The Relevance of Mysticism’s Via Negativa for Today’s World II By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA

After reading The Cloud of Unknowing, my friend Tom said to me, “Whatever you think God is, God is not.” 

This same friend also told me many times prior to this declaration that to gain this same God’s favor, I needed to submit to the male church leaders of my church and to my husband. And that my purpose in life was to support the men on their life’s journey. And that if my desires and thoughts ran counter to these men, well, mine were wrong and I needed to change. And that I needed to be nicer. Blah, blah, blah.

So, when Tom made this pronouncement, I chose to ignore him.

Later, though, I fell into the via negativa, or apophatic theology, through John of the Cross’ teachings on the dark night of the soul. 

Apophatic and Cataphatic Theology 

Simply put, apophatic theology involves defining or knowing the Divine through negative statements. Cataphatic theology is a cascade, a gushing forth of words that refers to or defines what the Divine is believed to be—positive statements. Both are necessary.

Apophaticism, or via negativa, says we cannot know Divinity’s essential nature (ousia), Its ESSENCE. But we can form an idea about the Divine through Its activities (energeias) in the world. A vein of via negativa runs through all major religions (1).

As an example: To say the Divine is Love, immediately brings up our human understanding and experience of love. We anthropomorphize the Divine—we attribute human characteristics or behavior to the Divine. 

In other words, we create God in our own image—sacred scriptures call that blasphemy.

The apophatic spiritual discipline then negates that cataphatic, or positive attribute: “The Divine is Love. But the Divine is NOT Love. God IS and IS NOT Love.” Because we can’t know what the Divine is NOT, we also cannot declare Its negation to be absolute. It serves as a reminder to walk with humility.  

Religious literalists reject and condemn any negation that clashes with ritualistic and time-honored theology and doctrines.  

Another example, taken from Christendom: God is a Mother Bear (Hosea 13:8). That’s an easy one for Christians to negate. But God as Father (Matthew 6:9)? No negating that. God. Is. A. Father.

Apophaticism fosters humility, compassion, and dialogue with all our species—including the natural environment

It’s a starting point, a jumping off place, to talk to people about the Divine, especially to those who claim to know explicitly what God is—claims which you may find insulting. It’s a way to open up the lines of communication. Some religious institutions don’t allow for the mysteries and the mysticism of spirituality. The congregants are kept as children, with an exactitude of God—and often this God with its accompanying worldview aren’t fitting anymore.

Gordon Kaufman (2) says religions are prone to blind spots. He names two within the world’s monotheistic religions (pages 76-78).

The first is related to how we’ve attributed human characteristics to the Divine, in particular, images and metaphors peculiar to the male human existence: God is pictured as lord, king, creator, judge, and father. God is an agent, an actor. 

Human beings are defined not by their relationship to the natural world around them, but by their unique relationship to this creator—whom scriptures declare humans are made in the image of. The world revolves around a “humankind center—a manlike!—center,” and nature provides the stage setting for the drama acted out between the Divine and humans.

Kaufman’s second problem he outlines is that a hierarchical order emerges, especially when the monarchial metaphors dominate—those of king or emperor. Sometimes God is depicted as a virtual despot who rules by arbitrary fist.  This religious stance can have serious social and political consequences.

  • It can produce authoritarian personalities, with power and knowledge ordered down through the hierarchal layers of society.
  • Those who know (or believe they know) what God wills have “inside information” on the ultimate arrangement of the universe and, therefore, feel authorized to carry out whatever action is necessary to accomplish this.
  • To “serve God” is to impose this order on whatever appears disobedient or rebellious. Humans take themselves to be agents of God on earth and work hard to impose their ideas of right and good on others who disagree.
  • They work hard to “subdue” the earth, which can easily lead to the unthinking exploitation of the earth’s natural resources—the natural environment in which we all live and depend upon for our existence.

Silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation. Rumi

In my world with its instant and constant flow of words—words around me and in my head—I find much comfort when I sink into those words spoken by Rumi, a 13th century Sufi and Persian poet. They quiet my mind, my body, and my emotions. 

But others need Catherine of Siena: “You [God] are a fire that takes away the coldness, illuminates the mind with its light, and causes me to know your truth and I know that you are beauty and wisdom itself.”

Both are necessary. Neither are absolutes. Be gentle with yourself and others as we walk together on the journey life has given us. Sit mindfully with its conundrums (6). 

Quoting Rumi again, and in this context, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there” (from “A Great Wagon”).

Notes & Sources: 

  1. While Wikipedia is not a reliable and scholarly source, it can be a good jumping point for further research:
  2. Kaufman, Gordon D. In Face of Mystery, A Constructive Theology. Harvard University Press, 2006.
  3. Anonymous. The Cloud of Unknowing. Late fourteenth century. 
  4. Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. Random House, New York, 2009.
  5. Turner, Denys. The Darkness of God. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  6. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, says, mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”


About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working, and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her spiritual connection at People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, where she focused on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels. In addition to working in refugee repatriation, she was an editor for international, English print, daily newspapers in Indonesia and Mexico.