Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Chapter One. Section Two. Part One

Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Chapter One. Section Two. Part One February 19, 2018

SECTION II.

But see that none of the uninitiated listen to these things—-those I mean who are entangled in things being, and fancy there is nothing superessentially above things being, but imagine that they know, by their own knowledge, Him, Who has placed darkness as His hiding-place. But, if the Divine initiations are above such, what would any one say respecting those still more uninitiated, such as both portray the Cause exalted above all, from the lowest of things created, and say that It in no wise excels the no-gods fashioned by themselves and of manifold shapes, it being our duty both to attribute and affirm all the attributes of things existing to It, as Cause of all, and more properly to deny them all to It, as being above all, and not to consider the negations to be in opposition to the affirmations, but far rather that It, which is above every abstraction and definition, is above the privations.

Dionysius warns the reader that his words are not intended for everyone. Rather, they are for those who have been initiated into the mystical tradition. They need to have been given the proper philosophical and theological background which would allow them accept the incomprehensible nature of God:

 But see that none of the uninitiated listen to these things—-those I mean who are entangled in things being, and fancy there is nothing superessentially above things being, but imagine that they know, by their own knowledge, Him, Who has placed darkness as His hiding-place.

It is natural for us to look at the world and try to understand it through the best of our reasoning skills. What our reason cannot comprehend we often confuse as being irrational, and therefore, we reject it as being something untrue. We rely too much on the power of reason to map out the world for us, but the reality is, our reason is itself a construction and tool of the human mind which, like the human mind, is limited and will be incapable of comprehend the fullness of truth, let alone the source and foundation of that truth, God. This is not to say there is no value to reason: it is a tremendous tool which is able to take us far, but we must never presume that the truth itself will be something that we will comprehend.

Philosophers who attribute too much power to human reason, such as those who engage analytic philosophy without caveats, will find their assumptions leading to a dead end, and the world as it is will not be known by them. Anyone who acknowledges the limits of human reason, that the truth transcends human comprehension, would be ready to accept experiences which transcend their comprehension. On the other hand, anyone who tries to wrestle with the truth and limit it to their own meager understanding, whatever transcendental truth they encounter will become distorted by their minds, causing as a result, a dangerous aberration, a simulation of the truth which veils and hides the truth from them. This is why Dionysius says that the none of the uninitiated should listen to these things; they can try to engage the silence of meditative equipoise, they can experience something in that silence, but they will not allow it to reveal itself as it is, but instead, they will place their mind around what they experience, causing their experience to conform to the limits of the intellectual capabilities rather than allowing the human mind to accept the truth which transcends itself. St. Albert the Great considered this caution was written especially for those who were uninitiated into the Christian faith, whereby the end result is the construction of idols (either in the mind or in the material world) which reflect the mind of their maker, that is, the mind which grasped after the truth and put it under the confines of human understanding:

He calls “unlearned” those whose hearts and minds are “shaped” by beings, from which we receive knowledge, and so they do not believe that anything “exists supersubstantially above beings,” incommensurably, that is, with being. So even philosophers say that the first mover is proportionate to the first thing moved. What they do believe is what they can know “him who makes darkness his hiding place” (God, that is), “with their own kind of knowledge,” that is to say, by way of rational principles.[1]

As we open up to God, as we seek him out, as we seek to be lifted up to him so that we can encounter him, we must learn to silence our mind so that we can then overcome any attempt to contain God in our thoughts. So long as we try to hold on to a conceptual understanding of God, we will limit God to that understanding; we will be turning ourselves away from God as we find ourselves attached to the conceptual veil which we put between ourselves and God. If we seek to engage God without first understanding this, we will quickly become confused. We will easily mistake something which conforms to our thought-based conception of God for being God, thereby turning what is not God into that which we adore as God. If we want to honor God, we must therefore be ready to accept God as he is, without anything from our part; we must put away our discursive reasoning; we must stop trying to define God, because whatever definition we will give for God will limit God and present to us something which is not God as our God. If we imagine God can be comprehended by contingent being, we will find that the truth of God will be hid from us, while if we recognize this truth, then we will know that whatever we perceive of the light of God is less than God and so the fullness of God will be hidden in the darkness of his supra-essential light which transcends our experience.

This is why God, being outside of our comprehension, must be understood as existing in a way which transcends human rationality. Logic is a tool, constructed by the human mind. We must not confuse human logic as an absolute representation of the truth. This is why, even when exploring the world at large, the truth is revealed to be paradoxical, as the world as it is differs from the world as we imagine it to be. To rely upon what can be proven by logic and accept it alone as true is to reject the truth which cannot be proven, but must merely be accepted as given. It is like trying to define an ocean by what can be observed and discerned by someone who lives on a beachfront property thinking all that can be found in the ocean can be found in the water next to their house.

Thus, Robert Grosseteste also understood the importance of Dionysius’s warning was that the would-be-mystic must be ready to accept truths which cannot be proved by the use of reason alone:

Because the foregoing things are neither susceptible of proof nor credible on the part of the uninstructed, who are capable of understanding nothing beyond the beings that are known to them, nor would they profit from hearing of those things but rather would be scandalized, the author commands Timothy to communicate those things to none of the uninstructed, just in the same way as in a number of other places he lays down with regard to the transcendent things a restriction regarding the intelligence of the multitude.[2]

Reason should be employed, but it is used in its proper fashion, with its limitation adequately realized. Reason can be used to help describe the ultimate truth in an approximate form, pointing to the transcendent nature of the truth in such a fashion, and so the ultimate truth of God can be discussed through conventional forms which represent him, but those who think they know and comprehend the truth through conventions will find they know nothing of it. The truth will not be something established by the mind; the truth is not confined to human understanding; it is transcendent, and so God, likewise, must forever be recognized as transcendent to the human mind and not be confused with the rational assertions and discursive reasoning which is used to describe him. This is why the Anomeans, Arian heretics who claimed they knew God as well as God knew himself, could be shown to have gone far away from the truth, requiring St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom and many others to show the absurdity of their position and establish the foundations of Christian apophatic theology. The Anomeans, in their pride, to not even know themselves, for they did not understand their own limitations; therefore, if they could not know themselves, they could not know God. What they confused for God was the simulacrum of God which existed in their minds alone. Thus, the Cloud of Unknowing, following the insights of the Dionysian tradition, asserted that what is being elaborated upon by those writing in mystical theology, as well as what is experienced by them, must not confuse intellectual engagement about God as the same thing as mystical contemplation:

For whoever hears or reads about all of this, and thinks that it is fundamentally an activity of the mind, and proceeds to work it all out along these lines, is on quite the wrong track. He manufactures an experience that is neither spiritual or physical. He is dangerously misled and in real peril.[3]

Dionysius, therefore, properly warned the reader, anyone who wants to properly honor God: be prepared to transcend yourself; die to the self, put to an end all attachment to human comprehension as the means to engage God. Those who do not understand this are not yet ready for what is to be presented in the rest of his treatise.

 

[Image= The Silence by Antoine-Augustin Préault [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] St. Albert the Great, “Commentary on Dionysius’ Mystical Theology” in Albert & Thomas, Selected Writings. Trans. Simon Tugwell, OP (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 149.

[2] Robert Grosseteste, “De Mystica Theologia” in Mystical Theology: The Glosses of Thomas Gallus and the Commentary of Robert Grosseteste on De Mystica Theologia. Trans. and ed. By James McEvoy (Parish: Peeters, 2003), 73.

[3] The Cloud of Unknowing. Trans. Clifton Wolters (London: Penguin Books, 1978), 65-6.

 

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