Article – Apophatic Language

Have you ever stood beneath a star-studded sky, overwhelmed by its vastness and the mysteries it holds? That sense of awe, the feeling that words fall short in capturing the immensity of the experience, is precisely what apophatic language seeks to evoke in religious traditions across the globe.

Unlike traditional religious language that focuses on positive descriptions of the divine (loving, all-powerful), apophatic language speaks of the holy through negation. It acknowledges that human language simply can’t grasp the ultimate reality. Terms like “Ein Sof” (the Infinite) in Judaism, or “Dao” (the Way) in Taoism, point towards a reality beyond human comprehension. It’s not about denying God’s existence, but recognizing that God exists beyond the limitations of human definition. Spiritual attainment is, therefore, only possible through practices that help us transcend our normal linguistic mode of thought. 

In Hinduism, a concept known as “neti neti” translates to “not this, not this.” In other words, there is no way to say what specific qualities or characteristics correspond to something like God, so the best we can do is  to describe God by saying what it is not–hence, the Hindu position of neti net. Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher, argued that God can only be described by what He is not, promoting a deeper sense of divine mystery. The Torah emphasizes this, stating, “You cannot see My face, for no one may see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Buddhism, particularly Mahayana, employs apophatic elements in the concept of Sunyata (Emptiness), with the Heart Sutra proclaiming, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” pointing to an ultimate reality beyond dualistic concepts.

The Western philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein takes a strikingly similar position to the Hindu Upanishadic texts, believing that language could only express what is sayable and that some things are unsayable, such as the mystical. The Upanishads also recognise the limitations of language in describing the ultimate reality, which they call Brahman.

This approach is surprisingly impactful. It prevents us from creating a God in our own image – a controllable being with human-like qualities. Instead, it emphasizes the divine mystery, sparking a sense of awe and wonder that transcends specific religious doctrines. In a world obsessed with categorization and control, apophatic language offers a powerful alternative – a space for contemplation and a sense of the sacred that resonates with the deepest human yearning for the ineffable.

Modern Philosophy
“What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”
–Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher

“About this self (atman), one can only say ‘not—, not—’ (neti neti). He is ungraspable, for he cannot be grasped. He is undecaying, for he is not subject to decay. He has nothing sticking to him, for he does not stick to anything. He is not bound; yet he neither trembles in fear nor suffers injury.”
–Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Hindu scripture

“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.”
– Rumi, Sufi mystic and poet

“Whatever you imagine in your mind, Allah is different from that.”
– Al-Ghazali

“That which we imagine, is not the Reality of God; He, the Unknowable, the Unthinkable, is far beyond the highest conception of man.”
–‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader

“To the end he [The Buddha] remained for them half light, half shadow, defying complete intelligibility. So they called him Sakyamuni, ‘silent sage (muni) of the Sakya clan,’ symbol of something that could not be described.”
—Huston Smith, scholar of religion

“The Tathagata cannot be seen by any means whatsoever.”
– Diamond Sutra

“Sages don’t reveal the Way because they keep it secret, but because it can’t be revealed. Thus their words are like footsteps that leave no tracks.”
— Ch’eng Chu, commentary on Tao Te Ching

“The Dao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Dao”
– Tao Te Ching

“God’s existence is absolute and it includes no composition and we comprehend only the fact that He exists, not His essence. Consequently it is a false assumption to hold that He has any positive attribute […] however, the negative attributes are necessary to direct the mind to the truths which we must believe.”
—Maimonides, medieval Torah scholar

“If you understand [something], it is not God.”
–St. Augustine of Hippo

“Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.”
–St. Thomas Aquinas, Christian theologian and philosopher

“To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge.”
–The Analects (2:17), Confucian text

“No one knows the state of the Lord. The Yogis, the celibates, the austere penitents, and all sorts of clever people have failed.”
–Guru Granth Sahib, Sikh scripture

See All Commonalities Across Religions

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