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Critically Assess the Via Negativa as a Means of Knowing God

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Critically assess the Via Negativa as a means of knowing God
In the Christian tradition, the via negativa (apophatic theology) refers to a way of speaking about God and his attributes through the way of the negative. Because God is beyond our capacity as human beings to comprehend, anything we can say of him is necessarily limited by our finite human understanding and his reality far surpasses our power of expression through our anthropocentric languages. It suggests that the closest way we can get to describing him is by saying what he is not, rather than what he is. We therefore can come to know God better through meditating on how much greater he is than anything we can conceive for as St. Thomas said: “This is the ultimate in human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know Him”. According to this way, we use words like “infinite,” “incorporeal”, “immutable,” and “ineffable” to describe God. Even to call God “perfect,” says St. Thomas, we do by way of negation, because we understand perfection as “lacking nothing.”
Moses Maimonides believed that when it came to directly describing God’s nature, “silence is the best praise” and that even the Torah was an imperfect source for describing God as any descriptions are carried out using human language (“The Torah was written by the sons of men”). However he understood human need to describe and explain the characteristics of God, which he felt was impossible to do in a meaningful way; And so he suggested that we demonstrate the nature of God by saying what he is not as he believed that God is transcendent, so it is impossible to say what God is. He therefore decided that the only way we could speak of him, is to talk in negatives.
He gave the example of ‘God is not a human being. This is because he is transcendent, so cannot have a body.’ Maimonides believes that by giving positive ideas to God, we are lowering God to our human level of understanding. Words like ‘good’ or ‘loving’, which are often used to describe God, are simply are interpretations of those words, God is transcendent so in no way is he confined to this basic understanding and so the language must be used equivocally.
Using Via Positiva is improper and disrespectful. However, Maimonides agrees that one positive statement can be made about God, and this is that he exists (“I am That I am”), this is because the whole principle of Via Negativa is based on the idea that God exists.
Pseudo-Dionysius follows the same belief as Maimonides, also stating that God is beyond assertion and beyond denial, meaning that whatever you say about God, even if negative, doesn’t ultimately tell us what God is, it simply provides us with spiritual understanding of Him.
This way of negatively speaking still allows us to recognise God as ‘good’. Even if we say ‘God is not good,’ this can mean that God is more than just good, he may be wholly perfect. So this account of speaking still allows for God being transcendent. It also accepts the fact that the finite cannot get a true grasp of the infinite.
However, there are a few issues with this view. This theory simple assumes that there is a God to talk about when there is no proof of this; some believe that the fact we cannot describe God, suggests there is not anything to be describing. If we were to only ever talk about objects in a negative manner, we would never grasp truly what an object was, only what it was not. Finally, I believe that it is important to view God as positive and good, so Via Negativa removes this idea.
Other philosophers disagree with even the use of Via Negativa, they say that there is absolutely no meaningful way to talk about God. This view was taken by the Vienna Circle who believed that only analytic propositions and synthetic propositions are meaningful. Analytic because the knowledge comes through logical reasoning, eg. the man was dead, so was not alive; synthetic principles because they can be proven to be true or false, so their meaningfulness can easily be shown, eg. The water is 27 degrees. The Vienna Circle followed the Verification Principle; this suggested that only empirically verifiable statements are meaningful, one that can be verified by sense experience. Meaningful language involves discussing things that exist only in reality. Therefore God does not fit into this category since he exists outside of our reality.
However, the principle allows historical facts to be meaningful, as they could be verified at the time. Therefore, could not some of God’s existence be verified? For example, ‘Jesus was raised from the dead,’ is a historical fact and was verified by many at the time. There is room for God to exist within the principle, so their idea was weak. There are also issues with the fact that the principle itself is not verifiable, so therefore is a bunch of meaningless opinions. Therefore I would not count their views to be a serious criticism to the Via Negativa.
A serious problem with apophatic theology is that how can one reasonably claim what something is not unless they have some clear idea of what it is? For example, I can say that something is “not on” but the person would thus instently know it was “off”. Furethermore, how can I claim that a “cat” is “not a reptile” unless I first know what the characteristics of a "reptile" are and then also know that a cat lacks them? Therefore I would require some understanding but then the person hearing my statement would not know enough to even say that the cat is a mammal.
The via negativa helps us guard against the presumption of thinking that through human insight we can penetrate the impenetrable mystery of God. St. Augustine said that “If you comprehend, it is not God. If you are able to comprehend, it is because you mistook something else for God. If you almost comprehend, it is again because you allowed your own thoughts to deceive you”. Yet if God is beyond comprehension then why is it that Jesus is seen as the way to God, God incarnate. If He is entirely incomprehensible then we could not say that we are made imago dei because that would suggest that we could understand some of who God is through our own characteristics.
The value of the via negativa does not mean, however, that we should on the other hand predicate nothing of God. Christianity is founded on the revelation of God, who has chosen to reveal something of his mystery to us. The Church has not only a via negativa but also a via positiva. This is made clear by looking at the Catholic liturgy makes that quite clear: “Heavenly Father,” “Holy,” “Shepard” etc.
Personally I would say that the positive and negative ways of speaking about God are best set as correctives to each other, which strain toward a definition. For If you use the negative then you aren’t much closer to an actual definition as for example, there are many things which are not humorous, but that leaves you with a seemingly infinite list of other things that it could be. Whereas using the positive has to be used equivocally rather than univocally to avoid comparing ourselves to God.…...

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