about "soul" and "non-soul" leading to Nothing, or to sunyata, the concept of the Void which "is" beyond conceptionns of presence and absence, beyond categorical thought, yet, like the Tao, remains inexhaustible and ever-present.
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.
The apophatic, or via negativa philosophical methodology is extremely common in earliest existing buddhist doctrine, the Nikayas.
In other Eastern traditions
Many other East Asian traditions present something very similar to the apophatic approach: for example, the Tao Te Ching, the source book of the Chinese Taoist tradition, asserts in its first statement: the Tao ("way" or "truth") that can be described is not the constant/true Tao.
In the Christian tradition
Both Judaism and Christianity are traditionally believed by their adherents to be based upon revelation. That is to say, that God positively inspired the writing of scripture, thus revealing something of Himself to mankind. This is especially important in Christianity, which teaches that the Logos (the Second Person of the Trinity) became incarnate. As a result, Christian theology tends toward positive statements about God, known as cataphatic theology.
At the same time, there are portions of scripture which are believed to articulate apophatic theology. For instance, 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 ( ). St. Paul's reference to the "Unknown God" in the Acts of the Apostles ( ) is sometimes pointed to as an apophatic statement. However, others will point to Paul's further explanation that he is going to make the unknown god known (Acts 17:23) as an instance of Paul's use of positive theology. Paul then goes on to describe God as Lord of heaven and earth, the one who made all nations and who is not far from each of us. Paul also 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" ( ). These and other such mystical examples in scripture underly apophatic theology.
Tertullian says, “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.”
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Homilies 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 4th 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.
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).
In contrast, making positive statements about the nature of God, which occurs in most Western forms of Christian theology, is sometimes called cataphatic theology. Eastern Christianity makes use of both apophatic and cataphatic 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). Further knowledge must be sought in a direct experience of God or His indestructible energies through theoria (vision of God). In Eastern Christianity, God is immanent in his hypostasis or existences..
Negative theology played an important role early in the history of Christianity, for example, in the works of Clement of Alexandria. 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).
Negative theology has a place in the Western Christian tradition as well, although it is definitely much more of a counter-current to the prevailing positive or cataphatic traditions central to Western Christianity. For example, theologians like Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz), mentioned above, exemplify some aspects of or tendencies towards the apophatic tradition in the West. The medieval work, The Cloud of Unknowing and St John's Dark Night of the Soul are particularly well known in the West.
Mother Theresa's own spiritual struggles have correspondences in the apophatic tradition.
C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, advocates the use of negative theology when first thinking about God, in order to cleanse our minds of misconceptions. He goes on to say we must then refill our minds with the truth about God, untainted by mythology, bad analogies or false mind-pictures.
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, most commonly Christian doctrine is taken to involve positive claims: that God exists and has certain positive attributes, even if those attributes are only partially comprehensible to us.
In the Jewish tradition
In Jewish belief, God is defined as the Creator of the universe: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1); similarly, "I am God, I make all things" (Isaiah 44:24). God, as Creator, is by definition separate from the physical universe and thus exists outside of space and time. God is therefore absolutely different from anything else, and, as above, is in consequence held to be totally unknowable. It is for this reason that we cannot make any direct statements about God. (See Tzimtzum (צמצום): the notion that God "contracted" his infinite and indescribable essence in order to allow for a "conceptual space" in which a finite, independent world could exist.)
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 our 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; see Divine simplicity. 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 we 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 (see also Tanya Shaar Hayichud Vehaemunah Ch. 8):
|“||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. (Guide for the Perplexed, 1:58)||”|
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 2:24) 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; see further under "Names of God in Judaism".
Since two approaches are used to speak of God, there are times when these may conflict, giving rise to paradoxes in Jewish philosophy. In these cases, two descriptions of the same phenomenon appear contradictory, whereas, in fact, the difference is merely one of perspective: one description takes the viewpoint of the "attributes of action" and the other, of the "negative attributes". See the paradoxes described under free will, Divine simplicity and Tzimtzum.
- Tertullian, Apologeticus, § 17
- Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem (c. 335), "Catechetical Homilies, VI §2", in Schaff, Philip, Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers (2nd Series), VII, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994, p. 33, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.ii.x.html, retrieved 2008-02-01
- Kallistos (Ware), bishop (1963), The Orthodox Church, London: Penguin Group, p. 73, ISBN 0-14-020592
- Lossky, Vladimir (1997), The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Crestwood, N.Y.: SVS Press, p. 81, ISBN 0-913836-31-1
- Lossky (1997), The Vision of God, Crestwood, N.Y.: SVS Press, pp. 36-40, ISBN 0-913836-19-2
- Papanikolaou, Aristotle (2006), Being With God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion (1st Edition), Notre Dame, Indiana:University of Notre Dame Press, p. 2, ISBN-13: 978-0268038304
- Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (op cit) p. 26
- Ibid., p. 9