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Apophatic theology

Apophatic theology is a system of theology that attempts to gain and express knowledge of God by describing what God is not, rather than by describing what God is. It recognizes that because God by definition is utterly beyond this universe and outside the bounds of what humans can experience with their senses, other tools and categories are needed. Rather than producing straightforward, positive assertions about the nature of God, it speaks by way of negation. Making positive statements about the nature of God is sometimes called 'cataphatic theology'.

Apophatic theology played an important role early in the history of Christianity. Three theologians who emphasized the importance of negative theology to an orthodox undertanding of God, were Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great. John of Damascus also employed it when he wrote that positive statements about God reveal ‘not the nature, but the things around the nature.' It continues to be particularly prominent in Eastern Christianity (see Gregory Palamas), and is used to balance cataphatic theology. Apophatic statements are crucial to all orthodox Christian theology. God is described negatively as not a creation (uncreated), not definable in terms of space (infinite), invisible, beyond the reach of understanding (incomprehensible), whose being is not conceptually confinable to assumptions based on time (eternal), etc. In other words, God's essence cannot be spoken of (ineffable), and can only be compared to what it is not (incomparable). In sum, Christianity teaches by apophatic theology that, it is not necessary or even possible to know the essence of God; knowledge of God is true knowledge, when it is limited to what is revealed, and does not presume to venture beyond this.

In contrast, some traditions in Christianity make prolific use of a concept called analogia entis (Analogy of being[?]). By use of the analogy of being, known things and ideas are conceptually compared or projected toward a limiting concept[?] which comprehends all possible, derivative or lesser versions of that ultimate idea. By finding relevant similarity and irrelevant dissimilarity, something of the being of God can be known. Apophatic theology is critical of this approach, presupposing that it is doomed to result in false, idolatrous conclusions, when applied to the discovery of the being of God.

Apophatic theology is also prominent in the Upanishads of Hinduism, when Hindu Vedantic theologians speak of the nature of Brahman.



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