September 2nd, 2014

Via Negativa (Apophatic Theology)

Apophatic theology
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"Via Negativa" redirects here.

"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.

"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).
"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.

"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.

"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).

. 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)......."
Apophatic theology - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kena Upanishad Translation by Eknath Easwaran - वेद Veda

2 "...renouncing separate existence,
The wise realize the deathless Self.*

3. "Him our eyes cannot see, nor words express;
He cannot be grasped even by the mind.
We do not know, we cannot understand,
4. Because he is different from the known
And he is different from the unknown.
Thus have we heard from the illumined ones.

5. "That which makes the tongue speak but cannot be
Spoken by the tongue, know that as the Self.
This Self is not someone other than you.

Kena Upanishad Translation by Eknath Easwaran - वेद Veda

*(capital letter S) Self is one of the totally inadequate words used in Hinduism to speak about what Taoists call the Tao that cannot be spoken.  We think the Hebrews thought it was taboo to speak the name of God.  No, it was just impossible.

The Bhagavad Gita: The Illumined Man | Blue Mountain Center of Meditation & Nilgiri Press

"...He lives in wisdom who sees himself in all and all in him;
whose love for the Lord of Love has consumed every selfish desire and sense-craving
            tormenting the heart.
Not agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure,
he lives free from lust and fear and anger
Fettered no more by selfish attachments,
he is not elated by good fortune, nor depressed by bad.
Such is the seer......".

The Bhagavad Gita: The Illumined Man | Blue Mountain Center of Meditation & Nilgiri Press