Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Conclusion. Part One

Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Conclusion. Part One November 19, 2018

God reveals himself to us, but what we can apprehend of that revelation is less than what God is in himself. We can talk about God as a result of that revelation. We can discuss, and try to understand, what we have received. We can explain our beliefs to others, knowing the limitations of all such explanations. For, when we talk about God, we must always keep in mind that God transcends anything and everything which we can say about him. This is true not only of kataphatic theology, but apophatic theology as well. It is still centered upon human conventions and speech and thought patterns. All our talk about God, even when we try to discuss God through apophatic theology, when it reveals some sort of truth reveals itself to be but a relative truth. Insofar as our presentation of the truth points to the absolute truth without being confused with it, our presentation can be said to be true, but when we begin to absolutize it, the difference between the absolute and the relative truth makes our presentation riddled with errors.

Dionysius understood the need for a theological exploration of the faith as well as maintaining the transcendent mystery of God. He also realized that as we try to avoid absolutizing relative presentations of the truth we might end up nihilistically denying the truth, and therefore, deny God. What we need is a way to allow us to speak of God without absolutizing our speech so that we overcome the twin extreme errors of absolutism and nihilism. Therefore, theological God-talk must contain the assertion that God transcends all relative truths used to explain him and yet God is equally being discussed and represented in such relative truths insofar as they remain open to and point to the transcendent absolute from which they come. Relative truths are not falsehoods, though they can become falsehoods when they are absolutized. Theology, so long as it understands itself as engaging relative truths, has an important role for our spiritual life. We want to know and understand the faith, and theology helps us to do so. But as we explore the faith, we will begin to see that the absolute truth transcends our mind even as it will lead to all kinds of logical paradoxes when we try to absolutize the relative truths which we have accepted. The human intellect cannot synthesize the absolute truth through relative truths, nor can it abstract itself in order to attain the absolute. Nihilism, it turns out, is just another form of absolutism: what it absolutizes is the denial which we use to keep the absolute truth absolute and not confused with relative truth. The two truths are not to be confused with one another, though there is only one truth, of which the relative truth participates in and the absolute truth actually is.

When we say God is not truth, we must understand that it is a denial of God being any form or expression of truth which we can give for God. When we say God is truth, we are asserting the unity between the absolute truth which cannot be comprehended or defined with God. When we say, moreover, God is not the absolute truth, it must be understood that God is not the absolute truth in the way which we philosophize or theologize about the absolute truth: whatever we say of the absolute truth remains a conventional truth, and so is not what God is. For what we say, even when we hint at and point to truths which exist beyond the word or form used to express that truth, remains on the level of conventional truth for it remains contained within the realm of limited thoughts and words. The intended meaning might transcend words, and even point to the absolute truth, but whatever we apprehend, whatever we understand as a result will forever be less than the absolute as the absolute in itself transcends all limits while our intellect, no matter how great it is, will be limited in nature.

We are, therefore, free to use images, names, philosophical categories, logic so far in our theologizing. They help us, and indeed, when we are first coming to the faith, they are very important for us as they help set us up on the right path towards God. Dogmatic orthodoxy has set up contours which prevent us from stumbling around and going the wrong way in our understanding of God. It speaks of the truth and points to a truth which transcends what can be said by words. While not the absolute truth, it is not falsehood either. Falsehood, absolute falsehood, would be found in entirely impossible, self-contradictory statements which absolutely contradict facts and the truth. To say a particular rabbit has horns, or an iceberg is composed of fire, so long as the definitions of rabbit, horns, ice, and fire, are all properly understood and remain what we think of them to mean, would lead to falsehood which must be rejected. But with theological orthodoxy, which employs theological and philosophical analysis to explain revealed truths, there is every attempt to eliminate falsehoods while remaining open to and true to the revelation which has been received. St. Hilary of Poitiers once explained that the need for positive theological definitions lies with negative theology, with denial of certain falsehoods which threaten to confuse and mislead people away from the truth. That is, when heretics speak, then there is not only room for, but the need for theological examination so we can demonstrate where such heretics go wrong, recognizing of course, the transcendent mystery which must remain behind such assertions.[1]

God, therefore, reveals himself to us. We apprehend God in and through such revelation. There are many levels of revelation possible, and so many ways in which God can reveal himself to us, some indirectly, some much more directly, with the most direct being in and through the incarnation, that is, through Jesus Christ.[2] Each way which we can engage God, therefore, offers us a glimpse of the transcendence coming to us in an immanent fashion, in a way which we can apprehend the truth in a relative form. As there is an infinite amount of depth possible in revelation, there is an infinite variety of ways that this revelation can be given. Likewise, not all revelation is of the same quality or kind: some will be greater, some lesser; the further away we are from God, the more generalized the truth, the closer we are, the more concrete it will become.[3]

What we comprehend, what we understand, will never be the absolute as it is in itself, but the absolute in a relative form which must never then be absolutized in return. If we think we have ended up comprehending God, we have fallen short of God, having absolutized a relative truth concerning God and turning it into God himself. The foundation for idolatry is established when various relative truths which have been discerned are absolutized, leading people to worship a concept of God which represents an order of being far away from God as he is in himself. We must remember that as the absolute truth absolutely transcends the relative truth. While what we possess rightfully is said to be truth, we remain, in the absolute sense, ignorant of God (agnosia). Dionysius, in his first “letter,”[4] written to “Gaius Therapeutes,” therefore began with an apophatic statement which cuts to the heart of his Mystical Theology:

And, if any one, having seen God, understood what he saw, he did not see Him, but some of His creatures that are existing and known. But He Himself, highly established above mind, and above essence, by the very fact of His being wholly unknown, and not being, both is super-essentially, and is known above mind. And the all-perfect Agnosia, in its superior sense, is a knowledge of Him, Who is above all known things.[5]

We must be agnostic in relation to the absolute truth. We must stop all attempts to grasp at it and comprehend it by our mind. God transcends all being, for he is the source and foundation of being itself. We can, with kataphatic theology, call him being in a relative sense because of the difficulty we have understanding what it means to say that God is beyond being. Nonetheless, apophatic theology reminds us that when we equate God with being, we then end up absolutizing being and confuse God with his creation. He his “super-essential,” that is whatever positive good is found in being he possesses – the denial of being is not a nihilistic rejection of being, but its affirmation by setting up its super-essential foundation.

God is known beyond the mind because God is known in and through our recognition of our ignorance. Our willingness to silence our theologizing allows to properly welcome what God reveals of himself to us. So long as our mind thinks, seeking to explain things according to its limited capabilities, it will not seek God or understand God, but will come up with something less than God which it will attach itself to when it finds it. We must recognize that our senses, including our spiritual senses, especially our mental intellectual senses, will never attain the absolute as it is in itself, but only receive the absolute in a relative form which we can apprehend.  Now the two, the relative and absolute, are one, indeed, they are revealed to be one in and through the incarnation. But, as the incarnation reveals to us, they are united and so are said to be one in an unconfused manner. This is why, recognizing their unity, we must act like monophysites with the truth, confusing the relative with the absolute. Likewise, as we apprehend the truth, we find ourselves joining in with it; but we do so, just like in the incarnation, with no confusion, so that our unity does not destroy us and our distinction from the absolute, but rather, like in the incarnation, it finds itself properly preserved.

[IMG=Denis the Areopagite by André Thévet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] See St. Hilary of Poitiers, “On the Trinity” in NPNF2(9): 52 [II-2].

[2] In Jesus, the are many forms of revelation of God at work. All three persons of God reveal themselves to us in and through Jesus. The Father is revealed through the Son, as the Son reveals himself to us as being the one who becomes incarnate. The Holy Spirit is revealed to us not only by dwelling in and with the Son, but also by being sent by the Son to us, making us holy. The sayings and deeds of Jesus not only reveal something about God to us, but they do so, also, on many levels of revelation. The more we explore Jesus and the relationship between his life with revelation, the more depth we find in Jesus, until we see, even in his sayings and deeds, there remains the absolute transcendence of God, allowing for an infinite variety of truths to be discerned through him.

[3] This must itself be understood relatively, that is, the various varieties of revelation must be compared to each other, with some greater than others, but in comparison to the absolute truth, all are infinitely far away from the absolute and remain relative truths.

[4] There are several works of Dionysius, some short, some long, which have been written in the form of letters; whether or not they were actual letters or not we do not know, but reading through them, it is hard not to notice that they represent a kind of systematic theology if one reads all.

[5] Dionysius  “Letter One” in The Works of Dionysius the Areopigate. Trans. James Parker (London: James Parker and Co,, 1897),  141.


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