With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Saying and Unsaying with Pseudo-Dionysius

(Here is a short overview of affirmative and negative theology in Pseudo-Dionysius that I wrote for my class on mysticism...)

In his treatise The Mystical Theology (MT), Pseudo-Dionysius employs the Biblical account of Moses’ ascent on Sinai in Ex 19-20 as a broad paradigm for the believer’s ascent to God. Moses, he notes, first comes to contemplate “not him who is invisible, but rather where he dwells”: “the holiest and highest of the things perceived with the eye of the body or the mind,” through which “his unimaginable presence is shown…”[i] Moses proceeds, however, beyond what sees and is seen into the “mysterious darkness of unknowing,” where he is “wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible” and is “supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge.”[ii] As, for Dionysius, Scripture alone reveals to us the true pattern for our language about God (logos of the theos),[iii] it seems here in his exegesis of the Book of Exodus he has discovered the foundations for both affirmative and negative theological discourse: the former attaining to God as He is revealed through that which is below Him; the latter negating all attributions in an ascent toward union with Him in unknowing. By explicating further the foundations of both approaches to theology, one can come to a deeper understanding of their relationship to one another.

In chapter two of The Divine Names (DN), Dionysius asserts that Scripture reveals a distinction between the “divine differentiations” and the “divine unions” in God, and it is according to these two perspectives that we may begin to parse the different theologies.[iv] The “divine differentiations” refer to the “benign processions of the supreme Godhead,” or rather the ways in which the being of the Godhead overflows in its goodness, pours itself out, and is in some sense revealed and multiplied.[v] Such processions include the distinction between the Trinitarian persons[vi] and the being of Jesus in the Incarnation. God’s being is also differentiated and multiplied in the act of creation, by which God “irrepressibly imparts being, life, wisdom, and the other gifts of its all-creative goodness.”[vii] This is accomplished insofar as creatures are granted a participation in the divine perfections or “exemplars” which produce creaturely essences yet preexist as a unity in God.[viii] These perfections are multiplied in creatures and it is through the limited share in them that all beings become, as it were, theophanies of God: each becoming a faint similitude or symbol of the divine as it embodies perfections that, through causal inference, we know exist pre-eminently and simply in the Godhead.[ix] According to Dionysius, this differentiation of God in causation is what our finite minds can attain knowledge of: “…what our minds lay hold of is nothing other than certain activities apparent to us, activities which deify, cause being, bear life and grant wisdom.”[x] Knowledge is correlated with the order of beings, and as beings reveal perfections such as life, wisdom, and goodness through their participation in the divine exemplars, we are then able to affirm such names of God insofar as He causes them in creatures, and thereby must contain them Himself in a full, unique, and simple manner. The divine differentiations, according to which God imparts a share in His perfections and thereby reveals Himself through creation, are the primary foundation for affirmative theology.

Further, God’s overflowing procession in creation forms the structural blueprint of the method which Dionysius lays down for affirmative discourses in The Mystical Theology. In chapter three, he notes that the way of affirmation begins with attributing those perfections to God which most approximate his nature, i.e. those that are most primary and universal among creatures. One then proceeds to descend, naming God according to more particular and remote perfections.[xi] This is precisely the order of affirmation that Dionysius follows in The Divine Names: in chapter five of that work, he ranks “Good” as the primary name of God because it is the most universal perfection (“procession”): extending to beings and nonbeings. Following this is the name “Being,” which extends to all that exists; “Life,” extending to all living beings; and “Wisdom,” extending to all living beings with reason.[xii] Dionysius justifies this ordering with the claim that the passage from most universal to most particular (eventually treating of names like “Lord of Lords” and “Holy of Holies”) mirrors the creative and providential outpouring of God Himself. Thus, The Divine Names performs what is laid down in The Mystical Theology, and our naming of God according to His perfections follows the pattern revealed in God’s overflowing from unity to differentiation. It is God as He is differentiated that is praised with the positive names found in Scripture and drawn from creatures.

Having addressed affirmative theology as grounded in the “divine differentiations” of God, we must now turn to the “divine unions.” While it is true that God differentiates Himself in creation, Dionysius stresses the fact that He does so “in a unified way”: in a way in which His unity remains intact. God’s oneness is not exhausted by His outpouring into the universe of creatures; rather, “He remains one amid the plurality, unified throughout the procession, and full amid the emptying act of differentiation.”[xiii] This enduring integrity of the Godhead refers to the “divine unions.” They are, as it were, God considered insofar as He is in Himself, rather than as He is poured out into the created world. They are “the hidden and permanent, supreme foundations of a steadfastness which is more than ineffable and more than unknowable.”[xiv] They refer to a transcendent Oneness that precedes and exceeds all oneness and multiplicity, grounding and defining them.[xv] Dionysius notes that the divine unities hold a higher place than the differentiations: they form that “aspect” of God, if one may use the term, which retains singularity and admits of no multiplication.[xvi]

One can see immediately the implications that the divine unions have for affirmative theology. God is not simply that which is poured out in the many processions that ground the created world; He is not simply this dynamic action. Rather, there is an infinite and transcendent excess of His being behind and before these processions. While a creature may in its nature have the capacity to reveal God, it to the same extent masks Him: for there is always more to God than is shone through in the limited participation of creatures in the divine exemplars.[xvii] Thus, the divine unions mark off that “region” of the Godhead which is not revealed through beings, and thus cannot be properly known. To name God under this aspect would require an “understanding beyond being…mind beyond mind, word beyond speech.” With respect to the divine unions, God is “gathered up by no discourse,” and therefore cannot be named.[xviii] None of the names attributed to God as He is differentiated adequately name God as He is in His unified nature. One must therefore posit a theology that proceeds by way of unknowing and un-naming.

This is precisely the form of discourse that Dionysius expounds in The Mystical Theology. In the third chapter, he shows that the way of negation inverts the way of affirmation: “But my argument now rises from what is below up to the transcendent…we have to start by denying those qualities which differ most from the goal we hope to attain.”[xix] One begins by denying those names and perfections that are more particular and remote from God’s nature and ascends gradually denying more and more universal ones, eventually negating even “Being” and “Good.” This is, for Dionysius, a form of language more appropriate to the divine nature because that nature is on a plane beyond being, beyond what the mind can conceive.[xx] Negation becomes a means of purifying our language of God, for our words are always “confined to the ideas we are capable of forming.” Because God as He is in His divine unions is beyond being, knowledge and sight cannot be grounds for our relation to God. Thus, “unseeing” and “unknowing” become the means of ascent, and the more we climb, “the more language falters, and when it has passed up beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with Him who is indescribable.”[xxi] It follows from this that the end of negative theology cannot be any knowledge of God: rather, it is union with Him. Negative or mystical discourse is ordered to arriving at “the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence,” “uplifted to the ray of divine shadow which is above everything that is.”[xxii] When we abandon all words and knowledge, “we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect.”[xxiii]

Just as the differentiation of God in His creative procession formed the model for our affirmative speech, so too does the return from multiplicity back to unity form the model for negative theology in its ascending negations. And according to this Neo-Platonic scheme of exitus and reditus, we see the reciprocal and unified relationship of the forms of theology. God reveals Himself in His generous outpouring through beings and we first come to knowledge of Him in this way. Only then can we rise to consider God under the aspect of His divine unions, and thereby deny all of our affirmations. The two discourses thus form two ordered phases in one dynamic of providence. The outpouring is always ordered to our return to God through negation, ultimately ending in a voiceless union with Him. So union with God is the ultimate end of all theological discourse: it is not primarily about knowledge, because knowledge is only a phase in the overarching movement; nor is it simply about negation, because Dionysius notes that God is beyond every denial as well as every affirmation.[xxiv] Neither exhausts the language of God. Both must be seen in the one divine dynamic drawing us beyond language and beyond multiplicity to that divine darkness where, like Moses, we may rest in God as He is.

[i] Pseudo-Dionysius. The Mystical Theology. in Pseudo Dionysius: The Complete Works. trans. Colm Luibheid. New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1987: MT 1.3, 1000D-1001A, p.137

[ii] MT 1.3, 1001A, p.137

[iii] Pseudo-Dionysius. The Divine Names. in Pseudo Dionysius: The Complete Works. trans. Colm Luibheid. New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1987: DN 1.1, p.49: “This is why 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.”

[iv] DN 2.2, p.60: “…the Word of God operates sometimes with, sometimes without distinctions.” Cf. DN 2.4

[v] DN 2.11, 649B, p.66

[vi] With regard to the Trinity, it seems that Dionysius classifies this manner of “differentiation” as “differentiation in unity,” insofar as they are the “source of oneness as a unity” and thus relate to the divine unity in a manner above and beyond any other form of multiplicity. See DN 2.4, p.61.

[vii] DN 2.5, 644A, p.62

[viii] DN 5.8, 824C, p.102

[ix] DN 7.3, 869D, p.108: “But we know him from the arrangement of everything, because everything is, in a sense, projected out from him, and this order possesses certain images and semblances of his divine paradigms.”

[x] DN 2.7, 645A, p.64.

[xi] MT 3, 1033C

[xii] DN 5.1, p.96-97

[xiii] DN 2.11, p.66

[xiv] DN 2.4, 640D, p.61

[xv] DN 13.2, p.128

[xvi] DN 2.11, 649C-652A, p.67

[xvii] DN 9.7, 916A, p.108: “…the very same things are both similar and dissimilar to God.”

[xviii] DN 1.1, 588A-588B, p.49-50

[xix] MT 3, 133C, p.139-140

[xx] MT 1.2, 1000B, p.136

[xxi] MT 3, 1033B-1033C, p.139

[xxii] MT 1.1, 997B-1000A, p.135

[xxiii] DN 1.1, 585B-588A, p.49

[xxiv] MT 5, 104B, p.141

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