“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
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 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 Caesarea, St 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.