Via Negativa

views updated


VIA NEGATIVA is a technical term for the negative way of theology, which refuses to identify God with any human concept or knowledge, for God transcends all that can be known of him. Yet the term points to the possibility of union with God and the experience of his presence.

Via negativa was described by Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500 ce) in his treatises Divine Names and Mystical Theology. He developed further the ideas of the fourth-century Cappadocian fathers, particularly that of Gregory of Nyssa, but the term derives originally from the writings of the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus (411485). The writings of Dionysius were translated by John Scottus Eriugena (c. 810880), who made via negativa the basis of his theology, arguing that it was more effective than the affirmative path. Since Eriugena the term via negativa has been used by other theologians of mystical contemplation, particularly by Meister Eckhart (12601327) and Nicholas of Cusa (14011464).

The affirmative way of theology, theologia kataphatika, uses terms from one's own experience to describe God and his qualities. According to the affirmative theology, every term that refers to the good and the beautiful in this world can be applied analogously to God: "God is good," "God is love," "God is light," "God is truth." Yet the seeker after God becomes aware that God transcends all qualities or attributes that are applied to the creator by his creatures. God is good, but he is beyond and above any concept of goodness that one may imagine. What humans affirm about God does not express his reality. Whatever one may say of God one can also deny. People call him "Person," but, at the same time, they know that he transcends personal categories and empirical existence. God dwells in light that none can approach (1 Tm. 6:16), or he dwells in darkness, in which all names disappear. He transcends any concept that may be applied to him. This via negativa is the basis of "negative theology" (theologia apophatika ), which presents God as ineffable and a mystery.

Via negativa is both a way to the knowledge of God and a way of union with him. God is known by via negativa when upon removal from the names, definitions, and statements used about God all that he is not. God cannot be named or defined. Any name or definition imposes limits, and God is above (huper ) them. Incommensurable and incomprehensible, he cannot be reached by discursive reasoning; he is not an object of knowledge, for he is above knowledge. Via negativa means radical denial of all definitions, transcending reason while not abandoning it. The person following via negativa in order to know God engages in a paradoxical search. On the one hand, he or she denies that God can be identified with anything or that God can be expressed in words or concepts; on the other hand, the seeker must follow the road of via negativa to be united with the ultimate reality. The life of those who seek union with God is one of purification of soul and overcoming of passion as an approach to that union. God is nearer to people than they are to themselves, yet he is inconceivable. Hence, those who experience union with God speak in negative rather than positive terms; God is even more incomprehensible than he is at the beginning of the religious quest. Worship, expressed in prayers and hymns, reflects via negativa. God, who transcends reason and thought, is honored in silence as well. Negative theology conveys the purest form of devotion and the experience of God's ineffable presence.

Dionysus the Areopagite thought of God as a being beyond any conception or name, who "transcends all affirmation by being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and all negation by plenitude of his simple and absolute nature." Any concept that can be applied to the world cannot be used regarding God. He is present in the world by providence, but not in his essence. Yet one can know God in the silence of unknowing. "Unknowing" (agnosia ), a key word in the mystical theology of Dionysius, means much more than absence of knowledge. To know God by unknowing is to surrender one's mind to him. God is not an object of knowledge. As the soul is saved by losing itself, so the mind knows God by unknowing. The mind is abandoned to be found and saved, for it is the mind itself that sees God at the last stage of union and contemplation. Knowledge of God is not simply knowledge but union with him. Still, God is incomprehensible even when this union is realized. To attain "superessential darkness" is the goal of via negativa.

The Christian experience of God must be distinguished from that of Neoplatonic mysticism. Although Dionysius the Areopagite was a devoted disciple of Proclus, the last great Neoplatonist, his description of the experience of God is not Neoplatonic. The Neoplatonists would say that God is incomprehensible to the human soul, but that this is because of the soul's union with the body. The "unbodying" of humans leads to liberation: When the soul, free from the body or from finitude, returns to the One, it attains perfect unity with it. The One is no longer incomprehensible. The apophatic, negative way is transformed into a cataphatic, positive one. This Neoplatonic outlook is far from the views of Dionysius.

Via negativa was important in later Christian theology as well, as in the work of the fifteenth-century German Catholic cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, who built upon and developed some ideas of Dionysius and Eriugena. With his conception of "learned ignorance," Nicholas teaches that God is ineffable, infinitely greater than anything that words or concepts can express, and that by the process of elimination and the use of negative propositions one comes nearer to the truth about Him. Negative propositions are true, whereas affirmative ones are inadequate, Nicholas asserts. He emphasizes that negative theology "is so indispensable to affirmative theology that without it God would be adored, not as the Infinite but rather as a creature, which is idolatry."

Via negativa is present in the Eastern religious traditions as well. The Hindu seeker's goal is union with brahman, the ineffable, the nonconceptual. The Upaniads contain innumerable statements expressing or reflecting the unknowability and intangibility of ultimate reality. Brahman is "without beginning, without end, eternal, immutable, beyond nature, is the Self" (Kaha Upaniad). The Self is to be described as neti, neti ("not this, not this"). The ignorant do not know brahman, for brahman remains hidden behind names and forms. To know brahman is to know what is beyond knowledge, and one who knows brahman becomes one with brahman (Muaka Upaniad). Having attained the ultimate reality, the sage declares: "I am life" (Taittirīya Upaniad). Meditation as practiced in Eastern religions reflects via negativa more strongly than is the case in modern Western religions.

The Dao of Daoism, like brahman of Hinduism, is ineffable, indescribable, indefinable, ungraspable. The Dao is actionless, yet active. The Dao, the way of all life, is "beyond the power of words to define." The terms applied to the Dao are all relative, "none of them absolute" (Bynner, 1944, p. 25). The Dao gives life to everything, yet it is humble and lowly: "Existence, by nothing bred, breeds everything" (Bynner, p. 27).

Via negativa also permeates the Buddhist view of nirvāa. According to the Theravāda teaching, nirvāa is a state into which one enters by achieving victory over craving through the extinction of desire. The nature of nirvāa is beyond ordinary human existence; no images or concepts derived from the world of human experience are adequate for describing or analyzing it. By using only negative terms, such as "unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded," the Buddha pointed to the nature of nirvāa. Something very positive is conveyed in this negative way, for these negative terms overcome limitations that are implicit in positive terms.

The Mahāyāna conception of nirvāa dispenses with the image of entering nirvāa and emphasizes the state of ultimate perfection. The arahant, the saint of the Theravāda, is interested in "entering" nirvāa; but the bodhisattva, the saint of the Mahāyāna, when he reaches the state of perfection, does not "stay" in nirvāa but brings perfection back into sasāra, the flux of events in this world. How is this state of perfection of the bodhisattva described? Again, only a negative approach is found to be adequate. The experience of the bodhisattva does not fit ordinary experience. The perfection of the bodhisattva is experienced as "compassionate oneness with others," when any thought of the self as separate is transcended, when nirvāa and samsara are known to be not two different realms of existence but one. To refuse to "enter" nirvāa, to remain in the world for the sake of others, is in fact to be in nirvāa. This state of perfection can be adequately expressed only in negative terms: "nirvāa is the annihilation of ego conception," or, "nirvāa is bliss unspeakable," that is, perfect, timeless bliss. A notion common to these and similar statements is that human language is inadequate for the expression of nirvāa, which is "the recognition of the oneness of existence." The Buddha said, "I will teach you the truth and the path of the truth." The truth is nirvāa, but nirvāa, the experienced eternal in Buddhism, is ineffable. Brahman is ineffable. Dao is ineffable. God is ineffable.

What positive theology affirms about God is not false, but it is inadequate. Negative theology affirms that God excels in everything. Yet the apophatic way alone, without the cataphatic, may lead anywhere. Cataphatic theology, without an apophatic dimension, may build a system of concepts without an underlying experience of God. The absolute terms of negation that are common to the mystical traditions (emptiness, void, darkness, nothingness ) are paradoxically positive in content. They are the product of the experience of the divine, the numinous. They are symbols that point to God, who is the "Wholly Other," with whom nothing in this world can be compared. Via negativa indicates and expresses his unconditional existence.


Burtt, Edwin A., ed. The Teaching of the Compassionate Buddha. New York, 1955. A valuable collection of excerpts from early and later Buddhist texts.

Bynner, Witter. The Way of Life According to Laotzu. New York, 1944. An attempt to produce a simple, free, and suggestive translation of the Daode jing.

Dionysius the Areopagite. On the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by C. E. Rolt. New York, 1940. A good introduction and clear translation of this Christian classic.

Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology. 2d ed. New York, 1979. A very readable and informative account of trends in Byzantine theology.

Nicholas of Cusa. On Learned Ignorance. Translated by Jasper Hopkins. Minneapolis, 1981. Indispensable for the thought of this great mystic.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. 2d ed. Translated by John W. Harvey. New York, 1950. Still the best book on the subject: a modern classic on the basic experience of the holy.

Prabhavananda, Swami, and Frederick Manchester, trans. The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal. Hollywood, Calif., 1948. An easily followed translation of some of the most important parts of the Hindu scriptures.

Sigmund, Paul E. Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought. Cambridge, Mass., 1963. A good, reliable source of information about the period.

New Sources

Bulhof, Ilse Nina, and Laurens Ten Kate, eds. Flight of the Gods: Philosophical Perspectives on Negative Theology. New York, 2000.

Carlson, Thomas. Indiscretion and the Naming of God. Chicago, 1999.

Coward, Harold, and Toby Foshay, eds. Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany, N.Y., 1992.

Davies, Oliver, and Denys Turner, eds. Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation. New York, 2002.

Milem, Bruce. The Unspoken Word: Negative Theology in Meister Eckhart's German Sermons. Washington, D.C., 2002.

Veselin Kesich (1987)

Revised Bibliography