Negative theology, as I understand it, is mostly an issue of semantics. Sometimes referred to as the “via negativa”, or "apophatic theology", it exists both as a companion to, and critique of affirmative theology, which attempts to describe the nature of “God”. In most monotheistic theologies this positive method proclaims the deity as an omniscient, omnipotent entity, good, just and loving. It is common to hear “God is love”, “God is eternal”, “God is everything.” But since it is also assumed as a given that “God” transcends all human experience, one therefore must come to the understanding that these declarations are undermined by the limitations of language, the limitations of thought, to describe that which cannot be experienced.
Human concepts are derived from human experience (although one could also say that we cannot experience that which we are incapable of conceptualizing).
Negative theology is basically one very simple idea. One cannot say anything about what God is. One can only say what God isn’t. We can say that God is not “finite”. We can say that God is not “good”, meaning by this not that God is “bad”, but simply that God is not “good”. The important thing here is that all these things that God is not are in quotations. To say that God is not good, and not finite (minus the quotations), sets up a paradox, a contradiction inherent in the definition of “God as Everything”. If God is everything, then It must be finite as well as infinite, evil as well as good, mustn’t It? If we say that God is not "everything" we're doing slightly better, but we're getting dangerously close to imposing limitations on the deity. We enter into an ontological semantic chaos, a confusion which brings us to the end of Negative Theology Part One.
Negative Theology Part Two.
And so one may conclude that maybe it is better not to say anything at all regarding “God”, beyond that which can be directly experienced, and keeping in mind all the while that these experiences will always be subjective. Any assumption, any association, all adjectives and nouns and verbs that come to mind when one hears the word “God”, are subject to suspicion. They must be crossed out, and denied, because they are pathetically insufficient, inherently unworthy. All names must be un-named. In the silence that remains we have our negative theology.
“Silence” is the absence of noise. You can’t have the former without the latter, the existence of each of these concepts is dependent upon their binary opposition. It’s the same with invisibility and visibility, the known and the unknown, the experienced and the inexperienceable. The silence of negative theology is a loaded silence. When we say that something is invisible, we are affirming that that something Is, despite the fact that it can’t be seen. Negative theology refuses to speak of God, and in this way affirms that there is something of which it is not speaking. Negative theology is affirmative theology. It is a way of understanding through unlearning.
The aforementioned oppositions are contradictions only in the semantic realm. The words “small” and “large”, “true” and “untrue”, may be antonyms, conceptually opposite, but for a transcendent God these words are meaningless and oppositions are deconstructed. Contradiction and paradox are a deity’s birthright.
These ideas are present in many teachings. In Mahayana Buddhism, the “highest” is a void which can only be described in terms of what it is not. Among the first lines of the Tao Te Ching are “The Tao about which something can be said is not the absolute Tao. The names which can be given are not the absolute names. The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth.” The Upanishads describe Brahman (the Absolute) as “neti neti”, “not this, not that”. The ancient Egyptian God Amen’s name means “The hidden one”. Negative theology is present in Zen Buddhism and Judaism as well. It is an important strain in any religion wherein the mystical is given at least equal consideration to the logical. It is more pronounced in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church than it is in the Roman Catholic or Protestant denominations.
In Christian mystical tradition, the via negativa method is most predominant in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (aka Pseudo-Denys or Denis), John Scotus of Eriugena, and St. Thomas Aquinas. In Judaism its main presence is in the work of Moses Maimonides of Cordoba. Other names with which it is also often associated are Philo of Alexandria, Plotinus (the neo-Platonist whose concept of “the One” was a great influence on the Pseudo-Dionysius), St. Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, Jacques Derrida and Georges Perec.