Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Chapter Five. Part Three.

Scripture calls God one in many places, such as in the shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD” (Deut. 6:4 RSV). Likewise, philosophers often describe God by calling him “the One.” Those taking this predication seriously can easily misconstrue it, misunderstanding its application by reading into it a numerical signification. That is, it is easy to think of God as one being among many others, with his oneness being a numerical distinction which is used to suggest God’s priority includes some sort of proportionality between him and all other beings. Philosophically and theologically, when God is called one or said to be the One, this oneness of God is meant to express the infinitely transcendent simplicity of God who is beyond all division. God is beyond all attempts of enumeration; he is one as in whole and yet simple, incapable of being established into parts as he is incapable of being compared with any contingent being.  God, as the One, is the source of all; he is the one from which all enumeration derives while he is himself not to be counted among such things. For this reason, Dionysius explained that God neither is number, nor order, nor greatness, nor littleness. So long as we try to understand and identify God in categories associated with number, instead of seeing him as the source of all that is to be enumerated, we will misunderstand God as we limit him to humanly-established mathematical principles. [1]

Number, order, greatness, and littleness are all related concepts. Number is established in order, and greatness and littleness being relative terms used to indicate relationships in that order. God, being numberless, is not great or small, as nothing is capable of being added or subtracted from him. Moreover, Dionysius affirmed, because God is not capable of being designated with a number, we cannot compare him with other things through various relational concepts, which is why, after saying there is no littleness in God, he said: nor equality, nor inequality; nor similarity, nor dissimilarity.  Equality and inequality, similarity and dissimilarity are terms related to numerical concepts, with those things which can be said to be equal or unequal to each other, are designated such through some sort of quantifiable comparison.[2] With no numeric distinctions in God, we must then deny not only greatness and smallness, but equality and inequality to him as well; there is nothing which is associated with mathematical conventions which can be imputed upon God as he is in himself; we can only use them as kataphatic expressions to help point out with logical conventions analogies which help is to apprehend the truth of God which lies beyond such conventions. Thus, we can through analogy, refer to number to God, by calling him the One or Monad, thinking of the One as a number, but in the end, we must understand the One is not a numerical distinction being established but the representation that he is the foundation of all numbers in himself, as the scholia of Anastasius suggested:

For God does not accept numbers into himself, since he alone is numberless. The cause of all numbers is a number without number and over every number.[3]

Dionysius’ denial of God being a number is important because it overturns the way we normally perceive God as being one being among many other beings. When we hear he is one, we think of that one as being a numerical distinction and end up imposing upon him all that flows out such enumeration. Positive theology finds much value in calling God one, and Dionysius, in his Divine Names, clearly found it to be one of the more important names which we can give God. Even when it is being employed in this manner, we can see its use actually suggests God transcends enumeration, for it is not being used to suggest God can be numbered as with all other things, but rather as the foundation of all other things which can be numbered with mathematical conventions. So long as we try to impose the category of number on God, even within the domain of positive theology, we make a categorical mistake, and so will end up confused as we talk about God and discern many ways we can predicate numerical categories upon God (such as the way we could number is attributes or the names which we give him). By being called God, God was understood to transcends numbers. This can be seen in the way the author of the Theology of Arithmetic, traditionally attributed to Iamblichus, said about the Monad, that is the One: “The monad is the non-spatial source of number.”[4] As the source of all numbers, the One is beyond them all so that he can establish and stabilizes them:

Everything has been organized by the monad, because it contains everything potentially; for even if they are not yet actual, nevertheless the monad holds seminally the principles which are with all numbers, including those which are within the dyad. For the monad is even and odd and even-odd, linear and plane and solid [cubical and spherical and in the form of pyramids form those with four angles to those with an indefinite number of angles]; perfect and over-perfect and defective, proportionate and harmonic; the prime and incomposite, and secondary; diagonal and side; and it is the source of every relation, whether one of equality or inequality, as has been proved in the Introduction [Nicomachus’s Introduction to Arithmetic –HK].[5]

The Monad, the One, is the creator and God,[6] because in it is the source of all things, indeed, it is the foundation from which all forms are derived; our knowledge of things come from it as it is their source, including, and especially the plurality which comes after it in which number is to be found. Number indicates plurality, while the One, God, has no plurality and so transcends number by being its source. Nonetheless, we can employ number analogically to the divine nature so long as we keep in mind the spirit of that analogy and do not end up overstepping the analogy and think and talk about “the One” with dualistic conventions. God is not a number, therefore, there is no plurality, no duality, no twoness, within God, even as there is twoness or duality in relation to God and creation. There is distinction, but no numeric division; God is found in all things, stabilizing them, which is capable of being expressed through analogy in the way the one preserves the identity with that which it is multiplied with as the author of the Theology of Arithmetic explained: “It is called ‘monad’ because of its stability, since it preserves the specific identity of any number with which it is conjoined. For instance, 3×1=3, 4×1=4; see how the approach of the monad to these numbers preserved the same identity and did not produce a different number.”[7] In the way the one does not change that which is designated as three when they are multiplied together, so God does not add any numerical distinction when he is discerned in and through creation by being its source and foundation. In this fashion, when we say God is not a number, we are able to ascertain him in a transcendent fashion as the source and foundation of all things, in which all things and their potential and actualities come to exist, without change or duality being established in God himself.

[IMG=Hieroglyphic Monad by Athanasius Kircher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] This is why arguments for or against the Trinity, so long as they are argued along the lines of enumeration, will end up getting the Trinity wrong. God is not a number, and the Trinity must not be read as some sort of numerical order in God. The Trinity is about relationships in the incomprehensible God, not distinct numerical entities; we label the persons and can count them and discern three persons, but as long as we confuse these persons as actual numerical beings and so try to read number into God, we will error, causing our discussions about the Trinity to likewise end with all kinds of inaccuracies. God is not a number: God is the source and foundation of all that is numbered. The Trinity is revealed to us, and we count the persons with mathematical conventions, but when we try to turn those conventions into something more than mere conventions we fail because we limit God to the confines of our conventions instead of seeing how they participate in and point to a truth beyond them.

[2] See 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), 115.

[3] A Thirteenth-Century Textbook of Mystical Theology at the University of Paris. trans. L Michael Harrington (Paris: Peeters, 2004), 101.

[4] Iamblichus, Theology of Arithmetic. Trans. Robin Waterfield (Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press, 1988), 35.

[5] Iamblichus, Theology of Arithmetic, 35.

[6] See Iamblichus, Theology of Arithmetic, 36-7

[7] Iamblichus, Theology of Arithmetic, 35.




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