Dionysian Ponderings: Beyond the Beyond … and then Beyond

“Dionysius adopts the doctrine of God as ‘nameless,’ ‘unknowable,’ and ‘beyond being’ from the Neoplatonic tradition established by Plotinus,” writes Eric Perl, “and his thought can be understood only in that context” (Theophany, p. 13). We will need to revisit Perl’s “only in that context.” The apophatic tradition of Eastern Christianity—embodied in the Divine Liturgy, stated in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers and St Ephrem the Syrian (Dionysius was undoubtedly acquainted with both), and performed in monastic ascetical practice—should also be judged as the proper context for the interpretation of the Corpus Areopagaticum. We need to find a way to think together the metaphysical and ecclesial. But let’s follow along with Perl in his analysis of the Areopagite:

Dionysius expressly adopts the Parmenidean and Platonic account of being and thought as coterminous, and therefore locates God beyond both together: “For if all knowledges are of beings and have their limit in beings, that which is beyond all being also transcends all knowledge” (DN I.4, 593A). Dionysius’ God, like the One of Plotinus, is transcendent, not in a vague, unspecified sense, but in the very precise metaphysical sense that he is not at all included within the whole of reality, of things that are, as any member of it. If he has no “name,” this is because he is not anything at all. God is not merely beyond “human thought” or “finite thought,” as if there were some “other” sort of thought that could reach him, or as if his incomprehen­sibility were simply due to a limitation on our part, but is beyond thought as such, because thought is always directed to beings, and hence to that which is finite and derivative. When we hear that God is beyond being, we inevitably imagine some thing, a “superessentiality,” lying above or outside of being. But this fails to realize the meaning of “beyond being,” because it still thinks of God as something, some being. Rather, we must recognize that for Dionysius, as for Plotinus, God is simply not anything, not “there” at all. If our thought cannot attain to God, this is not because of our weakness but because there is no “there” there, no being, no thing that is God. Understanding Dionysius within the Neoplatonic tradition to which he belongs, we must take him at his word and not seek to mitigate the force of his negations by interpreting his thought in the light of later theories which attempt to allow for “infinite being” and thus break with the fundamental Neoplatonic principle that to be is to be intelligible and therefore to be finite. (p. 13)

If all human thought intends the finite and intelligible, then the startling Dionysian statements about God become less obscure—and perhaps illuminating. How can we name that which is beyond thought? It is as if we have stepped into the void where the laws of nature are suspended. Up is down and right is left. We are everywhere and nowhere. We suddenly find ourselves in the bewildering conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey, bombarded by psychedelic images that make no sense, can make no sense, within the framework of space and time.

.
The solemn warning given at the beginning of The Mystic Theology is both apropos and urgent:

Disclose this not to the uninitiated:
not to those, I say, who are
entangled in beings,
imagine nothing to be beyond-beingly
beyond beings, and
claim to know by the knowledge in them
“Him who has made the dark
his hiding place.” (MT 1.2)

(A word about the translation of The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology which I am using in this article. The translator, John D. Jones, renders the Greek words ousia as “being” and on as “be-ing” [with the hyphen] in order “to express through a participle the dynamic character of that to which this word refers” [p. 1]. Jones also renders the adverb ousiōs as “manner of being” or, more literally, “beingly.”)

Dionysius hymns the One who is Three in the first chapter of The Divine Names:

The indefiniteness beyond being
lies beyond beings.
The unity beyond intellect
lies beyond intellect.
The one beyond thought is
unintelligible to all thinking.
The good beyond logos:
ineffable to all logos
unity unifying every unity
being beyond being
non-intelligible intellect
ineffable logos
non-rationality
non-intelligibility
non-nameability
be-ing according to no being
cause of being to all; but itself: non-be-ing,
as it is beyond every being, and
So that it would properly and knowingly
manifest itself about itself. (DN 1.1)

Superlative, antinomy, affirmation and negation are necessary whenever language dares to bespeak the Absolute. “For while to it, as cause of all,” explains Dionysius, “one must posit and affirm all the positions of beings, as beyond be-ing beyond all one must more properly deny all of these. Think not that affirmations and denials are opposed but rather that, long before, is that—which is itself beyond all position and denial—beyond privation” (MT 1.2). The Dionysian method is mischaracterized as negative theology, therefore, for in the end both affirmations and negations must themselves be denied:

For those who think in a divinely suitable way
all of these signify
the beyond-beingly being itself, and
cause of all which is everywhere,
according to every conception.

For it is not this
but not that;
it is not in some way
but not in some other way.

It is cause of all:
co-having and before-having in itself
all the sources and ends of all beings;
beyond all:
beyond be-ing-beyond-beingly-before-all. (DN 5.8)

We have entered the cloud of unknowing. Some might say we have entered the Twilight Zone.

John Jones proposes that in the philosophy of the Areopagite we encounter the end of metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of beings in their relation to each other and to God as their ontological source and ground. Within metaphysics, negative theology seeks to distinguish divinity from creaturely being and in this way make it intelligible. But the purpose of the Dionysian via negativa, avers Jones, is very different:

However, negative (mystical) theology, the practice of which culminates in unity with the divinity, involves the denial of all that is intelligible and thus denies every attempt at making the divinity intelligible to us. For negative (mystical) theology, the divinity is not the ultimate and preeminent source and support of all. For negative (mystical) theology, the divinity: beyond source, beyond be-ing, beyond eminence, beyond cause, and beyond support. To practice negative (mystical) theology, one must deny all that is; one must go away from and absolve oneself from all beings, including oneself. … For the explanation of why beings are is the goal of metaphysics, the goal of negative (mystical) theology: nothing. (pp 100-101)

That nothing, of course, is God, and in that transcendent nothingness we know only the communion-in-silence of the Trinity. It’s unclear to me whether Perl would agree with Jones’s way of putting the matter—I think he would point out that Plotinus too invokes the negation of negation when speaking of the One—but he concurs that the goal of the philosophical ascent is union with the divine: “The ‘mystical’ union with God in the ‘cessation of intellectual activities’ is thus not opposed to the cognitive activity of knowing beings but is rather its goal and consummation” (p. 96).

The Dionysian construal of divine transcendence appears to move beyond the apophaticism of the early Greek Fathers (Origen, St Basil of CaesareaSt Gregory the Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa). They  emphatically affirmed the incomprehensibility of the divine essence, yet I do not recall them appropriating the Neoplatonic beyond being. (I wonder, though, if the Nyssen’s elaboration of divinity as infinite being may have laid the foundation for the Church’s reception of Dionysius. That which is infinite lacks the determinateness and definition of finite being, right?) But the Areopagite is unwilling to merely affirm the ineffability of the Creator. Perl elaborates:

Dionysius is not content to say simply that God is ineffable, unknowable, or incomprehensible. To say “God is ineffable” is to describe him, to ascribe the attribute of ineffability to him, and thus to contradict oneself. When we say that God is unknowable or incomprehensible, we inevitably imagine some being that cannot be known, something as it were “out there” beyond the reach of thought. This is inevitable because thought always, necessarily, intends some being. But here again we contradict ourselves, for we are thus thinking that which we are claiming to be beyond the reach of thought. … God is not merely unknowable but beyond unknowing; not merely ineffable but beyond ineffability. And of course, even these are still words, names, conceptual definitions, and must be transcended. (p. 14)

Dionysian divinity does not fit well into the classical theism of post-Enlightenment theology, where God is posited as a supreme being with omni-attributes. As Perl notes, by the modern definition of theism, Dionysius is most certainly not a theist, “since theism, as ordinarily understood, involves the claim that God exists” (p. 15); and of the One who is beyond being we may not attribute existence, for he is not any thing at all: “no common term whatever can embrace both God and his products” (p. 15). But neither may we conclude that Dionysius is an atheist,

for on his principles it is no more correct to say “God is not” than to say “God is” (i.e. is a being). Simply to deny that God exists, to say, “God is not” or “There is no God” is still to consider God as some (putative) being, and then to deny that there is such a being, as when we say “There is no tenth planet” or “There are no unicorns.” This still treats God as some distinct conceptual object, and so fails truly to intend God at all. (p. 15)

The similarities between Dionysius and Plotinus are apparent. Both the Plotinian One and the Dionysian Trinity transcend theism and atheism. This vision of divine transcendence will be familiar to readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy by now. We have encountered it in the writings of David Bentley Hart, as well as in the writings of those who interpret St Thomas Aquinas in an apophatic vein, such as Herbert McCabe, David Burrell, and Denys Turner. Those of a biblicist or analytic bent will find it literally incomprehensible (see, e.g., my article on Eleonore Stump). Those who stand within the Byzantine strain of Orthodox, on the other hand, should find themselves on familiar ground. Thus St Gregory Palamas:

The nature beyond being, and beyond life and beyond god, and beyond good as beyond good, etc, is neither conceived nor contemplated in any way at all because it is apart from all things and more than unknowable and established beyond the super-celestial minds by an incomprehensible power and is always utterly unable to be grasped and ineffable to all. For it has no name in the present age nor does it receive one in the age to come. (Capita 106)

The language of God as “beyond being” didn’t fall down from heaven on tablets of stone. The Areopagite adopted it from Plotinus and Proclus, and through him it moved into the Byzantine Church. As we continue in this series to explore the thought of Dionysius, we will eventually need to ask ourselves, has he successfully baptized Neoplatonism?

I close this article with a passage from St Dionysius on the Transfiguration. I quote from the more lyrical, and accessible, translation by Colm Luibheid:

But in time to come, when we are incorruptible and immortal, when we have come at last to the blessed inheritance of being like Christ, then, as scripture says, “we shall always be with the Lord.” In most holy contemplation we shall be ever filled with the sight of God shining gloriously around us as once it shone for the disciples at the divine transfiguration. And there we shall be, our minds stripped away from passion and from earth, and we shall have a conceptual gift of life from him and, somehow, in a way we cannot know, we shall be united with him and, our understanding carried away, blessedly happy, we shall be struck by his blazing light. Marvelously, our minds will be like those in the heavens above. We shall be “equal to angels and sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” That is what the truth of scripture affirms. (DN 1.4)

Blessed Dionysius, pray for us.

(Go to “Emanation, Cosmos, and the Plotinian One”)

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19 Responses to Dionysian Ponderings: Beyond the Beyond … and then Beyond

  1. Fr Aidan,

    So good to see you grappling with the blessed confusion that is Pseudo-Dionysius! (My wife came across your title and she found it quite amusing, followed by a chuckle). I do wonder about the limits of Dionysian apophaticism, since there are dogmas within the Church, yet nothing can seem to pin God down. Everything must be negated, even the dogmatic formulations which are written in a negative mode (one thinks here of the Christological formulations of Chalcedon). What do you make of this? What do you think is off limits, if anything? Are dogmas also to be negated on some level? Do dogmas exist at the level of describing God at the economic level, or the Divine activities? These have been my questions the past few years while exploring the extremes of apophaticism…

    Alvin

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Interesting question about dogma, Alvin. I haven’t thought about it in the terms you present. I think we would first need to decide what “dogma” means.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      I have gone on the record before as being critical of negative and positive modes of discourse as terribly misleading and I generally find these wanting for all but exploratory projects (and then only to be used with great caution ). Dionysius stimulates one’s thinking, no doubt; but as a way of doing theology his method by way of negation can only properly serve as a stepping stone to greener theological pastures. His writing functions well as deliberate transgressive prîmer, but not as developed theological methodology.

      What is to be negated are not dogmas themselves but rather univocity and equivocity – that is to say terms predicated of God are to be understood analogously. Dionysius may have well intended the former but I haven’t found clear indication in his work of the latter. So, for instance, the Nicene faith in the one God is affirmed by Christians as in the “Father” who is “Allmighty” and “Maker of heaven and earth”. The question is how it is – in what way – that God is one, father, allmighty and maker: neither negation nor affirmation is going to be of assistance in furthering our thoughts on that account. In fact, without qualifying beyond mere denial and affirmation one’s theology of God’s oneness, paternity, power, creativity, etc, has come to an abrupt end. Not much of intelligence is said in any case.

      We must leave Dionesian fundamentalist denial behind and proceed by way of the ever tentative, uncomfortable, and confounding ‘like this, but not like that’ way of wording God.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Robert, I want to push back a tad here, as I am finding Dionysius’s emphasis on the “beyond being” helpful. I believe that grasping the proper understanding of divine transcendence (yikes! we never really do grasp it, do we?) is crucial to a proper appreciation of all the Christian mysteries. A quick jump to analogy may, I fear, short-circuit our openness to the apophatic mystery of God. I think we see this in scholastic circles. Hang out for a while in the Thomist forum on FB, and you’ll see what I mean. Everyone affirms the analogy of being and the nature of analogical language for God, yet it all gets squished into what might be called a practical univocity. A huge dose of Dionysius would be very good for them, I think.

        One other consideration: It may be that The Mystical Theology is as much a program for a certain kind of spiritual life as it is an argument for theological methodology.

        It’s unclear in my mind whether the Dionysian vision is incompatible with the analogy of being, at least as it has been laid out by David Hart.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          I heartedly agree – my analogocal account of theo-logos fails to acknowledge the profound mystery which remains an irreducible paradox and cause for worship: that the uncontainable became contained, the creator creature, the ineffable spoken, the invisible beheld, etc. Indeed what remains is the bipolarity of the negative vs the positive, a setting in which one will eventually dominate the other. But I want to get away from such theology beset by the logic of diastema.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            “But I want to get away from such theology beset by the logic of diastema”–does that represent a movement away from what you have written on St Gregory of Nyssa, or it is an intensification of it?

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I don’t see a fundamental contradiction between Nyssa and PD, although of course their writings, style, purposes etc differ greatly. What I meant to say is that I failed to hold up the irreducible mystery at the heart of the Christian message, that in my critique of absolute apophasis I failed to acknowledge the “beyond all names and naming” of the God who makes Himself subject to our naming. I believe PD’s concept of divine ineffability is not absolute yet also very true. We can truly speak of the divine names but yet God is always hyper the divines names and thus in that sense ineffable. It is imperative both the affirmation and the negation are utilized to, in a way, reference the mystery of the excess of hyper abundance that is God. God is invisible, yet beheld in the darkness that is hyper light.

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  2. Some of Dionysius thought here seems to be echoed in Barth’s concept of the ‘No-God’ in his Commentary on Romans. I can’t say I understand Barth well, but when he speaks of God, in his commentary, He is Deus Abscondus the emphatic ‘No’ over and against all human modes of knowing and existing in the world. Only when the No-God is apprehended and acknowledged are humans opened up to the new world of possibility in the ‘Yes-God’ that comes to us in Christ at our utter end, when God is grasped by faith alone (of a decidedly Kierkegaardian variety). I might be reading both wrong here, but there are some marked rhetorical similarities as I read them.

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  3. Jonathan says:

    This kind of language didn’t just move into the Byzantine church. It made it into Scottus Eriugena and Meister Eckhart and Nicolas of Cusa and all the way into more modern forms of ‘dialectic’ or ‘negative dialectic.’ I think it more or less ended there in terms of what we call philosophy, but it has lived on in the arts as an ethos that perceives and sometimes revels in the beauty of the indeterminate. The upheavals of modern physics seem to align with and reinforce this kind of thinking. It has become, in certain quarters, hard to say even if a regular physical thing, a being, is there or if is not or what it means for a thing to be there, to exist — let alone to speak of the God beyond being and beyond even that beyond. There is a sense, at least this is evident to me, that the more extreme and bizarre forms of apophaticism came, in the twentieth century west that had lost faith in a transcendent origin, to settle down into ‘earthy’ discourses and genres. I call all this a kind of language — I might even go full-on Wittgensteinian and call it a language game — because whether any of this is thinkable or what others experience in their consciousness when they attempt to think this language, I have no idea. But I do know that it’s there, set down in writing, part of the cultural deposit — part of the deposits of many cultures and modes of culture, actually. You can trace this kind of thought-escaping language down through various strands of western thought (sometimes through strands usually considered to be in opposition to each other). And you can very easily find it in eastern thought. But how it works out in the eastern cultural dynamics I wouldn’t presume to speak.

    I know this kind of language, as I say, in the art of uncertainty, or what in the schools they call modernism and its descendants. Subtract traditional form (in other words, enthrone in highest place that art form that is ‘ever new’ and reinventing itself, i.e. the novel) and add a hegemonic apophaticism and a burgeoning awareness that all of this is a matter of language, and you get Joyce, Proust, Musil, Woolf, Wittgenstein. In the other arts you get abstract painting and the breakdown of tonality (neither of which I am condemning in their own right, but importantly they can both be conceived as a kind of negation). I think that eventually you get deconstructionism and a profound doubt as to the efficacy of language. Robert Fortuin made a comment in another Dionysian thread that if you do not balance the apophatic with something else, you go haywire (that’s my paraphrase of course). I think that’s absolutely correct. On its own, or as the overwhelmingly dominant mode, this kind of language leads to the ruin of rational human life and evacuation of the forms of life, because all of a sudden you feel that language, the one tool with which we can really get a handle on reality, isn’t adequate to that task. For a while and before the apophatic hypertrophy has reached its full extent, this is exhilarating and can produce brilliant art, as per the names just listed. The apophatic reign can heighten the sense of existence for a while, because it shows an unfathomable depth in all things and persons, none of which is false. The French have got more mileage out of this than anybody, I don’t know why. Look at a great poet like Yves Bonnefoy, for instance. But eventually, in my opinion, what the apophatic reign leads to is a retrogression of consciousness, a fading of the realness of reality and inability to distinguish between fiction and real life, and the cancellation of a ‘sacramental worldview.’ It cannot be all mystery all the time, or paradoxically nothing remains mysterious or sacred, set apart, and you lose the savor and urgency and particularity of life. Words will lose their weight, their binding power, and life will fly apart into smithereens. That is the characteristic modern complaint. It is the inverse, if you will, of the deadening that comes about from a triumphant rationalism and positivism and materialism. Some might object: but it’s only supposed to be language about God. Well, it’s not so easy to build walls within language. How you talk about God will eventually affect how you talk about everything else, from poetry to child-rearing to your favorite brand of cigar.

    So it seems to me on this particular morning. I love the language of these mystical philosophers like Dionysius. But I come more and more to appreciate that it must comprise only a part of an overall language to live with, or else it is very dangerous. I’ve been to school with the people who could negate the negation out to the hundredth power. They were not happy people, because in fact that was all they could do, it had become with them a kind of addiction and poisoned everything they tried to do innocently apart from their negative (critical) inquiry. The critic who is only a critic lives in a kind of hell. So this is why, it now seems to me, that I brought up on an earlier thread the notion that apophatic language in its most developed forms is best construed as a kind of critical language, a corrective or countermeasure, and not the sole means of gaining the frontiers of thought and language. And as I have already said and as Perl, I see, seems well aware, no apophaticism is going to get you beyond those frontiers, for “to say “God is ineffable” is to describe him, to ascribe the attribute of ineffability to him, and thus to contradict oneself.” I’m not accusing Dionysius or any other thinker or writer of having misstepped. People say what they have to say within their context, and sometimes a particular utterance is altogether right in a context gone horribly askew. But I do wonder about our own context, if there hasn’t been a loss of the balance of power within language, and if a growing perception of this loss isn’t perhaps a major component in the anxiety of being a modern… Apologies if none of this makes any sense. I’m just trying to widen out the scope of a discussion of the apophatic, because this is a topic that, I must admit, affects me immediately. I think Max Picard, who has come up here recently, talks about what I’m trying to get at in terms of a dialectic of Word and Silence. It’s possible I’ve been reading too much Picard, and also reading him wrong.

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    • Jonathan, you make some interesting observations here, especially the relation between modern negation and Dionysis’ apophaticism. I’m not sure that Dionysius is a model for coherent metaphysics due to the extremes of his language, nonetheless there is a ring of truth to it at an aesthetic and existential level.

      You hinted at certain matters in science that bolster the modern tendency to negation. Typically I’d prefer to return to a pre-Copernican world where enchantment comes easy and science isn’t all-encompassing dogma, that said I have been reading through Carlo Rovelli’s books on physics and time. What I sense in my readings there is that even the givens that we observe of the physical world at a macro level become a mysterious flux that is woven together by a more mysterious absence at the bedrock of the quantum – at least absence on scientific terms. My own aesthetic sensibilities drive me to a leap into that void that glues the world together in order to perceive the Word echoing beneath it. But, this is a kind of penetration into the void that is more a product of faith and imagination than a rational process.

      All to say I agree that the ineffable has a place, and Dionysius’ observations are, in the very least an important check on our language and knowledge of the Divine. Perhaps we might not follow suit in our theological inquiry, using the more traditional tools of classical theism, but negation in the Dionysian extreme might give rise to humility when we might be overconfident in the sturdiness of even our apophatic language for God. Apophatic language points to something sub-linguistic, in the liminal edge of reason, and perhaps the extreme reminds us that we are indeed at the vanishing point, or the event horizon of what we can think or speak of God.

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    • brian says:

      Jonathan,

      I agree with much of what you say. I am not sure that Word and Silence is dialectically related in Picard. Just as Desmond will see conatus essendi as “always already” — I rather hate that phrase, but useful, I guess — rooted in a forgotten passio essendi, I would say that Silence is the originating Source of giftedness, that Word traverses from a plenitude of Silence as from an aseity of Being. I don’t think Mystery as the Christian Tradition tries to think it can be reduced to dialectical negation, though there is a role for that sort of thing. Mystery is also part of a “surplus” that is gifted along with the given; an overdeterminate giftedness in which every finite creature participates. Thus, each “cataphatic” affirmation contains its own “analogical” excess, so that any “apophatic negation” is at the service of revealing the “ludic infinity” that allows the image to bear ever increasing revelatory power.

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      • Jonathan says:

        So, by dialectic there, I only mean (I think) that in Picard’s thought Silence and Word are somehow dependent upon and mutually productive of each other. In trying to get at silence as something in its own right and not mere absence of speech, Picard sets silence and word up in a way that is not antithetical or contradictory, in the way of a negative dialectic. Silence is, as you state, a ground or font of the cataphatic plenitude of the gifting and gifted Word. But then there is this way that the Word points (us) back to the Silence. Picard talks about real language, true language (as opposed to noise, unmoored language) being rooted in the Silence or leading back to it. That’s what I was trying to conjure (I think!) and since I think of genuine apophaticism as leading to or describing the arrival at silence — not to statements of ineffability, which I find basically useless, but to the actual cessation of speech — I was I guess trying to draw an analogy between how Picard talks about silence and language, and how apophatic and cataphatic modes of speech might relate productively to each other. I lose my grip on this kind of thing and float off into the stratosphere pretty easily. I mean when trying to write about it. Reading it is awesome, tremendously energizing.

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        • Jonathan says:

          And by the way, can someone else please read Picard so that Brian and I don’t sound like raving lunatics as we try to paraphrase the man’s wonderfully poetic philosophy and bring it to bear on a philosophical problem that by its nature is already literally the hardest thing to talk about.

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          • brian says:

            We might still sound like raving lunatics . . . I take refuge in Yeat’s Crazy Jane poems. Sometimes the madman speaks truth.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Sorry, Jonathan, but my next five years is all blocked out with Dionysius, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Aquinas. Could you send me a reminder in 2023? 😎

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  4. brian says:

    Jonathan,

    Forgot to add that Wolfgang Smith has a number of helpful works with regards to thinking about quantum physics and how that might relate to indeterminacy, language, perception, etc. The Quantum Enigma, Science & Myth, Cosmos & Transcendence are among his books that address these issues. He’s particularly helpful in locating on which ontological plane one should situate a science of qualia which is what is both desperately missing and obviously lacking in modern approaches.

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  5. Renée says:

    Fr. Aidan: “That nothing, of course, is God, and in that transcendent nothingness we know only the communion-in-silence of the Trinity. ”
    I look forward to discussion of the Trinity in Dionysius’ writings, because Meister Eckhart, that other writer of negations, frequently seems to be saying that God, and thus theTrinity, is still on the level of being.

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  6. MJH says:

    Reblogged this on the pocket scroll and commented:
    Eclectic Orthodoxy is embarking on some Dionysian musings. The Areopagite may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do encourage you to go and start to grasp what it is that none of us are grasping. 😉

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