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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The unknowing of what is beyond being.

Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names

Just as the senses can neither grasp nor perceive the things of the mind, just as representation and shape cannot take in the simple and shapeless, just as corporal form cannot lay hold of the intangible and incorporeal, by the same standard of truth beings are surpassed by the infinity beyond being, intelligences by that oneness which is beyond intelligence. Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process. (49-50)

PD begins The Divine Names by calling his reader, Timothy, to seek to be empowered by the Holy Spirit in speaking about God. Immediately we notice that PD argues for an understanding of God that places the Divine beyond being. This results in speech and knowledge of the Divine that does not rely on concepts or language that cannot adequately place God beyond speech-itself, our intellect, and our notion of being.

How can we speak about God, then? We can identify two ways so far that speech is still possible, albeit extremely limited. First, speech is made possible by the Holy Spirit. Second, speech is made possible by examining and listening to the Sacred Scriptures. Speech about God must be derived from the Sacred Scripture through Spirit-enabled reading and reflection.

Already, however, PD resorts to using different terms to refer to God: “the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being…Cause of all existence…” (49) These are important Platonic concepts that PD is relying on. But the thing I want to think about is the term “supra-existent Being.” This seems to make the question “Does God exist?” an irrelevant question. God is above existence. Thus, to try to prove that God existences, using the same techniques to prove that something else in the world exists, is really missing the point and steers dangerously close to linguistic and conceptual idolatry. Perhaps recognizing this would help us get over the apologetic obsession that try to “prove God’s existence.”

PD takes a pretty radical approach to speech about God when he says in section 2 that “Now as I have already said, we must not dare to apply words or conceptions to this hidden transcendent God. We can only use what scripture has disclosed…” (50) Scriptural revelation becomes an essential reference point for theological language, but it isn’t like we get much further in finding words to speak about God. That’s because Scripture, PD notes, reveals to us that God is “not only invisible, and incomprehensible, but also ‘unsearchable and inscrutable’…” (50) But, PD continues, this doesn’t mean that God is “absolutely incommunicable” (50). There is the possibility of coming to the knowledge of God by contemplation and enlightenment that God gives “proportionate to each being.” (50) PD seems to be arguing for a progressive approach to God that starts off at small ‘doses’ and steadily increases as God sees fit.

For starters, PD states that the Sacred Scriptures reveal a God

that is the cause of everything, that it is origin, being, and life. To those who fall away it is the voice calling ‘Come back!’ and it is the power which raises them up again. It refurbishes and restores the image of GOd corrupted within them. It is the sacred stability which is there for them when the tide of unholiness is tossing them about. It is safety for those who made a stand. It is the guide bringing upward those uplifted to it and is the enlightenment of the illuminated. Source of perfection for those being made perfect, source of divinity for those being deified, principle of simplicity for those turning toward simplicity, point of unity for those made one; transcendently, beyond what is, it is the Source of very source. Generously and as far as may be, it gives out a share of what is hidden. To sum up. It is the LIfe of the living, the being of beings, it is the Source and cause of all life and of all being, for out of its goodness it commands all things to be and it keeps them going. (51)

A lot of words from a man who says we can’t say much about the Divine! PD explains that this is all derived from Scriptural readings. Scriptural authors also point to a God who is a monad (a Pythagorean term for God that expresses God’s oneness). But, according to PD, God is also expressed in terms of being a multiplicity of persons while remaining a oneness of substance: in short, Trinity. The significance of this is that it reveals God as Love for “in one of its persons it accepted a true share of what it is we are, and there by issued a call to man’s lowly state to rise up to it.” (52) The utterly transcendent God became immanent in the Incarnation. The supernatural took on human nature. Knowing and speaking of God as Trinity is a gift of enlightenment made possible by the Spirit through the Scriptures.

In the eschaton, PD believes, we shall behold God in a new light that is a gift. Our understanding will be able to know God more deeply and profoundly than here on earth. But until the arrival of the eschaton, we are severely limited by the incapacity of our mind and senses.

This leads PD to ask the question:

 How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and of being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all things while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding. How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable.? (53)

Speech seems impossible at this point. PD bolsters this assertion further by saying “it is at a total remove from every condition, movement, life, imagination, conjecture, name, discourse, thought, conception, being, rest, dwelling, unity, limit, infinity, the totality of existence.” (54)

Are we hopelessly left in a realm of utter silence before an unknown, unnameable God? What differentiates this Divinity, which is called Good by PD, from a more sinister force? (PD, by the way, appears to derive the descriptor ‘the Good’ from the very fact that God created and sustains the world; he views this as an act of pure goodness.)