The Via Negativa

Jason Edwards-Suarez
Slide Set by Jason Edwards-Suarez, updated more than 1 year ago
Jason Edwards-Suarez
Created by Jason Edwards-Suarez over 5 years ago


The Via Negativa

Resource summary

Slide 1

    The Via Negativa (The Apophatic way)

Slide 2

    What is it?
    Put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius, via negativa is the belief that words limit our understanding of a transcendent God; he is so vastly different to what we know that human terms limit him. To overcome this problem we explain God using what he is not. For example instead of saying that God is good we would say that God is not evil.

Slide 3

    Christian theologian and philosopher of the late 5th to early 6th century Believed that the via negativa was the only way to speak about God truthfully.  We can't comprehend the statement "God is good" because God is beyond our understanding. If we say what God isn't it allows us to come closer to understanding God.

Slide 4

    Moses Maimonides
    Moses Maimonides (1135-1204ce) was a great Jewish thinker and theologian, who strongly supported the Via Negativa. He argued that the attributes of God can be explained through the via negativa, it helps us to appreciate and understand God. Uses the example of the ship, by explaining what a ship isn't then we can come closer to understanding what a ship is. Maimonides's ship example has been criticised because it compares God to an inanimate object rooted in human understanding.

Slide 5

    Brian Davies
    Criticised Maimonidies. Argued that by eliminating negatives we have no idea if what remains is God or not.  For example by saying that God isn't a wombat doesn't help us to come any closer to understanding what God is. 

Slide 6

    Antony Flew
    Antony Flew argued that after eliminating everything that God isn't, what we are left could equally be nothing as much as it is God. Thus to talk about God using the via negativa is to compare him to nothingness.  "Two people return to their long neglected garden and find, among the weeds, that a few of the old plants are surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other, 'It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these weeds.' The other disagrees and an argument ensues. They pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. The believer wonders if there is an invisible gardener, so they patrol with bloodhounds but the bloodhounds never give a cry. Yet the believer remains unconvinced, and insists that the gardener is invisible, has no scent and gives no sound. The skeptic doesn't agree, and asks how a so-called invisible, intangible, elusive gardener differs from an imaginary gardener, or even no gardener at all."

Slide 7

    Strengths of the Via Negativa
    It avoids being too anthropomorphic (human-based) and focuses more on a transcendent God. It applies to every culture in every time, unlike symbols and analogies . It doesn't limit God, and allows for what William James calls the 'mystical approach'. It isn't misleading, whereas positive language may be.

Slide 8

    Weaknesses of the Via Negativa
    How can we describe what God isn't if we have no idea of what he is? How can we make judgements of something we haven't experienced? Negative statements aren't helpful or useful in describing things. How do you know the God you are worshipping if you can only reliably say what he isn't? We understand people through actions - if we don't know what God is, how should we act? For religious believers, via negativa contradicts certain statements in holy scripture that describe God positively
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