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

Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Chapter Five. Part Twelve September 10, 2018

God, as the Cause of all things, is neither one, nor oneness (οὔτε ἓν οὔτε ἑνότης).

Because of divine simplicity and the analogy mathematics often given to metaphysics, God is often called “one” or “The One” in kataphatic theology. God is one, not multiple, that is God is one and not composed of many parts. God can be said to be the one who causes and establishes the many. In the Divine Names, Dionysius explained how and why the name of “One” was appropriate for God, but also why God even transcends what is represented and understood when we call him one:

But One, because He is uniquely all, as beseems an excess of unique Oneness, and is Cause of all without departing from the One. For there is no single existing being, which does not participate in the one, but as every number participates in an unit, and one dual and one decade is spoken of, and one half, and one third and tenth, so everything, and part of everything participates in the one, and by the fact that the One is, all existing things are. And the Cause of all is not One, as one of many, but before every one and multitude, and determinative of every one and multitude. For there is no multitude which does not partake in some way or other of the one. Yea, that which is many by parts, is one in the whole; and the many by the accidents, is one by the subject; and the many by the number or the powers, is one by the species, and the many by the species, is one by the genus; and the many by the progressions, is one by the source. And there is no single thing which does not participate in some way in the one, which uniformly pre-held in the uniqueness throughout all, all and whole, all, even the things opposed. And indeed, without the one there will not be a multitude, but without the multitude there will be the one, even as the unit previous to every multiplied number; and, if any one should suppose, that all things are united to all, the All will be one in the whole.[1]

God is not one as if he is to be seen as one being among many; God is not a oneness which is shared and participated in and multiplied by the rest of being. As one multiplied creates many ones, with each of those multiple ones sharing in and having the one within them, taking it and increasing it through such multiplication, so God cannot be seen to be one, for God is not multiplied in and through the establishment of multiple beings. God is not something which is shared in and transcended or comprehended by other beings who taking God as their starting point from which they grow and become more expansive, which is exactly what happens to the one in relation to mathematical realities as we find numbers continue on from the one and transcend it, increasing it with further ones being added to it without end. God is not shared or partaken by the rest of being as if he is one being among many or one being shared by and comprehended by all that come after him. He is said to be one because he transcends all plurality; that is, he is called one because he can be shown to be simple. We have an analogical understanding of how God can work with the rest of being by calling him one, but we must understand that this analogical representation breaks down in the distinction which exists between God and the cardinal number one.

And yet, by calling him one, in analogical sense, we can already begin to understand why he is not “oneness,” that is, a unity which makes something one. Whatever is united is composed of parts. The one, to be one, truly one and not just symbolically one, cannot be composed of parts and still be one. It can be seen as one united whole, but it is not truly and properly one. There has to be something which is truly one without parts, and so, to be truly and utterly simple. What is truly one and simple is the cause and foundation for such oneness, similar to the way the Good is the foundation for goodness.[2] For this first cause to be said to be one, and not just representing one, it must therefore transcend oneness which is a united oneness coming from parts. This follows what Proclus explained by saying whatever is unified must be other than the One itself for if the One were unified, then it would not truly be one:

Prop. 4. All that is unified is other than the One itself.
For if it is unified, it must in some way participate in unity, namely, in that respect in which it is said to be unified (prop. 3); and what participates in unity is both one and not-one (prop.2). Both the One itself is not both one and not-one; for if it is also be one and not-one, then the unity which it contains will in its turn contain this pair of elements, and there will be infinite regress, since we shall find no simple unity at which our analysis can stop, but everything will be one and not-one. The unified, therefore, is something other than the One.[3]

By disengaging God from the One, paradoxes which develop out of our mathematical analogies for God are transcended. The question concerning the one and the many, a question of great importance in philosophy and kataphatic theology, is overcome by showing that it is all a problem created by the human mind and its mathematical constructs. Mathematics, though the laws can be established the be universal, nonetheless remains a construct of the human mind and the way it thinks and engages reality; the construct is useful, and it can be shown to have a relative sense of universal, indeed, eternal truth, just as mathematics can establish infinite lines which have no end; but yet where the relative nature of numbers and their relationship come into play, so we find where mathematics remains a relative truth with interdependent elements which go together. It is dualistic in nature. Calling God “one” or “the one” is meant to transcend that dualism; however, the term, coming from our dualistic sense of knowledge, remains confined within such dualism and will lead others to come to dualistic conclusions so long as they assume God is one as an absolute instead of relative truth. For this reason, we must say “God is not one” if we want to affirm the spirit of such kataphatic statements for God.


[IMG=Meditative mystical image of the Trinity, from the early 14th-cenutry Flemish Rothschild Canticles,  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] Dionysius, Divine Names.  Trans. James Parker (London: James Parker and Co,, 1897), 123.

[2] See Anastasius in A Thirteenth-Century Textbook of Mystical Theology at the University of Paris. trans. L Michael Harrington (Paris: Peeters, 2004), 105.

[3] Proclus, The Elements of Theology. Trans. E.R. Dodds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 5.


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