You are one.
You are everything.
You are no one.
You are not one.
You are not everything.
O, You who bear all names,
What shall I call You?
You Unique Unnameable,
You Surpassor of all.
Gregory of Nazianzus
In this post I’ll be outlining how the via negativa tries to solve the problem of religious language and explaining why, with a few caveats, I feel that the via negativa is a useful approach to religious language. I’ll also give a few pointers on how you might respond to an exam question on the via negativa or make use of it in assessing secular criticisms of religious language. The via negativa doesn’t seem to have come up in an exam since 2002, so we’re probably overdue a question on it.
The Problem of Religious Language
When religious people make statements such as “God is love” (1 John 4:8), are they really conveying knowledge about God? The sentence “God is love” looks very much like statements such as “the bachelor is unmarried” or “Mr Regnier is beardy”: like these it contains a subject (“the bachelor”, “Mr Regnier, or “God”) and a predicate – the part of a statement that tells us something about the subject (“is unmarried, “is beardy”, or “is love”). But is a statement like “God is love” really using language in the same way?
Religious language has been challenged by secular philosophers. For example, from your A2 course, you’ll know that according to the verification principle, a statement can only be considered meaningful if it is verifiable by sense experience, as with “Mr Regnier is beardy”, or is a tautology, as with “the bachelor is unmarried”. Since the statement “God is love”, is neither empirically verifiable nor tautological, we would have to reject it: it is a meaningless non-statement, and not the sort of thing responsible philosophers should concern themselves with.
But religious believers have also recognised that using language to convey knowledge about God is problematic, albeit coming at the problem from a different angle: How can human words, that sometimes struggle to deal with apparently mundane tasks such as accurately describing the taste of marmite or expressing just how awful the Twilight movies really are, adequately describe something as wholly other as God? Within Western theological tradition, philosophers have tried to communicate something positive about the nature of God either through developing (or adapting) a technical philosophical vocabulary, or at other times by using metaphors or analogies. We call this approach cataphatic theology.
The Via Negativa
An alternative approach, popular within Eastern Christianity is the via negativa, or apophatic theology, developed by theologians with cool names like Pseudo-Dionysus and Maximus the Confessor. Via negativa means “negative way”, while apophatic comes from a Greek word meaning “to deny”. The approach of apophatic theology is to communicate what God is not, rather than what God is. While in your religious language unit, we’ve mostly been looking at religious language within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, it’s worth remembering that a similar approach has also been employed by thinkers from other religions - we’ll come back to this point later.
The via negativa arose primarily from a spiritual / monastic background and draws upon mystical experience in its approach to describing God (think about the quality of ineffability that James identifies as a characteristic of mystical experience). The via negativa stresses that we are limited in how far we can use language to describe God, and that we cannot know God by reading or hearing a description of his qualities. Language can be useful in indicating what God is not – in the same way that a sculptor may chip away at a piece of marble to reveal the rough outline of a figure. However, at some point we must go beyond language, and come to know God through experience and union with him. By stressing direct acquaintance with God, the via negativa suggests that talk about God is only meaningful in terms of an encounter and relationship with God.
So is it any good?
Of course, it should be remembered that the kind of theological statements that are produced by apophatic theology are no more verifiable (or falsifiable) than the positive statements produced by cataphatic theology. Look at the quote from Gregory of Nazianzus at the top of this post: would any of these lines pass the scrutiny of Ayer or Flew? So if you wanted to criticise the via negativa in an exam question, approaching it from the perspective of the logical positivism could be a fruitful approach to take.
Another problem is that the via negativa is only a viable solution to the problem of religious language if we accept that God exists, so it can’t be entirely separated from wider questions about the existence of God. If God does not exist, or if we take a more agnostic position and argue that we can have no ultimate knowledge about the existence of God, then we would have to conclude that the via negativa is no more successful that other religious ways of talking about God: it is still saying nothing about nothing. More specifically, since apophatic theology often (though not always) stems from mystical thought and experience, a proper assessment of the via negativa as a way of communicating something about God would also need to consider the strengths and weaknesses of religious experience and whether such experiences can give us genuine knowledge of God. If you make this point in your exam, be sure you don’t go too far down the road of writing a “religious experience” essay.
Nonetheless, if you want to approach your essay from a more theistic perspective, or make a critical comparison between the via negativa and other religious approaches, such as the use of symbol or analogy to talk about God, then the via negativa has a number of strengths. Perhaps most obviously, the via negativa preserves the otherness of God: In describing what God is not, we avoid the risk of anthropomorphism – making God seem too much like us and so bringing God down to a worldly level.
I also wonder whether the approach taken by the via negativa – talking about God on the basis of experience – might neatly sidestep some of the criticisms of religious language made logical positivism. Since apothatic statements may derive from personal experiences of God, it might be possible to argue that these statements can be considered meaningful, since they are verified (at least subjectively) by experience. However, we would still have to question whether such experiences are indeed the result of an encounter with God or simply of some unusual mental state.
Another way to consider this point might be the distinction that exists between propositional knowledge and acquaintance knowledge. Propositional knowledge is “knowledge that”, while acquaintance knowledge is “knowledge of”. Think about the difference between the sentences “I know that Mr Regnier has a beard” (propositional) and “I know Mr Regnier” (acquaintance). Propositional knowledge is subject to error and propositional statements are subject to verification and falsification (you could look to check whether I do or do not have a beard), but it is hard to see how acquaintance knowledge could be verified or falsified – a statement like “I know Mr Regnier” is a description of the contents of your own mind, and in this respect would seem to verify itself.
For Russell, knowledge by acquaintance is indubitable – we cannot doubt our own experience or the contents of our own memory (which is not to say that our experiences or our memories cannot be mistaken. For example, when I perceive an elephant, it is possible that I am hallucinating, or when I remember my own A level exams, some of my memories may be inaccurate). In this respect, we could argue that by focusing upon acquaintance knowledge, or knowledge of God, from religious experience, and avoiding attempts to convey knowledge about God through propositional statements, the via negativa would seem to avoid some of the objections to religious language raised by the logical positivists. Interestingly, although atheists, both Ayer and Russell seem to have had some sympathy for mystical experience: Russell seems to have had a had a mystical experience of sorts in 1901, while Ayer had a near death experience that may him slightly more receptive to the idea of life after death.
In stressing the importance of experience, and avoiding statements about what God is, apophatic theology can also make it easier for philosophers from different religious traditions to talk to one another about God. The via negativa has similarities to streams of thought within non-Christian religions including Shia and Sufi Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and apophatic thinkers from these different traditions have been able to engage each other on theological issues in a way that would not be possible between theologians taking a more dogmatic, positive approach. From this perspective, you could use the via negativa as a way of criticising Wittgenstein’s language games theory, which would seem to rule out the possibility of meaningful dialogue between different religious traditions.
Given the history of violence and division that has resulted from quite small distinctions within the more positive theological approaches, it should be obvious why we might prefer a way of theologising that enables a more tolerant and inclusive approach to talking about God.