Negative theology is approaching what we traditionally refer to as God and only describing It in negative terms. The idea is that God transcends human existence to such a degree that anything created by humans, language most particularly, cannot be used to define It. So for example, one could not say God is good because goodness is a term humans use to describe human events in such a way that we are capable of understanding it, and God in Its massivity would exist well beyond our capacity to understand Its characteristics to the point where ascribing “goodness” is nonsensical. The negative theologian would thus say that God is not-good. This might seem counter-intuitive and even anti-God, which leads to double-negative theology. Since broccoli is also not good, morally-speaking, and a comparison between the two is absurd, God would need to be described both as “not-good” and “not-not-good.” God could even be said to not exist under this framework, given that our human understanding of what it means to exist would be so far removed from God’s presence that the use of the word becomes too limiting. God would also certainly not-not-exist, but my amusement comes from using non-existence as a necessary divine trait.

There are three reasons that this approach appeals to me beyond the paradox of God’s non-existence describing God’s existence. Firstly, it coincides with my favourite “proof” of God. The human mind is quite finite and very likely incapable of a complete understanding of the universe, and given this reality it is again likely that there are things that exist in the realm outside of where our brains are able to comprehend. If what we refer to as God “exists”, It would exist in this realm and in turn would flummox our linguistic capabilities to the point where negative theology is the only theology that makes sense.

Second, language functions solely as social cohesion. It doesn’t point to anything. If I say the word chair, I’m not referring to a chair, I’m referring to my idea of a chair, and if your idea of a chair coincides with my own, you understand me. If I said chair, and you didn’t understand the word I was using, for instance if I used a foreign language or used the word cathedra (or something equally outlandish that might as well be a foreign language), there would be no understanding because the barrier between these social groups (non-English speakers and the pretentious against regular English speaking individuals) precludes a common linguistic grounding. We might both have the same idea of a chair, but because of that barrier we would not be able to communicate our shared idea. If my idea of a chair is four legs, a seat, and a back, and your idea of a chair is three legs, a seat, a cushion, and no back, and I ask you to help set up some chairs at a dinner party and you arrive with something that does not work for my seating arrangement, then again, understanding was not present. A barrier existed, but it was not in the language itself but in the idea. This is far more problematic since if no seating arrangement was ever necessary, then you can see how that lack of understanding might never present itself to ever be resolved.

So if language only exists within the shared understanding of a community, then as I said, it can’t point to anything real. If we are looking to describe something universal, then language is absolutely flawed in its capability to accomplish this. If I say “good”, understanding would only be possible under two conditions: we both share the same idea of the word, and I am expressing it in a language that is accessible to you. Those two requirements are only available in communal groups, so really, “God is good” is better used to describe the group that believes that God is good rather than to describe God.

Lastly, negative theology falls under the umbrella of my favourite philosophical doctrine, skepticism. If I can’t say anything about God, and you can’t say anything about God, then there’s no way we could ever actually disagree, even if our ideas of God are totally incoherent from one another. There would exist enough disbelief surrounding our ideas of God that fundamentalist dogmatism would become significantly more difficult to develop. I wouldn’t say impossible, since it is equally difficult to separate authoritarianism from organized religion even under the most compassionate doctrines, so I’ll hedge my bets on this one. Even still, anything that helps on the road to interfaith respect is a good thing.

Unfortunately, spoilsports dismiss this approach as removing God from any kind of religious pragmatism, and this is a valid criticism. If we can’t say anything about God, then why bother talking about It at all? Why worship something if we can’t even positively acknowledge that It exists? Why adhere to any doctrine? Part of Christianity’s appeal stems from the fact that Jesus is 100% a human man and 100% a God, and that makes Him far more relatable than the negative theologian’s unknowable God.

There are those who counter this, and say that we can point to events in the world, and use language to describe them with the understanding that it is being described in human terms. Like we can point to a rainfall after a long drought as God being good, because rain revitalizing our crops is something that would conform to a “good event” in a human sense. I disagree with this refutation because then some asshole could come along and say, well why was the drought so long to begin with? And that asshole would have a fair point. If we want to point to events in the world and describe them in a human context, then we would have to account for every event. God can’t work in mysterious ways if we just pointed to an event where we were quite comfortable using the word “good” to describe it.

Of course, the obvious solution is faith. There exists a feeling of God in a believer, and even if that feeling is not qualifiable by anything they could express, that does not negate the power or the drive that their faith brings them. That feeling may lead them to follow doctrines that they believe are most in line with their faith, even if relating them back to a God is again, impossible. Being unable to name God has never really been an obstacle before (notably Yahweh, and the fact that I’m not making this up and negative theology has a very long history predating Christianity), so I don’t see why it can’t be applicable now. Faith is a greater motivation than doctrine, and is far more honest in regards to its application.

Post-script: As I finish writing this, I now realize that double-negative theology is much better expressed as, “God is not good… OR IS IT???” rather than “God is not-good, and God is not-not-good.”

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