When Speaking of the Ineffable
Like Philo of Alexandria over a millennium before him, Maimonides boldly asserts that the negative attributes of God represent the true attributes. Thus, when we say that “God exists,” that means to say that He is not nonexistent; when we say that “God is wise,” that is another way of saying that God is not foolish. When we describe “God is knowing’” that is another way of saying that God is not ignorant, hearing and seeing excludes ignorance, and so on; in no way is God ever circumscribed by the qualities that mortals project unto Him. This approach is sometimes called the via negativa (“the way of negation”). Maimonides regards all Biblical predicates about the personality of God as homonyms, i.e., when speaking about God, all anthropomorphic descriptions connote an entirely different reality than is commonly assumed.
Maimonides writes that we cannot know anything about God per se; God’s essential character is completely incomprehensible to mortal minds. Human beings at best can only describe what God does in the world but will never be able to discern what God is. In all likelihood, Maimonides would have agreed with Otto’s language that God is “wholly other,” in that the Holy utterly transcends the bounds of human reason. Maimonides concurs, for him, God cannot be categorized by human thought per se. The way we represent God to ourselves cannot adequately describe the nature of the Divine reality. Maimonides’s”negative theology” emphasizes the discontinuity between God and the world, Though God’s Presence (Shekhina) is intimately and organically related to the cosmos, God is also sovereign over the world. “If the Heavens cannot contain You” (1 Kings 8:27), how much less can philosophical categories hope to represent the nature of the Divine continuum! According to negative theology, every idea—however lofty and spiritual—nevertheless remains a mental picture and thus limiting. Without it, God becomes a creature of the human imagination. Maimonides warns his readers about the dangers of defining God in any image or metaphor. All positive affirmations of God when pushed to the limit must always bow in silence before God’s mysterious nature and being. Maimonides recalls a Talmudic story about how once the rabbis heard a man praying: Continue reading “When Speaking of the Ineffable”