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

Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Chapter Four. Part Two. June 11, 2018

After showing how apophatic theology could give some positive understanding about God by the way he established God as the Cause of all, asserting God’s greatness by denying what he was not, Dionysius next continued his theological and contemplative union with God by denying material substance to God. In this fashion, Dionysius wrote:  nor is [He] a body—-nor has [He] shape—-nor form—-nor quality, or quantity, or bulk—-nor is in a place—-nor is seen—-nor has sensible contact—-nor perceives, nor is perceived, by the senses.  In explaining why Dionysius started with material being, with what could be perceived by the senses, St. Albert the Great suggested this was because material being, indeed matter itself, can be seen as being ontologically the form of being which is furthest from what God is in himself.[1]

While it is possible to consider various entities in the material world and divide them without end as we explore sub-atomic particles, and begin with something more basic, and lesser, there is no need in doing this. By saying God is not a body, Dionysius quickly eliminated all such forms of being, allowing a suitable foundation for his ascent. Dionysius has denied all forms of material beings in association with the divine nature. All that can be found in the sub-atomic realm is as much removed from God as basic atomic elements, or further, any and all forms of material being. Though each of them can be used to represent some sort of analogy of being in relation to God, none of them are to be simply equated with the divine nature. Thus, while many names and analogies used in Scripture to represent God come from material being, Dionysius did not have to deny each and every one of them individually in his ascent; rather, he quickly and collectively dismissed them from such an association with God in one simple denial. Anything which has a body, anything which is composed of matter, has been denied.  We do not have to say “God is not a lion” or “God is not a man” or “God is not a stone” if we already establish “God is not a body.”

If, therefore, we want to follow Dionysius, and engage our own apophatic ascent towards God, we too, do not have to go to the lowest form of being, to that which is next to nothingness, in order to begin our mystical ascent. Rather, we can begin where it is most suitable for us (or our audience). Some might need to start at a lower point than another, because some might need more help in deducing the implications of such apophatic denials, but others, who are capable of understanding the implications of a starting point higher on the metaphysical chain of being, can begin their exploration and contemplation of God at that higher end, eliminating many unnecessary apophatic denials by doing so.

Nonetheless, Dionysius, while expecting a lot from his readers, still helped them to discern some of the implications which come out of saying God is not a body by giving various examples of other denials which could be made about God.  A body possesses its own shape and form which is able to be perceived by the senses. Even if we are blind, we can touch and feel a body, discern its shape, and come to know its form in the world. But God is not a thing, not something which is divided into parts, and so he is not something which is bound by and established by the laws of material being. By having no body, there is no place for God to be. Space is itself a manifestation of material forms which are capable of being divided. Space, shape, form, division, all allow for quantification, for what is bound in space can be repeated and duplicated, taking up more space in the process, but God, who is not in space, therefore has no bulk, no quantification which can be duplicated.[2]  God is divinely simple, beyond all numerical manifestations, and therefore, also beyond all qualifications or changeable nature of being. This means, God, by having no place in space, has no place in time as well. For space and time are interdependent; take away one, and the other also vanishes.

Dionysius explained, by being without a body, God is without shape or form imposing a shape upon a material object. Without a material form, God is not perceived by the senses. Likewise, as the senses themselves are material means of perception, using matter to discern and sense other matter, God does not perceive creation through senses of his own. God knows and perceives all things without need of sensual mediation; he knows them in and through himself as he grants to them their very existence. He grants all things their being so that qualities associated with being are also established by him without being possessed by him, showing why Dionysius would say God is not a quality, as Anastasius commented:

About quality, too, we should think nothing else, for God is not a quality. None befalls him; he participates in none. But we also very often predicate quality of him, either because he is the founder of all quality or because quality is very regularly put into the meaning of the virtues. For goodness, justice, and other virtues are said to be qualities. Now God is virtue and more than virtue.[3]

All things come from God, and therefore, as the cause of all, he is not in those things but transcends them. What is established on the material plane of being can help us to come to know God, but we must deny the limitations found with material existence as being limitations upon God. God is a body. God does not come to know through material senses, because he has no body in which they are to be formed. Likewise, without a body, material senses cannot reach out and grasp after him. God is to be known not like any other object. He does not perceive nor is perceived through the senses. So long as we search for him and try to find him like some other material object, we will never get him but something less than him which we might mistake to be him.


[IMG=Universe Person Silhouette on Pixabay [Public Domain] via CC0 Creative Commons]

[1] See St. Albert the Great, “Commentary on Dionysius’ Mystical Theology” in Albert & Thomas, Selected Writings. Trans. Simon Tugwell, OP (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 187

[2] As Anastasius suggested in his scholia. See A Thirteenth-Century Textbook of Mystical Theology at the University of Paris. trans. L Michael Harrington (Paris: Peeters, 2004), 95.

[3] A Thirteenth-Century Textbook of Mystical Theology at the University of Paris, 95.





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