Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Via Negativa

Following an interesting exchange of views on another post I've been considering the Via Negativa and why I think it to be an advanced but ultimately insufficient approach to God. For those who aren't familiar with the term (it's also known as the apophatic way), it can be defined as the approach to God through negation. No words can describe God, He cannot be known as he is in his essential nature by means of his attributes. He is 'not this and not that'. Anything you say about him is ultimately false. You cannot think anything about him and no concept can hold him who is above and beyond all concept. So you strip everything from your mind. You leave it in what appears to be total darkness and truth arises, a truth that cannot be framed in language. You get the idea. It's contrasted with the Via Affirmativa (cataphatic mysticism) in which God is approached through his attributes of goodness, wisdom, love etc.

The first slightly mischievous thing I would say is that if you cannot approach God through positive affirmation why should you be able to do so through the opposite way, negatively? Opposites are part of the same set up. One suggests the other. One is the other turned inside out. So the Via Negativa is not a higher way than the Via Affirmativa. It is simply its reflection. The two are not separate. You might think this is a false correlation but what it amounts to is that is still the mind that makes the choice of concept or non-concept. Non-concept is still a concept. If the mind seeks God by rejecting or cutting away it has made a choice.

This is not an argument in favour of the Via Affirmativa. That is incomplete because it approaches God through his qualities rather than his being. Instead it's an argument for an approach that either includes both ways, relative and absolute as you might call them, or even dispenses with both for something, to use a favourite analogy of mine, that sits above them like the point of the apex of a triangle sits above (and reconciles on a higher level) the two base points. This requires a both/and attitude rather than an either/or one. You cannot limit God to 'not this' any more than you can limit him to 'this'. He encompasses and is more than both. So approaching God only as the unmanifest absolute, which is what the Via Negativa does, while it does away with some of the problems associated with restricting him to form of some kind, abstract or real, nevertheless brings its own difficulties.

So I regard the Via Negativa as something like what the Buddhists call skilful means. That is, it is not actually true as it stands but is a way for the mind to approach truth through stripping it of its illusions and attachments. But the point is that while we should not be identified with or attached to anything in creation, creation nonetheless exists and gives meaning and beauty and goodness and, yes, even truth to life. For there is no truth without creation. There just is what is. You can call what is truth but if that truth is to be known you have to introduce an extra element and once you have done that you have already stepped off the Via Negativa.

If the Via Negativa were the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth one would have to ask, why would God create a universe? What's the point of humanity? And why would we come to this world to experience its sorrows? I have gone into that a bit here but essentially the answer is that he did this to go beyond the state that the Via Negativa would lead to. That remains, of course, as a kind of substratum but all the positive aspects of life can now be expressed and known. And these positive aspects are part of reality. They are not illusions. They are of the eternal nature of God for God is just as much his qualities as he is what is conceived of (by us) as his unmanifest essence. He is love, as Christ taught us. He does not have compassion. He is love.

 For me that one fact shows that, for all its virtues of breaking false attachments and man-made ideologies, the Via Negativa is incomplete. Taken literally it would dismiss love for it would dismiss the relative and embrace the absolute alone and in the absolute qua absolute there can be no love. There can only be a generalised, universalised compassion but there cannot be love or, for that matter, beauty or goodness.

Luckily we are saved from the tyranny of that kind of absolute by the reality of the Trinity.

So I would regard the Via Negativa as an important aspect of the path to God and an essential counterbalance to its opposite approach. By stripping away all the manifested aspects of our being we find the uncreated core. And yet we are and will remain created beings, and these created parts of us are real. What God creates is real. We should not be attached to them or wholly identified with them or view them in a false light of their own self-sufficient reality but nor should we deny them their own proper place in the hierarchy of existence . Again it's both/and though all parts of the whole should be viewed in their correct hierarchical relationship. This makes for a so much richer and more joyous existence than retreating to the unmanifest absolute, blissful as that may be. It's the life more abundant.

And God thinks so too. That's why he created.


ted said...

As a side bar, there are different Tibetan schools of Buddhism in regards to emptiness. Yes, most do see a similar via negativa aspect where all phenomena is empty of self-nature (with no affirming attributes). Yet the Shentong school of "other-emptiness" is more essentialist and acknowledges that there is a self-nature that is affirmed (more in line with via Affirmativa). Just adding this since the more conventional view on Buddhism is that it is more nihilistic in it's view on the Absolute.

William Wildblood said...

Interesting. I didn't know that. Thanks ted.

Aaron said...

William, I would submit you are not understanding this correctly.

The Negative approach is not denial - it is neither denial, nor affirmation. Denial is still a human thought category.

There is no unmanifest Absolute, there is no manifest Absolute. We also cannot say there is neither. We also cannot say there are both. (these are the four dialectical positions - Being, Non-Being, neither, both,)

See whats going on here? We are trying to get beyond the way our mind works altogether.

In the end, you are still trapped in "images", you have not got beyond your mind - unmanifest Absolute as "undifferentiated mass", Absolute not containing Love, or yes containing Love, nothing existing after we strip away all attributes, so no creation.

All these are positions that do not go beyond the frontiers of our concept-forming function. They avoid a confrontation with Mystery and remain "human, all too human".

I am not however saying your path is illegitimate. Some minds are cast in an empirical mold, and need concrete imagery in their spiritual path - and that is a legitimate spiritual path as long as it leads towards liberation. There are many paths.

If someone achieves maximum liberation possible for him by affirming individuality, he should do so.

I think you are teaching me to be far less dogmatic and doctrinaire, William, and more accepting of other paths :) Surely a good thing!

Aaron said...


'Emptiness' does not imply nihilism, not at all - in fact, if everything had a "self-nature", then this world of change and appearance could not exist. It is precisely because everything is "empty" that this world can appear to us at all. (if everything had a self-essence, then it could not change, be modified by attributes, and thus be percetible to us at all)

'Emptiness' is not a definite position - the Buddha said that anyone who clings to emptiness as a definite position, is beyond hope (has so totally missed the point that he probably cannot see it)

But I am becoming abstruse, and this is taking us too far afield.

William Wildblood said...

Aaron, I do get what the negative approach is meant to be in theory but we are human beings and what it works out to be in practice is how I describe it, or such is my perception. Whatever we do, we do as human beings and the mental position you describe (and it is a mental position) is frankly a denial of our humanness. That's what I have come to believe anyway despite being drawn to your position at one time. And our humanness is part of the totality of our being which we may go beyond but not like a skin we slough off but something which we transform and take with us. That's how things work both in Nature and in the spiritual world. Christ's ascended body was his physical body transformed not something completely different.

And this is where Christianity scores over Buddhism. It includes rather than rejects while Buddhism, especially traditional Buddhism, does reject. I know someone like Nagarjuna, who you paraphrase , would say he neither affirms nor denies, neither accepts or rejects but I don’t buy it. He does reject. But then I see Nagarjuna as sailing perilously close to sophistry with his arguments. I don’t see him as spiritually enlightened at all. He’s more of an intellectual. He doea not have the wisdom of the heart.

I still appreciate the almost relentless logicality of your position but to me it just doesn't measure up to reality and nor does it have much to do with Christianity despite Meister Eckhart. That in itself wouldn't matter if it went beyond Christianity but I don't think it does. Moreover Christ’s words that no man comes to the Father except through me exactly point to the deficiencies of the via negativa and why it cannot end up where it hopes to go.

For me ultimate reality, call it what you will, is personal though it has an impersonal aspect which is where your approach leads. But that is something like a tabula rasa of existence and not the true goal of creation and the reason behind the unfolding of life and consciousness in the universe. It’s back to where we started not something wholly new which is God’s real purpose for us. God is love. It’s personal, and his aim is for us created beings to have a dualistic relationship of love with him. This is actually a higher state than the one you talk about though nowadays the opposite is often affirmed.

But I imagine we will have to agree to disagree so let's leave it at that for the time being!

Aaron said...

William - my main concern is that the via negativa position is properly understood before it is rejected, and in this reply you have shown that you do understand it perfectly. I wasn't quite sure before. It took me a long time to really "get it", myself. It is indeed going beyond humanness.

Once one understands it properly, it is perfectly legitimate to reject it, as you do. I see great beauty in your position and think it is legitimate.

In any event, thanks for the discussion, it has been illuminating!

William Wildblood said...

It has been illuminating for me too. Thank you for prompting it! By the way, I don't reject the via negativa at all but I do think it has to be combined with the via positiva for a proper all round approach to the tremendous and inexhaustible mystery of God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Yo make a vital point abut Love. The via negativa is associated with (Neo) Platonism - and has the strength ans weaknesses of that philosophical stance; its weaknesses including an excessive valuation of the spirit and downgrading of incarnation, a favouring of static beauty and a suspicion of creativity.

The Eastern Roman/ Byzantine Empire was the greatest and most lasting achievement of the negative way - its charactreitsic mosaic arts works express the nature very well, I think. Magnificent, otherworldy - but static, impassive; Man yearning for Heaven (and not much valuing mortal life). The spiritual goal is to absorbed into an ecstatic unition with God.

As you know I am suspicious of abstractions; and tend to rephrase the VN in terms of the self-discipline necessary for mortal life understood in terms of the 'literal metaphor' of family relationships.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, abstractions are very tempting as they seem to convey a higher, deeper, purer, more 'spiritual' truth than approaches to God that include the personal. But I always go back to Christ who embraced all aspects of truth within himself and was both true God and true man, and that's the example I think we should follow. We are not just sky but sky and earth, not just spirit but spirit and matter. Even if matter will eventually be transformed into a higher state it will be transformed not discarded.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Somewhat aside, and because it was Father's Day yesterday - you might find this video (from a few years ago) as wonderful as I do! It depicts my own feelings and understanding very exactly.

William Wildblood said...

Very touching, though I could have done without the music!