To Be or Not to Be: Aquinas or Pseudo-Dionysius?

The Maverick Philosopher writes:  “My question for Fr. Kimel: Do you side with the doctor angelicus, or do you go all the way into the night of negative theology with Pseudo-Dionysus?”

Succinct answer: I haven’t decided, partly because my acquaintance with Pseudo-Dionysius is so limited and partly because I have long been persuaded that something along the lines of St Thomas’s understanding of analogical language is necessary to account for the linguistic usage of the Church.

But I agree with both Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas, and the Church Fathers before them, that God is ineffable, incomprehensible mystery. As a preacher of the gospel, I do not feel a need to make a definitive judgment between Byzantine apophaticism and Latin apophaticism. Underlying both sides, I suggest, is a common apprehension of the radical difference between the eternal Creator and the creatures he has spoken into being (see my article summarizing Kathryn Tanner’s grammatical rules on speaking divine transcendence). With Aquinas I affirm: “And this is the limit and the highest point of our knowledge in this life where, as Dionysius says, we are united to God as to something unknown. This happens when we know of Him what He is not, while what He is remains utterly unknown” (CG 3.49).

I am therefore happy to confess that God is absolute, infinite, unconditioned Being, if it means something like what David B. Hart declares in this passage:

To speak of God properly, then … is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means that totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. (The Experience of God, p. 30)

I do not know how the mystical and sacramental life of the Church can be sustained by anything less than this kind of vision. Just the other day one of my Orthodox friends told me that he thought I was more apophatic than most Orthodox he knows. Perhaps. Yet I did not learn this apophaticism from the Byzantines.  I learned it from decades of serving the Eucharist and trying to live the Christian life in a world of tragedy and suffering.  I abhor the rationalism that I sometimes encounter among evangelical biblicists, neo-scholastics, hyper-traditionalists, and analytic theists.  Give me poetry, beauty, mystery, silence.

With Moses we must all enter the cloud of unknowing.

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8 Responses to To Be or Not to Be: Aquinas or Pseudo-Dionysius?

  1. brian says:

    Beautifully stated, Father.

    Somehow I have never felt the need to choose between Thomas and Pseudo-Dionysius.
    Neither did Aquinas, for that matter. Pseudo-Dionysius is largely responsible for the Christian platonism that plays a large role in Thomas’ thought.


  2. tgbelt says:

    Denys Turner! No need to choose between Aquinas and PD.


  3. Jonathan says:

    Have you read Marcus Plested’s ‘Orthodox Readings of Aquinas’? It’s a fascinating read


  4. Bill Vallicella says:

    Thank you, Fr. Kimel. Actually, I think we are converging on agreement. Now we just have to convince Tuggy and Co.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Bill, for your thoughtful articles and for pushing me on various points. I only wish I could meet you and Tuggy on your philosophical turf.


  5. Renée says:

    On the subject of beyond being, I highly recommend Eric Perl’s book Theophany: the Neoplatonic philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite. I noticed the in the comments on your favorite theologians post, someone had listed this title as well. Perl’s writing is exceptionally clear; as far as I can see, any difficulty I might have is due to the subject matter, not the expression.


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