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This article is taken from PN Review 204, Volume 38 Number 4, March - April 2012.

Catchwords 14 Iain Bamforth
Lord of unlikeness

The most memorable definition of negative theology (outside the definitions of God in the writings of Plotinus and John Scotus Erigena - 'who does not know what He is, because He is not a what, and is incomprehensible to Himself and to all intelligence') is probably the one expressed in the Upanishads, when Yajnavalkya is questioned by his students on the nature of God: he chants 'neti neti' meaning 'neither this nor that'. God is beyond the scope of words, superessential: He repels all attributes. What humans speak about when they talk about God is actually something else: the intellect at its highest level.

The first person in Western culture to appreciate this essential otherness was a poet, Xenophanes of Colophon, who attacked Homer and Hesiod for their anthropomorphisms: 'One god is greatest amongst gods and men,/ Not at all like mortals in body [form] and thought'. For Maimonides in The Guide for the Perplexed, no discussion was possible - there was no accessible 'likeness' that might constitute a relationship. That is what Islam says too (Sura 112); and some of its thinkers, such as Al-Kirmānī, upheld God's unique oneness in rigorously negative terms: God was not the First Being, since the beginning of a series is, in spite of its primacy, still a part of that same series. God is utterly unknown and unknowable. Without predication, it is impossible to say anything about the First Being at all.

Yet the negative ...

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