Dionysian Ponderings: The God Who is Theophany

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.

(Go to “Plotinian Emanation & the Creatio ex Nihilo”)

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65 Responses to Dionysian Ponderings: The God Who is Theophany

  1. This is awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. apoloniolatariii says:

    I don’t think the picture about theism is right. If God is separated from the universe, the universe won’t exist.

    Like

  3. DB Hart says:

    Forgive me for intruding, but two remarks:
    1) The description of “classical theism” offered in the first paragraph is not really “classical” at all, and sounds much more like a description of “theistic personalism” (to use the inadequate terminology of Brian Davies) or of Deism. “Classical Theism” is usually used to mean a metaphysics of participation and of God as “Being itself,” rather than any kind of “supreme being.”
    2) I am in fact an “unqualified supporter” of the Areopagite, and find his metaphysics quite satisfactorily Trinitarian.
    Best,
    DBH

    Liked by 3 people

    • DB Hart says:

      Oh, and I should note, Denys characterizes God as “superessential,” yes–epekeina tes ousias–but that really should never be translated (though it usually is) as “beyond Being.” The word “being” does not have a univocal acceptation, nor does it capture the diversity of terms in Denys’s Greek.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, David. Thanks for stopping by.

      1) I agree with you about “classical theism,” and knew that someone would raise the point you raise. But for the purpose of this series, I decided to go with Eric Perl’s definition of “theism.”

      2) Interesting. I would have guessed that you might have had a criticism or two or the Areopagite. While I have you on the hook: Do you see Dionysius as articulating the analogy of being? I confess I’m more than a bit confused about this. Thanks!

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      • DB Hart says:

        But of course his thought describes an analogia entis. There is no way for a metaphysics of participation to avoid doing so. The very essence of the analogia entis lies in the realization that God alone has Being in himself, while creation receives its being wholly as imparted by God—divine being repeating itself differently, in the mode of the contingent. The interval of the analogy lies within being itself, precisely because God is not a being, and because God and creation are not related to one another as two discrete instances of Being in the abstract.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Another question, David: what are the differences (if any) between Gregory Nyssen’s metaphysics and the Areopagite’s? My impression is that Gregory more fully incorporated the Trinity into his reflections, whereas with Dionysius I keep wondering if one replaced Dionysius’s God with a pure unitarian Deity whether anything would change in his metaphysics. Am I off-base here?

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        • DB Hart says:

          Oh, now, that’s too large a question for an online post. Gregory’s originality was so remarkable that his thought often resembles no one else’s in late antiquity. Denys, for all his brilliance, was a Christianizing follower of Proclus. I really would not be able to fit Gregory so securely in a single school.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      David, I have altered the text of my article in light of your unqualified support of Dionysian metaphysics. I hope it’s true to say that Gregory and Maximus have influenced your metaphysical reflections more than Dionysius. If not, I’ll change it again. That’s one nice thing about being a blogger. 🙂

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Over on FaceBook the folks of two groups are discussing the heck out of the picture of different kinds of theism. Everyone agrees that the first set of ovals (theism) does not accurately suggest any theism that they know–maybe deism but not theism. No one, of course, is commenting on the substance of the article itself. I suppose we all prefer picture books. 😀

    Anyway, so here’s another image to contribute to our picture-theologizing.

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    • DB Hart says:

      We’ve all learned from Donald Trump that thinking with words and phrases and syntax and things of that sort only confuses matters. Pictures, ideally simple ones that come with an accompanying box of crayons, are the best way to get a grasp on any complex subject.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I have decided to write a book: *Thinking God with Pictures: Theological Metaphysics for Dummies*. It should be a bestseller and make me zillions of dollars! I will then run for President, lead the country in a theological revival and become head Theocrat. 🙂

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        • brian says:

          A return to pictographs could be construed as the logical late modern playing out of the simplified Ramist logic that ushered in the Reformation and the egalitarian proclivities of populist democracy.

          I’ve no desire to derail theological conversation into poltical polemics, but I’m going to note anyway that while it’s easy enough to lambast the boorish, simple-mindedness of the current president, it takes little courage to engage in such a critique. Much more likely to provoke umbrage and terrible wrath is to point out that the alternatives are frequently deft sophists who have mastered the language games of an educated clique whilst most often promoting ideologies that mask ruthless egotism and proclivities for what John Paul II called the “culture of death” in the rhetoric of compassion.

          Liked by 1 person

          • DB Hart says:

            At the moment, the most urgent matter seems to be to take note of the children abducted from their parents and caged in concentration camps by a fascist regime. The larger critique can wait till after some attempt has been made to prevent the predictable death from heat-exhaustion or untreated medical conditions of a certain number of those children, as well as to undo as much as possible of the whole system of abuse and terrorism that the current administration has instituted. Who really gives a damn right now whether the liberal establishment is deplorable in its own way?

            As the Areopagite has said.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        In defence of pictures, words can give an illusion of meaning and precision they do not have, especially in the largely futile trying to accurately describe God. It’s not for nothing that we talk of the “overall picture” when grappling with a complex subject. I have often found an apt and striking image will summarise and illuminate something for me which page after page of detailed exposition only confuses (but that’s probably because I know next to nothing about theology, to be fair).
        P.S. Is it me or is there a certain incongruity in me, an English Protestant, leaping to the defence of the power of imagery in illuminating the faith against two champions of the eastern Orthodox church?

        Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan says:

      But this is not actually a picture or image of anything; it’s actually mostly words, which could be easily put into simple, grammatically correct sentences — as in fact they are on the left side. Perhaps, at it’s most pictorial, this could be called a diagram, but even that seems to stretch the term. The fact that people are spending time on FB trying to debate such primitive signs is as unsurprising as it is discouraging. Would that such people could spend as much energy discussing an image of the Theotokos: even an unskilled representation of her accomplishes more “theologizing” than a series of geometrical figures.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Forgive me for scribbling with crayons here. Does the analogia entis, however Dionysius is construing it, still leave open a kind of permeability between God and creation?

    Liked by 1 person

    • DB Hart says:

      What does “permeability” mean in that sentence?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m pretty sloppy on philosophical matters so I could well just be asking a bad question. But, what I am getting at is a breaking of the surface of Creator into creation, and vice-versa. Not in a way that God becomes creation, or creation becomes God, but where there is real mutual indwelling as opposed to a participation strictly at a distance. The implication I have in mind is that I get the sense that Dionysius is implying that God is beholding himself in creation, and creation is beholding God in itself, even while distance and difference are present. Hopefully that clarifies.

        Liked by 1 person

        • DB Hart says:

          I’m not sure what participation at a distance would be. A metaphysics of participation strictly forbids a “real relation” between God and creature—that is, a relation between two separated beings within some larger context of reality. What, for instance, Przywara means by analogia entis is that only God is and has Being of himself, while all creatures exist only as imparted, contingent, and dynamically synthetic expressions of God’s Being (that is, in God there is no distinction between essence and existence, whereas in creatures both are received from God under the form of a gracious and dynamic process of becoming. Creation therefore exists only within the divine life, because there is no other source and end of Being. Separation is possible only between distinct things. God is not a thing, but rather the being of all things.

          Liked by 3 people

          • A metaphysics of participation strictly forbids a “real relation” between God and creature—that is, a relation between two separated beings within some larger context of reality.

            David, Thanks for elegantly cutting to the core of a clunky question. This is quite helpful in explaining what I feel like have only been guesses on my part so far.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. brian says:

    I did not imagine my words to be an implicit defense of caging children, but carry on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • DB Hart says:

      Nor was there any such suggestion. The point is that, at the moment, it scarcely matters that Trump is a laughable buffoon or that liberal bien pensants serve a “culture of death.” Just at the moment we should probably be speaking about this most urgent of issues.

      Liked by 1 person

      • brian says:

        Upthread, there were perhaps less serious allusions to which I entered a riposte. I don’t disagree that one should concentrate on ending a policy that apparently goes back several administrations and has now reached a crisis point.

        Liked by 1 person

        • DB Hart says:

          Don’t fall for that. Or peddle that rubbish. There never was such a policy. Nor is there any law that dictates the separation of families. A handful of court decisions forbid incarcerating families and so dictate that, when adults are incarcerated, children must be taken into custody and committed to foster care if there are no relatives to take them in. But crossing the border at the wrong point to request sanctuary is a misdemeanor, not a felony, and requires no incarceration at all. The new zero-tolerance policy is uniquely a product of the Trump administration, as is the mass abduction and caging of children as a result. It is an act of terrorism on the part of a fascist regime. DO NOT try to spread the blame around by speaking of former administrations, or by speaking of this situation as the culmination of a crisis that has been building over time. Those are Trumpian lies. This entire situation was created by this administration, and its purpose is terror, coercion, and a transparent attempt to excite the basic sadism of Trump’s troglodyte supporters.

          Liked by 1 person

          • brian says:

            Apparently my attempted irenicism has merely incited vehemence. I am largely engaged in trying to maintain a fragile, subsistence existence. So, I take in political information in passing. If I am misinformed, I am sorry to have offended so extravagantly. Though perhaps I am simply an illiterate, troglodyte sadist who cannot be expected to understand rational arguments.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. apoloniolatariii says:

    I think Eric Perl’s insight about the whole of reality as the appearance of God is right. I’ve always thought that, for Dionysius, creation is the ecstatic manifestation of God outside of Himself, being in a finite thing (which prefigures the Incarnation).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. DB Hart says:

    Brian,
    Cut it out. You’re too intelligent to pout over an argument on an emotionally intolerable situation. Your life is hard. But no one has stolen your children, I assume, so let’s put things in perspective. You were repeating (I assume in ignorance) the day’s Trumpian talking points, so of course it provokes a strong reaction. An angry rebuke is hardly an attack on your basic character. If you look, all I accuse you of is of being deceived about what the law says and when this policy began. And of repeating the administration’s lies uncritically. Right now, a gang of the foulest imaginable thugs controls this country and has now instituted policies that are cruel beyond description. They are also attempting to cast a fog of confusion over the affair by pretending that they are compelled to act as they do by law and in keeping with precedent. So push back against it. Don’t listen to them, and don’t believe what you hear from them.
    This is the best discussion of the Areopagite I’ve participated in in a long time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • brian says:

      I will confine myself in future to discussions of philosophical theology and literature. I’d much rather talk about George MacDonald or Gregory of Nyssa. Peace, David.

      Liked by 1 person

      • DB Hart says:

        Sorry if I seem overly fierce. Nothing in the political world has in a long time outraged me more than this new policy, or caused me a deeper feeling of sheer nausea. And, having just listened to the evil witch from Homeland Security at the White House telling a series of noxious lies, in the all too recognizable tones of a heartless sociopath, I was surprised by your remarks. I don’t want anyone to be distracted from the pure horror that the human sewage in the Oval Office has visited on those refugee families. So excuse my vehemence. It comes from sincere emotions.
        As for Denys and the metaphysics of participation, Perl is to my mind absolutely correct to speak in terms of Theophany—and, indeed, it is right to collapse the very distinction between the ontology of creation and the eternal act of divine self-manifestation.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Renée says:

    I’m late to this party, so no one may see my comment, but here goes.

    Perl writes, “The doctrine of being as theophany means…that God is *nothing but* what is differently present, or appears, in and as all things,” and once again my basic question arises. What does Perl mean when he says that God is *nothing but* in the sentence above. *Is* God (if you can pardon my using “is” of God) aside from his instantiations? I asked the same basic question earlier, but no one took me up on it, probably because, in my effort not to use “exist” of God, I was unclear. To rephrase using “exist”–but not meaning it in a way that has God existing side by side with other existing things–does God “exist” apart from what is, apart from his theophany?

    Regarding creatio ex nihilo and the nifty resolution of the incompatability between creation and emanation, is this just a play on “nihilo”? Usually, Christians understand nihilo in creatio ex nihilo as refering to privation, but the nihilo that refers to God is a nihilo of excess–God is so much beyond any thing, that he is nothing. If anyone can answer this, question, i.e., whether it’s merely a play on words, I’d appreciate it, as emanation makes more sense to me than creation, yet as a practicing Christian I can’t blithely jettison creation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Renee. I suppose that since I am the author of this article, I should take a stab at your good question in your first paragraph, though I hope that David and others will also chime in and correct and elaborate upon my babblings.

      You ask, “What does Perl mean when he says that God is *nothing but* in the sentence above. *Is* God (if you can pardon my using “is” of God) aside from his instantiations?” Like you, my mind wants to immediately say, yes, of course he is; and I think that is true: for the Aereopagite and for the Church, God does not need his creation in order to be the One he is. I believe that this judgment lies behind the essence/energies distinction of the Byzantine Church, a way of gesturing to the infinite fullness, aseity, and freedom of the Trinity.

      On the other hand, look at the way I have just spoken of God. I have made him, quite unintentionally but inevitably, into a thing who does stuff, analogous to all the other things we know that does stuff (and if a thing didn’t do stuff, it wouldn’t show up on our radar). But Dionysius would remind us that God is not a thing, not a being. Now consider what it means to be a being. Perl tells us that a being has a distinct intelligible nature and is thus differentiated and distinguishable from other beings. In other words, it is finite. But we know that God is infinite and illimited. Hence he cannot be distinguished from his creation in the way that we distinguish one being from another. Here I requote Perl:

      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.

      I have personally found that the first and hardest step is to grasp the grammar of beyond beingness and to try to apply it consistently to my thinking about God. Perl is well aware that we cannot but think of God as a finite being. As he notes, “thought and language necessarily treat whatever they treat as a being.” That’s why negation has an essential role in our theological reflection.

      And that brings us to your question about God’s creative activity. In my article on Plotinus and emanation, I quoted Perl as saying that for Plotinus the One simply is the Overflow of being. Here is the full passage:

      At the highest level, this means that the One is not something, some being, which both is, or is itself, and also appears and in that sense causes all things, but is rather the causing, the production, or the making of all things. Thus just after describing the One as “all beings and not even one,” i.e. all things without distinction, Plotinus says, “This, we may say, is the first act of generation: the One, perfect because it seeks nothing, has nothing, and needs nothing, overflows, as it were, and its superabundance makes an other” (V.2.1.8–10). This can only mean, not that the One is a being which “overflows,” which would contradict Plotinus’ entire metaphysics, but that the One is Overflow itself, the differentiating or appearing by which all beings are. Plotinus frequently expresses this by referring to the One as not any thing but “the power of all things” (III.8.10.1; V.1.7.10; V.3.15.33; V.4.1.36; V.4.2.39; VI.7.32.31), i.e. nothing but the production of beings, the enabling condition by which they are beings. …

      Proclus, likewise, insists that there can be no distinction between a cause and its causing. “Every productive cause produces the next and all subsequent principles while itself remaining steadfast. For if it imitates the One, and if the One brings its consequents into existence without movement, then every productive cause has a like law of production. Now the One does create without movement. For if it create through movement, either the movement is within it, and being moved it will change from being one and so lose its unity; or if the movement be subsequent to it, this movement will itself be derived from the One, and either we shall have infinite regress or the One will produce without movement. (El. Th., prop. 26)” The One, therefore, is production itself, since otherwise its producing would be a “movement,” and so is any cause in relation to its consequent. “But every producer remains as it is, and its consequent proceeds from it without change in its steadfastness . . . Full and complete, then, it brings to existence the secondary principles without movement and without loss, by itself being what it is” (El. Th., prop. 27). If the cause produces by being what it is, then its producing is not other than itself and hence the cause is (nothing but) the producing of its effect. Proclus expresses this most clearly when he remarks that the One’s production of all things is not, properly speaking, an activity at all: “If, then, these entities [i.e., Soul and Intellect] produce by their existence alone, far more so does that One which is above them produce all things by the very fact of being one, not requiring any other activity to accompany its being one . . . [S]o then it created all things without employing activity. But if in using these very words created and produced, we use terms proper to activity . . . we apply these terms to the One from the realm of beings, signifying through terms denoting activity the activityless manifestation of all things from it.” Here the doctrine of production as manifestation, rather than the making of additional things, becomes explicit. For Proclus no less than for Plotinus, all reality, no matter how many levels and triadic subdivisions may be found within it, is nothing but the unfolding, the differentiated presentation, of the One.

      Remember, Perl is speaking here of Plotinus’s and Proclus’s understanding of the One. He also believes that Dionysius agrees with Plotinus and Proclus on this point. Perhaps he’s right, he’s probably right, but I haven’t made up my mind yet.

      What I take from this is that if God is not a being, and if the world is the differentiated unfolding of the One, the One going out of himself into finite being, the logic of the One’s transcendence requires us to speak in some odd ways. Here’s a quotation from Perl’s Thinking Being:

      Indeed, far from thinking of the One as a ‘monad,’ a simple, unitary being which produces other beings, we can now see that the One must be regarded as differentiation itself, the very differentiation in virtue of which beings are distinct, are intelligible, and so are beings. We saw earlier that the One can be understood as ‘identity’ or ‘selfhood,’ as the condition by which each being is itself and so is a being. But the identity of a being, in virtue of which it is a being, is at once its own unity or integrity and its otherness from other beings. Thus, in discussing the internal differentiation of intellect which constitutes it as the multiplicity of forms, Plotinus remarks, “If they [the intellects, i.e., the forms, or beings] are many, there must be difference. Again, then, how did each have difference? It had difference in becoming wholly one [εἷς ὅλως]” (VI.7.17.29–30). Unity-as-integrity and difference are mutually implicit: each being is itself in being different from others and is different from others in being itself. Mutual differentiation and therefore multiplicity is itself the very condition for intelligibility and being. Thus, after describing the One as all things and no thing, and as not being just in that it is ‘generative’ of all being, Plotinus continues, “And the first generation, as it were, is this: for being complete, in neither seeking nor having nor needing anything, [the One], so to speak, overflows, and its overfullness makes an other” (V.2.1.7–10). This must not be taken to mean that the One is a thing which overflows, which would contradict Plotinus’ entire philosophy by regarding the One as a being and attributing to it an activity distinct from itself, but rather that the One is, as it were, Overflow itself, that is, the very differentiation or articulation whereby beings are distinct from each other and so are beings. Since to be is to be determinate and distinct, differentiation or alterity itself, the otherness of beings from one another, is the condition by which beings are themselves, are intelligible, and so are beings. Identity as the principle of being implies at once the integrity or selfhood of each being and its otherness from other beings. The One, as identity, must thus also be regarded as sheer alterity, or better, ‘alterification’ (not an other) no less than as sheer unity, or better, unification (not a one): it is not a principle of unity at the expense of multiplicity but rather of the integrating differentiation or differentiating integrity whereby all beings are themselves, are other than each other, and so are beings.

      If you meditate further on these passages from Perl, I know you’ll begin to get a hang upon the logic of Neoplatonic transcendence.

      The question I have for Dionysius is this: Did God have to create the world? I intend to think further about this in my next article.

      I hope this helps a bit, and I hope that others will jump in and elaborate further. Thank you for your good questions! I am struggling with this material just as much as you are.

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  10. Renée says:

    Fr. Aidan,
    Thank you for your considered reply. I know that it’s hard to think about God beyond being, and that even with care it’s easy to find oneself thinking of God* or the One as a being beyond being—which, of course, has no sense at all—but this is not my concern. I’ve carefully read both of Perl’s books plus a few of his articles, and though he says again and again that the One (God, for Dionysius) as the principle of all that is, both infinitely transcends and is infinitely near to all that exists (“He is nearer to you than your jugular vein,” as the Koran has it), he also again and again ends up saying things such as “God is *nothing but* what is differently present, or appears, in and as all things.” I am with him all the way until the “nothing but”. I suppose I want it clarified that God is not only his manifestations, i.e., that the principle is more than its manifestations (and not that God exists as a super-being over against other beings). But I may be misreading Perl, and what he is really saying is that since God is beyond being, his *being* is nothing but what exists. Am I making myself clear at all? And perhaps I should address my question to Eric Perl directly.

    *When we’re talking about beyond being, I think Meister Eckhart’s “Godhead” is a better choice than God.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Renee, I have zero inclination to go the Eckhart route you commend, as it seems to suggest, or at least is often taken to mean, that there’s a transcendent essence behind the Holy Trinity. There is only the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in indivisible unity. This, in fact, is one of the questions I have about Dionysius: does he suggest a God beyond Trinity? If he does, then I must reject that aspect of his theology.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      On thought came to mind last night about the concerns you have raised, namely, to commend to you God and Creation in Christian Theology by Kathryn Tanner. She comes at transcendence differently than Perl but but certainly as radically. She even devotes a couple of pages to Plotinus. You may find it as illuminating and helpful as I have over the years.

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  11. Wayfarer says:

    There’s a very minor lexical point I would like to try and contribute, namely, that of the distinction between ‘existence’ and ‘being’. When the phrase ‘beyond being’ is used, it seems to me that what it’s really saying is ‘beyond existence’, ‘existence’ referring to the domain of phenomena, ‘what appears’. It’s a point that is difficult to make in current English as ‘to be’ and ‘to exist’ are usually treated as synonymous, but I’m not sure they are, and that the difference in meaning really does represent a metaphysical distinction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It’s serendipitous you should raise this point. I was just thinking yesterday “What is the difference between being and existence?”

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    • Jonathan says:

      It is a good and more than minor point, I believe. The etymological origins of “to be” are very strange and interesting, perhaps worth going into — though I can’t just now. But “exist” in its modern usage is a pure fabrication of relatively recent invention.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Sorry, I should have been more precise: In English, “to be” is the infinitive form of the so-called ‘existential verb.’ I am not certain that all languages employ an existential verb: for example, I have been told that Hebrew uses (or anciently used) no such verb, but I am totally ignorant of Hebrew and can’t speak to that point. In any case, all instances of the verb that denotes existence make up the paradigm of the existential verb. “To be” is odd because it actually makes use of at least three known PIE roots to form its paradigm, only one of which looks anything like “be,” and so we get such diverse forms of the existential verb as “am” and “were” and “are” — but perhaps significantly not “become,” which is nothing to do etymologically with “to be.” Latin exsistere, on the other hand, very well can mean “become” or “emerge.” But the existential verb of Latin is “sum” (the forms of “esse”). Latin esse and exsistere are not related. So this is all very confused, I realize, and may get worse when we start talking of any sort of “existentialism.” That term, however, as far as I understand it, is properly derived, for it concerns existence: the world of becoming and individuation. We go astray when we speak of existence as if it were synonymous with the metaphysical state we call being.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          “I am not certain that all languages employ an existential verb”—does that mean that those who speak those languages are not truly existential? 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Jonathan says:

            Possibly. Or maybe it’s we Indo-European speakers who are all vaporous and verbose because our languages are so explicitly logical. There has to be a reason God chose the Semitic people as the protagonists of sacred history. Maybe it’s because they had the best language. That’s how I would have done it if I was running the show — I mean pick the site of my only begotten son’s incarnation based on the quality of the local language… also the cuisine, including wine… and the beauty of the women… Okay, I’ll show myself out now.

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      • Jonathan says:

        So, the further point is that, even though I think it’s a bit of a weird and contrived term, “existential verb” is fairly accurate, because usually what we mean by the forms of “to be” is some or another mode of existence. What we usually don’t mean is being in the metaphysical or abstract sense. The existential verb is usually combined with a predicate, e.g. “I am six feet tall” (in other words, I am *something*). Even when it is not combined with a predicate but used “existentially,” e.g. “There are a dozen houses on my block” (in other words, *some things* exist), it is still really about particular, contingent existence. Take the most famous instance of the existential use of the existential verb: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” Hamlet is here debating whether to continue existing, not whether he will continue to have being. Whether he can and will have being is not up to him, but whether he may go on existing, is. (And perhaps he feels that, though he goes on existing, he has already in some way been deprived of his being — his essence I suppose we could say — because of the difficult situation in which he finds himself.) And yet it could be that whatever comes into existence, if only briefly, enjoys a degree of being eternally that is independent of its continued existence in the world of existence, or becoming.

        In any case, I think it is better that I say every Sunday, “I believe in one God, etc.” rather than use the existential construction, “There is a God, etc.” Such language could never be prayer, as it is meant to be, because it doesn’t involve me personally; but apart from that problem there is the fact that it would not be accurate for a traditional Christian to say “There is a God.” That means God is an existent in the same way that I or my cup of coffee is an existent, which can’t be right. A Christian might say, “God is real” or better yet, “God is reality.” Still, though, even with such phrases we are only operating at the level of exposition. It is better to tell a story and make a figure. Here, we can use the existential verb freely, for we are not making direct statements about reality. But even if we are — and we do — the fact is that God does enter into the world (his world) of becoming, of existence, of presence and emergence; and he interacts with us there (here) personally and particularly. Perhaps much of the difficulty lies in using and then trying to correct exposition or proposition, when we are better served by other modes of discourse, by poetry and story-figures. (Sorry, you all know my biases, intrigued as I can be by the discourses of philosophy, particularly when used as corrective.) One of my favorite such story-figures is that of Elijah in the wilderness. I think that speaks to Renée’s question about God being “nothing but” his theophanies. It is a very good question, but then what is a theophany anyway?…

        “And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?”

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  12. Wayfarer says:

    The point is, that to ‘exist’ is to ‘ex- ist’ – to be apart, to be this as distinct from that. So the heuristic I’ve developed is that existence refers to ‘the phenomenal domain’ – the realm of the manifest, of the natural sciences. Whereas intelligible objects which populate the ‘formal realm’, such as universals and real numbers, are real but not existent. Through my reading, I have discovered that this is all stock-in-trade for Platonism but has generally been forgotten since the advent of modernity. Indeed materialism can only ever be one dimensional – things either exist or they don’t. But in a real metaphysic, there are degrees of reality (as per Maritain’s Degrees of Knowledge.)

    As your post mentions Eriugena, have a look at the SEP entry on him which talks about how something can be real on one level but unreal on another – https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scottus-eriugena/#3.2. That too opens up the possibility of ‘degrees of reality’ which has been generally flattened or lost in the transition to modernity. You can’t have a metaphysic without their being different levels, kinds or degrees of reality, of which the phenomenal domain is but one.

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  13. Jack says:

    Fr Raimundo Panikkar understood Eckhart’s Godhead as precisely the Father, isolated so to speak, from the other persons. Yet we know this cannot be, so he concludes it is a kind of abstraction he uses to get his point across.

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  14. Robert Fortuin says:

    Regardless of the differences between being and existence, the real point seems to me that when applied to God, any term must be used and understood analogically. The effect and meaning of references to ‘beyond being’, ‘not a being among beings’, ‘the existing one,’ and so forth, reside precisely in what I like to call the ‘analogical dissonance’ of normal univocal signification. The dissonance has a jarring function, to signal that words don’t mean what they normally mean. We don’t really know it means for God to be beyond being, to be the “I am that I am” or “the Existing One.” We do know what He is not, and we do know He is beyond what we know, and we know this by way of the analogy of being. Everything else misses the mark. Gloss divine existence as the existence we know and we no longer are speaking of the “I am that I am” who is the principle of his own existence, who participates not, whose existence is his essence, and so forth.

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    • Jonathan says:

      So, here is a realization slowly congealing in my mind: Do we need apophasis even when speaking of theophany? Because in addition to not being anything that exists, God also is perceptible in things that exist, as Father writes and as he quotes Dionysius saying. And one feels compelled to speak not only of what cannot be understood and what is absent but also of those perceptions and those things that are present and understood urgently. That’s why I cited the Elijah story above. And then there is, say, the Incarnation, where it is important to remind ourselves that the ‘bottom’ or existential term doesn’t simply drop away from the analogical interval. There needs to have been a real Jesus nailed to the Cross, in the way that, yes, the bread and wine are only ‘accidents’ — but without those accidents, what would we have?

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Jonathan, read Schmemann on Eucharist and sacrament as manifestation and see how well it jives with Dionysius. No need to even introduce the scholastic notion of accidents. The consecrated bread and wine simply are the food of the Kingdom, the Body and Blood of the risen Lord.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Jonathan says:

          There’s that pesky existential verb again.

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        • Jonathan says:

          I have read For the Life of the World. I thought it was a beautiful book. I don’t know how well I remember its details, though, or how I would place it with respect to mystical and negative theology like Dionysius’. What I would like to do is to look at the language of the divine liturgies of the east and the older forms of the Latin Mass and think about how much apophasis is to be found in that language.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Can’t speak to older forms of the Latin Mass, but one cannot experience the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, prayers, hymns, icons, services, etc. and not be ‘confronted’ again and again with the apophatic. All theology (even such as Dionysius’) cannot be understood but within the full life of liturgy, outside of this it devolves into empty theory and gooblelygook.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            A great example of the apophatic is depicted in the Transfiguration icon. https://iconreader.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/8-point.jpg
            There’s at least 3 separate indications pointing to apophatic excess: the darkness within the nimbus, the luminous whiteness “beyond nature” of Christ’s appearance, and the disciples’ inability to behold it all (“as far as they could see it” following the troparion hymn).

            Another great example of negative theology are the prayers of the so-called Kneeling Prayers at Vespers of Pentecost (just a small excerpt). Note the apophatic alongside the concrete instance of salvation:

            O pure and blameless Lord, Who art without beginning, invisible and incomprehensible, unchangeable, immeasurable, and unbounded, Who art without evil and alone immortal, who dwellest in the unapproachable light, Maker of heaven and earth and the seas and all that was created therein, Who grantest to all their petitions before asking, to Thee we pray and of Thee we ask, O philanthropic Master, the Father of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the ever-virgin Mary, the noble Theotokos; Who first didst teach by word, and then gave testimony in deed while bearing the saving Passion, teaching us Thine unworthy, sinful, and miserable servants, to offer Thee our supplications with bent head and knee, for our sins and human ignorance.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            there’s a fourth indication in the icon, I will let you look for it….

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          • Jonathan says:

            You’re going to have to help me out with the fourth indicator of apophatic excess, Robert. I’d love to know. I’m familiar with the more common eastern iconography, and I’ve seen this image plenty of times, but I’m not at all skilled in ‘reading’ eastern icons.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            It is hard to make out in the linked icon, but it’s the inscription on Christ’s halo which reads Ὁ ὬΝ translated as “the being one” or “He who is” referencing the “I Am” of Exodus. There’s an interesting write-up about the history on the inscription here: https://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/on-the-origin-of-%E1%BD%81-%E1%BD%A4%CE%BD-in-the-halo-of-christ/
            “The being one” – a jarring marker normal meaning comes to an abrupt stop.

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          • Jonathan says:

            Thanks, Robert. That’s very interesting. It didn’t even occur to me to notice that part of the inscription for some reason; I saw only the title and the names of the figures. I’m especially intrigued, in light of the foregoing remarks about the existential verb, that the article gives that as the translation of “Yahweh.”

            Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan says:

        I guess this is where the Neopolatonic or negative theology starts to seem nebulous to me,… I mean when it comes to stating why it should matter that one go to church and participate in sacramental life, rather than just sit around thinking and maybe speaking about God. I suppose it is one of the most astonishing truths that in order for the world to be present to us, we must in one way or another deny it.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Jonathan, I think it must be kept in mind that Dionysius’ project is metaphysical in nature, scope and aim – hence there’s very little references in his works to concrete revelation of God in Christ.

          As to apophasis in theophany – yes I would affirm that it is needed, very much so. The theophany points to and is a real concrete manifestation of the archetype, but it is not the archetype itself, and apophasis applies full force to the archetype.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            And that’s also a strong reason why The Divine Names and the Mystical Theology needs to be read with the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies. Archbishop Golitzin hammers this point in his book Mystagogy.

            Liked by 1 person

  15. Wayfarer says:

    I’m interested in the philosophical question of the nature of the transcendent, and the loss of that perspective from Western culture. But I can see this site is mostly concerned with devotional Christianity, so I won’t pursue it further.

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    • brian says:

      I can understand your sense of frustration, but I think it is a mistake to consider theological probing of the nature of the transcendent as “devotional” if one intends by that a belief that theology is not also engaged in metaphysical questions or that wrestling with the implications of revelation are not rooted in the wonder and perplexity that drives philosophy. In regards to your particular focus, Desmond has some good work on the postulatory finitism of modernity that basically presupposes an immanent Whole constituted as a refusal of transcendence.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan says:

      I felt exactly this way when I was a PhD student in literature at the University of Chicago. I ultimately became so frustrated with the limitations inherent in any discourse of philosophical transcendence or metaphysics extracted and isolated from religious tradition — which is all I could get at PhD school — that I ended up abandoning the PhD and taking up Catholic Christianity (not the only reason I went in that direction — I also married a Catholic and started a family — but there was first of all an intellectual component). I don’t think that particular move is necessary, but I do think one eventually has to commit to or at least conceive of one’s sustained inquiry as falling within a particular tradition of some sort, and probably best if it’s a tradition that is to some degree religious or poetic, e.g. Neoplatonism/Perennialism or whatever. As for me, I’ve learned more about metaphysics and the discourse of the transcendent at Eclectic Orthodoxy than I did in five years hanging around the UofC, including with Div School people. Anyway, there’s my two cents. . . that and a three dollar bill will get you a cup of burnt coffee.

      Liked by 3 people

      • brian says:

        Jonathan,

        I happened upon the first volume of Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics while I was in my second year at UCLA putatively working on a PhD in English Literature. Balthasar’s discussion of Beauty spoke to the eros of my soul. Everything missing from my academic pursuits was suggested in that work. Obviously, I ended up trying the academic path again. I do not think it a complete waste, but my belief is that most of my learning has happened outside of institutional settings and most often at least indirectly guided by my attempts to write a story. Thinking about poesis and working at it synthesizes intuitions and lifts learning above the dullness of mere conceptual cognition. I agree about the need for a Tradition as a mode of discovery. As you know, one ought to think of Tradition more as a guild for artisans than an authority from which one judges.

        Liked by 2 people

  16. Renee says:

    I wasn’t thinking of Meister Eckhart’s term in connection with the Trinity but rather as a way to speak about God beyond being. If it can’t be used without the baggage, then it is a poor choice. Re. The Trinity, in fact I came to Plotinus and Dionysius sort of sideways via my desire to understand the Trinity.

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