Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pseudo-Dionysius and the Incomprehensible God

"Behold, God is great, and we know Him not;
the number of His years is unsearchable...
God thunders wondrously with His voice;

He does great things which we cannot comprehend...
The Almighty--we cannot find Him;

He is great in power and justice,

and abundant righteousness He will not violate.

Therefore men fear Him."--Job 36:26,37:5,23-24a

As I mentioned in my first post on mystery, God Himself is mysterious. One of the authors who understood this the best is Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. This odd name comes from the fact that the writings of this author were originally connected to an Athenian converted by St. Paul named Dionysius the Areopagite, mentioned in Acts 17:34. However, these writings are from the 5th or 6th century, and thus they could not be written by someone from the apostolic times. The true writer of these works is unknown, so he is referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius to reference the tradition.

Pseudo-Dionysius combines Neo-Platonism (such as the works of Plotinus and Proclus) with Christian mysticism, leading to a strange amalgam that is difficult to understand (and I do not pretend to understand it anywhere near fully). The aspect of his writings that I am focusing on here is the incomprehensibility of God.

What seems to be the center of intelligibility and comprehension for Pseudo-Dionysius is language, so for the one who is least comprehensible, there is the least language. That explains why he refers to God as "him who is indescribable" (MT 3,1033C). He highlights the connection between language and comprehension in this passage:

"The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing" (MT 3,1033B).

Pseudo-Dionysius sees God as so incomprehensible that He is viewed as a "divine darkness," and the path towards Him leads into "the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing" (MT 1,3,1001A). (As a sidenote, this phrase is often translated as "the cloud of unknowing," which lends itself to the title of a Middle English work of Christian mysticism.) Even though God is a "divine darkness," He is also light, which can be envisioned in the image of the sun, which "illuminates whatever is capable of receiving its light and yet it never loses the utter fullness of its light" (DN 4,4,697D).

Here is first seen what seems to me to be the most annoying part of Pseudo-Dionysius mysticism, and that is the apparent contradictions in describing God. For instance, in one passage that frustrated me to no end when I first encountered Pseudo-Dionysius, he describes God as "the God who is" and as the one who "is coming-to-be amid whatever happens," yet later in the same paragraph, he writes these words:

"He was not. He will not be. He did not come to be. He is not in the midst of becoming. He will not come to be. No. He is not" (DN 5,4,817D).

How does one reconcile the ideas that God is coming to be and not coming to be, that He is and He is not? The answer lies in mystery. To put it bluntly: "Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process" (DN 1,1,588B). Explanations of Him may seem contradictory in our minds, but that is because He is beyond us. If we cannot learn the counsel of God (cf. Wis 9:13), can we learn His true nature? As Pseudo-Dionysius writes:

"Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being" (DN 1,1,588A).

Though it is true, as the First Vatican Council teaches, that "God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason," this does not mean that He can be grasped in His deepest being (qtd. in CCC #36). As St. Thomas Aquinas writes, "Concerning God, we cannot grasp what He is, but only what He is not, and how other beings stand in relation to Him" (qtd. in CCC #43).

It must also be remembered that it is only through God's favor that we can come to know Him. If he did not reveal Himself to us, we would not know Him. That is why we speak of Divine Revelation and why nature is seen as the first book of revelation (to paraphrase St. Bonaventure): these are how God reveals Himself to us so that we can know Him. Just recall the words of our Lord Jesus Christ:

"No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him" (Mt 11:27b).

Our knowledge of God must be grounded in the fact that He first revealed Himself to us. This connects to a principle Pseudo-Dionysius sets out at the beginning of a work investigating the names of God:

"We must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from what the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed" (DN 1,1,588A).

To summarize all this, God is mysterious. The more we try to understand His true nature and being, the fewer words we have to describe Him: to paraphrase Pseudo-Dionysius, the more we climb, the more language falters (cf. MT 3,1033C). In the end, we have no words to describe who God is: He is beyond our understanding, and thus He is beyond our language. We must recognize, then, that the only way we can come to know Him is because He has revealed Himself to us. All we know of God comes from creation and the working of the Holy Spirit upon man.

I will discuss one last point from Pseudo-Dionysius: the inability to say anything about God at all. I mentioned above a passage where he writes that God both is and is not. This fits into another principle he works under:

"Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and, more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being" (MT,1,2,1000B).

This connects to a long-standing debate in the theological world between two concepts: cataphatic theology (that is, describing God through affirmation and positive terminology) and apophatic theology (that is, describing God through negation and negative terminology). In general, it seems the West is more fond of cataphatic, while the East is more fond of apophatic, though it is by no means and absolute division between the two. In Pseudo-Dionysius' view, one should begin with the cataphatic and then proceed to the apophatic. He seems to overall support the apophatic over cataphatic: this is the core of the whole idea of "unknowing." This passage shows this idea well:

"I pray we could come to this darkness so far above light! If only we lacked sight and knowledge so as to see, so as to know, unseeing and unknowing, that which lies beyond all vision and knowledge. For this would be really to see and to know: to praise the Transcendent One in a transcending way, namely through the denial of all beings" (MT 2,1025A).

The twist is that, though Pseudo-Dionysius encourages negation as the greater path (and his idea of "unknowing" continued to affect mysticism after him), he recognizes that even it is not truly effective. God is more mysterious than even apophatic theology could strive to understand. He is "beyond assertion and denial" (MT 5,1048B).

To conclude, what can we learn about God from Pseudo-Dionysius? God is mysterious and incomprehensible, and we can only know about Him what He reveals to us. We can never claim to understand His true being and nature: that shows a pride that rejects His transcendence and mystery. I feel that it is a common flaw nowadays to think that we have the right to know God and that we have the ability to comprehend Him in His entirety: we do not see Him as someone mysterious in Himself. In the end, then, the point of this post is to remind all of us (myself included) to remember the mystery of God and to remember that it is only through His revelation of Himself that we can come to know Him.

I will end with a final passage from Pseudo-Dionysius expounding on how God is "beyond assertion and denial":

"We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial" (MT 5,1048B).

God bless!

Nota Bene: The copious quotes from Pseudo-Dionysius are taken from Colm Luibheid's translation of his complete works found in the Classics of Western Spirituality series published by Paulist Press. DN refers to the work The Divine Names, while MT refers to the work The Mystical Theology. The references for his works are chapter, section (if applicable), and columns of Migne's Patrologia Graeca. CCC refers to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Quotes from Sacred Scripture are from the RSV-CE.

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