Doxological Theology Part IV: Derridean Objections

Given this play between saying and unsaying, in which the via negativa maintains priority without possessing for itself a kind of “last word,” how is the theologian after Dionysius to respond to the classic Derridean objection: is this not, in some important sense, a bluff? Negative theology, Derrida will claim, “is always occupied with letting a superessential reality go beyond finite categories of essence and existence, that is, of presence, and always hastens to remind us that, if we deny the predicate of existence to God, it is in order to recognize him as a superior, inconceivable and ineffable mode of Being.”⁠1 Negative theology “claims not to do what it nevertheless does all the time,” predicating Being—and the like—of God, and inscribing God back within the frame of what goes by the names “onto-theology” and “metaphysics of presence.”⁠2 Insofar as the via negativa passes again into a saying, is it not an attempt to ground a secure possibility of predicative speech? And does not this grounding re-inscribe God  as ultimately an object or function given for thinking the presence-at-hand of things in the world? Even as we affirm that God is not a being, God still, according to this line of accusation, remains a kind of being who is not a being.  How is this formulation not, in the last analysis, ideological?

According to Marion, “It could be answered that mystical theology obviously does not intend to re-establish in fine what it denied, but to pass, through the way of eminence, from predication (affirmative and/or negative) to a decidedly non-predicative form of speech, namely the prayer which praises (ύμνείν).”⁠3 The objection that remains, however, is that “one always praises with a title… or insofar as…, thus by naming.”⁠4 Marion responds to this in part via the logic of proper names; the proper name is proper to the named precisely by virtue of its impropriety towards the essence of the named. A proper name does not predicate an attribute, but gestures toward what it signifies without predication. Indeed, for Dionysius, God “falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being.”⁠5 Dionysius deals with this at some length in the first chapter of The Divine Names. “Realizing all this, [the independence of God from metaphysical determination] the theologians praise it by every name—and as the Nameless One.”⁠6 Dionysius frequently reflects on the proper namelessness of God alongside necessity of naming. Thus, according to this logic of im/propriety, “as Cause of all and as transcending all, [God] is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything that is.”⁠7 It is according to this logic that even those most essentially “proper” names are transgressed; thus, echoing Paul, Dionysius argues that the wisdom by which God is named “wise” is a form of foolishness. These names point, in the mode of icon, towards a confrontation that remains unpossessed by the names themselves.⁠8

1 Quoted in Jean-Luc Marion, “In The Name,” in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, ed. John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 21-22.

2 Marion, “In The Name,” 23.

3 Ibid., 23.

4 Ibid., 23.

5 Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology,” 141

6 Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” 54.

7 Ibid., 56.

8 Marion will also refer to this as a “saturated phenomenon.” Marion, “In the Name,” 39-40. A saturated phenomenon is differentiated from two options given for appearance by Husserl: that appearance which is adequate to what appears and that which is inadequate, where appearance fails to measure up to the concept to which it is submitted. Instead, the doxological moment is described as a moment in which appearance exceeds the concept given for it. His phenomenological description highlights both the limitations of phenomenalogical description per se and the necessity of faith; phenomenology can say nothing about whether this confrontation actually happens, since the third moment has nothing more to say after saying and unsaying, but instead listens for what may or may not speak. Thus, while the question of predication can be settled in theory (via the notion of saturated phenomena), the question of ideology remains theoretically undecideable, resting on the side of the confrontation itself.

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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.

Doxological Theology Part II: Idol and Icon

Of course, as the trained theologian will not fail to note, to address praise to this God is no mean feat. As Jean-Luc Marion highlights, the conflict between idol and icon is always “a conflict between two phenomenologies.” [1] As such, it is a conflict not between two competing objects with competing referents who otherwise are (have their Being) in the same way, but one between different ways in which these objects may be. That even objects which reference the ‘correct’ God may be idols, and the fluidity with which objects may traverse the divide between idol and icon both suggest this distinction. Rather, what is at stake is two distinct “modes of apprehension [or reception] of the divine in visibility.” [2]

For Marion, the basic form of the idol is not that of illusion or forgery. It is not properly illusory because it consists rather in the recognition of precisely that which cannot help but be seen; the idol stabilizes (grasps) that which captures the gaze, so that it can become a point of reference, given for the gaze’s use. It is not properly a forgery because the fabrication only enters the status of idol in the later, determinative, moment when it presents as “that which will fill a gaze.” [3] “The gaze makes the idol, not the idol the gaze—which means that the idol with its visibility fills the intention of the gaze, which wants nothing other than to see.” [4] The gaze stops upon some thing (the idol), and the idol re-presents that stopping point—the gaze’s own aim. Thus, the privileged metaphor for Marion is the invisible mirror; what the idol presents to the gaze is the gaze in its own intention, but it shows this in a way that masks over—renders invisable—its own operation. [5]

The icon, on the other hand, phenomenally inverts the operation of the idol. The icon is not determined by the gaze, but “provokes” it towards a vision unaccountable within its own aim. [6] In the icon, Paul’s formula rendering Jesus the “icon of the invisible God” becomes paradigmatic; the icon does not present the visible as a means of discerning between visible and invisible, offering an image for the grasp of the gaze. [7] Instead, the icon presents the invisible precisely as invisible; as that which confronts the gaze without becoming an object for the gaze’s determination. The privileged reference here is a face; because the gaze and aim that determine the icon as icon are not those that belong to the one who apprehends the icon, but to the icon itself as presentation of the invisible, the one who apprehends finds in the icon not a thing but an aim alien to herself, by which she is confronted. Thus, while the idol’s reflexive origin admits a fixed point of return, the icon can be submitted to no measure, no aesthetic, but only to its own apocalyptic, abyssal “infinite excessivess.” [8]

What is important here for the student of theology learning to pray and praise with Dionysius is the idol/icon analytic when applied to the conceptual names of God. How are we to address our praise to true God rather than idol?

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being : Hors-Texte, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 7.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 10-11.

[5] Note the resemblance of the invisible/invisable distinction here to Althusser’s formulation of the ideological interpellation of the subject as subject.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 20-21.

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.

Inadequacy and the theological task

The task of theology is ultimately the task of speaking about God after God. Attempting to do so is wrought with difficulties. Readers of this blog will find other, more eloquent posts detailing the problem of theological speech; human contingency and “violent” metaphysical systems are some of the endless curveballs sent our way today. In response to these difficulties, at least one natural response is to lament and adandon theological speech altogether.

Further, the immensity of the theological task is always rendered heavily on those who seek to pursue the discipline. I (hope I) am not alone in feeling woefully deficient in “doing” theology. Graduate school daily reminds me that the more I learn, the more I learn I do not know anything. Pressure is mounting to position myself for post-graduate work. Peers seem to grasp the specifics of medieval and modern thinkers much better than I.

In his magisterial book Barth’s Earlier Theology John Webster notes Barth’s utter lack of confidence in his intellectual ability as he taught through Zwingli’s theology at Münster,

 The pressure was rendered more acute by Barth’s sense of intellectual inadequacy: in another circular letter in late January of the next year [1923], he speaks with dismay of his lack of scholarly agility, his unsatisfactory knowledge of Latin and his poor memory.[1]

Despite his difficulty early on, Barth is widely acknowledged as the most important theologian of the twentieth century. Obviously he developed as a thinker, and perhaps he was undercutting what a first-rate mind he really had. But as I read Webster’s description certain thoughts I have been wrestling through crystallized. True theological speech is one that flows from an always already acknowledged understand of our inability to do so. But in this inability we find ourselves able. We speak because God has and continues to speak to us. We speak imperfectly as those encountered by the Word of God. The command of God encounters us and reaffirms out creatureliness by redefining it in relational terms, providing us with material means of proclamation: “Man has the character of responsibility… man is, and is human, as he performs this act of responsibility, offering himself as the response to the word of God, and conducting, shaping and expressing himself as an answer to it.”[2] Obedience “is the precise creaturely counterpart of the grace of God.”[3]

We speak because the Word has spoken. This does not make the task easy. An ever-changing world requires various modes of witness to the one God. The jury is still out on just what the next dominant expression of doctrine will look like. I take solace in imperfect proclamation of the Word, something always both possessed and unable to be possessed by the church, the divine Subject and Object we continually bear witness to in inadequate yet faithful ways.


[1] John Webster, Barth’s Earlier Theology.

[2] Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, 174, 175

[3] CD, III/2, 207

Barth and God-talk

word-god-theology-karl-barth-paperback-cover-art

“This alone –– note, God’s Word alone –– is the answer that possesses genuine transcendence and thus has the power to solve the riddle of immanence…We must give this answer, but this very answer we cannot give.”[1]

In his essay “The Word of God as the Task of Theology,” Karl Barth attempts to put forth the task of the theologian. The task that is both the theologians plight and promise.[2] This task, the theologians plight and promise, is both the necessary and impossible task of speaking of God––the question of God. [3] For Barth, the question of God arises from human existence. This question comes to be from the human realization that her entire life stands in the shadow of death. Thus, this question that gives rise to the theologians task, the question of God, is the negativity of human existence.[4] “For [she herself], the human, is the question. Therefore the answer must be the question.”[5] It is out of this negativity of human existence that, for Barth, both the question and answer of the task of theology surfaces.[6] However, this task is an impossibility, according to Barth. The answer to this question, to the “human riddle”, is the Word of God; it is the event of God doing something new. It is the event that cannot be comprehended; it can only be revealed as the impossible becomes possible, as God becomes human.[7] Nevertheless, this question, which rises up in the need of the human, moves one to “ought” to speak of God. However, this ought does not imply can.[8] For Barth, “to speak of God would mean to speak that word which can only come from God [herself]: the Word, God becomes [human].”[9] It is only as God reveals Godself that the Word may be spoken. Where God enters into the negativity of our existence with Her fullness, it is only there that speaking of God may occur.[10] We humans cannot speak of God, but because God has become human, we may speak of God. However, we are to do so in a way where the answer is never dissolved into the question, nor vice versa; rather we are to speak “along this narrow ridge”[11] of answer and question, of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Thus we are to speak of the Word of God, “the living truth”, in awareness of the “unavoidable absence of this living truth”[12] in all our sayings. The task of the theologian is to say that which cannot be said, to speak of God. And in faith, the “plight is also the promise”. For in faith, “it might be possible that the Word –– the Word of God that we will never speak –– has taken our weakness and perversion, so that our word becomes capable of the Word of God precisely in its weakness and perversion.”[13] The question is the answer because we have faith that in the negativity of our existence, God, in God’s fullness, will speak the Word of God.


[1]  Barth, Karl. Word of God and Theology: “The Word of God as the Task of Theology, 1922,” 185-186.

[2] “Our plight is also our promise.” Ibid., 196

[3] Ibid., 195.

[4] Ibid., 177-8.

[5] Ibid., 179.

[6] For Barth, this question comes out of humanity’s cry for salvation. “The human does not cry for solutions, but for salvation; not for something human again, but for God as the Savior of his humanity.” Ibid., 179.

[7] Ibid., 184.

[8] “…even in the precise moment of the divine calling and equipping, we still cannot speak of God.” Ibid., 185.

[9] Ibid., 185.

[10] Ibid., 190.

[11] Ibid., 191.

[12] Ibid., 194.

[13] Ibid., 197.