Dionysian Ponderings: Transcendence and the Plotinian One

I come to my reading of the Corpus Areopagaticum with a specific understanding of divine transcendence, an understanding which I will be testing along the way. We might put it this way: God infinitely surpasses all creaturely distinctions and dualities—transcendence and immanence, otherness and identity, the one and the many, distance and nearness, eternality and temporality, cause and effect, freedom and determinism, comprehensibility and incomprehensibility, and so on. In my writings I have spoken of God’s radical difference, a difference that is no difference. God is the inconceivable source of creaturely being, the One who has brought the cosmos into being from out of nothing. Over the years I have come to understand that all of the Christian mysteries are predicated upon the radical difference—what Robert Sokolowski calls “the Christian distinction.” In capsule: God is Being, not a being. Yet even the term “Being” (usually capitalized) can mislead, as it might suggest the inclusion of deity within the metaphysical category of being, thus committing the Heideggerian heresy of onto-theology; hence we must also speak of God as beyond being, just to make the point. If there is a significant difference between “God is Being” and “God is beyond being,” I have not been able to figure out what it is. In the words of David Bentley Hart:

To speak of “God” properly … is to speak of the one infinite ground 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 neither some particular thing posed over against the created 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 clock, or a god is; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are. He is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom all things live and move and have their being. He may be said to be “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things. (“God, Gods, and Fairies”)

I am tempted simply to quote long passages from Hart’s The Hidden and the Manifest, but will suffice to affirm that God does not belong to any class, genus, or category. He does not fit into our comparative divinity charts. He is radically different in his ultimacy and uniqueness. The eternal Creator exists, as St Maximus the Confessor writes, “as the beyond-beingness of being.” “Biblical” Christians will protest. “You have replaced the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the dead deity of the philosophers”—to which the proper reply is, the God of the Scriptures is the absolute source and ground of all being. As YHWH told Moses in the burning bush (Ex 3:14): “I AM WHO I AM”—or in the rendering of the Septuagint: “I am The One Who Is.” St Gregory the Theologian expressly appeals to the ineffable Name, declaring that the divine nature enjoys”absolute existence, independent of anything else” (Or. 30.18; see “I AM WHO I AM“).

St Dionysius is famous for his ascription of “beyond being” to the Creator whom Christians worship and adore. To understand why he makes this move, argues Eric Perl, we must look to the Neoplatonic tradition of Plotinus and Proclus: “The foundational principle of Neoplatonic thought is the doctrine that to be is to be intelligibile” (Theophany, p.  5). This conviction may be traced back to Parmenides: “For you could not know that which is not, for it is impossible, nor express it; for the same thing is for thinking and for being.” Perl explains:

Parmenides indicates here, first, that thought is always the apprehension of some being. For whatever is thought is necessarily thought as something, i.e. as some being. Τò μή èóν, that which is not, cannot be thought, for to think absolute non-being would be to have no object of content for thought, to be not thinking anything, and hence not to be thinking. We may recall here the Thomistic principle, derived at long remove from this Parmenidean insight: “Being falls first in the conception of intellect … Wherefore being is the proper object of intellect.” Whatever is thought is thought most basically and generically as some being, which may then be specified by various determinations. Second, Parmenides in this passage affirms that being extends no further than that which can be apprehended by thought, that there cannot be anything beyond the reach of thought. It would be incoherent even to postulate an unintelligible being, a being that cannot be thought, for to do so would already be to think such a being. Parmenides’ fragment thus brings to light the obvious but vital point that to think being, that which is, at all, is already to presuppose its intelligibility. To think being is to think it as thinkable. Indeed, it follows not merely that being and intelligibility are coextensive, as Parmenides plainly asserts, but that intelligibility is the very meaning of being: by being we can only mean “what is there for thought,” for since thought cannot extend to anything else, “anything else” is mere empty noise—in short, nothing (τò μή èóν). If ‘being,’ “that which is” considered as one whole, has any meaning at all, then it necessarily means “that which is available for thinking,” i.e. that which is intelligible. That which is, then, is (wholly and solely) that which can be apprehended by intellection, and intellection is (wholly and solely) the apprehension of that which is. (p. 6)

Neoplatonists accept the Parmenidean equation of being and intelligibility. Every being is a determinate “this” rather than “that”—defined and limited, finite and thus differentiated from all other beings. Intelligibility depends on each form or entity being marked off from every other. As Plotinus states: “The objects of thought … must have otherness in relation to each other” (Enneads V.1.4.39-40).

When Plotinus posits the One as the source, unity, and ground of beings, he therefore speaks of it as “beyond being.” As the metaphysical first principle, the One necessarily transcends the finitude and differentiation that characterize beings. It can be neither thought nor comprehended; otherwise it would no longer be the One but a being itself in need of the One:

Since the substance which is generated [from the One] is form … the one must be without form. But if it is without form it is not a substance; for a substance must be some one particular thing, something, that is, defined and limited; but it is impossible to apprehend the One as a particular thing: for then it would not be the principle, but only that particular thing which you said it was. But if all things are in that which is generated [from the One], which of the things in it are you going to say that the One is? Since it is none of them, it can only be said to be beyond them. But these things are beings, and being: so it is ‘beyond being.’ This phrase ‘beyond being’ does not mean that it is a particular thing—for it makes no positive statement about it—and it does not say its name, but all it implies is that it is ‘not this.’ But if this is what the phrase does, it in no way comprehends the One. (V.5.6.2-14)

“Beyond being,” therefore, functions as an expression of negative theology. The One is not a being. It is not a particular thing, for it is not anything at all. “No common term whatsoever, including ‘being,'” Perl explains, “can embrace both the One and its products, for the One would then be included within the totality and differentiated from others within it” (p. 11). We may not even say that the One “exists,” for to be is to be intelligible, therefore entailing finitude and determinateness. If the One is not any thing, then it may be appropriately said to be nothing. Again Plotinus: “That [i.e., the One] is not anything, but before each and every thing, and is not a being; for being has a kind of shape of being, but that has no shape, not even intelligible shape. For since the nature of the One is generative of all things it is none of them” (VI.9.3.38-41).

Yet even the negation of being entails a problem, states Perl, “for even such language still represents conceptual definition and intellectual apprehension: to say that the One is ‘not this’ is, inescapably, to think of it as something else; to say that it is not multiple or complex is to think it as unitary or simple. In the end, Plotinus says, we must negate even such negative definitions, including the name One itself” (p. 12). If we would grasp the One, therefore, we must rise above thought altogether. Recall the Parmenidean correlation between being and thought and make the necessary inferences: “all being is the object of some thinking, and hence does not include the One, and all thinking is the apprehension of some being, and hence does not attain the One” (p. 13). It’s all quite logical and metaphysically rigorous. 

Blessed Dionysius, pray for us.

(Go to “Beyond the Beyond”)

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36 Responses to Dionysian Ponderings: Transcendence and the Plotinian One

  1. Tom says:

    I’m assuming you do not mean to ‘equate’ Neoplatonic apophaticism derived from Plotinus’s view of the One with the Christian story and the ineffability of God, but I’m unsure. It seems as if you view Pseudo-Denys as simply repeating Plotinus, but I assume future posts will draw the radical distinction – no?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I haven’t gotten to Dionysius’s view of divine ineffability yet (though Perl believes that Dionysius pretty much follows Plotinus), but I’ll give you a sneak peak: God transcends effability and ineffability. 🙂

      And this, I believe, is David B. Hart’s understanding of divine transcendence, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. pcm2fchris says:

    Forgive me, but if God is literally beyond being and our thought, and if we cannot really describe him in any way, what is the difference between him and nothing at all? If I remove absolutely all labels or properties or distinctions my mind can form about something, I find I’m no longer thinking about anything at all. But how can one know or love or even speak about that which one has literally no notion of?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good question. Clearly the Plotinian One is not the God of the Christian faith. Hopefully by the end of this series we will have a better handle on how Dionysius appropriated, and perhaps corrected, the Neoplatonist construal. In the meantime, please read Hart’s article “God, Gods, and Fairies.”

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      • pcm2fchris says:

        Are you saying my question is incoherent? Or that it is coherent but you aren’t hazarding and answer and are instead referring me to another person who you think (may) address the question?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Errr, no. I’m certainly not suggesting that your question is incoherent. Quite the contrary. It’s a good question but not one I am prepared to answer at this moment. What I am commending is some patience as this blog series on Dionysius unfolds. Hopefully your question will be answered by the time we get to its conclusion. The purpose of this particular article was to briefly summarize Plotinus’s construal of the One as beyond being. In the meantime, you might enjoy reading the David Bentley Hart article I cited.

          I apologize if you found my comment condescending or insulting. That was not my intent.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      maybe it’s not to be taken literally 😉

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      • pcm2fchris says:

        Gotta love the condescending wink that leaves not the slightest attempt at an explanation.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Your question is astute, right on the money, really. My cryptic answer was meant as a way to lead you into a direction to ponder on the limitations of language about God, that our words and thoughts break down and fail to apply to a God who is not an idol, an ordinary object. It’s a failure though that doesn’t mean complete ignorance, but a failure due to the limits of our mode of existence. What type of grammar would be able to account for the infinite difference God presents, without falling into an abyss absolute negation?

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          • Jonathan says:

            I agree with this, but would modify the reservation so that included all “language about.” That sort of language, merely referential and predicative, is real enough, it has some truth-telling capacity or anyway it is sometimes an adequate conduit of information and data. But it is of course not the only mode of language. The language of poetry and story and liturgy is not primarily “language about,” though obviously it has referential content. It may not be possible to talk about God, and yet it is possible to articulate God in human, imperfect ways. Figurative language is of a nature that we still do not fully comprehend — can never fully comprehend except thru some further figuration, of which there are an infinite possible instances. Nevertheless if you account for this mysterious capacity of figurative language, of the “efficacious sign”, then the question of God being effable or ineffable can be seen in a different light. And then you also have to consider that it is also possible to signify and figure without verbal language, sometimes even through silence.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Jonathan, I view all language (and thought) to be fundamentally iconic. Hence between absolute equivocity and iconoclasm there is no substantial difference, for both deny the emmanuel.

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          • Jonathan says:

            I think so, too, Robert. But as far as our experience of language in the everyday goes, I think there is a very palpable difference (I mean a difference in how it affects our consciousness) between registers or modes or even ‘discourses.’ Language as such is mysterious and, as Picard insists, a gift. But I don’t usually feel that way while reading, e.g., the New York Times. I take criticism, at least in its diagnostic function, to be an intervention in language that misses its mark and attempts to function outside its proper register or discourse.

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          • Jonathan says:

            Gah, sorry, bad grammar — talking about misfired language! I meant ‘which’ not ‘that’ in the last clause, i.e. it is not criticism that misses its mark, but diagnostic criticism which intervenes in the language that misses its mark.

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  3. Jonathan says:

    I love this stuff. Any chance I can get you to read and blog about Scottus Eriugena’s Periphyseon?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I tell you what, Jonathan, why don’t you read it and write an article for us? 😉

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      • Jonathan says:

        In a novel I can say something about Eriugena, because it would not be me saying it but a narrator or character. Heck, I could make Eriugena a character. But I myself, writing exposition in propria persona — no way, the stuff is above my pay grade. For that kind of thing, I just kick back and read about it on Eclectic Orthodoxy.

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  4. Interesting! Plotinus/Dionysius’ description of God as ‘nothing’ reminds me of the Mahāyāna Buddhist idea of ‘shunyata’/‘emptiness’ as the ultimate reality—as does the emphasis on having to transcend all concepts and use of language in order to grasp this reality. Perhaps this suggests that (as DBH himself hints in several places) there may not be as much of a gulf between ostensibly ‘atheistic’ Buddhism and the great theistic traditions as is often asserted by both sides.

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  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    SUNY Press has chapter 1 of Eric Perl’s book on Dionysius available for download. If you are interested in this series and do not already own the book, you will want to at least read this this chapter.

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  6. Jonathan says:

    Apropos of the remark I just made in response to Robert Fortuin, I wonder if it makes sense to think of negative theology as a species of criticism, by which I mean in this context (as per my remark above) language issued as a corrective to other language. Does that make sense to anyone else? Or is it a distinction without a difference? I can’t tell yet what I think of this idea. The gist of my thinking is the question, What kind of language is the language of negative theology?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      A proposal, Jonathan: read through The Mystical Theology and test your hypothesis. I’d be interested to hear your opinion about what Dionysius is doing in the MT.

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      • Jonathan says:

        I would love to. Is there a superior translation, and is there by any chance some or all of the Greek text online? I can’t use the Michigan interlibrary loan system right now, it’s been undergoing maintenance for a while and won’t be working again until some time in July at least. I wish Perseus would include more Patristic literature, but there’s the secular bias of “Classics” for you.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      The only legitimate function of apophasis I see is its function within the immediate context of analogy – in that negative theology gives utterance to immeasurable excessive uncreated dissimilarity which confront us. However, and this is the key, negation must always be held in tension with analogous likeness: it is not adequate to merely apophatically state that ‘God is not being,’ or ‘God is ineffable’ or ‘God is ingenerate’ and so forth. God is not a being as a creature is not a being, unutterable as a creature is unutterable, is not without beginning as a creature is without beginning, and so forth. Negation, in short, does not account for, cannot express, the difference in the mode of being, the adiastemic life of God. Only analogy can attempt to point in the direction of the excess, of the categorical interval of difference by saying ‘it is like this, but differently.’ We have to come to grips with the yawning abyss which the Adiastemic presents to our diastemic mode of existence – mere equivocal negation cannot do so. Negation has to be followed up with more words, more positive affirmations to approximate likeness.

      I hope that was helpful.

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  7. Renee says:

    I should introduce myself, since other commenters here seem to know one another. I’m a non-academic in an academic setting who has only in the last couple of years begun to read Plotinus and Dionysius. I loved Eric Perl’s Theophany. However, I have a question about his understanding of being. He talks about being as ‘“that which is” considered as one whole,’ which to me sounds like a collective. Is this indeed what he means, and if so, is that a problem? Although it follows from what he has just been saying, it gives me pause. If someone could address it, I’d appreciate it—if, that is, it is not too basic a question for this discussion.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Renee. Welcome to the blog and for your good question. I do not think Perl is as clear about the meaning of “being” as he needs to be (at least not for dunces like myself!). In his book Thinking Being, he writes:

      The term ‘being,’ here and throughout this book, is used to translate Greek ὄν or τὸ ὄν, the present participle of the verb ‘to be.’ Corresponding to German Seiend (not Sein!) and (philosophical) French étant, it thus signifies that-which-is: either, according to context, the whole of reality, all that is taken together as one whole (as in the first question); or a thing-that-is, as in the expression ‘a being’ (as, in the plural, in the second question). These questions, therefore, cannot be answered in any ordinary way. We usually address a ‘What is something?’ question by classifying and differentiating: if, for example, we are asked ‘What is a dog?’ we will first identify it as an animal, thus grouping it with certain other things, and then specify what kind of animal it is, thus differentiating it from these others. But we cannot answer the question ‘What is being?’ in this way: being can neither be grouped with nor differentiated from anything else, because there isn’t anything else. Being means precisely everything, that-which-is taken all together as a whole, and therefore cannot be defined by the method of genus and specific difference.

      . And at the beginning of his chapter on Plotinus he writes:

      Plotinus follows Plato, and, indeed, Aristotle, in identifying being, τὸ ὄν, that which is, as form. As in Plato, sensible things exist just insofar as they have and display intelligible forms. The forms themselves, therefore, as that which is intelligible and in virtue of which sensible things are at all, are reality (οὐσία). Sensible things thus are not reality itself and are not beings in the full and proper sense, but, in that they have some share of intelligibility, are images of true, intelligible reality. But Plotinus goes further than Plato and Aristotle in developing both Plato’s συνουσία, the togetherness of intellectual apprehension and intelligible reality, and Aristotle’s doctrines of pure form as one with the act of thinking and of intellect as one with the intelligible, into a far more thorough and explicit account of the coinciding, the unity-in-duality, of being-as-form and intellectual apprehension.

      Does that at all help? I ain’t no metaphysician. 🙂

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    • Jonathan says:

      For what it’s worth, as far as I understand grammar, “that which is, considered as one whole,” is not a collective noun. It may be an abstraction. “All things that are, taken together” would maybe have to comprise a collective noun. But that first formulation is in the singular and so it’s more of a concept or abstraction than a collectivity, or if you prefer a universal rather than a generality.

      This is actually probably clearer in Greek. At least, that’s how I learned Greek, though of course I learned it as everyone does today with the benefit of literally thousands of years of people trying to think about how in the world Greek works, which maybe adds a degree of clarity that oughtn’t to be there.

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      • Jonathan says:

        When all else fails, I resort to Star Trek: “We are the Borg.” Plural subject, singular predicate: that’s a collective noun.

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  8. Renée says:

    Many thanks for your answers. If Perl means being as a universal, I have no immediate questions. In his various books and articles, I have been reading “that which is, considered as one whole” as “all things that are, taken together”. It looks as if I may have been misreading him.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Mind you, I don’t know the context you’re thinking of. I was looking at the context Fr. Aidan supplied. And there, by the way, the definite article (in the singular, note) is important in Greek, and would be in German or French too, for that matter; German at least is remarkably similar to Greek, but both can use their articles a bit like Greek does. In English, if we say “the being,” we can only be talking about a discrete entity. In English, in other words, the definite article is still very definite and shows its origins as a pronoun. But in those other languages the definite article can be used to indicate a universal.

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Over at the FB Thomism group, I asked philosopher Brandon Watson (who has visited EO once or twice) to explain the difference betweent the Plotinian understanding of God as beyond being and the Thomist understanding of God as Being. Here is his reply:

    The way that St. Thomas explains this is that “beyond being” means “beyond ens.”

    Historically speaking, this is not entirely accurate.

    In the Greek tradition, “being” does not mean “existence,” nor does it mean anything like the Thomistic esse.

    For the Greek tradition, being is identified with the formal cause, with formal limitation, with formal determination, with essential identity, etc.

    This is why Aristotle is perfectly entitled to assert that being is a pros hen equivocal, and the primary instance is substantial form, and why Plato is entitled to posit a level of reality in between being and not being, namely, the world of becoming.

    Because, again, being is not understood as “not nothing.” To be, in the Greek tradition, means to be x.

    So when we see God, in the Platonic tradition, being described as being beyond being, what is intended is that He is beyond substance, form, essence, determination, limit, etc.

    Some days my mind grasps this. Other days it doesn’t.

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  10. brian says:

    I think it is helpful to consider that for the Greeks, the Infinite was thought of as the chaotic enemy of form. Form was associated with determinate being. The world of becoming was a “moving image of eternity” where dwelt the Forms, so that beings acquire their teleological direction through participation. This is one of the aspects of the Christian difference that Hart articulates in The Beauty of the Infinite. So, for Christian metaphysics, the Infinite is hyperformal necessitating what Desmond calls awareness of the “hyperbolics” of being, i.e., the ways in which creaturely participation in Being opens up to analogies that point to a transcendence that constantly calls us to traverse a crossing that evades a conclusive comprehension. Thus, Gregory of Nyssa’s eschatology of discovery in a dynamic eternity. Note: in Thomas, there is awareness of the creation as a Whole. This is the ens commune, not a collective in the sense of a mechanical aggregate, nor an abstraction, but a gifted community of being. Yet it is crucial not to identify the Whole of being with Being, because the Origin is always greater than the entirety of any theophanic mirror. Even in Thomistic terms, if one thinks Being as ens commune, God is “beyond Being.”

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    • Jonathan says:

      About the ens commune as a “gifted community of being”… It may be of some interest, though probably of no importance as Aquinas was not a classicist, to note that the Latin root of the word ‘common’ is the noun “munus, muneris” which means both a duty or obligation, and a kind of gift. I believe the suppositional Indo-European root is supposed to mean something like “exchange.” Anyway, in ancient Rome munera were public works provided by the munificence (to reduplicate the root) of wealthy patrons. We call this kind of thing “philanthropy.” I like “munera” much better, for its double etymological echo of gift and duty, or what still another age called noblesse oblige. What I’m getting at is that there is more sense in the word “common” than simply that of generalized dispersion. It is a question of what is held in common, and that is gift. You think of the village commons in England before the enclosures and the sense is very palpable that what is held in common is something that is intended for the good of all: “common good” ought to be a redundant phrase…

      Well, so much for the philological reverie. Don’t get me started on ens/entia/esse and all that, my head will start spinning. Latin and Greek are two languages that I have always thought should get along better than they do. Instead they’re like perpetually squabbling siblings who understand each other all too well yet refuse to placate each other.

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  11. Renée says:

    I’ll just need to continue to read and ponder. My question about whether Perl understands being as a collective stems from the passage Fr. Aidan quotes above (“Being means precisely *everything*, that-which-is taken all together as a whole” (Thinking Being, p. 2)). This is so fundamental to Perl’s thought, that I wanted to clarify what he means, because it probably has ramifications for the rest of what he says. A related question: Is being apart from instantiations thereof? I don’t really expect answers at this point. I’m content to keep reading and listen to the rest of you talk. Just want you to know that I am following you, even if I have nothing to contribute.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Keep asking your questions, Renee! We have some pretty sharp people who read EO and hopefully they can answer them. I’m as eager to hear the answers to your questions as you are. 🙂

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