Doxological Theology Part III: Saying and Unsaying Give Way

Our next chapter review for Crockett and Robbins’ book is coming tomorrow. Just a heads up. – S

Dionysius’ writing in both The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology is given over to this very question (that of the direction of named praise to what can only be nameless). Opening The Mystical Theology, addressing Timothy once again, the Areopagite writes that “my advice… is to leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upwards as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge.”⁠1 Bereft of further content, this advice would seem of little help, except as a vague experiential platitude, indulging in a sort of vulgar divorce of thought and life. Dionysius’ mysticism, however, is precisely a mysticism whose concern penetrates thought and life simultaneously, refusing the oppositions by which thought and life might seek to evade marriage in doxology. It is precisely in light of a rigor of thought that coincides with a life of praise that the theologian should read his warning against “those caught up with the things of the world, who imagine that there is nothing beyond instances of individual being and who think that by their own intellectual resources they can have a direct knowledge of him who has made the shadows his hiding place.”⁠2

The admonition to union over understanding, then, gives the form for a specifically doxological mode of thought characterized by three distinct moments or ways. As Dionysius lays out succinctly in The Mystical Theology:

“What has actually to be said about the Cause of everything is this. Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should [1] posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and, more appropriately, [2] we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that [3] the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.”⁠3

Drawing upon the causal logic available to him as a student of the neoplatonists, Dionysius grounds [1] the possibility of a starting point—a via positiva—in the insight that as an effect of God’s act of creation, the created perfections bear some proper relation to the perfections of the Cause. Thus, the divinity which remains properly nameless takes its most proper names from the conceptual, materially indeterminate perfections found in created Being. Since this God still remains properly nameless—still transgresses the bounds of even the most properly transcendental perfections—[2] each of these names are then, in the via negativa, loosed, given away, negated as names that can only fail to determine the God to whom they are addressed. Important to note, here, is both the relative primacy Dionysius gives to negation, and the ontological significance of that primacy. This primacy affirms God’s non-circumscription in Being, even as Cause. In his treatment of Moses, note the removal of God from ontological determination:

And yet he [Moses at Sinai] does not meet God himself, but contemplates, not him who is invisible, but rather where he dwells. This means, I presume, that the holiest and highest of the things perceived with the eye of the body or the mind are but the rationale which presupposes all that lies below the Transcendent One. Through them, [according to causality] however, his unimaginable presence is shown, walking the heights of those holy places to which the mind at least can rise. But then he [Moses] breaks free of them, away from what sees and is seen, and he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing.”⁠4

Thus, through created things, a certain onto-logic is apparent, by which causal perfections admit the accumulation of real knowledge of the world according to its own ordered existence. Even for this far-reaching knowledge, however, God remains precisely that which cannot be thought—cannot be known—except as the one who confronts the human person precisely in her unknowing. This admits an otherwise strange dynamic between speech and silence: “the good Cause of all is both eloquent and taciturn, indeed wordless.”⁠5

Even in its priority, however, this unknowing gives way, for the simple silence of unconcern cannot be appropriate to this one who, in unknowing, confronts. “For this would be really to see and to know: to praise the Transcendent One in a transcending way, namely through the denial of all beings.”⁠6 The theologian will note that it is the negative moment, the dispossession, that becomes the site of transcendent praise, but the second moment only thus transforms in light of the third moment; thus its priority, but thus also its surpassing. And so, [3] the doxological moment comes to surpass both the vias positiva and negativa because the one who acts and knows in this third moment is more properly God than the speaker. Nothing new remains to be said, and so the speaker offers both saying and unsaying as a mode of prayer/praise (the action of the speaker) in which the speaker is, per Dionysius’ advice to Timothy, moved towards this God (the action of God, which the action of the speaker goes out to meet, and to which speech defers). In prayer/praise, this God occurs as irreducible to conceptual idolatry, and the intellectual possessions one may have accumulated are given prayerfully away as iconography.  In this doxological moment, the dispossession affected by the via negativa becomes a site in which we may be confronted by God as by the face of another. “The more [my argument] climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with him who is indescribable.”⁠7

1 Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology,” in Pseudo-Dionysius : The Complete Works. The Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 135.

2 Ibid., 136.

3 Ibid., 136.

4 Ibid., 137. Bracketed additions mine.

5 Ibid., 136.

6 Ibid., 138. (emphasis mine)

7 Ibid., 139.

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