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

Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Conclusion. Part Four. December 10, 2018

Kataphatic theology, when done right, offers up an approximation for the absolute truth by rendering the absolute truth in a conventional form. Due to its relative nature, there can be various levels of approximations which would adequately represent the absolute truth. Nicholas of Cusa, considering the infinite number of approximate representations are possible for the absolute truth gave the example of someone trying to turn a polygon into a circle by adding more and more sides to the polygon. Each side that is added to the polygon, the polygon becomes closer and closer to being a circle, so that the greater the number of sides found in a particular polygon, the better the approximations would be. Nonetheless, so long as the number of sides are not infinite, what is established would merely be a polygon and not a circle. [1]  To attain the circle, we must receive the circle, and not any approximation of the circle. Likewise, to attain the truth, we must not rely upon our conventions of the truth and the approximations which they present to u of the truth; rather, we must open ourselves up to the truth by silencing ourselves and all our attempts to approximate the truth.

Mysticism, in this sense, relates to the silence which we must establish for ourselves, the negation of assertions and definitions, but also the negation of all attempts to think about the truth through such negations by entirely silencing our mind and allowing it to be aware without thought. That us, we must silence ourselves by emptying ourselves of our thoughts, our expectations and desires, while remaining open to the absolute, letting it reveal itself to us as it wills. Nonetheless, we must remember, we cannot force the absolute to reveal itself to us; there is no technique which we can engage which will automatically give us that revelation.  We must be ready to accept silence and accept in that silence what we will have is that silence. But yet, in that silence, we will be open to God, and if God wills, God will reveal himself suddenly and in such an overwhelming way that the silence will be louder than any disquiet in our lives. This is represented in Scripture by the way Elijah the prophet came to hear God in a “whisper”:

And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.  And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave  (1Ki.19:11-13 RSV).

We, like Elijah, must purify ourselves; we must let our thoughts and ideas be put into the fire, not because we will find God in that fire, that is in our apophatic negations, but because once we have done so we will no longer have anything between us and God and we will be ready to receive what God has to offer us when he comes to us and reveals himself to us. Then we will be able to hear the loud whisper of God. It will be, as Dionysius explained in his third letter, something which comes to us in a very sudden fashion:

“Sudden “is that which, contrary to expectation, and out of the, as yet, unmanifest, is brought into the manifest. But with regard to Christ’s love of man, I think that the Word of God suggests even this, that the Superessential proceeded forth out of the hidden, into the manifestation amongst us, by having taken substance as man. But, He is hidden, even after the manifestation, or to speak more divinely, even in the manifestation, for in truth this of Jesus has been kept hidden, and the mystery with respect to Him has been reached by no word nor mind, but even when spoken, remains unsaid, and when conceived unknown.[2]

All revelation, in whatever form it comes to us, will surprise us in its suddenness. What we receive will transcend all expectation. At one moment, we will see and encounter and experience nothing; the next moment, we will encounter God in his self-revelation to us. What was not yet manifest will become manifest. God will make himself known in a new way. The eternal transcendence of God will rush on by like the wind, blowing as it will; if we are ready to receive, we will receive, but if we have closed ourselves off by our own thoughts and internal noise due to our theologizing, God will “walk on by” leaving us stranded to our own devices. Contained in that revelation, likewise, is the absolute truth but it meets us in a relative form. Dionysius tells us in the incarnation, we receive the ultimate self-revelation of God. By assuming human nature, God the Word reveals his very self to us; we can meet him and come to know him, and yet even then, there remains the transcendent mystery which we will never comprehend as the divine nature transcends what is revealed in and through the Word’s humanity.  Yet, because we grow in grace, because of theosis, we constantly encounter God – in all forms of revelation, but especially in and through the incarnation of the Word, and find in that encounter (once we have silenced ourselves), a new sudden revelation, a new greater apprehension of the mystery with a greater realization of the truth which remains hidden to us.

In this fashion, we can be said to be knowing above mind, because what we come to know and apprehend will not come from us and our intellect, but from the absolute truth. God reveals the truth to us in a way which we will never be able to attain by use of our natural, limited reason alone. God empties himself for us to reveal that truth to us: it is mere foolishness for God, but wisdom for us. What God reveals to us is beyond all expectation; it confounds even the wise, beyond all they could ever conceive, so that it is possible to say: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Cor. 1:25 RSV). Those who presume wisdom for themselves will try to map out the world, and establish their own metaphysical principles and ideas which they think explains the world and all that is within it. But God, the absolute truth, transcends all such theorizing and will therefore be unaccounted by it. Only by silencing such worldly wisdom can the transcendent foolishness of God be revealed, and with it, the truth will be apprehended (and what was believed to be true before then will be revealed to be false in comparison).


[IMG= Illustration of an approximate calculation for a circle by polygons by Lateiner [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons]

[1] See Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance. Trans. Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: Arthur J Banning Press, 1985; 2nd corrected edition 1990), 52.

[2]  Dionysius, “Letter Three” in The Works of Dionysius the Areopigate. Trans. James Parker (London: James Parker and Co,, 1897),  142.


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