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Examine the via negativa

Examine the via negativa as an approach to understanding the nature of God.

Another word for via negativa is the apophatic way. It comes from the Greek word ‘apophasis’, which means negation. It argues that God cannot be known in terms of human categories. God is beyond all signs and languages. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides wrote that we come nearer to the knowledge of God through negative attributes, for example, God is not evil, or God is not limited. Arguably, speaking about God in negative terms avoids the problem of misrepresenting God.

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Problems in gaining knowledge about the attributions of God do not necessarily imply God does not exist, nor do they support the possibility of God’s existence. People talking about God do not normally want to talk about God in terms of negation. Believers describe God in positive terms and in personal terms, rejecting the via negativa.

Since it is impossible for humans o use the human language of God and of humans without confusion, then speaking of God in terms of what he is not may lead us to a fully adequate understanding of the nature of God by avoiding serious pitfalls. Peter Cole argues that ‘by denying all descriptions of God you get an insight and experience of God rather than unbelief and a skepticism.’ This full understanding of God leads to true belief and faith in God. Via negativa relies on a common method of the negative way. One moves beyond words and concepts by denying them. Leading them not to a level where one cannot understand, but to a level of understanding whereby we realize that God is beyond all words. The via negativa theory is an important step to understanding religious language and thus the nature of God.

Via negativa has been adopted by many scholars to gain an understanding of God and the nature of God. A central tenet of Don Cupit’s early theology was via negativa. ‘I try to show the restless character of belief in God which continually strives after intelligible content, and yet must be by its own inner dialect always negate any proposed specific content.’ However, when used on itself via negativa cannot distinguish an adequate difference between atheism and theism, since to say that God can only be spoken of in negative terms effectively denies God altogether.

This can be shown when looking at John Wisdoms parable of the gardener who panted out that an invisible, inaudible, intangible gardener was essentially no gardener tall. Surely believers would want to say something positive about God and would ultimately question whether speaking about him in terms of negation says anything meaningful about him at all, let alone gives us an adequate understanding of him. However, negation does emphasize the unknowability of God, and Aquinas observed that an affirmative statement has to have a subject, and God, who is all-powerful, and above everything and is existentially different from them cannot be the subject.

In the Timaeus Plato unfolds the teaching that the Demiurge, the Creator of the Cosmos. This is the total of that which possesses real being. But far beyond the Demiurge, beyond all the conceivable gods lies the First Being, the First Manifestation, the One, the Firstborn Light from Light. So beyond even the intelligible Gods is The One. ‘He is the God of all God’s, the unity of all unities, and above the first adyta; He is more ineffable that all silence, and more unknown than all essence; He is the Holy among the holies and is concealed between among the intelligible Gods.’ (Proclius’ Theology of Plato). But although the Absolute One in His ineffable nature is beyond the reach of human thought, yet, paradoxically, the mind of man can ascend in mysticism, draw close to him almost to the point of union.

Thus, there are two main matters of approach in Mystical Theology the Via Affiminativa and the Via Negativa. Negations, when applied to the One, are not privative but signify that it entirely transcends whatever is attributed. They may also signify that in some manner that which is denied of The One proceeds from it and is dependent on it. Plato was not the first Greek writer to use the notion of the via negativa. He would have found such allusions in the Greek mysteries and in the writings of Parmenides.

Philo of Alexandria was a Hellenized Jew. He tried to develop a speculative and philosophical justification for Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy. It was a bringing together of the two words of Judaism and Greek philosophy. He greatly influenced many Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, Justin Martyr and Origen. In many of his writings, he shows a mystical strain. He differentiated between the existence of God, which could be discovered, and the nature of God, which he believed was inaccessible to man. This nature of God could only be talked about in negative terms, stating what God is not, via negativa. ‘For God is not only devoid of peculiar qualities, but he is likewise not of the form of man’.

The via negativa, also known as the ‘apophatic’ way of speaking about God, used by Pseudo Dionysius used in the Mystical Theology, insists on speaking negatively about God, ruling out that which the divine mystery is not as a way of speaking indirectly of what the divine mystery is. Pseudo Dionysius suggested that there are different approaches to God. In the Divine Names, he shows how the names of God do not literally describe God but point to God as a cause of all things.

Thought of an aspect of mystical practise, the via negativa begins by negating the least appropriate characterization of God and then proceeds to negate even the most honourable and lofty names for God, that we can imagine. Pseudo Dionysius refers to God as ‘not immovable and ‘not life’. He argues that ‘the higher we ascend, the more our language becomes restricted’ until we finally arrive at a complete absence of discourse and intelligibility.’ The way we must follow to this highest point is via negativa, which means that all terms are must be denied of God in order to understand the ultimate reality truly.

A similar approach to the via negativa in the Western tradition was the twelfth-century work of the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. He wrote inthe Guide for the Perplexed’ that there is a greater danger in applying positive attributes to God’ in that it would in fact amount to negation’. He contends that the best that can be done is simply to deny any attribute applied, the result will be that ‘you have undoubtedly come one step nearer to the knowledge of God’. Therefore, by denying all attributes of God we are able to come to a fully adequate understanding of God. Maimonides inconsistently, like Pseudo Dionysius, calls upon affirmations of God at other points of in his thought such as God’s simplicity and God’s understanding.

Not all philosophers would agree with this point of view. The philosopher of religion Brian Davies criticizes Maimonides’ view. Davies writes: ‘ only saying what something does not give any indication of what it actually is, and if one can only say what God is not, one cannot understand him at all. Suppose I say there is something in my room, and suppose I reject every suggestion that you make, as to what is actually there. In that case, you will get no idea at all about what is in my room. Going back to the quotation from Maimonides… it is simply unreasonable to say that someone who has all the negations mentioned in it ‘has almost arrived at the correct notion of a ‘ship’. He could equally well be thinking of a wardrobe. Thus, saying what something is not, does not define what one thing is, because they may have the same characteristics.

In conclusion, there are many problems in using the via negativa in relation to God for various reasons. Aquinas assumed that the equivocal option is ruled out because God has indeed communicated with us about the divine nature. Therefore, to simply deny the nature of God is contradictory, leading us to misunderstand his nature. This approach can also remind us that that language is notoriously unstable when applied to God in that we are stretching it to its breaking point and further. Believers would agree that it is difficult to talk about God as the meaning of the word applies to a being beyond human understanding. Any discussion of God is limited.

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