natural theology and the via negationis

       The heavens declare the glory of God;                                                  the skies proclaim the work of his hands.         Psalm 19:1

fingerprint I’ve always loved the night sky.  The ebullient stars and the lugubrious black depths between them beckon thrilling attention to the grandeur of nature.  At the same time, this grandeur invariably reminds me of a reality so far beyond our comprehension that I could never hope to fathom God.  Psalm 19 captures this numinous moment in which we apprehend the glory of nature.  No matter whether we believe in God or not, and no matter which “God” we believe in, this verse speaks truthfully regarding the moment of apprehension. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has caught the eerie, wispy tendrils of a dark interstellar cloud being destroyed by the passage of one of the brightest stars in the Pleiades star cluster. Like a flashlight beam shining off the wall of a cave, the star is reflecting light off the surface of pitch black clouds of cold gas laced with dust. These are called reflection nebulae.

If the stars, and indeed all of nature, speak of the glory of God, then what can we learn about God through nature?  This is the perennial question of ‘natural theology’: If God has left his fingerprints upon the creation, then what do these fingerprints tell us about God himself? With ever more powerful telescopes, microscopes and DNA sequencers, we peer ever more deeply into the heart of the cosmos, learning more about creation and life itself as we go.  But can we really know God by looking at his fingerprints?  After all, the psalmist stops short of saying that the heavens reveal God in person; rather, they reveal his glory, his magnitude.

If we limit our knowledge to observations of nature, allowing no quarter to any self-revelation by God in the form of the Bible or Jesus Christ, then we will be confined by the limits of human reason and senses to make sense of things.  This is the essence of ‘natural theology.’  Philosophy and metaphysics become our guides, and these tools have led to widely varying conceptions of reality-stoicism, Epicureanism, humanism, nihilism, utilitarianism, naturalism and deism, to name just a few-each with its own self-ratifying internal logic and self-judged coherence. But to what “God” do these conceptions lead?  We might say these have led to many ‘gods’, each defined on the basis of human perceptions and reason, but to one unique God they have not led.  Rather, if natural theology is to make any comment on the one God, it will necessarily be through the via negationis, that is, the “negative way”.  This way proceeds by making statements about what we can not know or say about God, because God’s ways are inscrutable and his being too immense for our puny brains to fathom.  He remains forever “cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown”, according to the mystical wisdom of the Tao.

Indeed, there is a long-standing respect in Christianity and many other religions for the value of the “negative way”.  St Augustine acknowledged the impossibility of scientific description of God when he said, “We can know what God is not, but we cannot know what He is.”[1]  Thus, he admitted, “I speak only so that I not be required to remain silent.”  In this confession he seemed to anticipate Wittgenstein’s bon mot: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  This is the path of the via negationis in theology-to articulate that which God is not, because our language and reason are incapable of saying what he is.  This is the only scientific path open to natural theology.  Other paths lack internal consistency, and thus must be ruled out as un-scientific.  This is the spirit in which Karl Barth objected to natural theology, not for any failure of its powers of observation or reason, but because it ignored the rigorous limits of its own self-imposed logic in via negationis whenever it ventured to make positive statements regarding the one God, the God known through the history of Israel, Jesus and the Bible:

When perceived in its epistemological significance, this means that we are unable to achieve through our own natural powers and capacities the cognitive union with God which true knowledge of him requires.[2]

Thus for Barth, natural theology (theologia naturalis) remains inescapably shackled by the handcuffs of the via negationis, which constrains knowledge of God to the abstractions of human reason; whereas revealed theology (theologia revelata) is never shackled in this way.  Revealed theology rather proceeds from positive knowledge of God as the self-revealing One:

We cannot ask: “Is God knowable?”  For God is actually known and therefore God is obviously knowable.  We cannot ask about an abstract possibility of the knowledge of God.  We can ask only about its concrete possibility as definitely present already in its actual fulfillment.[3]

True knowledge of the true God is positive knowledge, actualized by God in self-revelation.  This knowledge is revealed in Jesus.  It is historical and concrete knowledge of the sort that lies beyond the horizon accessible by the paths of abstract metaphysical reasoning.  It is grounded in “nothing other than the concrete and unique story of Christ.”[4]

So, we can learn much about glory, immanence, and immensity through nature, seeing the “fingerprints” of God therein.  But if we are to move from description of the attributes of those fingerprints to knowledge of the one true God, and not away from Him into abstractions and ‘-isms’, then we must meet the person to whom the fingerprints belong: Jehovah, Emmanuel, Holy Spirit. 

Whitehead sagaciously surveyed the philosophical boundaries of science and discerned that the success of science lay in its foundation:

It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher.’[5]

There are two essential ingredients here-rationality and the personal God, Jehovah, who gives that rationality positive meaning, freeing it from the bonds of the via negationis.  This latter ingredient is recognized by the prophet who also stood under the glory of the night sky and rather than acquiescing to the limits of abstraction, discerned its meaning in knowledge of the one true God who can be named:

He who maketh the Pleiades and Orion, and turneth the deep darkness into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night; who calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: Jehovah is his name.  [Amos v.8]


[1] De Trinitate.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (T&T Clark, 1990), p. 143.  Torrance insightfully concludes: “[Barth’s] struggle with the problem of natural theology is also a struggle for rigorous scientific method in theology”, Ibid. p. 145.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, pp. 63-4.

[4] CD, IV/1, p. 75.

[5] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1925), p. 18.

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