In the world’s mystical texts, two related and intertwined spiritual languages or orientations are distinguished: affirmative and negative. In Christianity, these languages are termed “apophatic” and “kataphatic,” derived from Greek words—apophasis, to move away from speech or “unsaying;” and kataphasis, to move toward speech or “saying.”
These categories of affirmative and negative speech are found in diverse religious languages and personal experiences, and refer not only to the structure of language, but also to techniques of contemplation, ways of knowing, prayer forms, meditative practices, spiritual paths, and the inner life of divinity.
The affirmative, or kataphatic, way refers to the various manners a soul contemplates the holy imprint in creation, ascending through higher and higher affirmations into the Divine itself. It is a language that rejoices in creation and ascribes positive attributes to God—beauty, goodness, mercy, justice, love, compassion, grace.
In kataphatic mysticism, there is an emphasis on vision and affectivity: Moses’ experience of YHVH, and Jewish merkabah mysticism of the visionary chariot in Isaiah and in later books of the Hebrew Bible; shamanic vision quests and power animals; masters of Christian spirituality, including Julian of Norwich’s vision of the crucified Christ, and Teresa of Avila’s interior castle. In this genre of affective (or emotive, sensate) language we find Sufi love poetry and the songs of Hindu saints.
In theistic traditions, affirmative language holds a privileged place and is often seen to constitute a divine dimension itself. For example, in the Gospel of John, Christ is identified with Logos: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was made flesh.” Similarly, in the Hindu Vedas, speech or Vak is described as the creative power of gods and people. As in the Gospel of John, the Vedas directly identify speech with the Divine, which has the power to transform consciousness and to heal.
At some point, language cannot capture the divine incomprehensibleness, and our affectivity for God feels insufficient, leading to the deconstruction of language and the denial of names. The experience of silence and our inability to grasp the indescribable, gives rise to languages of unsaying that generate negative speech about God. For example, Pseudo-Dionysius, a 6th century anonymous monk, describes the divine nature as a “superessential ray of divine darkness;” Zen Buddhists speak of mu or sunyata, nothingness. Meister Eckhart: “God is the most indistinct of indistinctions.” Apophatic language disturbs conceptual categories and upends the belief that we can circumscribe or possess truth.