Via Negativa

I first heard of via negativa, the way of subtraction, in a college religion class. At the time I thought it was an antiquated form of philosophy/theology that really didn’t have a place in the modern world. The idea of figuring out who God is by stating what He is not seemed overly tedious – just tell me who He is! Age, it seems, has brought a small measure of wisdom – I now understand how powerful via negativa can be.

I was turned back on to this concept reading the book “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a book I highly recommend if your brain is screaming for a rigorous think). Via negativa is not just a way of knowing God, it is a way of living life. 

The crux of the argument is this – life can be enhanced more from subtraction than by addition.

This has been the way Christians have lived for centuries (millennia?). Fasting, depriving oneself of food, is necessary for optimal health. Charity, giving away money and possessions, frees us from slavery to Mammon. Solitude helps you appreciate company. Silence allows you to take in the power of words. The vast majority of Christian Disciplines sprout from this way of subtraction as a way of embracing a fuller, more meaningful life.

Another kind of example might be helpful. I believe the default setting of every human being is joy. Why, then, are we so consumed with “the pursuit of happiness?” Because we have so many sources of unhappiness in our lives (bosses, morning/evening commutes, email, solicitors, malls, the evening news). I bet that getting rid of what makes you unhappy will result in a net gain of happiness far more than doing something that “makes you happy” and keeping the rest. Less is more in many cases.

Or take the story of the pope asking Michelangelo about how he carved the statue “David” from a huge block of marble. Michelangelo’s response? “I simply took away what wasn’t David.” I wonder, sometimes, if that isn’t God’s process with us? 

Anyhow, I’ve been really captivated with this way of looking at things and I thought I’d share. I hope it sparks some thoughts in you as well. Have a great weekend!

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