Absolute Deity: Being, Beyond Being, or a Being?

Is God a being among beings or Being itself? This is the question presently being discussed by philosophers Bill Vallicella and Dale Tuggy. If this is a question that interests you, please jump over to Vallicella’s website and read his article “God.” Then jump over to Tuggy’s site and read the two articles he has posted: “God is a being (part 1)” and “(part 2).” And then see Vallicella’s follow-up: “God and Socrates.” Not being trained in philosophy, analytic or otherwise, I find the arguments dense, difficult, and more than a little bit weird; but I imagine this happens all the time when laymen read chats between analytic philosophers.

That God, as conceived by Christians (and I’m not really interested in any other God), is not a being among beings is so utterly obvious to me that I honestly do not know how to argue against it. One of the very first theology books I read back in the 70s was He Who Is by Eric Lionel Mascall. When I look back now on my theological development since then, I have come to realize how profoundly he influenced my understanding of God, even though it was decades later before I read even a little Aquinas. My paperback copy of the book is filled with underlining (ditto for my copy of Existence and Analogy). Here’s one passage that I underlined:

We cannot lump together in one genus God and everything else, as if the word “being” applied to them all in precisely the same sense, and then pick out God as the supreme one. For if God is the Supreme Being, in the sense in which Christian theology uses the term, “being” as applied to him is not just one more instance of what “being” means when applied to anything else. So far from being just one item, albeit the supreme one, in a class of beings, he is the source from which their being is derived; he is not in their class but above it. … In the technical term, when we apply to God a term which is normally used of other beings, we are using it not univocally but analogically; for he is not just one member of a class with them, but their ground and archetype. (p. 9)

The claim that God is a being among beings is immediately ruled out, so it seems to me, by the classical understanding of divine transcendence: if all beings have been created from nothing by the self-existent One, then this One cannot be classified as one of them, as sharing a world with them. To think of God as a being would thus represent nothing less than a return to paganism. We would be back at Mt Carmel with Elijah and the priests of Ba’al. Among theologians of the first millennium, the question was never “Is God a being?” but “Is God Being or beyond Being?” I know that having just written this, someone will now come back at me with a quote from one or more of the Church Fathers; but even if exceptions are identified, I think my generalization stands.

Reading through Vallicella’s article, I kept asking myself, Would Mascall agree with the proposition “existence exists”? I find the proposition odd. Or how about this question: Would Aquinas agree with the proposition that God and Existence are identical? Would he not prefer to speak of God as the pure Act of Existence (or am I quibbling)? Another question: What about the assertion of Pseudo-Dionysius that God is beyond all Being? Aquinas would certainly agree that the Creator transcends created being; but I suspect that Dionysius is trying to say something more.  I wonder what the Maverick Philosopher thinks about “bey0nd Being” language  (I can pretty much guess what Tuggy thinks about it).

I look forward to hearing your thoughts about Vallicella’s and Tuggy’s arguments. Please do not be reluctant to avail yourself of the comment box. I, for one, need to hear from you. Perhaps even Vallicella and Tuggy might join us. Probably not, but who knows? Even the Lord of Hosts deigned to make an appearance at Mt Carmel.

(Go to “To Be or Not to Be”)

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22 Responses to Absolute Deity: Being, Beyond Being, or a Being?

  1. “Not being trained in philosophy, analytic or otherwise, I find the arguments dense, difficult, and more than a little bit weird; but I imagine this happens all the time when laymen read chats between analytic philosophers.”
    I’m going to have to +1 you on this. Even having some grasp on continental style philosophy, I still have difficulty when it comes to analytic philosophy. Especially my own metaphysics class right now. I had received my paper back for the class recently and saw an A- on it and I was like, “Wow, I did not think I did that well.” The problem is that most philosophical theories are realistically based on rules which either serve no purpose in discussion or simply just clog up discussion. I’m not entirely certain what happened in this.

    We had been talking about modality (the theory of possibilities and impossibilities within metaphysics) and apparently, possible worlds can exist but we have to interpret their language into our language–2+2 cannot equal 5 even if the mathematical system in said possible world differs from ours. I don’t think I buy into that. This is because after analyzing the views as to why possible metaphysical worlds must follow our mathematical rules assumes that metaphysical possibilities fit inside of logical possibilities. I reject this view and concur that it is the other way around. There’s no proof of this position or against this position so why either needs to be assumed is beyond me.

    I would have to say that Tuggy and Valicella seem to me to be assuming that metaphysical possibility is inside the category of logical possibility and therefore, what is metaphysically possible must also be logically possible. Perhaps metaphysical possibilities do indeed fit inside logical possibilities. But then, do theological possibilities fit into logical possibilities or do logical possibilities flow from theological possibilities? What then is the relationship between theological possibilities and metaphysical possibilites? Thus, Tuggy and Valicella actually might be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole with their assessments.

    If you need me to translate that into plain English, I can try to give that a go as well but sometimes, words just come out of my head…in fact, I imagine that most of what I write or say is word vomit.

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  2. brian says:

    Father,

    These are certainly complicated issues. I’ve thrown together some thoughts. They are not as linear as I would like, but I am not really a linear thinker. I am more like Gabriel Marcel and Nicholae Berdyaev. I circle and digress and circle again. So far as I can tell, Tuggy is a straight out nominalist, which along with voluntarism initiated the fatal missteps of modernity.

    As you know, Hart’s recent book was mainly aimed at making as clear as possible the difference between being and Being.

    The real distinction is central to a Thomist metaphysic. As a contingent creature, I may or may not be. No one could plausibly argue that the essence of a creature is identical to its existence. Otherwise, it would never cease to exist. Or come into being, experience becoming. Moderns tend to think of existence as a bare quality of “factually being there.” It is the lowest common denominator. Hence, they treat existence univocally. A real stone exists just as much as a giraffe or the sun or Kate Upton. The analogy of being disputes this. I have not read much of Pryzwara and he does seem a tough go. He was influential on Balthasar, who I know very well. Norris Clarke is also helpful on the analogy of being. Hart, btw, seems to me to think that Christian metaphysics is unintelligible without it.

    In any event, if God is simple and essence and existence coincide, one must at least begin by saying that existence for creatures is not univocally the same as it is for God. There is a lot one can say about the creature and it’s relation to existence. I do not think it can be adequately captured in a concept. In it’s particular singularity, it transcends conceptual, discursive knowing. I might agree, btw, that a kind of discursive mind is unable to strongly dispute Tuggy. I don’t think we are simply confined to discursive mind. This is where I think art, philosophy, and theology, etc. allow us to go beyond the limits of reasoning from clear and concise conceptual knowing that largely dominates modern notions of truth.

    I think it makes sense to say that a plant has more being than a stone, a gazelle more than an ivy, a man more than a horse. Ordinary common sense is likely to grant this, but here’s the rub. For a nominalist, univocal mind, a man and a rock share the same level of existence. Their being is differentiated ultimately by differing complex arrangements of material being. The being may differ, but the existence does not. For the analogy of being, the difference is rooted in a differing participation in existence. A more limited participation results in a creature that displays less of existence. A way of understanding this is to say that the essence of a flower is existence in the form of a flower or limiting itself to flowerness, when it might otherwise be in the form of a horse or a man. Existence is a dyanamic act of infinite Being and essence is a limited dynamic act of existence. This kind of Existence won’t stand still for conceptual capture. It cannot be modeled or quantified or made subject to discursive reason.

    Further, and perhaps a slight digression, note the difference in being is not a value judgement. Each being is good insofar as it has being and is loved uniquely as an unrepeatable, irreplaceable thing. Each being is also infinitely mysterious because rooted in God. Aquinas says no one has so much as comprehended a gnat. The loss of this sense, the mechanism of Descartes, the putting nature on the rack of Bacon, has had vicious and terrible effect. The sacred quality of all that is is lost to modern minds. The thing is not the same as the modern object, which is the thing reduced to the scale of human perception and design.

    All this follows from treating existence univocally, from saying that God and creatures exist in the same way.

    To return briefly to analogy of being, if God is Existence and not merely a possessor of existence, one might argue that existence is not best understood as a bare assertion of factual being there. Existence might be far richer and more mysterious. For the Greeks, being was always at war with chaos. The finite was a victory of form over the forces of entropy. The infinite was understood as a threatening, chaos. The gods themselves were finite beings within the cosmos. (All this you know.) The Christian infinite is not chaos. The Christian infinite is the full plenitude of Being. To say Existence is to gesture towards Life (Zoe) that transcends any finite configuration (bios.) All finite creatures are small participations in the fullness of God’s Existence. In God, everything that makes possible a beetle or Socrates is flourishing. Existence is not a bare fact, but the Source that escapes our epistemic capture even as it reveals by giving the being of beings.

    So, for moderns who only think of beings and of the universe as an aggregate of beings, there is an insufficient awareness of the dynamism of the giving of existence to creatures. They think being as a static something that is already there. They need to think being as an existence that is continually gifted and the being of the creature as itself a dynamism that is continually transcending any static state confined to some specified point in time.

    Now, God does give existence to the creaturely universe. There is a community of being that makes up the universe and one can call this Being. If one calls this Being, it is possible to speak of a God beyond Being. Certainly God transcends any sense of the whole. (Hegel tried to equate God with the whole, because he wanted to reduce reality to something like Aristotle’s Thought Thinking Itself. In short, Hegel wants to ultimately due away with a radical and irreducible Otherness.) The Biblical God is beyond this kind of whole and one will never rationally get to the kind of comprehension Hegel wants. This is the key importance of the apophatic dimension to authentic Christian thought.

    Similar to the way one might talk about God beyond Being, one might say that God does not exist or that God is no thing, but all this is mainly a way of separating God from contingent, creaturely conceptions. Thomism equates God with Being and properly understood, I see no need to abjure from doing so.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Brian, thank you again for this very lucid and thoughtful comment. I reread it again this morning, in light of Bill Vallicella’s new article on this topic over at his blog. I keep wondering why the logic of “theistic personalism” seems inevitably to lead to what catholic Christians would deem a less-than-transcendent Deity. Is it the analytic method that is at fault? I suspect it may be. At least the great medieval scholastics recognized that they were doing their theology within a community of faith informed by a dogma and theological tradition. It’s unclear to me if analytic theologians understand themselves in their theological reflections in this way.

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      • brian says:

        Father,

        I get the feeling that theistic personalists cannot adequately “think” transcendence.
        Certainly, their metaphysics appears to me trapped in what Heidegger called ontotheology, though that term is ambiguous and is often used (as Heidegger did) as a tendentious way of attacking the whole tradition of metaphysics. As a legitimate critique, the term indicates an insufficient attentiveness to the “becoming” aspect of being, of the conditions that make ontic appearance possible, and also the prior preconditions for elemental awareness. Unfortunately, to explain all this entails too much for this kind of forum. I can only gesture . . . and I am not a professional philosopher. I have simply read a lot over the years and have an interest in the nexus between philosophy and theology. Then again, philosophy as the ancients understood it was a way of life and not a scholastic specialization.

        Bill Vallicella is correct that philosophical insight is not obvious. If it were, it would be the common sense possession of ordinary people. Nonetheless, what is not obvious may still be thought. He is tough sledding, but I heartily recommend William Desmond as the most insightful contemporary philosopher I know for working through the complex process by which one may come to a better sense of how philosophy can come to a better understanding of God from within its own resources — though Desmond points out that those resources include a necessary relation to art and religion.

        I think philosophers of the analytical bent are too caught up in a certain kind of logic and they often neglect/reject the kind of understanding that comes from poetry and religious experience. In my view, they at least tend towards univocal sensibilities — the epigoni of deconstructionism, in contrast, tend towards an equivocity that easily turns into a relativistic nihilism. In any event, some respect for analogy and metaphor is essential if one is going to get beyond a narrowly confined linguistic quibbling.

        In a lot of these back and forths, there is almost a rationalistic scholasticism at work. The primal mystery and wonder that Plato saw as the Ur-experience that gives birth to philosophy is hardly discoverable. There is a lot of religion that would never make one want to become a Christian and a lot of what passes for philosophy that would make one uninterested in wisdom. Fortunately, reality remains mysterious, we remain gifted into being, and our innate desire will bring us beyond the confines of a narrow logic if we attend with proper care to the implication of our infinitely restless hearts.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Father,

        You write, “the great medieval scholastics recognized that they were doing their theology within a community of faith informed by a dogma and theological tradition”; whereas Vallicella on his blog states his motto as “Study everything, join nothing.” The contrast could not be clearer. A theologian properly understood, at last historically, was someone always already “joined” with the Church (even if he or she managed to technically, and sometimes violently, unjoin him- or herself in the course of speculation). And someone like Aquinas — and many other major theologians in the West — was not just a de facto member of the Church from birth and by virtue of environing culture, but a voluntary member in a religious order, like the Mendicant friars, the Carmelites, the Jesuits, etc. Heck, we even have “third order” religious in the West, for the likes of such great Doctors as Catherine of Siena, and such artists as Cervantes (and Sigrid Undset and Walker Percy to name some more modern). We’re obsessed with joining organizations! As I understand it, theology in the West has always been all about actively *joining* (to a fault, often, of petty tribalism); and more importantly, the theologians who have also had mystical tendencies of one degree or another have made use of that joining, that social commitment, to be decisively active in the world.

        I don’t mean to cast any aspersions on Vallicella’s position — on the contrary, I see much to admire in it and I expect many of us reading here have known very good reasons to unjoin or refuse to join an institution or some other group in order better to pursue a vocation or profession. I only think it important to appreciate how modern and asocial a position Vallicella’s seems to be (going by his motto), a fact which cannot help but influence his thought, just as Aquinas being a Dominican and Bonaventure being a Franciscan, and both being professors at the center of Christendom, to say nothing of a more basic commitment to the Church, are crucial facts for understanding their lives and work. To try to pick apart their texts for just the philosophy bits (or even to take their texts integrally but without regard to their life-world) would be, in a very deep sense, inhuman: Alasdair MacIntyre tried it with Aquinas and the irreducibly human part won out. . . he ended up converting himself to Catholicism. We are social, communal beings, in both our negative and our positive postures toward various communities.

        What I’m saying is that I think it is not necessarily only the “logic of theistic personalism,” as you write, that inevitably seems to lead analytic philosophers away from true transcendence. Whether we admit it or not, conclusions (for all of us) are the product of more than whichever logic we’re using, or think we’re using. I can have a fairly good idea of, say, Aquinas’ or John of the Cross’ personal starting points: I mean things like the Eucharist, the Creed, the common prayer life of their times and places, things that go deeper than the intramural political struggles and absract intellectual disagreements. I’m not sure what kind of personal, or existential, starting points I could assume for an analytic philosopher working today in a disenchanted world. I don’t think it’s advisable (and maybe not even possible) to enter into a conversation about anything, let alone about the most vital mysteries of our existence, without assuming and trying to learn something about your interlocutor’s basic disposition, the ground from which he is making the kinds of arguments (or art) he makes. In my read, the better, earlier Scholastics certainly did this, none more masterfully and sympathetically than Aquinas, the supposed patriarch of rationalistic, depersonalized and disembodied theologizing.

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    • sunyavadi says:

      (I really admire all the contents of the article and the discussion. I found my way here through the reference in Vallicella’s article.)

      I wonder if the distinction you’re seeking to make between being and Being, might also be drawn in terms of the difference between being and existence. Nowadays the words are treated as basically synonymous, but actually they’re different. ‘Exist’ is derived from ‘ex-” outside of, and ‘sistere’, to stand – hence to exist is ‘to stand apart’, to be this as distinct from that. ‘Being’ has a different sense to it, and encompasses the sense of the latin ‘est’ (or the Sanskrit ‘sat’), with the connotation of ‘what is’. As you note above, in most modern thinking the distinction between ‘existing things’ (basically, ‘objects’) and beings is lost (hence the de-personalizing tendencies of materialism.) However I believe that all of the schools of the perennial philosophy (of which Thomism is surely one) would accept that ‘knowing’ is essential to ‘being’; in other words, that being proper is also ‘knowing being’ (sat-chit); whereas modern philosophy invariably attempts to account for ‘knowing’ as being derived from, or emerging from, unknowing stuff, and hence ontologically junior to it.
      I think that sense of ‘existence’ you’re reaching for there, can be thought of like this: ‘what is’, includes ‘everything that exists’ – but it is also more than that, because it also comprises those exact relations between everything that exists at this moment in time. As the function of intelligence is to perceive relationship and ‘ratio’ then ‘what is’ comprises considerably more than what simply ‘exists’.

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      • Jonathan says:

        I can’t remember precisely, but I think Hart must have touched on this in the “Consciousness” part of The Experience of God.

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        • sunyavadi says:

          actually I was attempting to reply to the comments above by Brian, I might have jumped a thread (if that is something you can do.) But I did read and generally enjoy DBH’s book, actually rated it one of my ‘best books of 2014’.

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          • Jonathan says:

            Everything’s in order here, no threads jumped. I was just making an aside about the resonance between what you were saying and a portion of DBH’s book, which I know Fr. Kimel and many others have read. I, too, thought it was a great book, actually most valuable in the consciousness and bliss parts. One of the things I like about The Experience of God is its multi-pronged approach. Moderns who think their way out of the possibility of transcendence do so from several distinct starting points, so it’s good to have in a single, relatively brief and accessible volume, three different tacks that lead to the same destination. It’s a kind of summa contra gentiles. Anyway, you’ve inspired me to revisit the consciousness part of that book as soon as I have a moment.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Sunyavadi, welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy.

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      • brian says:

        Sunyavadi,

        Thank you for your insightful thoughts. I appreciate the perennialist search for wisdom.
        I do think the modern consciousness lacks a relational sense — or rather, it can only think relation as extrinsic and beings as a mere aggregate. It also does not discern the affinity between mind and being. I think the modern turn that puts epistemological questions before being almost necessarily results in a narrowing of being.

        My intuition is that reality always involves a “more.”
        Modern sensibilities tend towards either/or “binary” solutions, whereas I think “both/and” mysteries are more apt to bring one closer to reality.

        This is a good place for pondering the important questions.
        With the others, I extend a welcome.

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  3. Dallas Wolf says:

    I think I’m going with Dionysius and moving on.

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  4. Jonathan says:

    My favorite answer to the question, Is God Being or beyond Being? is Scotus Eriugena’s: “Both, and then some.” I paraphrase, of course. If I remember correctly, Dermot Moran, in his excellent study of Eriugena, finds five — count them five — modes of being and non-being. Who can’t have fun with that? I highly recommend Moran’s book on his 9th century countryman.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you for noticing my article, Bill. We bloggers crave the attention. 🙂 I look forward to reading your piece. It will no doubt compel me to re-read your previous two articles, as well as Dale’s articles. This is a topic that particularly interests me, though I know I am way out of my depths here.

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  5. Rikard Dahl says:

    Hey Fr Kimel! I’m reading Denying divinity by Williams now and in it he makes a distinction between two different kinds of apophasis; “…first, a negation which is complementary to affirmation and is anterior to a transcendent or superlative affirmation about the divine; or second, a negation which is posterior to both affirmations, and first-order negations about the divine.”

    The author is proposing the second version to be the most theologically satisfying.

    This has the implication that “If the ground of being is nondual, it cannot (literally) bear any attributes or predicates, for all these, as Proclus said, slice reality up into P and not-P– that is into that which does, and that which does not, bear the predicate under consideration. So the nondual canot accurately be described in language, which is ineluctably dualistic.”

    To adopt this position, I think is to take a different –less analytic– stance toward the question than what is done in this debate. And probably more in line with your own sensibilities? 🙂

    Peace

    Rikard Dahl

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  6. sunyavadi says:

    There is an ancient understanding, now generally lost, of the hierarchy of being or levels or domains of being, also known as the ‘great chain of being’. Within that chain, there are different levels of kinds of being or reality (hard ideas to express in the contemporary lexicon for precisely the reason that it is largely forgotten) – similar to what the post by Jonathan says above. So this hierarchical ontology allows for the distinction between ‘existence’ and ‘being’ – God is ‘being’ but is ‘beyond existence’, ‘existence’ pertaining to ‘created things’ which, by definition, are composed of parts and begin and end in time (if you doubt that, think of a ‘created thing’ that doesn’t!). Accordingly ‘existing things’ are in essence ‘mere nothings’, i.e. empty appearances (as often said by Eckhardt). From my casual reading of Vallicella thus far, I don’t think this is a distinction that he grasps; few do, nowadays.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Sunyavadi, well put. Without a hierarchical ontology it is impossible to discuss the kind of reality which, say, a novel or painting or symphony possesses. In our world, all of the arts, whether people realize it or not, are granted very little reality, and so they have become mere entertainment, whether “high-brow” or “low-brow.” The same, I daresay, is true of liturgical worship. Broadly speaking, in an ontologically univocal and non-hierarchical world, all modes of symbolism sooner or later break down into mere signification and ‘coding.’ However vaguely, people perceive this as a suffocating blandness and flatness in life (although some manage to distract themselves with this or that legalist activism), a de-enchantment of the world which which causes them moments of acute pain and confusion as well as longer term anxiety and ennui. But we cannot help ourselves or each other for exactly the reason you state, namely that we lack a shared vocabulary, a language in which to address the problem and discover a solution, a re-enchantment of the world. We are all born moderns, which is to say born into materialism the way people in a former age were born into a given, living, stratified cosmos. This is true regardless of whatever religious education our parents may or may not try to give us. Of course there have always been plenty of people, often the most powerful and often very smart or cunning, who have paid no attention to the symbolic universe and acted solely from their basic drives for wealth, power and sex. (And some of these, it must be admitted, the occasional Lucretius or Marcus Aurelius, attain to moral and artistic vision — alas, it is the kind of vision that works not by satisfying the heart but by extinguishing it.) But the backdrop, the life-world of pre-modern ages was always there, always an option for anyone who grew tired of egoism. Of course that world is still an option, because it is the true world, but it is much harder of access because instead of being the background radiation, so to speak, it is a secret, hidden message that one has to work very hard to find in all the unlikeliest places — like a church, for some people, or a hospital delivery room, or a homeless shelter, or a work of art not made to “entertain” or sell anything, or a graveyard. These are the kinds of things and places where the Great Chain of Being becomes evident, but which the dominant culture either eclipses from view or masks in materialist, univocal description: everything is “just” what it is (plus whatever purely emotional, individual response one might have), available in nothing but the lowest common denominator. Grander conceptions are tolerated only as fictions that one either buys into or not — whatever floats your boat.

      I don’t claim to know the inner lives of analytic philosophers, but I do know that the discourse they work in has never told me anything I needed to know about art or love or how to live my life so that I might not, when I come to die, discover that I had not really lived (to steal the line from Thoreau).

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      • brian says:

        As always, Jonathan, really well said.

        I like this quote from Bernanos: “Disenchantment is a sign of stupidity.”
        Of course, as you point out, we are born into a stupid ethos, so one requires grace and effort to transcend the fog of smug imbecility.

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  7. Cassiodorus says:

    Here is how a representative of the Perennialist School addresses this issue,

    …the Divine Essence or “Beyond-Being” alone is the Absolute, and that “Being”, the first auto-determination of Beyond-Being, is already relative. Whereas “Beyond-Being” is God “Unqualified” or “Unconditined” (Brahmam nirguna in Sanskrit), “Being” is God “qualified” or conditioned” (Brahman saguna).

    God as “Beyond-Being” is the Supra-Personal God; God as “Being” is the Personal God (the Creator, Helper, and Judge). Unlike the Supra-Personal God (the Divine Essence), the personal God is the Interlocutor with Whom man can speak, and to Whom he can pray. Following Advaita Vedantic doctrine, Schuon notes that “Atma” is Beyond-Being, “pure” “Maya” is Being, and “impure” Maya is Existence. We have thus reached the classic ternary Beyond-Being, Being, and Existence. The first is absolute; the second and the third are relative…… The principle of Existence is Being, and the principle of Being is Beyond-Being.

    In the Eastern Church, the same fundamental discernment also existed, and was expressed in its mystical theology……(For example) The theology of St Gregory Palamas- essentially apophatic and antinomian- distinguishes between “God as He is in Himself or the “Divine Essence” (hyparxis) and God as “Being” (Ousia) or the “Divine Energies” (dynameis)- the latter being the uncreated atrributes or powers through which Being acts and makes itself known. This distinction corresponds exactly to that between “Beyond-Being” and “Being”, as outlined above.

    I’m not sure if the Essence-Energies distinction in the Eastern Church does, in fact, parallel Advaita Vedanta’s Nirguna-Saguna Brahman as is claimed in the above passage?

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