The Negative Outcome of the Via Negativa

I have been terribly busy of late, and so had slotted this issue into the “to blog” tray and not got around to writing anything till now (between Lutheran Small Group, getting the kid’s dinner, and picking my wife up from the airport – bring back Sabbath Observance, I say!).

Last week, John Allan ran this piece – U.S. bishops blast book by feminist theologian – on the USCCB Doctrinal Committee’s condemnation of aspects of Sr Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God. I had never heard of the book before, and won’t pretend to have read it or to offer an opinion on it. Fr Zuhlsdorf has a comment, and he also posts Sr Elizabeth’s response.

So, I won’t discuss the book itself, but I was interested especially in this comment by the bishops committee:

While God is a mystery that cannot be fully comprehended and thus fully articulated, nonetheless, according to the Catholic theological tradition it is possible to make statements about God that are true even if they do not express the fullness of the mystery. That tradition acknowledges that there is a difference between God’s being incomprehensible and God’s being unknowable. To say that God is not comprehensible is to say that he cannot be completely known and understood. On the other hand, God is knowable in the sense that human concepts do reflect some real if limited knowledge of God. For Sr. Johnson, if God is incomphensible he is unknowable. This is incorrect.

In effect, this is about the use of the “apophatic” method, or the via negativa in Catholic theology. Karl Rahner was the theologian in the 20th Century who popularised this method. Over against this method is its opposite, the “cataphatic” method, which was to be found more in the writings, for eg., of Hans Urs von Balthasar. While the apophatic method has commended itself especially to post-modern and liberal theology, it really has its place in the mystical and monastic tradition rather than (historically, anyway) Catholic dogmatic theology.

At essence is the question of whether or not God has really revealed himself and whether or not what God has revealed of himself can be said to be postively “known” as true. I am no fan of apophatic theology, although I acknowledge its place in the Catholic tradition. The fact is that this method is practically useless for any kind of kerygmatic, didactic, or catechetical expression of the faith. The consequence of that is that it is useless for the purposes of evangelisation. I see the adoption of a apophatic stance as one of the key sources of dissent from defined Catholic doctrine in the academy today.

From it flows a number of other issues that the USCCB committee picked up about Sr Johnson’s book, including treating the language of scripture and revelation about God as largely “metaphorical”, denying the uniqueness of the revelation of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the idea that we are free to find other “ways of speaking” about God that are more to our social or political liking.

The apophatic method may commend itself to a person in their spiritual life as a particularly “humble” way of approaching God, but if it results in the actual denial of God’s acts of revelation, then it is actually a manifestation of a kind of perverse “pride”.

The apophatic method has a venerable history – especially among the monastic Fathers. But the method of theology most suited to calling a world that truly knows nothing positive about God at all, and moreover does not believe that anything positive about God CAN be known, needs the cataphatic approach up front.

After all, did not our Lord say (Jn 17:3):

3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Negative Outcome of the Via Negativa

  1. Have to agree with you on this, David. I dare say the pride really enters in when the Biblical revelation of God is side-stepped in the name of apophaticism and, in a manner that Feuerbach would recognise, a humanly devised image is projected on to the resulting blank canvas of God’s portrait. The divine imprimatur can then be claimed for whatever agenda the theologian proposes.

  2. PM says:

    The apophatic approach is present in the great classical theologians – the incomprehensibility of God was defined by Vatican I, and the fourth Lateran cCouncil put it even more strongly – and is a necessary corrective to a naive fundamentalism that can easily lapse into idolatry. Aquinas (citing John of Damascus) says emphatically that ‘ we do not know what God is, we only know what he is not’. Moreover, there is ample warrant for it inthe Scriptures: ‘How rich are the depths of God…’, asks St Paul. Much – maybe even most – biblical language about God is indeed metaphorical. And I am alarmed by the suggestion that it is ‘useless’ for evangelisation: how else do you rebut the Ditchkinite taunts about ‘imaginary friends’ or ‘sky pixies’?

    But of course it is not the last word. There is determinate truth about God and there are necessary affirmations about God that are literally true – but our use of the words, as Aquinas would say, is analogical. When the scriptures say ‘God is a rock’, they are speaking metaphorically – it is open to us to say ‘Of course, God is not really a slump of granite or basalt or pumice…’. To say that God is good is to say something literally true – we cannot say ‘Of course God is not really good’. But it is not straightforwardly true in the same way as saying my saintly grandmother was good or a loving marriage is good or a beautiful sunset or Veuve Cliquot is good. We can’t comprehend what it means.

    The Thomistic tradition resolves the dialectic between the via positiva and via negativa in the via eminentiae, the way of eminence. Whatever a statement about God means, it must mean more – infinitely more – than what we normally encompass by the words we use. This approach resoects the transcendence of God and rescues us from two opposed tendencies: a vague pseudo-mysticism that assumes we can know nothing of God, and a crude idolatry that reduces him to a better-behaved version of Zeus or a big, invisible version of ourselves.

  3. William Tighe says:

    “Cataphatic” rather than “catophatic,” I think.

  4. An Liaig says:

    I must take issue with you on this David. Your post does no justice to the wisdom and histroy of the apophatic tradition. Could I suggest that your Lutheran background and training is a major influence on your thought here. It is notable that the bishops did not say anything against this tradition as properly understood but only against an abuse of the tradition. As to your claim that it is useless in evangelisation, I would counter and claim that if evangelisation is to be successful then an apophatic approach is absolutly necessary. It is the apophatic tradition that teaches the experience of God in love and without this experience all the preaching in the world is just words. Knowing about God intellectually is useless unless you also know him and love him through the experience of your heart. It is more important to olove God than to understand theology about him. Remember that Aquinas himself said that all his thought seemed like straw in the wind after his apophatic experience of God. That God is a mystery that can never be fully understood but only loved with the heart is very orthodox catholic teaching. (You can capitalise those descriptors if you wish). A program of evangelisation which leaves out the apophatic tradition of the Church sells the Church short. The Church is a feast but at a feast there are many courses to be had, not just the soup.

    • Schütz says:

      I intend this as a reply to both you, good Doctor, and PM.

      I don’t mean to pour scorn on the venerable apophatic tradition. What I wish to do is
      1) point out that it is being abused by many modern “theologians” (I think this is what the USCCB did)
      2) that in order to proclaim, evangelise and catechise, there needs to be postive content to that proclamation, evangelisation and catechisation.

      I don’t mean to suggest that as a part of the Church’s theology and catechesis, the apophatic tradition does not have a place.

      But even when St Paul was preaching to the Athenians about the “Unknown God” his whole point was that in Jesus Christ and in his Resurrection that “Unknown God” has become known.

      And so the Committee’s distinction between the “incomprehsibility” of God and the supposed “unknowability” of God is spot on.

      Yes, there is also probably a good part of Lutheran spirituality in my critique as well. Luther wrote admirably on the Deus Absconditus and the Deus Revelatus. His emphasis was (as in the Hymn “A Mighty Fortress”) that the Lord God of Hosts fully revealed himself in the Incarnate and Crucified and Risen Jesus.

      As St Paul also said, we preach “Christ and him crucified”.

  5. An Liaig says:


    I do agree that the apophatic tradition of the Church is much abused by people who believe it gives free reign to all sorts of wooly thinking – it really does not. It demands discipline and ascetic practice, something many of the modern would be followers of this path may not be too keen on. I am also glad that you distinguish between the tradition itself and what sometimes passes for it. I am very serious, however, in saying that I think it is a necessary part of any program of evangelisation. The Church can not just be another set of philosophical ideas and beliefs. Paul didn’t do that well in Athens. It must demonstrate its holiness, that its life flows directly from God. It is from this that the Church derives its authority to speak to the world.

    The analogy of a feast is, I think, appropriate. Yes, you must have the first course where you learn about God through Jesus, the gospel must be proclaimed. Following this, however, you should move onto the main course of direct experience of God and his love to come to savour the sweet desert of infused contemplation. The host of this feast is always Jesus and the wine is his blood poured out for us. Remember that it was the monastic tradition which evangelised northern Europe, Church practice declined after the post-enlightment attack on monastic life and I really believe that it is the monastic tradition which can revitalise the Church in the western world.

  6. Elizabeth Sheppard OblSB STB says:

    Thanks for this interesting thread, David. I agree with you that despite its undoubtedly venerable monastic history, an exclusively apophatic approach to Christian faith presents very real difficulties today, particularly for lay novice Catholics immersed in an aggressively secular world. Historically, monastic approaches to Christian life and witness generally included a balanced fusion of works of charity, purposeful social interaction, and structured, audible worship of God, supported by prayerful contemplation of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Mass. This was so even in the contemplative enclosed orders. In my spiritual practice and tradition (the Benedictine Liturgia Horarum and Mass), the object of the Christian contemplative feast is definitely not personal enjoyment, or the achievement of individual spiritual pre-eminence or peace, or a higher awareness (the goal of the Gnostic perfectae), even though these may be bestowed on us by God. Through prayer and contemplation in a perfect balance of the apophatic and kataphatic traditions, provided by the Eucharist instituted by Jesus Christ (and associated paraliturgies and works), Christians seek to serve God in Christ and his Church, and share in Christ’s mission of saving those who turn to God. Eucharistic faith and doctrine may be experienced apophatically, as a gift of God’s grace. However, enquirers about Christianity may also be confused and discouraged by well meant but ambiguous “one world religion” instruction that avoids citing basic Christian beliefs, promotes silent “transcendental” prayer and meditation exclusively, in a neutral context, and entirely omits Christian prayer texts and Scriptures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *