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Apophatic theology (from Ancient Greek: ἀπόφασις, from ἀπόφημι – apophēmi, "to deny")—also known as negative theology, via negativa or via negationis (Latin for "negative way" or "by way of denial")—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. It stands in contrast with cataphatic theology.
A startling example can be found with theologian John Scotus Erigena (9th century): "We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being."
In brief, negative theology is an attempt to clarify religious experience and language about 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 experience of the Divine is ineffable, an experience of the holy that can only be recognized or remembered abstractly. 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. As a result, all descriptions if attempted will be ultimately false and conceptualization should be avoided. In effect, divine experience 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 defined in terms of space and location.
- God is not conceptually confined to assumptions based on time.
Even though the via negativa essentially rejects theological understanding in and of itself 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. It should be noted however that since religious experience—or consciousness of the holy or sacred, is not reducible to other kinds of human experience, an abstract understanding of religious experience cannot be used as evidence or proof that religious discourse or praxis can have no meaning or value. In apophatic theology, the negation of theisms in the via negativa also requires the negation of their correlative atheisms if the dialectical method it employs is to maintain integrity.
Buddhism deals with questions which may or may not be described as theological. Nevertheless, an apophatic approach is evident in much of Buddhist philosophy.
According to early Buddhist scripture, the Buddha refused to answer certain questions regarding metaphysical propositions, known as the fourteen unanswerable questions (the Pali Canon gives only ten). These concern topics such as the existence of atta (self/soul), the origin of the universe, and life after death. The Buddha explains that he does not answer certain questions because they have no bearing on the pursuit of nibanna, and he even goes so far as to say: "A 'position', Vaccha, is something that a tathagatha [i.e., a buddha] has done away with." On another occasion, he outlines four types of appropriate answers to questions: yes or no, analysis, a counter-question, and putting the question aside.
In his book The Silence of God: the Answer of the Buddha, Raimundo Panikkar analyzes the fourteen unanswerable questions in the context of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and comes to the conclusion that the Buddha's position can best be described as "transcendental apophaticism," i.e., a position in which the transcendent (in this case, nirvana), is defined through negation.
In the Christian tradition
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Both Judaism and Christianity are revelation-based models. God has certain attributes positively ascribed to Himself. The text is said to be inspired. Another way to say this is God represents Himself through the text. For example: Christianity teaches that the Logos (the Second Person of the Trinity) became incarnate. This type of reasoning is known as cataphatic theology.
Examples of apophatic theology are: God's appearance to Moses in the Burning Bush, and the ineffable Name of God (יהוה). Also the theophany to Elijah, where God reveals Himself in a "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:11–13). And St. Paul's reference to the "Unknown God" in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:23) is sometimes pointed to as an apophatic statement.
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 know God only 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 many modern theologians in Orthodox Christianity (see Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorff, John S. Romanides and Georges Florovsky).
In Orthodox theology, apophatic theology is taught as superior to cataphatic theology. While Aquinas felt positive and negative theology should be seen as dialetical correctives to each other, like thesis and antithesis producing a synthesis, Lossky argues, based on his reading of Dionysius and Maximus Confessor, that positive theology is always inferior to negative theology, a step along the way to the superior knowledge attained by negation. This is expressed in the idea that mysticism is the expression of dogmatic theology par excellence.
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.
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.
The mid-20th century Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, who is often associated with a neo-Calvinistic tradition, provides a philosophical foundation for understanding why we can never absolutely know God, and yet, paradoxically, truly know something of God. Dooyeweerd made a sharp distinction between theoretical and pre-theoretical attitudes of thought; it might be noticed that most of the discussion of knowledge of God presupposes theoretical knowledge, in which we reflect and try to define and discuss. Pre-theoretical knowing, on the other hand, is intimate engagement, and exhibits a diverse range of aspects. Theoretical knowing, by its very nature, is never absolute, always depends on religious presuppositions, and cannot grasp either God or the law side. Pre-theoretical intuition, on the other hand, can grasp at least the law side. Knowledge of God, as God wishes to reveal it, is pre-theoretical, immediate and intuitive, never theoretical in nature. The Bible, for example, should be treated as pre-theoretical (everyday) rather than theoretical in what it contains.
Ivan Illich, the historian and social critic, can be read as an apophatic theologian, according to a longtime collaborator, Lee Hoinacki, in a paper presented in memory of Illich, called "Why Philia?"
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 Greek philosophy
The ancient Greek poet Hesiod has in his account of the birth of the gods and creation of the world (i.e., in his Theogony) that Chaos begot the primordial deities: Eros, Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus, who begot Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night), and Plato echoes this genealogy in the Timaeus 40e, 41e where the familiar Titan and Olympian gods are sired by Heaven and Earth. Nevertheless, Plato is far from advocating a negative theology. His Form of the Good (identified by various commentators with the Form of Unity) is not unknowable, but rather the highest object of knowledge (The Republic 508d–e, 511b, 516b).
Plotinus was the first to propose negative theology. He advocated it in his strand of neoplatonism (although he may have had precursors in neopythagoreanism and middle Platonism). In his writings he identifies the Good of the Republic (as the cause of the other Forms) with the One of the first hypothesis of the second part of the Parmenides (137c–142a), there concluded to be neither the object of knowledge, opinion or perception. In the Enneads Plotinus writes: "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."
Apophatic movements in Hinduism are visible in the works of Shankara, a philosopher of Advaita Vedanta school of Indian philosophy, and Bhartṛhari, a grammarian. While Shankara holds that the transcendent noumenon, Brahman, is realized by the means of negation of every phenomenon including language; Bhartṛhari theorizes that language has both phenomenal and noumenal dimensions, the latter of which manifests Brahman.
The standard texts of Vedanta philosophy, to which Shankara also belonged, were the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras. An expression of negative theology is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where Brahman is described as "neti-neti" or "neither this, nor that". Further use of apophatic theology is found in the Brahma Sutras, which state:
Whenever we deny something unreal, it is in reference to something real.
In Advaita, Brahman is defined as being Nirguna or without qualities. Anything imaginable or conceivable is not deemed to be the ultimate reality. The Taittiriya hymn speaks of Brahman as "one where the mind does not reach". Yet the Hindu scriptures often speak of Brahman's positive aspect. For instance, Brahman is often equated with bliss. These contradictory descriptions of Brahman are used to show that the attributes of Brahman are similar to ones experienced by mortals, but not the same.
Negative theology also 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 while explicitly negating their sameness.
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.
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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 Islamic schools and branches) use different theological approaches or nizaam al lahoot in approaching God in Islam (Allah, Arabic الله) 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 another sect that adopted "negative theology". Most Salafi/Athari adherents reject this methodology because they believe that the Attributes of God, as depicted in Islamic scriptures is to be literal. But most Sunnis, who are Ash'ari and Maturidi 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.
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.)
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 however , 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. (The 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 "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.
- Christian meditation
- Conceptions of God
- Existence of God
- Names of God
- neti neti ("not this, not that", in Hindu traditions)
- Postmodern Christianity
- Ta'tili (Islamic tradition)
- Tzimtzum (Jewish tradition)
- Tabor Light
- McCombs, Richard (2013). The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 84. ISBN 0-253-00647-3; ISBN 978-02-5300-647-9.
- NICHOLAS BUNNIN and JIYUAN YU. "negative theology : The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy : Blackwell Reference Online". Retrieved 2010-08-18.
- Lonergan, Bernard (1972), "Method in Theology", New York, N.Y.: Seabury Press, ISBN 0-8164-2204-4
- Buckley, Michael J. (2004), "Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism", New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, p. 120ff, ISBN 0-300-09384-5
- "MN 72".
- "AN 4.42".
- 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. (published 1994), p. 33, retrieved 2008-02-01
- Ware, Kallistos (1963), The Orthodox Church, London: Penguin Group, p. 73, ISBN 0-14-020592-6
- 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 978-0-268-03830-4
- Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church p. 26
- Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church p. 9
- LA Times: Jack Miles. Faith and Belief: 'The Evolution of God' by Robert Wright and 'The Case for God' by Karen Armstrong
- Hoinacki, Lee
- Coward, Harold G. and Foshay, Toby. Derrida and Negative Theology. State University of New York, 1992. P. 21. ISBN 0-7914-0964-3.
- Tharaud, Barry. Emerson for the Twenty-First Century: Global Perspectives on an American Icon. Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp, 2010. p. 453. ISBN 978-0-87413-091-1.
- Verse III.2.22, Brahma-Sutra, Translated by Swami Gambhirananda.
- Renard, John. Responses to One Hundred One Questions on Hinduism. Paulist Press, 1999. P. 75. ISBN 0-8091-3845-X.
- Note that, 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.
Karahan, Anne. “The Image of God in Byzantine Cappadocia and the Issue of Supreme Transcendence”. In: Papers presented at the Sixteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 2011 (Studia Patristica LIX, vol. 7 (2013): 97-111). Eds. A. Brent and M. Vinzent. Leuven: Peeters Publishers 2013.
Karahan, Anne. “The Issue of περιχώρησις in Byzantine Holy Images”. In: Papers presented at the Fifteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 2007 (Studia Patristica XLIV-XLIX: pp. 27–34) Eds. J. Baun, A. Cameron, M. Edwards, and M. Vinzent. Leuven: Peeters Publishers 2010.
- Christian material
- Negative Theology, Austin Cline
- Apophatic theology, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions
- Saying Nothing about No-Thing: Apophatic Theology in the Classical World, Jonah Winters
- Jewish material
- "Paradoxes", in "The Aryeh Kaplan Reader", Aryeh Kaplan, Artscroll 1983, ISBN 0-89906-174-5
- Understanding God, Ch2. in "The Handbook of Jewish Thought", Aryeh Kaplan, Moznaim 1979, ISBN 0-940118-49-1
- Chovot ha-Levavot 1:8, Bahya ibn Paquda – Online class, Yaakov Feldman
- Attributes, jewishencyclopedia.com