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

Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Chapter One. Section Two. Part Two February 26, 2018

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 suggests there are two different kinds of uninitiated people. The first, the best, will try to ascribe to God all that is positive and good which the human mind can understand, seeing it somehow reflects upon the nature of God. These people recognize that God is great, and they will use the best of their intellectual capabilities to demonstrate that greatness to others. Nonetheless, their conception of God remains entirely human, contained within the domain of human thought and understanding, but because they recognize God’s greatness and try to ascertain it and demonstrate it to others, they might eventually realize the constraints which reason places upon God, accept his transcendence, and become ready for initiation into the mysteries of God.

The other kind of uninitiated looks for and encounters the divinity solely in the material realm of being. Because God is the cause of all things, making him everywhere present and filling all things, they misconstrue the relationship between God and the world and so begin to see him in the lesser things of the world and limit him and his essence to those lesser forms of existence. In other words, instead of seeing the symbolic and analogical nature of the revelation of God in nature, they see it as univocal, making God bound by and limited to the way these lesser things exist, such as, for example, those who would worship a particular kind of animal as God.  The problem is that they portray the Cause exalted above all, God, from the lowest of things created, which might be used to symbolize God, and say that It in no wise excels the no-gods fashioned by themselves and of manifold shapes, and so they establish a form for God which comprehends him instead of merely serving to analogously represent and point to who he is in his transcendence. This allows they to quickly engage idolatry, forming images which they think are united with the essence of God itself. As they bind God to their inferior notions of the divine nature, so they become bound to their own thought-constructs. Statues and images of the divine nature, which could in other circumstances be used as symbolic representations of the divine nature, represent instead their misconception of the divine nature, indeed, they become a focal point for their misconception, keeping as static as the images themselves. They do not see God in any way as being transcendent to the world of their experience, but rather, bound by it, bound by the things of the world; they might have a sense of great potentiality and power being reflected in their concepts of God, but however great it is, it is limited, and the human intellect itself can comprehend and overcome it. Those who accept such empirical notions of the divinity therefore are further from the truth of God than the earlier, first group of the uninitiated, and so will be far less ready for what Dionysius has to offer his readers. There must be some mental reflection and contemplation which brings a person away from a purely empirical relationship with the divinity for them to truly come to accept and appreciate transcendence of God; until then, authentic mystical experiences of God can be easily misconstrued and used to create new, and yet still false, concepts of God.[1]

Anyone who is truly initiated and ready for what Dionysius has to offer must have been trained to detach themselves from all thought constructions of God; this will then allow them to be ready for an encounter with God where they will not seek to take from God and bind him to their reflections upon that encounter. Once we realize the limitations of human thought and speech to represent God, we will not have to deny ourselves their use in describing God. But we will do so through analogy, recognizing in this way that there is something radically different between the concept in our mind and the truth of God intended to be reflected by it.[2] We will speak of God, but we will not confuse our description of God with the essence of God; we will recognize it, instead, as coming from our experience and interaction with God describing the way God is in his economic relationship with us, in his activity which we can know, but not in his essence which transcends all human knowing.[3]

The difficulty of discussing our experience of God, and therefore, one of the goals of mystical theology, is to find out how we can talk about our mystical experiences, that is, how we can talk about God without limiting the divine nature. It is the paradox of being able to talk about God and use human reason to do so while also recognizing all our talk is at best a pointer to the truth which transcends all that can be said, or unsaid, about God.

We can begin by recognizing God as Cause of all.  Positive theology suggests that this is the foundation by which we can discuss God because we can see in his establishment of all things, there is a relationship which is established between him and us. This relationship is metaphysical, centered upon the notion of being. We see that from God, being exists; the greatness of being comes from, and so in a sense is found in God. All that is great about being, all that can be reflected about being itself, forms the basis by which we understand the positive assertions we make about God. Thus, positive theology itself overcomes Dionysius’ concern with those who limit God to inferior notions of the divine nature, to beings inferior to what the human mind can comprehend, making the divine less than human, but it does not overturn the constraint which the human mind places upon God. This is why the next step is to deny, to deny all that is stated of God, not in relation to the nihilism which denies God, but in relation to the realization that all we use to represent God is less than God. But all such denial itself represents a human construct, a human representation of God. It remains within the domain of human comprehension, even if it does so in a way which points to the transcendence of God: it remains a conventional representation of the truth of God, but it does so in a way which does not bind him to human comprehension. Apophatic theology gives us an approximation of the transcendence though human convention, and when done right, it provides greatest approximation of the truth of God possible in human thought, but it too, must be overturned, it must be silenced. God is beyond all positive assertions, but also, beyond all their negations, because God is not bound by human thought structures, even when those thought structures serve to point to his transcendental character. They still keep us thinking about and considering his attributes in relation to human concepts.

For this reason, we are not to consider the negations to be in opposition to the affirmations; when we understand the transcendent character of God we will be able to understand positive assertions in relation to their negation because we recognize their analogical character presupposes such negation. They represent and point to something which is similar between God and some analogy in creation, but when they do so, we recognize the distinct difference between the two, so that the negation is already affirmed in our assertions about God. So long as we recognize the analogical language being used to represent God, we find positive and negative theology are working together, not apart, and so in reality they must not be seen in opposition to each other but rather seen as complements of each other, identifying a quality which we can see is proper to God but in a transcendental sense which is radically different from and distinct from the way we understand it in our minds, or, as St. Albert explained, “the ‘whatness’ of God cannot be comprehended by way of either of them” (that is, by affirmation or negation).[4] Thus, as Balthasar explained, we must not read this as some sort of violation of the principle of non-contradiction, but rather as opening us up to the greatness of God.[5]

God is above every abstraction and definition. Every thought which we use to reflect upon God slowly makes us transcend our previous thought. In doing so, we begin to define God through greater and greater abstraction. Yet, this is not who God is, no matter how qualified we make our designation, God is not found in it. God is not found in our denials, either, making him above the privations, because, as was said above, even those privations lead to conceptional notions of God. So long as we continue to think about God, our thoughts get in the way. Even our negations, which help us away from our simple conceptions of God, become a form of thought which leads us away from God when our mind merely reflects upon those negations. Those negations remain useful insofar as they help train our mind not to accept any concept which we would make for God as being univocal to who God is, making such negations an important step in preparation for the transcendental encounter with God, but in the end, even those negations must be negated through silence, so that nothing, not even our negations, get in the way. If we rely upon the negations, we continue to rely upon ourselves, and not God; indeed, we can become so attached to such negation that we end up negating God through nihilism.

The apophatic way is to be understood as a method of silencing our mind, not as a way of defining God. It is useful for whenever we would be attempted to construct a notion of God, reminding us that whatever that notion is, it is not God but something which at best points to God. In the end, that negation must be negated through silence, so that our negation does not establish a notion which is not God to replace an inferior notion, but rather, opens us up to the reality which is found in an encounter with God.

Ficino, therefore, expressed the point that God is to be seen as transcendent but yet lacking nothing, so that we can discuss him in the coincidence of such affirmations and negations while realizing he is above them all:

But the divine unity is so effective that within itself it can reconcile even contraries among themselves as one. And since it is far superior to any attribution or affirmation, it is properly deemed, in a wonderful way, separate from any privation opposed to attribution, especially because, since it lacks nothing at all, it is deemed never to be deprived of anything. In sum, in one sense we can affirm but in another we deny the very same thing of God. Certainly, when you say, “God is essence,” you understand that God procreates and preserves essences. But when you follow this up with, “God is not essence,” you mean God is not a form which has been invented or supposed by you, namely the form of an essence.[6]

When talking about God, we begin by affirm that which affirms his greatness. Then, the next step is for us to deny our assertion because our assertion is itself is a construct which would confine the absolute transcendence of God. All our words, all our thoughts, all our use of reason, in order to describe God will never reach God, because they are all confined to the limits of the human mind. We can understand the truth of this without even having to deal with God, but with something more mundane: the world in which we live. We encounter the world mediated in and through our consciousness which differs from the world itself, so that if we want to encounter the world as it is, we must silence the mind and let the realm of forms appear to us and reveal itself to us without any imputation on our part. If the world is not the same as our thought of the world, as our continued observation and engagement with it reveals more of itself to us, so we can understand, in return our relation with God, who infinitely transcends the world. Yet, the world is not negated as we reform our thoughts, denying what we once believed by what we have come to experience and know, so likewise, God must not be seen as negated through our denials of our own thought constructs but rather, to become more real to us as all the falsehood which we held becomes eliminated.

Thus, Ficino explained: “In contemplating God, it seems mind acts on three levels: in the first it uses as many words as is possible, in the second, as few, and in the third none at all.”[7] Our contemplation about God  will begin with a reflection of God in all created things, then continue to the truth of revelation which transcends all rational exploration of God, so that in the end, we will find ourselves with an awe for God which leaves us experiencing him with loving silence: “Therefore, if more speech is remitted, the more [our] love of the Good is intensified, then immediately (as we said), in this very fire,  in the Good’s presence, there shines out the light of the Good; and it breathes forth the Good.”[8]


[Image=St Teresa of Avila by Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] This is why spiritual experiences, even if they are based upon truth, can be distorted and lead to delusional claims about God.

[2] St. Albert distinguishes between two kinds of analogy: one which is established via identity, which is to be denied, but the other through imitation, where “things imitate him to the extant they are able,” St. Albert the Great, “Commentary on Dionysius’ Mystical Theology” in Albert & Thomas, Selected Writings. Trans. Simon Tugwell, OP (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 152. When talking about analogy, it is not an issue of identity, but an issue whereby creation imitates God in a limited fashion, so that we can see the two are analogous even if infinitely distinct from each other, as the divine is infinitely transcendent to any limited, contingent being.

[3] This is one of the major points of the theology of St. Gregory Palamas with his distinction between God’s essence and his energies; we experience God’s energies, his work, and so come to know the truth of God without comprehending him in his essence.

[4] St. Albert the Great, “Commentary on Dionysius’ Mystical Theology.” 151.

[5] See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic II: Truth of God. Trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 102.

[6] Marsilio Ficino, Mystical Theology in Marsilio Ficino: On Dionysius the Areopagite. Volume I: Mystical Theology and The Divine Names, Part I. trans. And ed. Michael J. B. Allen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 35.

[7] Marsilio Ficino, Mystical Theology, 37.

[8] Marsilio Ficino, Mystical Theology, 39.


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