Doxological Theology Part I: Intro to Pseudo-Dionysius

Well hi.

I’m currently working on what will probably be a long series of posts. These posts are in large part an attempt to work through some of my own issues with theism and “God-talk” by going back directly to the (ostensible) source of some of my issues: the western analogical tradition. I’ll be spending the next couple months or so thinking beside (and perhaps beyond?) Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa. I don’t know where this will lead, really, but I’ve been holding these thinkers at a distance so long that it seemed as good a time as any to just jump in and see if I could find anything worth leaving with.

Since I’m not bluffing about not knowing where this’ll all go, I don’t know what else to do by way of introduction to this series but to dive in.

Pseudo Dionyisus The Elder and Pseudo-Dionysius the Neoplatonist

At the outset of The Divine Names, the writer whose works have come to us under the name Dionysius the Areopagite announces his intention to one named Timothy, a “fellow elder,” to provide “an explication of the divine names, as far as possible.” [1] That the qualifier “as far as possible” is added should surprise no serious student of theology, trained as she will be in the difficulties of becoming adequate to the task presented by that “name above all names.” What may be more apt to slip by her attention is this address, from one elder to his fellow. Knowing, as the contemporary scholar will, that this name Dionysius recalls a figure in the book of Acts who could not possibly have written these texts, is this name and this address simply to be understood as an attempt to increase the exposure of the work? Or does the attribution and address place these reflections firmly in the context of a particular gathering, a particular liturgy, and the prayers of a particular tradition as it attempts to pray after the co-incidence of this divinity with one particular human life?

True sayings about God, after all, are true for the Areopagite not in virtue of “plausible words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the power granted by the Spirit.” [2] Thus we must not “resort to words or conceptions… apart from what the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed.” [3] Dionysius is concerned to speak from these texts and this Spirit not because the God to whom these reflections are addressed is a parochial God, identical to or possessed by some (Christian) religious order, but precisely because the God who ‘shows up’ in these texts, this Spirit, and this person Jesus is a God “beyond Being itself.” [4] “Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name.” [5] Even as the self-revelation of this one enjoins a certain kind of speech, so also the inscrutability of this one, for Dionysius, enjoins a certain kind of silence.

This, of course, puts the Areopagite in a rather strange discursive position. On the one hand, these texts and these names come to him from a specifically Jewish tradition, one for which these very categories “Being,” “The Good,” “logos,” appear transgressively as strangers. Dionysius himself subtly apologizes multiple times throughout The Divine Names for the impropriety of his neoplatonic terminology. [6] On the other hand, even the earliest proclamations of this one Jesus play freely and without anxiety among the categories given by the most rigorous traditions of pagan wisdom. The very name this writer selects remembers a convert in Athens in Acts 17—a conversion which takes place as a direct result of free interaction with Hellenic philosophical traditions. What is significant, both in this play more generally and in the Dionysian corpus in particular, is the way a happening is welcomed which appears as something unanticipated, excessive to both traditions of thought; something which impinges ex-statically upon thought and life, which pushes each of these traditions of thought outside of themselves, out to meet the processions of this ‘unknown God.’ The Areopagite can thus theorize rigorously in terms of Being and causality, temporality and eternity, while still offering each of these ruminations in praise of a God who will not be contained by these categories.

 If all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being most be able to transcend knowledge… How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and 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? [7]

Thus, for Dionysius, in the simultaneous necessity and impropriety of attempting to name this nameless One, saying and unsaying—silence and metaphysical constructions of the highest order—are to be gathered together and offered up in praise to the God who comes to them as a foreigner and, transgressing the bounds of each carefully constructed name, nevertheless may receive them each as something which goes beyond simple saying and unsaying; as a doxological word; a word of praise.

[1]  Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” in Pseudo-Dionysius : The Complete Works. The Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 50.

[6] Ibid., 61, 64, 65, 74. Colm Luibheid highlights this pattern in relation to specifically Proclean terminology.

[7] Ibid., 53.

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