Apophatic theology (from Greek ἀπόφασις from ἀπόφημι – apophēmi, "to deny")—also known as negative theology or via negativa (Latin for "negative way" or "by way of denial")—is a theology that attempts to describe God, the Divine Good, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God. It stands in contrast with cataphatic theology.
A startling example can be found with theologian John Scot Erigena (9th century): "We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being."
In brief, negative theology is an attempt to achieve unity with the Divine Good through discernment, gaining knowledge of what God is not (apophasis), rather than by describing what God is. The apophatic tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, which focuses on a spontaneous or cultivated individual experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception, an experience often unmediated by the structures of traditional organized religion or the conditioned role-playing and learned defensive behavior of the outer man.
In negative theology, it is accepted that the Divine is ineffable, an abstract experience that can only be recognized or remembered—that is, human beings cannot describe in words the essence of the perfect good that is unique to the individual, nor can they define the Divine, in its immense complexity, related to the entire field of reality, and therefore all descriptions if attempted will be ultimately false and conceptualization should be avoided; in effect, it eludes definition by definition:
Even though the via negativa essentially rejects theological understanding as a path to God, some have sought to make it into an intellectual exercise, by describing God only in terms of what God is not. One problem noted with this approach is that there seems to be no fixed basis on deciding what God is not, unless the Divine is understood as an abstract experience of full aliveness unique to each individual consciousness, and universally, the perfect goodness applicable to the whole field of reality. It should be noted that this is also a kind of definition, namely that the Divine is an experience, which – because of the very definition of apophatic theology – the then Divine cannot be.