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.