Peter's Blog

Via Positiva vs Via Negativa

Written by Peter Johnston on .


One of the delights for me about being on holiday has always been the space to read. Over the last few weeks in Blantyre I had managed to read only 40 pages or so of Adrian Plass's book Jesus: Safe, Tender, Extreme. It took just two days here in Cornwall to finish the book!

It was an enjoyable read, not quite autobiographical but with plenty of stories that Plass draws on from his own experience to enliven the three themes of the title. There was much to stimulate the mind, many questions were raised, some were not wholly answered, and Plass shared some of the ways in which the complexities of faith for a perennial doubter worked themselves out over the years. As ever with Plass, the humour and self-effacing personality come across through this book as it does in his others and in his speaking. Many years ago, one of his earlier books had me in stitches, laughing out loud on a tube station in central London at rush hour - what my fellow commuters thought, I dare not imagine!

Reading Plass's book brought to mind something that I, as a minister, have been thinking about on and off over the last few years. I've been wondering about approaches that we take to the gospel, and reading Plass's experiences of the damage done to people who have experienced a negative approach to the gospel dredged up two terms from my studies: the Via Positiva (the Positive Way) and the Via Negativa (the Negative Way).

These two terms describe two different ways by which we can come to an understanding of God.

The Via Positiva or Cataphatic Way, as it is also known, describes God through positive statements. It assumes we can know and understand God by, for example, studying creation and revelation, through prayer and reflection, and through religious experience. Statements we might make about God using the Via Positiva would be: God is love, God is good, God is just, God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so on.

This is generally what we find the New Testament writers doing and also people like St Francis of Assissi (remember his love for nature and seeing God in nature).

The Via Negativa, or Apophatic Way, is rather different. It assumes that our human language and understanding are incapable of describing the qualities of God (which most people would agree about, when push comes to shove, even those who use the Via Positiva) and thus we are left with statements that describe what God is not (the negative way). So we might say: God is neither light nor darkness, God is neither knowable or unknowable, God is neither present or not present, and so on. It is all rather mystic, I am sure you agree! This is intentionally so, as the point of this way of thinking is to remove ourselves from the language we are so used to using about God so that we can explore what one mystic described as the "Great Cloud of Unknowing". This is stepping into the unknown, removing the parachutes of our comfortable theological terms about God and diving out of the side of the plane, to explore the cloud of unknowing.

Exponents of the Via Negativa say this is to move from the more literal and concrete descriptions of God used in the Via Positiva to a deeper and better understanding of God, freed from the abstractions of our own language and thought. There is a lot to be said for it, and there is an irony in it too for me when I think about what initially sprung to mind when I was reading Plass's book.

As I read his descriptions of people he has known and how what I had in mind as a negative understanding of God had affected their faith, I brought to mind, of course, people I have also known who have been left damaged personally and spiritually by their understanding of God in negative terms. Here I was not at all thinking about the Via Negativa but rather about the view of God as a cold rule-bearer – the view of God as the one giving commands usually that begin “Do not…” God is the one who limits life, who tells us what we cannot do, the dour voice of repression. In the face of these rules our failure is inevitable – foundational to Calvin’s theology, of course.

The problem with this, as I have seen it, is that it affects people in very different ways. For some of us, who have a more positive outlook on life, it is a challenge to confront in our lives and we can deal with it in those terms, albeit perhaps not taking the rules as seriously as others might think we should! Or it leads to such a duality in life (with double standards reigning) that is surely not conducive to full life as promised by Jesus.

However, for those of us who have a more negative approach to life this view of God, while undoubtedly fitting well with a negative view of life, can have a devastating affect that may lead to spiralling despair.

It is notable that when Jesus was asked about all the law he summarised it in those two famous commandments, carefully picked from the Old Testament Scriptures, that do not leave us wallowing in negativity, but rather give us a positive direction: Love the Lord your God… and love others… This is something we do, with varying success, and the direction gives us space to do it a little and then as we grow in faith to do it more and more. A “do not” command gives no such space for grace and growth, you are either perfect or a sinner, no middle ground.

Here is my dilemma as a minister. Which message is more effective in exploring the gospel? As those who know me will know, I try to stick to a more positive message, but sometimes in the odd comment here or there after a service I get the impression that folks want a bit of the old fire and brimstone negativity – we’re all doomed, Mr Mannering…

But I just can’t do it, it seems to go against everything I know and experience of the gospel of our Lord.

Perhaps we all just need more time in the cloud of unknowing… to explore God using the Via Negativa which means avoiding all the language we have previously used about God (whether negative or positive) and to find God ourselves.  

Enough rambling for now (see what a holiday does to me!!)…

Having finished Plass’s book I have embarked on a mighty tome by Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, in which he explores the rise of secularism and its effects on faith and religion. It is hard work so far, but there are definite points of connection between today’s blog ramblings and Taylor’s thesis. More on that another time… I think this book will take a little more than two days to finish!