All created being, all that is and will ever be, flows from the one transcendent Deity who is Father, Son, and Spirit. St Dionysius the Areopagite seems to be clear on this point, but it’s difficult to pigeonhole him in one of the popular contemporary constructs of divinity, at least as popularly pictured. He is not a theist, as his God is not a perfect and supreme being contrasted with other beings. He is not a pantheist, as his Deity is neither an individual entity nor the totality of entities. Perhaps he might be described as a panentheist, in that all that exists is encompassed by God and indwells God, yet how does one picture beyond being? And he most certainly cannot be classified as a process theist, given the asymmetrical relationship between the Dionysian One and the created many. Consider this passage from the first chapter of The Divine Names:
To sum up. It is the life of the living, the being of beings, it is the source and the cause of all life and of all being, for out of its goodness it commands all things to be and it keeps them going. We learn of all these mysteries from the divine scriptures and you will find what the scripture writers have to say regarding the divine names refers, in revealing praises, to the beneficent processions of God. … They call it cause of beings since in its goodness it employed its creative power to summon all things into being, and it is hailed as wise and beautiful because beings which keep their nature uncorrupted are filled with divine harmony and sacred beauty. But they especially call it loving toward humanity, because in one of its persons it accepted a true share of what it is we are, and thereby issued a call to man’s lowly state to rise up to it. In a fashion beyond words, the simplicity of Jesus became something complex, the timeless took on the duration of the temporal, and, with neither change nor confusion of what constitutes him, he came into our human nature, he who totally transcends the nature order of the world.
This is the kind of divine enlightenment into which we have been initiated by the hidden tradition of our inspired teachers, a tradition at one with scripture. We now grasp these things in the best way we can, and as they come to us, wrapped in the sacred veils of that love toward humanity with which scripture and hierarchical traditions cover the truths of the mind with things derived from the realm of the senses. And so it is that the Transcendent is clothed in the terms of being, with shape and form on things which have neither, and numerous symbols are employed to convey the varied attributes of what is an imageless and supra-natural simplicity. (I.3-4)
Dionysius speaks of a divine movement or procession from the indescribable and indivisible Trinitarian unity to the multiplicity of creation, crowned in the Incarnation of the eternal Son. Through the names, symbols, and images of Scripture and Liturgy, we are given to contemplate the God beyond being who clothes himself “in the terms of being.” Dionysius mentions two divine names in particular—being and cause: being, for he is the absolute source and giver of finite being; cause, for he is the metaphysical explanation for the existence and diversity of the cosmos. Perhaps we might describe this way of speaking as analogy, but analogous to what? The God of Dionysius surpasses all whatness and all existing. We cannot compare beings and “beyond-beingly being.” Dare we speak of an analogy of non-being? Yet this can’t be right, for Dionysius tells us that “the Good is not absolutely incommunicable to everything. By itself it generously reveals a firm, transcendent beam, granting enlightenments proportionate to each being, and thereby draws sacred minds upward to its permitted contemplation and to the state of becoming like it” (II.2). If creatures participate in the Good, then they participate in the whole divinity, each according to its finite mode of being, just as the the radii of a circle share in the center point or the impressions of a seal share in the prototype (II.5).
Throughout The Divine Names we are presented with a subtle interplay between divine transcendence and divine immanence. We need to be careful not to interpret God’s otherness from creation as distance and difference, in the way two finite beings are distant and different. “Just as the form Fire, as that which is common to all fires, whereby they are fires, is not itself one of the fires,” writes Eric Perl, “so the One, as that which is common to all beings, whereby they are beings, is not itself one of the beings” (Theophany, p. 22). Yet just as form is mirrored in each of its appearances, so God in his supra-beingness is present within beings, for he is all in all. God is immanent in his transcendence, transcendent in his immanence:
But now let me speak about the good, about that which truly is and which gives being to everything else. The God who is transcends everything by virtue of his power. He is the substantive cause and maker of being, of subsistence, of existence, of substance, and of nature. He is the source and the measure of the ages. He is the reality beneath time and the eternity beyond being. He is the time within which things happen. He is being for whatever is. He is coming-to-be amid whatever happens. From him who is come eternity, essence and being, come time, genesis, and becoming. He is the being immanent in and underlying the things which are, however they are. For God is not some kind of being. No. But in a way that is simple and indefinable he gathers into himself and anticipates every existence. So he is called “King of the ages,” for in him and around him all being is and subsists. He was not. He will not be. He did not come to be. He is not in the midst of becoming. He will not come to be. No. He is not. Rather, he is the essence of the things which have being. Not only things that are but also the essence of what they are come from him who precedes the ages. For he is the age of ages, the “predecessor of the ages.” (V.4)
The negations and antinomies of Dionysius’s rhetoric break open the veil between being and the beyond being. But he is not just speaking hyperbolically. This language flows from his Neoplatonic, yet now (hopefully) Christianized, metaphysics. God is the undetermined determination of every thing (“the essence of the things which have being”)—that which makes it to be and to be what it is. Perl elaborates:
We are now in a position to see what Dionysius means when he describes God as not any thing but the cause of all things and hence subject to no name and to all names. The operative principle is the Neoplatonic law that “the things that belong to the effects pre-exist in the causes” (DN II.8, 645D). Since determination is the cause of being to that which it determines, God is the cause of all things in that he is present to all thing as the constitutive determinations by which each is itself and so is. God is the “illumination of the illumined and principle of perfection of the perfected and principle of deification of the deified and simplicity of the simplified and unity of the unified … and, to speak simply, the life of living things and being of beings” (DN I.3, 589C). He is present to all beings as being, the universal character common to all beings such that they are beings: God “neither was nor will be nor came to be nor comes to be nor will come to be; rather, he is not. But he is being to beings” (DN V.4, 817D). Likewise he is present to all living things as life, the universal determination by which they are living things as distinct from non-living things. But the determining, constitutive divine presence is not limited to such exalted attributes as being and life, but includes all the features of each thing, which constitute it as that distinct thing, as itself, and hence as a being. “In the cause of all things the paradigms of all beings pre-exist … Paradigms … are the being-making determinations …, pre-existing unitarily in God, of beings, which theology calls pre-determinations, and good wills, determinative and creative of beings, according to which the beyond-being both predetermined and produced all beings” (DN V.8, 824C). Hence these “paradigms” or λόγοι contained without distinction in God, are explicitly identified as the defining or determining principles which make beings to be. God is thus present in each being as its determining or defining λόγος, by which it is itself and so is. All the features of all things, therefore, are God-in-them, making them to be by making them what they are, so that God is not only being in beings and life in living things but “all things in all things” (DN I.7 597C). (pp. 28-29; cf. “Emanation, Cosmos, and the Plotinian One“)
Readers of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas will immediately think of the divine ideas; readers of St Maximus the Confessor, the divine logoi; of St Gregory Palamas, the divine energeia. We will return to this topic in a future post. But for now what is important for us to see is the presence of the One in beings as their uncreated cause. Even “difference,” says Dionysius, may be attributed to God, “since he is providentially available to all things and becomes all things in all for the salvation of them all” (DN 9.5). Perhaps we might describe Dionysius’s view as creatio ex deo, but only if we immediately qualify the divine substance as nothing. Creatio ex deo thus becomes equivalent to creatio ex nihilo, which then becomes ex nihilo creatio. The eternal nothing unfolds itself as that which it is not. Parmenides is turned upside down: ex nihilo aliquid fit. I thought I was being particularly brilliant when I thought of this, but then I was informed that John Scottus Eriugena stole this from me over a millennium ago. And to make matters worse, I then discovered that I had posted on my blog the following (long forgotten) citation from Eriugena five years ago:
We believe that he made all things out of nothing, unless perhaps this nothing is he himself, who—since he is extolled as super-essential above all things and is glorified above everything that is said of what is understood—is not unreasonably said to be ‘nothing’ through excellence, since he can in no way be placed among the number of all things that are. For if he himself is at once all things that are and that are not, who would say that he is or is not something, since he is the being and more than being of all things? Or, if he is not something, by excellence and not by privation, it follows that he is nothing, by infinity. (Exp. 4.67; see John Sikkema, “In an Ineffable Way and in Infinite Ways”)
And Eriugena was commenting on Dionysius! Surely this is compelling evidence for chronesthesia.
Dionysius presents us with a remarkable vision: the ineffable, indescribable, illimited being-beyond-being manifesting, presenting, expressing himself in the mode of finite multiplicity. Perl proposes the concept of theophany as an appropriate descriptive term:
For Dionysius, then, as for Plotinus and Proclus, the whole of reality, all that is, is theophany, the manifestation or appearance of God. For the entire content of any being is God present in it in a distinct, finite way, and in virtue of this distinction, knowable in that being as its intelligible content. It is just as distinct, or finite, that God is present in the being, or that the being is a presentation of God. For to be “present” means to be given or available to thought, i.e. to be intelligible. And as intelligible, as given to thought, God is apparent, or manifest, in and as the being. To be present, to be manifest, to be finite, to be distinct, to be intelligible, are ultimately all the same, and all are elaborations of the only possible meaning of “to be.” The understanding of being as theophany is thus a strict consequence, developed in the Neoplatonic tradition, of the original principle that to be is to be intelligible.
To say that reality is the appearance of God, however, may be misleading, if it is taken to mean that God is, so to speak, “there,” behind or inside all the appearance, an object prior to and apart from them. If God is not any being, then what is reality the appearance of? Such a question again attempts to reduce God to a “what,” a being, an object of thought, violating all that has been said about divine transcendence and about all being as appearance. When we speak of reality as the appearance of God, we must remember that since all reality is theophany, God, as “that which appears,” is not another being, another member of reality. The doctrine of being as theophany means not that God is and is himself, and also appears, but rather that God is nothing but what is differently present, or appears, in and as all things. To pass from appearance to what is appearing, from being to God, is not to pass from one thing to another thing. Rather, since God is not another thing but the enfolding of all things, to go from beings to God is to gather the whole diverse content of reality together, and in so doing, since being necessarily involves multiplicity and distinction, to pass beyond being. (pp. 32-33; also see Andrew Louth, Denys the Areopagite, pp. 85-86)
Theophany, the manifestation of divinity, the appearance of God—as I sit outside on my deck, watching the trees gently moving in the wind, listening to the birds, how can it not be that here is the sacramental presentation of the living God, not as some entity hiding beneath the physical but as the divine making itself? And if here in my backyard, then also anywhere and everywhere. Andrew Louth in a lapidary sentence: “The world is God’s glory made manifest” (p. 85). God is no thing and therefore not anything that I perceive or intellectually apprehend, yet we see him and know him in everything, Dionysius tells us:
God is therefore known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and through unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything. (DN 7.3)
The antinomy is almost unbearable. Known and unknown, perceived and yet invisible, available for intellectual cognition but beyond thought. The “all” and the “none” must be kept together if we are to catch the Dionysian vision. “Because God is all things in all things,” Perl comments, “to see anything is to see God in that thing. All knowledge is knowledge of God because all being, all that is given to consciousness in any mode, is nothing but the finite, differentiated presentation of God. Since all things are nothing but God-in-them, there is nothing to be known in anything but God-in-it.” For this reason Dionysius delights and “revels in the contemplation of colors, shapes, sounds, scents, tastes: in all that we perceive, in our every sense-experience, we are encountering God, and the same content, the same glorious theophany, is found not less but more intensely as we ascend to higher modes of cognition” (p. 93). Our apprehension of finite reality necessarily implies apprehension of the divine.
The words of Dionysius, as exegeted by Dr Perl, reminded me of these words of David Bentley Hart:
God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever. Or, to borrow the language of Augustine, God is not only superior summo meo—beyond my utmost heights—but also interior intimo meo—more inward to me than my inmost depths. (The Experience of God, p. 10)
St Gregory of Nyssa and St Maximus the Confessor appear to have influenced Hart more directly than the Areopagite (see The Beauty of the Infinite, as well as the relevant essays in The Hidden and the Manifest). Yet Hart and Dionysius stand together in the Christian Neoplatonic tradition.
On the Areopagus, the Apostle Paul declared that he had come to declare the unknown Creator the Greeks had long sought (Acts 17:28):
”In him we live and move and have our being.”
To be is to be encompassed by God.
To be is to be indwelt by God.
To be is to image God.
To be is to know God.
God is theophany.
Blessed Dionysius, pray for us.