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

Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Chapter Five. Part Two. July 2, 2018

God neither is expressed, nor conceived.  All that we say about God is not God, all that we conceive in our thoughts about God, does not truly express God as he is. It is a derivative representation of God which can easily become an idol if we try define God by such conceptions. This is Dionysius’s basic apophatic principle, stated here once as Dionysius will soon turn against normative conventions for God, even basic doctrinal vocabulary, denying them in order to free God from all such limitations.

What we say about God, what we think of God, are the forms by which we point to the truth of God. The words and ideas which we have of God serve as a way for us to grasp after the inexpressible truth of God. So long as we let them serve as catalysts to make us transcend ourselves and seek after the truth of God, they are useful, but when we grasp after the catalysts, the letter and not the spirit of our theological reflections, God is lost and is replaced by a simulacrum. We connect to the truth through the revealed doctrines of the Christian faith, but when we find ourselves tied to the way those doctrines speak of God instead of seeing the content which is being passed down through them, we have lost our way and must be reminded that what we conceive as a result of them is not God.

While God is not something we can establish with our words or thoughts, this is not to say that we cannot apprehend something about God in and through them. We truly grasp after God and receive something of the truth through them; conventional truth can be said to be true, because it points to the fullness of the truth and does not misrepresent itself as being anything more than a convention.  So long as we realize their limitations, we will not be confounded. We do not know God as he is in himself, but we know God in relation to his actions, that is, his activities or energies, which show not only God is, but God is great, acting towards his creation with righteousness and love. That this is something which we can state about God without asserting anything about his essential nature means, as St. Albert the Great stated, that we have a somewhat confused or blurred knowledge of God:

Neither can he be “spoken of or understood”: we have no well-defined understanding of “what” he is or “that” he is, only a blurred knowledge “that” he is.[1]

Or knowledge of God is “blurred,” it is imperfect. What we set down in our words and thoughts about God represent that imperfection. We do not know, and cannot express in words, what God is, but we can say he is because we can come to know him and love him through his works. “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20a RSV). Positive theological discourse from God comes from his economic activity with us. What he does, we can attribute to him, and so indirectly know something about him, but because we do not know all that he does, do not see and understand all that he can and will do, we will never comprehend God through such means. Indeed, even what we understand as a result of his actions towards us is limited, as we explore and represent them not as they are in his eternal, simple activity, but in relation to us in time and space, dividing what is undivided in God into relatively distinct attributes which we use to discuss God. God is love. God is good. God is beautiful. God is wise. God is merciful. God is just. All of these are expressions of God’s activity with us reveal to us, in and through our language and conceptions, relative truths about God.

Despite the relative truth which is revealed through such labels, we must remember that God, as he is in himself, is beyond them. While we establish attributes about him for our own sake, each separate and distinct from each other, in reality, there are no such distinctive qualities in him. God is without parts.  These attributes which we predicate to God are merely logical distinctions. They are not real in relation to his essence. The concepts which we apply to God, therefore, are not real, which is why they must ultimately be denied, but the denial is not a nihilistic denial, which is also why they must be accepted as relatively true so long as they represent the economic activity of God.

Dionysius, by telling us to deny all conceptions for God, must not lead to a nihilism which denies the relative truth being portrayed by doctrine. Rather, it is the affirmation of truth by denying any attempt to confuse the relative truth as the absolute truth. When approaching God, when rising up to meet God, the desire must be to receive God himself, not a simulacrum of God which is the result of confusing the relative truth for the absolute. Doctrine is important; kataphatic engagement with God makes sure we do not nihilistically deny God, which is why all apophatic theology requires first the acceptance of the worth and value of kataphatic theology. The words and concepts must be denied in order to keep the relative truth true. They are the messenger, the means by which the message is to be given out, and so must not be confused with the message itself.

[IMG=Mt. Sinai at Dawn. By Henry Karlson]


[1] St. Albert the Great, “Commentary on Dionysius’ Mystical Theology” in Albert & Thomas, Selected Writings. Trans. Simon Tugwell, OP (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 196-7.



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