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Apophatic Theology [Via Negativa]

Via Negativa Apophaticism Theology Definition & Mysticism

Apophatic theology is a form of theology which is considered to be negative. It is a type of theological thinking, as well as religious practice that makes attempts at approaching God by speaking just in terms of the things that are not to be said concerning God’s perfect goodness. It is sometimes paired with cataphatic theology which is a type of theology that approaches a divine being by positive statements of all that God is.

What is the Origin of Apophatic Theology?

Fagenblat has it that negative theology has been in existence since the very beginning of philosophy. Some of its elements exist in Plato’s “unwritten’ doctrines”. Apart from being found in some of Plato’s “unwritten doctrines”, apophatic theology can also be found in Gnostic, Neo-Plato and early Christian writings.

Carabine is of the opinion that apophatic theology begins with Neo-Platonism. Also, Carabine is of the opinion that there are two vital points in apophatic theology’s development. The points are the point at which Platonic philosophy and Jewish traditions get fused in Philo’s writings and Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite’s works.

Philo influences lots of the fathers of the early church. According to Meredith, the actual creator of apophatic theology is Philo. While it is believed that Philo was responsible for creating Apophatic Theology, this type of theology remained widely unknown until Maximus the Confessor, as well as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite came on the scene. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the confessor had a series of writings that played a major role in forming the Eastern Orthodox Churches’ contemplative tradition and in their time, apophatic theology became a central practice.

Greeks and Apophatic Theology

The ancient Greeks needed to have a good knowledge of their gods to ensure the right worship practices. To make this happen, poets played an important role. Apart from the role played by poets in making this a reality, people also relied on epiphany to get the level of knowledge that they needed for the right worship practices.

Herodotus made it known that the Greeks knew about their gods by listening to teachings from Hesiod and Homer. These many teachings were focused on the God’s divine bodies. In his Theogony, Hesiod, an ancient Greek poet put up descriptions about the creation of the world, as well as the birth of gods.

Parmenides wrote a poem on Nature. In this poem, he sheds light into a revelation on two ways of inquiry. These two ways are; the way of conviction and the way of opinion. The way of conviction is all about exploring true reality while the way of opinion involves making use of the senses to come to a conclusion which can be deceitful. The first way led to the truth that remained unchanging while the second way brought about opinions that keep shifting.

Plato Role in Developing Apophatic Theology

 Plato played a major role in the development of apophatic theology. He released a dialogue which he titled ‘Parmenides’. This dialogue was an exploration of Parmenides conception of timeless truth. In this dialogue, Plato seeks to provide an answer to the challenge ‘how one unchanging reality or essential being can admit of many changing phenomena (and not just by dismissing them as being a mere illusion).’

Plato further argues that the “real objects of knowledge are not the changing objects of the senses, but the immutable Forms,” he supported his claim by stating that the most exalted form of knowledge is the Form of the God.

Cook is of the opinion that there is a theological flavor attached to the Theory of Forms. He also believes that the theory of forms has a strong influence on the opinions of Plotinus and Proclus that happen to be Neo-Platonist interpreters. In the apophatic tradition, the chase of Goodness, Beauty, and Truth were very important elements. Regardless of the way in which Plato is affiliated with apophatic theology, he cannot be considered to be the founder of this form of theology.

Expressions of Apophatic Theology

While theology seems to be lined with Christianity, beyond Christianity, there are lots of expressions of Apophatic Theology. They include;

Neo-Platonism: Neo-Platonism was a form of Platonism which was considered contemplative or mystical. It was a movement that sprung up beyond popular Academic Platonism. It began with Plotinus’ writings and came to an end after Emperor Justinian closed the Platonic Academy in 529 CE. Neo-Platonism was birthed when they were a mingling of Jewish scriptures and Greek thoughts.

Christianity: When the word ‘theology’, is mentioned, it is easy for the minds of most people to shift rapidly towards Christianity. While Christianity is not the only religion that the word ‘theology’ applies to, it is one of the most popular ways theology is expressed. Apophatic theology saw its earliest expression in the early church. The reason for this is the early church fathers were heavily influenced by Philo.

 Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite: Although apophatic theology was very well expressed in various forms and by various people, it had its biggest influence with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Pseudo-Dionysius combined Neo-Platonic ideas and a Christian point of view. This combination went on to have a major influence on the Christian traditions that guide the Orthodox Churches.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity: Orthodox Christianity emphasizes the superiority of apophatic theology to cataphatic theology. According to the fourth-century Cappadocian Fathers, God exists. However, unlike other things that are in existence, he was not created. This belief goes on to make it known that no one can completely know the essence of God. However, God can be known through his energies.

Pseudo-Dionysius’ ideas were taken over by Maximus the Confessor. These ideas had a major influence on the practices of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, as well as the theology on which their beliefs were based.

Some influential modern Eastern Orthodox theologians are John Meyendorff, Vladimir Lossky. George Florovsky, and John S. Romanides. Lossky has an argument which is based on the information he came across when reading about Maximus Confessor and Dionysius. In his argument, he states that negative theology is superior to positive theology. Lossky goes on to make it known that apart from the things about God which are obvious from scriptures, the knowledge of God cannot really be understood by angels or humans. He does not stop at that, he continues and says that having a direct experience of God is a way to get to know about all that he is.

Western Christianity: Negative theology is not just popular in Easter Orthodox Christianity. It also has a major place in western Christianity. According to John Scotus Erigena, a 9th-century theologian, “we do not know what God is. God, Himself does not know what He is because He is about anything( I.e, ‘not ant created thing’) Literally God is not, because He transcends being.”

The statements ‘He is not anything’ and God is not” do not mean Scotus is denying the very existence of God. What he simply means by such a statement is God does not exist in the same way that creation does. He is uncreated.

Due to the belief of the Catholic Church in apophatic theology, it came up with the dogma “Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude.”

Although apophatic theology seems to be losing relevance, a lot of theologians that exist in these modern days still believe in it. According to “Miracles”, a book was written by C.S Lewis in 1947, one way to avoid misconceptions when we think about God is through the use of negative theology. C.S Lewis makes it known that after making use of negative theology to get our minds free of what God is not, we can proceed to fill our minds with what God is. These truths which we must fill our minds with should be free from wrong mental pictures and the wrong analogies.

Herman Dooyeweerd, a Dutch philosopher sheds light on some of the reasons it is not possible to completely know God. He went on to create a major contrast between pre-theoretical attitudes and theoretical attitudes. A lot of discussions surrounding the knowledge of God are based on theoretical knowledge. This involves reflecting, and making attempts at defining and discussing. With theoretical knowledge, it is impossible to understand God. Pretheoretical, on the other hand, involves intimate engagement and has an understanding of the law side. It is a way to get to know God as he chooses to be known. Going by his explanation of the place of theology and pre-theology in knowing God, Leo Strauss made it known that the Bible is a pre-theoretical approach to knowing God.

Islam: Apophatic theology, contrary to what a lot of people think, is not limited to Christianity. Although it seems more popular with Christianity, it also exists in Islam. In Arabic, negative theology is known as lahoot salbi. Just like in Christianity, there are various theological approaches in Islam when trying to know the ultimate reality. Lahoot salbi makes use of negative theology. Also, students of Mu’tazili school of Kalma which was established by Imam Wasil ibn Ata are known as Mu’attili. The reason they are called this name is they frequently make use of ta’tili methodology.

In the 17th century, there was a Shiat philosopher from Iran. This philosopher championed an apophatic theology in a group of philosophers that had an influence that grew into the Qajar phase. According to Malla Rajab, God’s attributes can only be confirmed negatively.

According to Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani, a Persian Ismaili missionary; ‘There does not exist a tanzih (“transcedence”) more brilliant and more splendid that that by which we establish the absolute transcendence of our originator through the use of these phrases in which a negative and a negative of a negative apply to the thing denied. Unlike the Shia, the Sunnis believed the readings of the Quran literally, they, therefore, did not agree with apophatic theology. They were of the opinion that features of God like “Foot”, “Hand” etc., should be regarded as being real representations of God

Judaism: Apophatic theology in Judaism takes a slightly different form from Christianity and Islam. In Judaism, negative theology describes the inability to have an understanding of who God is. This is not because of the fact that he does not exist like humans but because he is a being that has no features. According to Maimonides, ‘God is knowledge’

Maimonides also states that; ‘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 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 Relationship between Apophatic Theology and Atheism

Although apophatic theology is simply a form of theology that is of the idea that God cannot be understood theologically, there are certain folks that have taken it a step further and have constructed it to describe God only with a language of what he isn’t. While this method might make some sense to the brain, it does not have a yardstick which is used as a standard of what God is not. Due to this extremity which is sometimes associated with apophatic theology, certain people have accused it as being a form of atheism. The reason for this is it cannot be proof that God really does exist. So, if it can’t say God exists, then, it is probably saying God does not exist.

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