Chapter 2 of my newest book God is No-Thing; An Apophatic Assertion 2023

5 Apr

Chapter 2 The God is No-Thing An Apophatic Assertion: An Introduction for Humankind’s
Transpersonal Actualization– revised -. Copyright Rodger Ricketts Psy.D.,2023. All rights
reserved. Protected by international copyright conventions. No part of this chapter may be
reproduced in any manner whatsoever, or stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, without
express permission of the Authorpublisher, except in case of brief quotations with due
acknowledgement. Publisher CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Chapter 2
Via Negativa and Via Positiva
In this chapter, I will highlight what more I learned about apophatic theology or
apophaticism. Those new readings introduced me to Western and other apophatic
writers, resulting in my defining the Buddha’s teachings as an example of an
apophatic perspective. There are clear similarities between the Buddha’s writing
and those of Angelus Silesius and other apophatic theologists. While there is
already some scholarship about this similarity, it is, unfortunately, rarely discussed
in mainstream Buddhist or theistic literature. This lack of discussion prompted me
to integrate relevant aspects of my previous writings on the Buddha’s teachings
with fascinating apophatic perspectives and to highlight what I believe are
important parallels.
In the past, I read some works of Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart
and the book The Cloud of Unknowing, but I was never specifically introduced to
the apophatic tradition. This past year, as I read the apophatic works of Angelus
Silesius and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, I realized that the Buddha’s
teachings could be correctly considered apophatic. This realization opened a new
dimension of comprehension and relevance for me about what I had written in my
previous books and essays on the Buddha’s teachings. First, let us understand the
differences between cataphatic and apophatic theology or via positiva and via
Cataphatic Theology
The word “cataphatic” comes from the Greek kataphasis, meaning affirmation.
Cataphatic theology means to affirm things positively of God and to assume a
univocal understanding of words and claims. By this approach, if somebody says,
“God is good,” they mean much the same as if they said, “St. Anselm is good.”
The same is true if somebody said that “God is love.” The cataphatic way is
sometimes called via positiva; it uses language confidently and positively to
describe God’s characteristics. Cataphatic theology uses dualistic, definitive,
absolute statements about the Absolute Life Force or God, and Analogical
theology uses analogy to describe God. They use these primary applications of
definition in their writings. Cataphatic theology typically enumerates “God’s
attributes”: loving, merciful, good, perfect, omnipotent, omnipresent, showing
providence and veracity, etc. Also, analogical theology attempts to describe what
God is by reference to things that are easily relatable; thus, “father” or “son” is
used in an analogical sense.
Nevertheless, many find this descriptive theology of God both biologically
and philosophically unsatisfying. There is no quality control when it comes to
things affirmed of God. It becomes a confusing way to understand something
about God and/or religion. Using cataphatic theology, representations are created
from an exclusively anthropocentric and geocentric point of view. Thus,
throughout history, most cultures in the world have and still maintain fantastic
mythologies which are often founded on a definite, anatomical and human or even
animal-like god(s) who conducts the affairs of the universe like a nescient and
capricious prince(ss) might conduct the affairs of a small kingdom. While
descriptive religious traditions can offer meaning and the tools for spiritual
transformation, most often, devotees come to revere and worship the mythology
and believe that it corresponds in an exclusive way to ultimate truth and a sacred
reality. Every religion has metaphorical relevance regarding the human and
cosmic mystery, but they easily get mired in the metaphor. For example, even
though the three great Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have
the same biblical God (but with three different names and characteristics), they
have often quarreled with each other, being enmeshed with their own metaphor
and refusing to recognize the differences as being merely a reference or source of
This is an important difficulty that cataphatic religions have. Their
traditions often become the meaning and an end in themselves. Some become so
engaged in the dogma to achieve purposes of outer, worldly value that they forget
that the sacred inner divine value—the rapture that is associated with being alive
and realizing our affinity with all that share the gift of life—is the primary concern
of spirituality. The resulting dualistic egocentrism or inability to see religion from
any perspective except one’s own creates a sense of superiority and even hostility
toward other religions. Theologian Paul Tillich (1886 –1965) described this
tendency to absolutize itself as the “demonic distortion” of religion. Similarly,
author, philosopher, and Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland (1916) wrote,
By religious feeling, what I mean altogether independently of any dogma,
credo, organization of the Church, Holy Scripture, the hope of personal
salvation, etc.—the simple and direct fact of a feeling of the ‘eternal.’ This
feeling is, in truth, subjective in nature. It is a contact.
When the cataphatic theologian affirms attributes of God univocally, they
go beyond possible experience and beyond what the human mind can possibly
comprehend. Therefore, using language confidently and univocally to describe
God is to represent what is beyond possibility. The Buddha referred to this
dualistic representation modality as delusional. Since it inevitably leads to
misconceptions about a “God,” the cataphatic way is clearly a form of ignorance.
As professor Charlotte Vardy (2023) wrote, “The Cataphatic Way, for all the
possibilities that it seems to offer in terms of making religious language
understandable, fails to support any true understanding of God’s actual nature
and attributes.”
Apophatic Theology
What is apophatic theology? Contrary to cataphatic theology, a basic premise of
apophatic theology is that comprehending “God” is beyond human cognitive,
analytic understanding and description, and the best hope of grasping the nature
of “God” is to experience the immanent and intuitive nature of being. From the
apophatic perspective, words cannot be applied univocally to God. Therefore, the
cataphatic way fails to support any true understanding of God’s actual nature and
attributes. Because of this, the eleventh-century Jewish philosopher Moses
Maimonides argued that human words are inadequate because they can only refer
to human experience and are inescapably tied to the space-time framework that
contains the human experience. For Maimonides, the only credible approach to
religious language was the very opposite of the cataphatic way—the apophatic
way. Maimonides explained that “ ‘God’ must be free of properties and is thus
unlike anything else, and indescribable.”
Apophaticism speaks about the indescribable or immanent existence or
absolute in terms of what “God” is not, instead of using terms of what “God” is
or describing what “God’s” characteristics are. Apophatic theology avoids
applying the commonly used pronouns or nouns, like “God,” Father, or an
equivalent, with its language/meaning associations or exaggerations attached to
it. The apophatic writers prefer to use the reference of mysterious or No-Thing.
For example, the medieval Iranian Shiite philosopher Mulla Rajab affirmed that
“an unqualifiable and attribute-less is the nature of ‘God.’ ”
In the following chapters, I have, at times, used the designation (X) instead
of “God,” etc., to avoid the quandary of God being attributeless. As the reader
goes through the chapters of this book, they will soon understand further this
dilemma of language conceptualization and designation, which is an important
lesson in apophatic theology.
The apophatic tradition corresponds with a non-dualistic, transcendental, or
mystical perspective that acknowledges a reality beyond the realm of rational,
linguistic, analytic, and dualistic thinking. The negative way emphasizes the
unknowability of Being, (X), or “God.” In other words, nothing can be
definitively presumed about a divine essence because (X) is beyond the human
capacity to fully know and describe. For example, in the words of St. Augustine,
“If you understand, it is not God.” St. Augustine or Augustine of Hippo (354 –
430 CE) is recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox
Church, and the Anglican Communion. When all words collapse into silence, we
resist labeling the mystery and wonder that is existence with a name; thereby, we
realize that we can only say “it is what it is.”
The “mysterious” is immanent, and while it is intuitively knowable, we can
never definitely and rationally define it. Knowledge of (X), as far as is possible,
is pre-theoretical, immediate, and intuitive, never abstract nor conceptual in
nature. (X) cannot be described; therefore, ordinary language and categorization
of the characteristics and qualities of “God” are deficient. (X) is inscrutable but
knowable. From the Chinese Taoist perspective, in chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching,
Lao Tzu, wrote this description about (X): “The Tao [the absolute principle
underlying the universe] that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that
can be named is not the eternal name. The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2022) defines
apophaticism as follows:
Apophatic theology is the way of approaching God by denying that any of
our concepts can be properly affirmed of Him. It is contrasted with
affirmative and symbolic theology. All ideas and images of God are
rejected. The roots of Apophatic theology may be seen in the ban on images
in parts of the Old Testament and a similar rejection of anthropomorphism
by Greek philosophers. In the Western Church Apophatic theology tends to
be seen as an affirmation of the inadequacy and inability of human
understanding in matters of the Divine. In the Eastern Church it is seen as
an affirmation that the essence of God is unknowable, though He makes
Himself known to us through His energies.
Apophatic theology is also called via negativa or the “negative theology”
because it often attempts to describe “God” or the divine by identifying what (X)
is not. For example, it states that “God has no form, no shape, no color, no
differences, no race, no religion, no country, no place, no name, neither beginning
nor end. God is the grace that lives within all lives.” So said Bawa Muhaiyaddeen,
the Sufi master from Sri Lanka, who came to the United States and taught there
for about a decade and a half before his death in 1986.
In contrast to cataphatic theology, a basic premise of apophatic theology is
that comprehending “God” is beyond human cognitive, analytic understanding,
and description, and the best hope of grasping the nature of (X) is to experience
the immanent and intuitive nature of being. Words cannot, therefore, be applied
univocally to (X), and the cataphatic way fails to support any true understanding
of God’s actual nature and attributes. Applying human words to “God” can only
lead to serious misunderstandings.
Instead, for apophatic theologians, (X) is the impermanent, interbeing,
transforming, coexisting nature of existence. When non-dualistically understood,
whatever we experience, understand, and say is beyond the possibility of a clear
substantial description of (X). Whatever is explicitly said, it is not that. Using
language in a negative sense allows only an impression of what “God” is.
Therefore, it has long been argued that the apophatic way, not the cataphatic way,
is the best way to express religious language. The Islamic mystic Rumi wrote that
(X) is “the name that cannot be spoken or written.” In fact, even from the very
foundation of Christianity, the concept of God was inscrutable; God could not
have a name; no image could be made of God. Biblical scholars suggest that in
the Old Testament story of the “Burning Bush” appearing to Moses, God said, “I
am that I am,” which describes its eternal character. This is also expressed in the
word Yahweh (the name of God in ancient Judaism), meaning, “I am the One who
is.” It exists in the immediate now, not bound by time; it has no beginning or end
and no boundaries by which to define it.
As the lecturer Dr. Oliver Tearle explains, the God of the Christian
Testament of John is a negation of idols or a personified god: “In the beginning
was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” That is, at the
beginning of all things, there was Logos (the principle of divine reason and
creative order), the creator of everything.
However, with cataphatic theologies, mythmaking and the dualistic,
anthropocentric view of “God” soon became predominant and idolized. This
dualistic God is not found in nature but is separate from nature, and nature is not
God. This concept of the divine in cataphatic religions focuses on the concept of
“God” as the spiritual aspect that is divine. Through the dualistic cataphatic belief,
many people are taught and believe in the soul/body split in which the physical
properties of the body are materialistic and impure, and the soul or spirit is pure
and is not reducible to a physical or functional state.
Even now, most devotees can only think about representations of God; God
is an object, God is a name, and God is an idea. The devotees get mired, obsessed,
and entangled in these thoughts. They dualistically identify with the doctrinal
good, the righteous, the “correct,” and oppose and even fight against any
identified contrary or “bad” as a designated evil. It is when cataphatic theology
makes definitive statements about the nature of God that dualistic inspired
identifications occur, and the projected division between an absolute good—
“blessed”—and an evil—“sinful”—predominates.
As the apophatic teachers teach, the ultimate mystery of (X) surpasses all
categories of thought—transcends all speculation. Later in Jewish and Christian
development, an attempt was made to challenge idolization by postulating that
not even God’s qualities can be stated. In Christian apophatic theology, the
concept of God is expressed as the One, the No-Thing. As the Christian apophatic
teachers have long stated, “God is No-thing; He is Void.” Meister Eckhart (c. 1260
– c. 1328) preached:
You should love [God] as he is a non-God, a non-spirit, a non-person, a
non-image, but as he is a pure, unmixed bright ‘One,’ separated from all
dualities; and in that One we should eternally sink down, out of something
into nothing.”
While apophatic theology is often linked with Christianity, its insights include
other religious dogmas like the Baha’i, Buddhist, Hebrew, Taoist, Indian and
Islamic. It is associated with mysticism, and it is a perspective that balances the
two dualistic polarities of Atheism and Belief.

The philosopher and psychoanalyst Jon Mills argues a common psychoanalytical
perspective in his book Inventing God: Psychology of Belief and the Rise of
Secular Spirituality (2017). He states that God does not exist and, even more so,
that God cannot exist as anything but an idea. Instead, God is a psychological
creation. Mills argues that the idea or conception of God is a persuasive idea due
to human frailties and fantasies. After exploring the lack of empirical evidence
and the logical impossibility of God, Mills concludes that belief in God is rooted
in the failure to accept our impending death and the failure to mourn natural
absence. As an alternative to theistic faith, he offers a secular spirituality that
emphasizes the quality of lived experience, the primacy of feeling and value
inquiry, ethical self-consciousness, aesthetic and ecological sensibility, and
authentic relationality toward self, the other, and the world. In the Age of Science,
he advocates for a new worldview that gives individuals meaning and unites us as
a species. This atheistic view purported by Mills, contrary to the theistic
cataphatic doctrine, is humanistic but stops short of endorsing an apophatic
doctrine and its accompanying deeper understanding of existence as transcendent
and a mystery.
Apophatic theology, or negative theology, played an important role in the early
history of Christianity. Numerous early Christian writers held a negative theology.
Even the New Testament does not contain a systematic doctrine of God (Greek
theos or kyrios = “Lord‘). There is neither a use of the word “trinity” nor a
sustained deification of Jesus of Nazareth. From the early second century CE, the
incomprehensibility of God was widely affirmed. The Preaching of Peter
(Kerygma Petrou, 110 CE) contains one of the earliest explicit Christian
references to God being incomprehensible—”the Incomprehensible who
comprehends all things” (Hennecke II:99; cf. E. Rel. 6:19). Many early and later
Christian and non-Christian gnostic groups also viewed the Ultimate Godhead as
One Unknown/Unknowable.
As a symbol of God’s incomprehensibility, the traditional image of Moses
ascending Mount Sinai to God, surrounded in darkness, was taken by both St.
Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite to speak about the divine
darkness. The example is given of Moses encountering an obscure God while the
Israelites remained at the foot of the mountain, within the confines of a cataphatic
knowledge and expression of God. Also, one can say that only when Moses
entered the darkness, having separated himself from all things, could he encounter
the God that is outside of everything; that is there where nothing is. (X) is beyond
the influence of time, shape, and relativity. In conceptualizing God, religious
devotees often rely upon cataphatic concepts since they are easier and more
accessible to the dualistic conceptualizing mind. But due to the limits of cataphatic
knowledge, there are many different, even conflicting, interpretations and
The early gnostic theologia negativa was “an anticipation of the
speculations of the Church Fathers, especially of the mystics among them”
(Quispel 1955:57). In fact, Saint Augustine of Hippo defined God as “aliud, aliud
valde,” meaning “other, completely other.” In Confessions (7.10.16), he wrote, “Si
[enim] comprehendis, non est Deus,” meaning “if you understand [something], it
is not God.” A fabled legend tells that while walking along the Mediterranean
shoreline meditating on the mystery of the Trinity, St. Augustine came upon a little
child who, with a seashell or a small spoon, was trying to scoop all the water from
the sea and pour it into a little hole in the sand. St. Augustine told him that it was
impossible to enclose the immensity of the sea in such a small opening, and the
child replied that it was equally impossible to try to understand the infinity of God
within the limited confines of the human mind. St. Augustine turned away in
amazement and when he looked back, the child had disappeared (Sermon 117.3.5,
PL 38, 663).
The fourteenth-century German mystic and Roman Catholic priest John
Tauler described God as “the divine darkness, the nameless, formless nothing.”
Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 CE) was perhaps the most important second-century
apologist. He stated that (X) is “nameless” and “unbegotten” and added, “The
name Christ. an unknown significance, just as the title ‘God‘ is not a name, but
represents the idea, innate in human nature, of an inexpressible reality” (Apologia
II.5, cited in Bettenson 1969:63). In the late 170s CE, in his Presbeia
(Supplication), Athenagoras of Athens refers to “the One God as
incomprehensible” (Suppl. 10.1, cited in Prestige 1952:3). Irenaeus, the bishop of
Lyons (c. 115 – 190 CE), spoke of Christ the Logos as the Mediator of Revelation:
“The Son (Jesus) safeguarded the invisibility of the Father (God) for the invisible,
incomprehensible God in his true nature and immensity cannot be discovered or
described by his creatures” (Adv. Haer. IV.20.6, cited in Bettenson 1969:74). In
Tertullian’s (160 – 220 CE) early Apologeticum (c. 197 CE) he refers to God as
“…invisible, though he is seen, incomprehensible, though manifested by grace”
(Apol. 17, cited in Bettenson 1969:103).
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 CE) thought that God was a
transcendent deity that human thoughts could never match. He understood Moses
as a Gnostic (gnostikos) since he did not attempt to encompass the transcendent
God who “cannot be encompassed”; not setting up any representative statue of
Him in the sanctuary (the Holy Place/Holy of Holies, at the center of the
Tabernacle or Jerusalem Temple), “thus making it clear that God is a mystery,
invisible and illimitable” (Strom V 11:74.4, cited in Daniélou 1973:326).
While the complete list of examples available is too extensive for the
purposes of this chapter, I will mention a few more. Origen of Alexandria (185 –
254 CE), also known as Origen Adamantius, was one of the earliest and most
important Christian scholars. In his De Principiis (On First Principles), Origen
asserts that without doubt, God is “incomprehensible and immeasurable, beyond
the grasp of the human mind” (Origen, De Principiis I.1.5); “Human minds cannot
behold God as He is in Himself” (ibid IV.4.8; I.1.5f.; see Louth 1989:87). God in
Himself is beyond the God illustrated through cataphatic theology. God is more
adequately known through apophatic theology, the paradoxical mystical theology
of denial or unknowing. Pseudo-Dionysius states,
He is celebrated by all beings according to the analogy that all things bear
to him as their Cause. But the most divine knowledge of God, that in which
he is known through unknowing, according to the union that transcends the
mind, happens when the mind, turning away from all things, including itself,
is united with the dazzling rays, and there and then illuminated in the
unsearchable depth of wisdom.
(DN VII.3: 872A-B)
In his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274 CE)
discussed whether God is the object of the science of theology. He noted the point
that theology does “not start by making the assumption of defining God; as St
John Damascene remarks, In God we cannot say what he is” (Ia.7; Aquinas
1964:25). In various of his works, Aquinas echoes the basic ideas expressed here:
What God actually is always remains hidden from us. And this is the highest
knowledge one can have of God in this life, that we know Him to be above
every thought that we are able to think of Him.”
(De Veritate, cited in Happold 1971:31)
In the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “incomprehensibilitas” is explicitly
declared to be a property of God.
The philosopher-monk, whose real identity is unknown, seems to have been
the first Christian thinker to have made use of the theological terms ”apophatic“
(negative [theology]) and “cataphatic“ (affirmative [theology]). For example, he
said, “Entering the darkness that surpasses understanding, we shall find ourselves
brought, not just to brevity of speech, but to perfect silence and unknowing.” The
Dionysian corpus had a major influence on a range of key Christian thinkers and
mystics, most of whom made significant theological statements about the
incomprehensibility of God. The Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena (c. 815 –
877 CE) translated the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius into Latin and gave a central
place to apophatic theology. He mediated apophatic theology to the theologians
of the Latin Middle Ages. The doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God became
frequently voiced in the Middle Ages by the Christian Scholastics and by notable
Reformist theologians. In modern philosophy, twentieth-century Austrian-British
philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s statement, “Whereof one cannot speak,
thereof one must be silent,” is attributed to having a similar apophatic meaning as
the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius.
The unknown English author of the mystical treaties The Cloud of
Unknowing (fourteenth century CE), possibly a Carthusian, gave preeminence to
spiritual love in the quest for experience of the unknowable Godhead Beyond
Reason. The author was much influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius, whom the author
quotes directly in chapter seventy: “The most Godlike knowledge of God is that
which is known by unknowing.” Pseudo-Dionysius is used as a source and an
authority for the ideas that The Cloud proposes. The author asserts that we can
know more about what God is not than about what God is. This theology is cited
as, “The truly divine knowledge of God is that which is known in unknowing”
(LXX, or Septuagint—the earliest extant Greek translation of the Old Testament
from the original Hebrew). Here the mystic quest is beyond both intellectual study
and the imaginative faculty. Mystical union with God is only possible in terms of
the darkness of “unknowing”(agnasia).
At the end of the Patristic period, John of Damascus (c. 675/676 – 749)
taught that positive statements about God do not reveal His nature. Nothing can
be said about Him beyond what has been indicated in revelation. In his On the
Orthodox Faith (vol. 4), he states that the existence of God is clear, though His
nature is incomprehensible: “what He is by His essence and nature, this is
altogether beyond our comprehension and knowledge” (p. 94, cited in Ware
Similar to other apophatic theologies, Professor Matushka Cincy Mariyamma
Thomas’ insightful article “The Indian Apophatic Theology: The Nirguna
Theology” (2018) explains that Hindu theologians from the Vedanta group are
uncomfortable with positively expressed statements about God. In the Indian
philosophical tradition, one of the best-known phrases regarding the Ultimate
Reality (known in Hinduism as Brahman) found in the Upanishads (late Vedic
Sanskrit texts) is the expression “neti, neti,” which translates as “not this, not
that.” The expression is meant to communicate that one cannot speak of
Brahman/God directly and any positive statement is met with the refrain neti, neti.
This concept is later ascribed to the Advaita (non-dualistic) philosopher Sankara.
The description of God, without any reference to the worldly or limiting human
intellect, is called by the Indian Vedic scholar and teacher Sankara as
Parabrahman. This higher or transcendental point of view (paramarthika-dristi)
cannot be described at all and, therefore, is called nirguna (“attributeless”).
Clear examples of this can be found throughout the philosophical and
theological writings of both Sankara and the Indian Hindu philosopher, guru and
social reformer Ramanuja (c. 1017 – 1137 CE). Both these writers, who are widely
regarded as the greatest theologians of the Upanishads, known in the Indian
tradition as Vedantists (end of the Vedas), speak apophatically about God. With
the neti, neti concept, when discussing the names of God, one concludes that none
of them can give a complete idea of who (X) is. This means nirguna in all respects
because “the being” Sat (used to refer to the “Absolute Truth”—a more abstract
concept for (X) or God) is beyond all polarity and cannot be characterized using
standard measures.
Apophatically, to speak of the attributes of God is to discover that their sum
is not God. God transcends any name. Ultimately, one concludes that nothing can
be said about God affirmatively: all discussion about (X) remains incomplete,
partial, and limited to each human intellect. Finally, one realizes that one cannot
say what God is but rather what He is not. Thus, God as nirguna is precisely what
is explained in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, which defines Brahman as neti,
neti. It corresponds to the western via negativa of apophatic theology. As found
in the Kena Upanishads,
He who thinks that God is not comprehended, by him God is comprehended;
but he who thinks that God is comprehended knows him not, god is unknown
to those who know him and is known to those who do not know him at all.
When it comes to (X), the way of negation, nirguna or the neti, neti concept,
corresponds to the spiritual ascent into the divine abyss where there is the silence
of words, where reason fades, and all human knowledge and comprehension
cease. It is not by speculative knowledge but in the depths of prayerful silence or
meditation that one can encounter God, who is “beyond everything” and is
revealed as incomprehensible, inaccessible, invisible. In an apophatic theological
approach, one defers one’s mortal and rational logic before the Holy Mystery.
Revelation is never exact and precise; only approximate and general. Revelation
does not make statements of facts; it only points to mysteries. According to some
atavistic thinkers, it is even blasphemous to speak of God being moved with
compassion or arising to judge, as all of this implies the modification of (X)’s
In Jewish mysticism, there are also frequent apophatic references to God as NoThing and to the idea that God cannot exist in the sense that humans normally
mean existence, and whatever one says God is, It is not. Within the Jewish
tradition, the Kabbalists introduced a distinction between the hidden and revealed
aspects of God. The hidden, infinite aspect of God is called “the Infinite” or Ein
Sof—“without end.” The term “Ein Sof” conveys that God is unlike anything we
know and cannot be the proper object of prayers. It asserts that God exists without
implying anything about Its character. According to the Kabbalists, God should
be called It rather than He. With the sublimity and transcendence of God, no name
at all can be applied to “the Infinite.”
While the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God is usually not central
to mainstream Judaism, key Medieval and other Jewish thinkers subscribed to an
apophatic theology. The belief that the nature or essence of God is unfathomable
came to be important in Jewish religious thought. Isaiah said, “Indeed, no likeness
can be made of the invisible God of Israel who created the heavens and the earth“
(Exodus 20:4). During the Second Temple Period (sixth century BCE – first
century CE), reverence for the transcendent God was greatly underlined. Biblical
anthropomorphisms were often avoided or reinterpreted. Both the writing and the
uttering of His personal divine name YHWH (Yahweh), came to be strictly
outlawed—it was indirectly pronounced (vowelled) as Adonai (Lord). The
Qumran Jewish faction, which preserved the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls” at some
stage observed a Community Rule (Serek ha-yaḥad, 1QS.; c. 100 BCE) in which
the following guideline is contained:
If any man has uttered the [Most] Venerable Name even though frivolously,
or as a result of shock or for any other reason whatever, while reading the
Book or praying, he shall be dismissed and shall return to the Council of
the Community no more.”
(trans. Vermes 70)
Medieval Jewish philosophers generally held to a negative theology. They
held the belief that God transcends all human knowledge and experience. In
discussing the significance of the Unity of God in The Book of Direction to the
Duties of the Heart, Baya ibn Pakudah (c. 1050 – c. 1156 CE) propounds a
negative theology. Human beings should disallow all human and finite limitations
from God and hold that He is unknowable or beyond human comprehension: The
essence of your knowledge of Him, O my brother, is your firm admission that you
are completely ignorant of His true essence (Ibn Pakuda 1973:143, cf. Jacobs
In the Guide for the Perplexed, the Spanish-Jewish philosopher
Maimonides (Moseh ben Maimon, c. 1135 – 1204) extensively discusses aspects
of a negative theology of the nature or essence of God:
In the contemplation of His essence, our comprehension and knowledge
prove insufficient; in the examination of His works, how they necessarily
result from His will, our knowledge proved to be ignorance, and in the
endeavour to extol Him in words, all our efforts in speech are mere
weakness and failure.”
(Guide LVIII, Maimonides 1956:83)
The Jewish Kabbalistic tradition upholds an esoteric theology in which the
Ultimate Godhead is the unknowable and incomprehensible Ein Sof (without
limit). The Infinite without Name and beyond Attribute is one with, though
beyond, the emanated ten Sefirot (spheres which are an emanation or force), which
are His instruments in the seen and unseen cosmos. Writing about God in the
Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem has said,
From the sayings of some early kabbalists, it is apparent that they are
careful not even to ascribe personality to God. Since He is beyond
everything—beyond even imagination, thought, or will—nothing can be
said of him that is within the grasp of our thought.
(Scholem 1972:661)
In A Jewish Theology, Louis Jacobs states that in the history of Jewish religious
thought there is “a definite tendency among some thinkers to negate all attributes
from God. If He is to be described at all, as unknowable” (1973:38).
The Arabic word Alláh (probably a contraction of al+iláh = “the deity“) is the
Islamic proper name indicative of the Essence of God (occurring over 2,500 times
in the Qur’án). It is basically the same as several of the Biblical Hebrew (and other
Semitic) designations of God (El, Eloah, Elohim). According to Louis Gardet, a
French Roman Catholic priest and historian, the term Alláh describes God “in his
inaccessible nature as a deity both unique and one (tawád) whose essence remains
unrevealed” (ER 6:29). The Qur‘án repeatedly underlines God’s transcendence
including the divine providential immanence. It refers to God as greatly exalted
above human theological and other concepts. God is “above and beyond all
categories of human thought and imagination, for He is beyond all that they
describe of Him” (Q. 6:100b, cited in Nasr 1987:314). He is One Who “cannot be
comprehended by vision” (Q. 6:101); “Vision comprehendeth Him not, but He
comprehendeth [all] vision.” He is One Incomparable: “There is naught like unto
Him” (Q.42:11; cf. 16:60; 32:27). He is supremely “All-High, Transcendent or
Exalted” (al-alíy Q. 4:34; 22:62; 31:30). The Muslim scholar, mystic, poet, and philosopher IbnArabá (1165 – 1240
CE) underlined the unknowability and unmanifest nature of the transcendent
Divine Essence: “The Divine Essence (al-dhát al-iláhiyya) cannot be understood
by the rational faculty” (Ibn Arabi, Futuhát II:257; Chittick 1989:60). Also, he states that “The Divine Essence is transcendent above the cosmos, independent of the worlds” (Q. 3:97; ibid II:502). The Great Shaykh often cited the following prophetic tradition: “Reflect (tafakkur) upon all things but reflect not upon God’s Essence” (ibid. 62). In his book The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Al-Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination (1989), William C. Chittick sums up key aspects of IbnArabá’s
theology when he states,
God is known through the relations, attributions, and correlations that
become established between Him and the cosmos. But the Essence is
unknown, since nothing is related to It.” He goes on to explain that “In
respect of Itself the Essence has no name, since It is not the locus of effects,
nor is It known by anyone. There is no name to denote It without
relationship, nor with any assurance (tamkán), for names act to make
known and to distinguish, but this door to knowledge of the Essence is
forbidden to anyone other than God, since None knows God but God. In
our view there is no disputing the fact that the Essence is unknown. To It
are ascribed descriptions that make It incomparable with the attributes of
temporal things (al-ḥadath). It possesses eternity (al-qidam), and to Its
Being is ascribed beginninglessness (al-azal). But all these names
designate negations, such as the negation of beginning, and everything as
appropriate to temporal origination.”
(Futuḥát II:557, cited in Chittick 1989:62)
At one point in his Mishkat al-anwár (Niche of Lights), the great Muslim
theologian Abu Hámid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) writes that “none knows Allah with a
real knowledge but He Himself; for every known falls necessarily under the sway
and within the province of the Knower” (Gairdner 1952:107).
Bahá’í Apophatic Theology
Writings of the Báb—Prophet-Herald of the Bahá’í Faith—are revered by Bahá’ís
as scripture. Almost all the Báb’s works were composed during a period of seven
years, from 1843 until his execution in July 1850 at the age of thirty. With the
Bahá’í scripture, the doctrine of the Divine Oneness (tawḥíd) is
uncompromisingly upheld; there is no place for anthropomorphism,
anthropopathism, pantheism or any unio mystica with the Unknowable Godhead.
On one level Baha’-Allah understood tawḥíd (The Oneness of God) to signify the
complete transcendence of God:
Regard thou the one true God (ḥaqq) as One Who is apart from, and
immeasurably exalted above, all created things. The whole universe reflects
His glory, while He is Himself independent of, and transcendeth His
creatures. This is the true meaning of Divine Unity(tawḥíd).
By virtue of the Manifestation of God, the divine image is deep within every
individual, though the Absolute Deity always remains outside the human universe
of discourse. This is illustrated by the Báb in the following: God (ḥaqq) in His
Essence (bi-dhátihi) and in His Own Self (bi-nafsihi) hath ever been unseen,
inaccessible and unknowable” (Bahá’u’lláh, ESW:139 trans. 118), as well as
Immeasurably exalted is His Essence above the descriptions of His
creatures… The birds of men’s hearts, however high they soar, can never
hope to attain the heights of His unknowable Essence… Far be it from His
glory that human pen or tongue should hint at His mystery, or that human
heart conceive His Essence.
(Bahá’u’lláh, Tablet to Hashim; GWB XCIV:192)
In the writings of the founders of the Bábí and Bahá’í religions,
respectively, apophatic (negative) language is quite frequent. Stephen Lambden
published with Kalimat Press (1997) that the doctrine of the unknowability of the
Ultimate Godhead is foundational in Bahài theology. The incomprehensibility of
the nature of the Divine Essence (dhát; dhát al-dhát) is, in one way or another,
frequently celebrated in Bábi and Bahá’í scripture. In their writings, apophatic
(negative) language is quite frequent. No systematic Bahá’í theology could be
written without locating the Ultimate Divinity totally beyond human knowledge.
The question has been asked: Are the Buddha’s teachings a religion or a
philosophy? In fact, I understand it more as transpersonal psychology.
Nevertheless, reflecting on an apophatic perspective, it does not really matter what
they are called. The truth of the Buddha’s teachings remains what it is, regardless
of the label you put on it. The label is a categorical convenience and ultimately
unimportant. Even the label “Buddhism,” which is given to the teaching of the
Buddha is often confusing and disparate. The Buddha maintained that the
experience of awakening, which denies the existence of an innate and substantial
self, was the ultimate truth of experience and consciousness.
Within the larger scope of a typology of negativity, the teaching of
emptiness, or Sūnyatā, informs the Buddha’s teachings as an apophatic doctrine.
However, it is significant that the Buddha’s teachings not only recognize the
human cognitive inability of understanding and the totality and the validity of
emptiness but also systematically explains the path to psychologically access the
realization of the non-dual pure experience beneath cognitive illusions and
delusions of dualistic form, permanence, and substantiality.
The Buddha did not claim to be anything other than an ordinary human
being and he claimed no inspiration from any god or external power. Once one
comprehends three universal truths— impermanence/transformation, co-arising
interdependence, and an illusionary virtual reality of a self—an amazingly
complex, dynamic and interrelated world appears to us. According to the Buddha,
a human’s transcendence depends on their own realization of truth and not on the
benevolent grace of a god or any external power as a reward for obedient, “good”
behavior. The Buddha never taught kamma or karma (or the result of one’s
actions) as a universal, “God”-created moral principle: “Intention I tell you, is
kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect”
(Anguttara Nikaya 6.62). Instead, the root of all evil is ignorance (avijja) and false
views (miccba dittbi).
For example, doubt is not a “sin” because there are no articles of faith in
Buddhism. There is no “sin“ in Buddhism, not as defined in most religions ( as an
immoral act or a transgression) while there is unwholesomeness. On the other
hand, cataphatic religions posit a polarity of morality based on God’s will (Sin
and Good) that rewards (Heaven) and punishes (Hell) a person’s actions. A
Buddhist perspective is that Heaven and Hell are not places to which one is
consigned after physical death but attitudes of mind which can be experienced
here and now. In Buddhist doctrine, metaphorically, the thirty-one levels of
Heaven and Hell represent the levels of mental states that are found in the
consciousness of the meditator, just as the demon Mara or the Devil are metaphors
for all negative states of mind or, more generally, for ignorance. The following
story illustrates this Buddhist view of heaven and hell:
A monk was once preaching about Heaven and Hell. Someone from
the audience who did not believe in heaven and hell challenged the
monk, and, in an incensed voice, shouted that the monk was
misleading innocent people by talking about non-existent places. The
speaker’s face was red with anger. Seeing his angry mood, the monk
said: Do you know that you are now in Hell? The man understood at
once what the monk meant about the concept of hell. Then with a
smiling face, the man asked: All right. Now tell me, where is Heaven?
The monk calmly replied: Now you are in Heaven.
This simple story gives us an idea of how each person is their own
creator of Heaven and Hell. The descriptive planes of Heaven and Hell, then,
are metaphors for our possible states of mind—just as the story of Mara’s
challenges represents the Buddha’s psychological struggles just before
enlightenment. The Buddha is quoted as teaching the following: “If with a
pure mind a person speaks or acts, happiness follows them like a neverdeparting shadow.“ Regarding these speculative and metaphysical cataphatic
ideas about Heaven and Hell, the Buddha would surely have encouraged us
to let go of these questions and to focus instead on purifying our minds and
achieving sublime emptiness and liberation.
Psychotherapist, Zen author and teacher Karlfried Durckheim wrote
in his book Hara, The Vital Center of Man (2004),
As the Zen Buddhist masters expressed it, To become awakened or
enlightened means to regain the oneness with the original reality.
…This is the immanent inner consciousness. By becoming aware of
the Source—not just ‘knowing about’ it—man becomes effectively
aware of the estrangement into which his outer consciousness has led
him, and only then will he be ready to approach and draw again from
the well-springs of life.
The apophatic perspective is that through a commitment based solely
on human endeavor and human intelligence, there is a possibility to achieve
mental purity and the bliss of awakening to non-dualist consciousness.
For Taoism, the Tao or Dao is the creator, the preserver, and the transformer of all
existence. The universe is a vast and complex system, of which we are just a
microscopic part. Lao-Tzu (500 BCE), also known as Laozi or Lao-Tze, was a
Chinese philosopher credited with founding the philosophical system of Taoism.
These works primarily describe an emptiness-based form of meditation that leads
to transformative experiences that have a foundational dimension of being
contentless, nonconceptual, and non-dualist. In the Tao Te Ching, there is this
The Formless
Way: We look at
it, and do not see
it; it is invisible.
We listen to it,
and do not hear
it; it is inaudible.
We touch it, and
do not feel it; it is
These three elude
our inquiries, and
hence merge into
The Taoist texts advocate a form of inward training or inner cultivation in which
practitioners enter a state of stillness, a state of one’s innate nature, as the Dao
manifesting in one’s being. Lao Tsu wrote in chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching: “The
unity is said to be the mystery. Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.’


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