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

Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Conclusion. Part Ten January 21, 2019

In the Mystical Theology, Dionysius explained how we must take away all that we hold to which stands between us and the truth if we want to truly apprehend the truth for ourselves. We must let the truth reveal itself to us in a form which we can receive instead of trying to rationalize our way to the truth. The form which we receive can change, as our ability to apprehend the truth can change. This is why the revealed form of the truth as it meets us must be understood as fluid. The relative truth which we receive is the truth because it mediates the absolute truth for us, but because our apprehension of the truth can grow as we become more aware of the truth, what we hold as truth must be emptied to make room for a greater realization of the truth. Whatever truth which we apprehend and understand will always be less than the absolute truth, so it can be emptied out and denied through apophatic denials: relative truth in relation to absolute truth is infinitely less than the absolute truth and is therefore nothing in comparison. This emptying out of the truth is not a nihilistic denial of the truth, nor is it a denial of our ability to be in contact with the truth: we can be in the presence of the absolute truth, in the presence of God, and receive from it the new form which can then be appropriated by us and used for meditation, and likewise, for philosophical and theological talk. Kataphatic theology is not erroneous, but what it establishes is relative; apophatic theology is not nihilism, but rather it is the means by which we make ourselves aware of the transcendence of God, Apophaticism is geared towards the truth as it works to affirm it.  “The negations are actually super-affirmations, through a denial of any limiting of God by the measure of our senses and intellect,” as William Riordan explained.[1] When we speak of God, when we speak of the absolute truth, we have a tendency to limit it to the relative truth which we can comprehend: we must realize that the relative truth is true because the transcendence of the absolute truth is made immanent in the relative truth without being comprehended by it.

The apophatic process remains one where we begin with our own understanding, our own thoughts and rationalistic explanation for the truth which we apprehend. This is what we must negate, and so negative theology in one sense is just another form of rationalization, based upon the postulate that the truth is transcendent to us. It still speaks of the truth, and discuss this truth, in a relative, conventional form, though with the intention of pointing to the truth beyond the words being used. It is an important step in our thinking, because through it we are made aware of our own limits. We are told to go beyond it, to seek the truth beyond what we can comprehend, in order to receive it. This, then, is where true mystical theology is formed, where we have accepted the limits of reason, allowing ourselves to be lifted up beyond ourselves and our limits so as to receive an experience of the absolute as it is without anything put between it and ourselves, including and especially our mind. For Dionysius, apophatic theology and mystical theology work together, as Andrew Louth explained, because they are two parts of one whole:

Perhaps one should make a separation between ‘negative theology’ and ‘mystical theology’: negative theology remaining a matter of human understanding, while mystical theology is a matter of surrender to the dark ray of divine light, a matter of a ‘theophatic state’, as it has been called. But that would be a conceptual distinction only: the two theologies are correlative, and Denys never separates them. [2]

There are many ways in which we can then be led to discuss the truth, that is the absolute as it really is (or, if we wish, what is real). The Buddhist philosopher Asaṅga, suggested that we can examine our relationship with it in a four-fold fashion:

Moreover, this reality is fourfold [when considered] in terms of different types that are to be distinguished: (1) that which is recognized [as true] in the world; (2) that which is recognized [as true] on the basis of reasoning; (3) the object that is perceived by the knowledge that removes the obscurations of the mental afflictions; and (4) the object that is perceived by the knowledge that removes the obscurations to that which needs to be known.[3]

There is the general, commonly accepted experience of the world shared by humanity; this experience is shallow, without much understanding or recognition of the depth of reality which lies behind that perception. It is the simple, unphilosophical approach to the world. It is true, it is real, so long as our conceptions are not absolutely false. We can speak of snow, and share with each other the meaning of snow and realize snow lies before us. But what is snow? When we explore that question, we begin to perceive it in another way, in a philosophical or scientific way, a way which can see such snow is not only made of frozen water molecules, but also, of particular atoms or even particular sub-atomic particles which on their given scale, do not resemble what we otherwise would consider to be snow. We can realize, therefore, there is a macro-convention and a reality underneath it, a reality which we rarely perceive and yet remains and is indeed the foundation for the world which we perceive. We experience snow and realize that there is another reality, another depth to the thing which we call snow which we rarely experience and yet remains, both of them being true in accordance to the modality being employed to engage them. But then, we must accept that what we come to realize of the snow, whether on the normal, macro-level, or on the atomic level, we continue to engage it within the limits of human reason and understanding We are still overlaying the reality with conventions, even if those conventions become refined.

Thus, when we speak of the truth or reality, we can accept the conventional or relative value of our presentation, allowing it to be true while realizing the limitations of that truth. When dealing with the absolute truth in itself, God, this process remains at work, and so we observe and experience the truth of God and speak of him in a convention and in a philosophical or reasonable way, while recognizing that if we want the absolute truth as it is, we must remove all such conventions and engage what lies beyond them. Even then, when we do this, we continue to engage this with our minds and the thoughts which we produce in regards the truth. The process by which we get to know God begins with God as an object of knowledge, where we experience and encounter him with a defiled mind, a mind with thoughts and ideas which employs to understand our experience of God.  But we must aim for something beyond this, where we let ourselves go, when we die to the self, and truly receive God without any thoughts or feelings, without any interference from ourselves. This final state is realized through love, for it is with love, we die to the self and open up and await God, our beloved, to reveal himself to us beyond any and all veils of the self, beyond any conventions which we make about him and put between him and us. But of course, as we die to the self, we find ourselves brought back to life in and through the grace of God, in the glory of God, in the realization of our union with him, so that we return, grown in statue, capable of speaking of God in a better way than before. We apprehend God, we think of God, we speak of God, but with a better realization of the relative nature of all such thought and speech as we remain receptive to God and his divine brilliance illuminating us in our theophatic state. Thus, we are not expected to think or say nothing after our experience with the absolute truth: rather, we open ourselves up to God, and through God, through the Spirit, we are moved beyond ourselves, beyond our “natural powers” as William Riordan explained: “Denys does not mean by this though that our piety should lead to any ‘quietism’. Rather, our minds must be moved by the Spirit beyond their natural knowing powers.”[4] We are called to encounter God, the absolute truth, beyond all obscurations, so that then we can then realize the truth and speak of it, and we are able to do this because we find ourselves united with it, transcending, therefore, what we were before our engagement with it.

 

[IMG=Angel Carrying Banner of Truth. Photo by Stephencdickson [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons]


[1] William Riordan, Divine Light: The Theology of Denys the Areopigate (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 186.

[2] Andrew Louth, Denys the Areopagite (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1989), 107.

[3] Asaṅga, The Bodhisattva Path to Unsurpassed Enlightenment. Trans. Artemus B. Engle (Boulder, CO: Snow Lion Publications, 2016), 63-4.

[4] William Riordan, Divine Light: The Theology of Denys the Areopigate (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 172.

 

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