Complete unknowing is knowledge of Him

Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, four letters to the monk named Gaius

Letter One

In the first letter to Gaius, Pseudo-Dionysius frankly tells his reader that “Someone beholding God and understanding what he saw has not actually seen God himself but rather something of his which has being and which is knowable.” (263) That is to say that if someone claims they have seen God, they have not actually caught sight of God but an energy of God, an action of God’s that is visible and comprehensible to the mind. But this is not God in his essence. God is cloaked in a transcendent darkness, enigmatic to our limited human intellects. “He is completely unknown and non-existent,” in his essence, that is. (263) God cannot be said to exist in the same way that you or I or any other object in the world exists. God, in a sense, does not exist. This is a conclusion that seems to fly in the face of all the many apologetic attempts to “prove” God’s existence. But this does not mean that God is dead. God is the source of all that does exist, the underpining substructure which sustains life. God is not alive, but is Life. But more than that, he is beyond existence. God is neither being nor non-being but beyond being. (Is it the God-Who-May-Be?)

And this quite positively complete unknowing is knowledge of him who is above everything that is known. (263)

This is a sort of spiritual a/gnosticism (and I’m not using that in the traditional sense of ‘agnostic’ and ‘gnostic’). It is both knowledge and non-knowledge. Knowledge is only found through unknowing.

Letter Two

To the extent that he remains inimitable and ungraspable he transcends all imitation and all grasping, as well as all who are imitated or participate. (263)

God is beyond imitation. PD forces an interesting question by describing God as “inimitable” and “ungraspable.” What would that mean for notions within Christian spirituality of “becoming more like God” or the Eastern Christian concept of theosis or divinization? How can one imitate something that they are unable to see, perceive, grasp?

Letter Three

Refering to Malachi 3.1, PD implies that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is a sudden event.

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. (Mal 3.1, ESV)

“Sudden” for PD, means “What comes into view, contrary to hope, from previous obscurity…” (264) In other words, the Incarnation is something that emerges from the transcendent darkness of God with a certain degree of unexpectedness. PD further says, “the transcendent has put aside its own hiddeness and has revealed itself to us by becoming a human being.” (264) The transcendence of God in Christ is not compromised. God remains “hidden even amid the revelation.” (264) The precise nature and execution of the Incarnation is an example of how God remains hidden; that is, our language breaks down when it attempts to define the Incarnation and describe how it happened. Jesus’ divinity, because he is fully God, remains hidden and inaccessible because those sorts of descriptors must refer to the whole Godhead, PD argues. God is indivisible in essence and thus, descriptors cannot vary according to the three different Persons of the Trinity.

Letter Four

The Incarnation is the essential mystery of the Christian faith. As such, the question is asked how it is possible for “Jesus, who transcends all” to be “placed in the same order in being with all men.” (264) How does the ineffable, transcendent, God become man? And what does this mean about the essence of God? PD makes several both/and statements that place Jesus firmly in the realms of being and beyond-being, humanity and divinity, superiority and normalcy.

For if I may put the matter briefly, he was neither human nor nonhuman; although humanly born he was far superior to man, and being above men he yet truly did become man. Furthermore, it was not by virtue of being God that he did divine things, not by virtue of being a man that he did what was human, but rather, by the fact of being God-made-man he accomplished something new in our midst–the activity of the God-man. (265)

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