What is Negative/Apophatic Theology and its Criticisms?

Negative theology, also called apophatic theology and known as via negativa or via negationis, a position famously held and articulated by the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) (1), states that meaningful talk about God can only be in the negative, or by negation. The following two definitions are informative,

“Apophatic theology is another name for “theology by way of negation”, according to which God is known by negating concepts that might be applied to him, stressing the inadequacy of human language and concepts used to describe God” (2).

“Apophatic theology is the doctrine that no affirmative or positive attributes of any kind are predicable of God, that God is completely unknown and unknowable, that we can meaningfully say about God only what He is not (to speak of Him in negative attributes); the doctrine that man’s highest knowledge of God is to know that we are unable to know Him” (3).

The Christian Neoplatonist Pseudo-Dionysius of the late fifth and early sixth century CE articulated a negative theology writing that “It [the Cause of all beings] cannot be grasped by the understanding […]. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. […] It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. […] There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it” (4).

The term ‘negative’ is not saying that talk about God is cynical or bleak; rather, it is to affirm that God is so radically different from human beings and everything within the universe that one cannot say anything in the positive about God. In other words, one cannot say “God is love” because this is considered a positive proposition about God. This is because human language can only speak about limited and finite items in the universe and provide descriptions of these, whereas God is unlike anything in the universe in his radical otherness and transcendence.

The human mind is just too limited to grasp anything about the transcendent God and anything one says about God in the positive will be limited in this sense and restricted to experience (5). Because it is impossible to describe God in the positive, any attempt to do so will be in error. God is simply beyond human experience and imagination, so language cannot be used to describe God. Instead, it is more appropriate to appreciate the mystery of God than to make assertions about what God is like, which will lead to a defective understanding of God. Many, although not all, proponents of negative theology have typically been mystics who believe their experiences of God or the Divine are beyond all description. 

As noted, human imagination and conceptions are limited to the world. So, if one says that “God is wise”, then in one’s background thinking he will have a certain image, perhaps of an elderly, mature individual with a long, white beard pondering the meaning of life. This is because one has attained such an image from his experience, perhaps from a film presenting such an image or a stimulating personal encounter with an elderly individual with a long, white beard. But this image is, of course, finite. It is limited to experience within the world, which means one cannot therefore state that “God is wise” lest he embraces a defective view of God.

Maimonides claims that we can only talk about God in the negative and that any name given to God in the Bible or any predicate ascribed to God is not used literally. For example, instead of stating that “God is wise”, one must rather say that “God is not simple-minded”; instead of stating that “God is omnipresent”, one should state that “God is not spatially limited” or “God is not absent”; instead of describing “God as loving”, one should instead say “God is not hateful”, and so on.

 Criticisms 

Negative theology has not been without its critics (6). One criticism is that if Maimonides is correct, then both negative and positive statements about God should be considered problematic. This is because even negative statements about God (e.g. “God is not simple-minded”) are limited. For instance, any notion a person might have of simple-mindedness is also finite and derived from his limited experience, perhaps his experience of an individual who lacks conceptual knowledge on and understanding of certain topics. In the end, pushing Maimonides’ negative theology to its logical end, one cannot say anything at all about God.

Maimonides conceded that it is appropriate to say one positive statement about God, which is that “God exists”. But given Maimonides’ negative theology, it would also appear unjustified to state that “God exists” because one’s conception of existence is also based on our his of the world just as much as are his concepts of power, wisdom, and so on. Existence, for example, is based on one’s experience of physical objects and physical properties that come into and go out of existence, or that depend on other things for their existence.

Negative theology is also argued to dismantle any justification for worship,

“If we do not know what God is like in a positive sense, then how can we justify standing in awe of God or being devoted to God or worshipping God? As F.H. Bradley put it: If we do not know what God is like, then in worshipping God, we do not know what the devil we might be worshipping! Indeed, if God is totally unlike anything that we can understand, how can we justify any response to God other than ignoring mer and getting on with our lives?” (7).

Further, one might charge that it does not appear possible to meaningfully say what something is not like unless he has some idea of what it is like. How could one say what God is not like if he possesses no understanding of what God is like? For example, “What is a dog not like?” How could one provide an answer to this question unless he has some idea of what a dog is like? Similarly, it is only because one has some positive idea of what God is like that he can say what God is not like.

It is further claimed that negative theology is inherently contradictory; according to the late philosopher Michael Durrant: “On this account in saying that God’s nature is fundamentally inexpressible we have already described God’s nature – namely that it is fundamentally inexpressible. In other words those who advocate this position cannot do so without contradicting themselves” (8).

References

1. Urbańczy, Piotr. 2018. “The logical challenge of negative theology.” Studies in Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric 54(67). p. 158.

2. Urbańczy, Piotr. 2018. Ibid. p. 150.

3. Urbańczy, Piotr. 2018. Ibid. p. 150.

4. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology, chapter V, 1048A

5. Creel, Richard. 2013. Philosophy of Religion: The Basics. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. p. 57-71. 

6. Creel, Richard. 2013. Ibid. p. 64-66. 

7. Creel, Richard. 2013. Ibid. p. 65.

8. Durrant, Michael. 1992. “The Meaning of ‘God’.” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 31:71-84.

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