What can we really know about God? And of that which we can know, how can we possibly describe Him within the confines of human language without misrepresenting Him?
This was the struggle for the rabbi Moses Maimonides (AD1135-1204) and other proponents of what has come to be known as apophatic, the via negativa, or “negative theology.” The idea behind the via negativa is to avoid using positive expressions to describe God. The reason? Because any attempt to describe who God is fails on account of the limits of the human mind.
-Instead of saying, “God is good,” perhaps it is better to say, “God is not evil and does no evil.” To limit God’s goodness to any particular human understanding of the word “good” would certainly be inadequate.
-Instead of saying, “God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere,” perhaps it is better to say, “God is not ignorant of any thing, not powerless in any way, and not absent from any where.” This type of language allows God infinite attributes with regard to his knowledge, power, and presence – without limiting them to the human understanding of time and space, or lack thereof.
Some Christian apologists, or those who seek to provide answers and arguments for the Christian faith, have found negative theology useful in postmodern contexts. Postmodernists love this type of thinking. Trying to define the word “postmodern” is often like trying to hit a moving target that has perfected shape-shifting and has a chameleon-like ability to adapt. In fact, postmodern thinkers like it that way. Being put in a box is the definition of modernism and the antithesis of postmodernism. Therefore, postmodernism is often defined by what it is not as opposed to what it is.
Descriptions of God that are couched in negative expressions are therefore often more acceptable to many postmodern thinkers. Like Moses Maimonides, many use this type of language to describe God’s nature but not his attributes. In other words, it is acceptable to describe the ways in which God works using positive expressions, but not who God is.
In my estimation, this type of argumentation is useful in a limited sense. I find it more than acceptable to use positive expressions to describe God’s attributes AND God’s nature just as Scripture does. I can’t imagine worshiping God with songs and Scriptures that are only phrased negatively. The via negativa has its merits in certain contexts, but it is certainly not the only via.
From a Judeo-Christian standpoint, one would be remiss to not point out Moses Maimonides’ greatest weakness – his study of Scripture, theology, and philosophy never led him to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
Moses Maimonides was not the first to use apophatic arguments. In fact, the origins of this type of language are found in Greek philosophy. Moses, who was an ardent student of Aristotle, found such language extremely useful for describing YHWH. Many early church leaders, such as Tertullian and Cyril of Jerusalem, also used this type of language to describe God and His work through Jesus.
From Moses Maimonides
This selection comes from Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. Don’t you love that title! Here Moses Maimonides gives an excellent description of negative theology using the example of how one describes space and the cosmos. Interestingly, one can discern some medieval scientific understanding from this selection as well.
Those of you who are reading this work already know that, despite the greatest efforts of our minds, we can obtain no knowledge of the essence of the cosmos — a revolving substance we have tried to measure spans and cubits, and we have examined with respect to the many spheres, their motions, and their relationships to one another. Although we are confident they must exist in matter and form, their matter is certainly not the same as that which exists under our sun and moon. Therefore we can only describe the cosmos by using negative expressions regarding its properties, not in terms which express it positive aspects. So we say that the cosmos are not light, not heavy, not able to be influenced and therefore not impressionable. The cosmos do not possess the sensations of taste and smell; or we use similar negative descriptions. We describe the cosmos in this way because we do not know their substance.
What then, can we expect from our efforts when we try to obtain any knowledge of a Being that is free from all substance, whose existence is the simplest and most absolute, and not the result of any cause, whose essence is perfect and to it nothing can be added, and whose perfection consists in the absence of any defects. All we can truly understand is the fact that He does exist, that He is a Being to whom nothing else in all of His creation is even similar, who has nothing in common with them, who includes no plurality, and who is never too tired to create other beings. His relationship to the universe is that of a steersman to a boat, and this is only a simile and not a real relationship. Such an example serves only to convey to us the idea that God rules the universe, that He created time and gives it duration, and He preserves the necessary arrangement of it as He has set forth.
I will present this subject more fully. May He be praised! In our contemplation of His essence, our understanding and knowledge are always proven insufficient. As we examine His works and how they result by necessity from his will, any knowledge we have proves to be in fact ignorance. In our endeavor to praise Him with our words, all of our efforts in speech are only weakness and failure.
-From the Guide for the Perplexed, 1.58, my modernized translation based on that of Friedländer
MORE ABOUT RABBI MOSES MAIMONIDES
Moses Maimonides, also known as Moses ben Maimon was born on March 30, 1135, in the Spanish city of Cordova. While much of his childhood is without record, Moses was clearly raised in an observant Jewish household where he learned much about the faith from his father Maimon. From a young age Moses displayed significant academic prowess and was proficient in literature, philosophy, and mathematics. Cordova, along with the rest of Spain, was embroiled in wars between Christians and Moslems and thus much of his education probably came under some duress. Arabic was his primary language and that in which he wrote. Moses wrote most of his works based on the rabbinical texts of Judaism such as the Mishnah, Gemara, and targums as opposed to writing commentaries on the Old Testament.
Because of the constant tension between Moslems and Jews around the Mediterranean, Moses aimed most of his writing towards a reclamation of Jewish faith and communal life at a time when many Jews faced exile or even death for not converting to Islam. Many Jews committed apostasy, which is a fancy term for renouncing one’s faith, or in the cases of many Jews of Moses Maimonides’ era, to acknowledge the supercedence of another faith over yours.
Some historians have accused Moses Maimonides family of committing apostasy by leaving their religious posts in Spain. It is more likely, however, that Moses’ father and the family submitted to a forced exile from Spain because as a part of their refusal to compromise. After a period of wandering and traveling to and through Africa, the Moses and his family landed in Egypt, which had become a safe haven for many who practiced communal Judaism.
While in Egypt, Moses and his brother David helped to provide for the family. David was allegedly a trader of precious stones and Moses practiced medicine while continuing his studies. Both David and Maimon, Moses’ father, died in Egypt. Moses emerged as one of the most important Jewish voices and authors in Egypt and he wrote several treatises and letters to propagate the Jewish faith around the Mediterranean and to encourage his brothers who were struggling in the midst of persecution. His duties as a physician increased, and he found himself obligated to the king of Egypt. He describes his duties in a letter:
My duties to the king are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning; and when he or any of his children or the inmates of his harem are indisposed, I dare not quit Cairo, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one or two of the royal officers fall sick, and then I have to attend them. As a rule, I go to Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens I do not return before the afternoon, when I am almost dying with hunger; but I find the antechambers filled with Jews and Gentiles, with nobles and common people, awaiting my return.
Finally, around 1190, Moses finished his magnum opus that we call the Guide for the Perplexed. He was nearly 60 years old at this point. The Guide was originally written in Arabic and transliterated with Hebrew characters. One will be hard pressed to find a more detailed and intellectual commentary on theology, existence, and philosophy from a Jewish perspective. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “Almost every philosophic work for the remainder of the Middle Ages cited, commented on, or criticized Maimonides’ views.”
The entire text can be found here in a reliable English translation: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/maimonides/guide.toc.html
Moses Maimonides died in 1204, just before his 70th year. His death was the result of a health condition with which he had been afflicted for many years. In several of his letters he complained of pains and debilitations associated with his illness. His life has been held in great esteem among Jews and non-Jews alike. According to Friedländer, “The general regard in which Maimonides was held, both by his contemporaries and by succeeding generations, has been expressed in the popular saying: ‘From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses.’”