Eclectic Orthodoxy

Dionysian Ponderings: Creatio ex Nihilo, Divine Energies, and the Erotic God


Did St Dionysius the Areopagite espouse the catholic understanding of the creatio ex nihilo? As noted in the preceding article, this understanding comprised three elements: (1) rejection of pre-existent matter, (2) absolute beginning, and (3) divine freedom.

Neither rejection of eternal matter nor absolute beginning is mentioned by Dionysius (as far as I know). The former is certainly presupposed by his iteration of the creatio ex Deo: the world is from God and caused by God. The latter may also have been assumed by both author and audience. The critical point for Dionysius: the Trinity is transcendent source and consummation of all that is:

It alone is cause, source, being and life of all,
A recalling and resurrecting of those who have fallen away from it,
A renewal and re-formation of those who are slipping away toward a destruction of the divine form,
A sacred foundation of those who are tossed about in an unholy tempest,
A security against falling for those who stand upright,
A guiding hand which is stretched out for those who are being led back toward it,
An illumination for those who are illumined,
A source of completion for those who are completed,
A god-source for those who are deified,
A simplicity for those who are simplified,
An unity for those who are unified,
The source of every source beyond-beingly beyond every source,
And the good gift of what is hidden according to the divine law.
To speak simply:
It is the life of all that lives and the being of all beings.
(The Divine Names I.3)

Note the interweaving of the metaphysical and the soteriological, of the Neoplatonic and the biblical. The controversy about Platonic pre-existent matter belongs to the past and no longer needs to be worried about. The God of faith is the divine and eternal Creator, not a demiurge. All beings depend upon him for their existence; all beings participate in the One and Three. We should not, therefore, think of divine creation as the making of beings by another being, for God is not a delimited entity. He is the beyond-beingly being; or perhaps put differently, he is undifferentiated, infinite Being, the Father, Son, and Spirit, exquisitely united “beyond every way of unity” (DN II.5; see “Beyond the Beyond”). Hence when we speak of the world as caused by God, we are referring to a relationship of absolute ontological dependence. Eric Perl explains: “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 things as the constitutive determinations by which each is itself and so is” (Theophany, p. 28). This relationship of determination and dependence defines what it means to be creature. In the words of the Areopagite:

One truth must be affirmed above all else. It is that the transcendent Deity has out of goodness established the existence of everything and brought it into being. It is characteristic of the universal Cause, of this goodness beyond all, to summon everything to communion with him to the extent that is possible. Hence everything in some way partakes of the providence flowing out of this transcendent Deity which is the originator of all that is. Indeed nothing could exist without some share in the being and source of everything. Even the things which have no life participate in this, for it is the transcendent Deity which is the existence of every being. The living, in their turn, have a share in that power which gives life and which surpasses all life. Beings endowed with reason and intelligence have a share in that absolutely perfect, primordially perfect wisdom which surpasses all reason and all intelligence. (The Celestial Hierarchy I.4)

The creation theology of Dionysius may thus be classified as a metaphysics of participation. All beings participate not in a part but in the whole of the over-flowing divinity, yet divinity remains imparticipable (DN II.5). The transcendent Creator encompasses all and penetrates all, is all yet not all. In him all things live and move and have their being. Fran O’Rourke elaborates:

God himself is perfect since he can be neither increased or diminished but pre-contains all things in advance within himself and overflows in a unique, unceasing, inexhaustible plenitude, filling all things with his own perfection. … The being and  perfection of creatures is an outpouring of God’s superabundant goodness: an effusion (χύσις), overflowing (ὑπερβλύζειν) or ‘bubbling over’, outflowing or gushing forth (εκβλύζειν). Creatures have their origin in the divine as a stream in its source. The image of a source, fountain or stream serves to emphasise the autonomy and transcendence of God. He is the origin of the gifts in which all participate in an infinite bounty but which remain nevertheless unchanged, retaining the same abundance; they are undiminished by participation but overflow all the more. God is as the transcendent source which through excess embraces all beauty within itself, emitting things into their existence and calling them to complete fulfilment through final return to their source. (Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, pp. 217–218)

A key term for Dionysius is “procession” (proodos), both in the singular and plural. God ecstatically processes out of himself, manifesting himself under the mode of finitude. Hence we may think of the act of creation as divine self-communication. God proceeds into creation, and creation proceeds from God. Alexander Golitzin elaborates:

Dionysius uses πρόοδος to signify the presence of God as “outside” his essence. Its use in the singular refers to the unified quality of the procession as a single out-flowing, as well as to the unity of its source. The plural usages doubtless point both to the varied effects to which the procession gives rise and to the multiple causes (αιτίαι) of the creatures. The expression thus generally describes the movement of the Godhead that both gives rise to the creature’s being, “the essence-creating procession to all things of the divine source of essence” [DN V.1], and also offers the creature its hope of ascent back and up to its source—its hope granted it by nature and grace. There is thus a fundamental link between πρόοδος and revelation. The “names” of God which Dionysius offers as the subject of his treatise are on several occasions specifically linked to the processions. … The names do not and cannot lend expression to the super-essence, to God in se. They are instead associated … with the other mode of divine being, the processions. While his essence remains ineffable and unknowable, God may therefore be truly known, and known truly as God, in his processions. That which permits him to be active “outside” his essence sets up the created being’s hope of knowledge of (and, finally, union with) him. The processions (πρόοδοι) are thus finally the gifts (δωρeαí) he makes of himself. …

The processions are neither lesser gods nor less God. They are instead God, as it were, in transit, transcendent communications, “imparticipably participated.” (Mystagogy, pp. 75, 78)

Dionysius metaphorically depicts the divine processions as “outside” the beyond-beingly being, in the way that the illuminating rays of the sun are outside and yet inseparable from it (DN IV.4). He thus anticipates the medieval Byzantine distinction between the divine essence and energies—or as he phrases it, deity “manifest of itself through itself” (DN IV.14). The processions are God in his differentiating gifting:

It is differenced in a unified way:
being given to all beings
overflowing the participations of the
totality of those that are good,
singly made many,
non-wanderingly multiplied out of the one.
Since God is beyond-beingly being, and as
being is given to beings and
brings forth the totality of beings,
That one be-ing is said to be multiplied by
the bringing forth of all beings out of itself. (DN II.11)

John D. Jones notes that if this text and others like it are read straightforwardly, “then the differentiations to which the divine names refer are differentiations of the divinity which are the divinity” (“An Absolutely Simple God?”, p. 401). Every creature, we recall, is a manifestation and theophany of the infinite Creator. The One, which is no thing but pure outflowing of being, appears in and as all things. As Charles Williams might have said, “This is Thou; neither is this Thou.” If Jones is right, then Dionysius does not appear to be too worried about absolute divine simplicity, at least as it was later defined by the Thomistic tradition. In his uncreated processions the Deity is “differenced in a unified way.” And later in the treatise Dionysius states that “the divine otherness is not some becoming other of the identity beyond change, but the single multiplication of itself and the uniform processions of its great fecundity in all” (IX.5). The One’s self-differentiation into finite being does not introduce composition into the Godhead. How is this possible? It certainly cannot be captured in scholastic categories, whether Latin or Byzantine. Dionysius offers the following hint:

Now the Father is the abiding source of the divinity beyond being. The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. Thus, our celebration religiously guards what is proper to each of the persons of the godhead. All of these things that we have so far discussed are the unities and differences in the ineffable unity and ground.

But if the divine difference is the good-showing procession of the divine unity, which, beyond every way of unity, both makes itself many and multiplies itself by goodness, then these are the unities in this divine difference: the incomprehensible traditions, the gifts of being, the gifts of life, and the production of wisdom and all the other gifts of the cause of the goodness of all, according to which the unparticipants are celebrated from the participations [in them] and those which participate [in them]. Now this is common, a unity, and one for the whole divinity: it is participated in wholly and entirely by all those participating in it, and none participate in only a part of it. … Nevertheless, the non-participation of the all-causing divinity lies beyond all, since there is no contact with it nor any communion or commingling with it by those which participate in it. (DN II.5)

It’s only a hint. Dionysius does not develop it, but it remains suggestive. God is God even in his othering, for in his Trinitarian beyond-beingness he surpasses oneness and difference. It is from this ineffable plurality-in-unity that God is able to transcend himself in the donation of being and make others capable of participating in him, without compromising either his divinity and supra-essential oneness or the diastema between the infinite and finite. The multiplicity of the divine processions in God’s single act of creation is grounded upon, reflects, and issues from the Father’s eternal generation of the Son and Holy Spirit in perichoretic unity. Creatures are made plural and one in the divine difference. That which is only hinted at by the Areopagite is explicitly developed by David Bentley Hart:

The truly unexpected implication of trinitarian dogma is that Christian thought has no metaphysics of the one and the many, the same and the different, because that is a polarity that has no place in the Christian narrative. Where, for instance, the One of Plotinus eventuates in difference by way of conversion and remotion, the benign ontological apostasy that erupts from the theoria of Nous, for Christian thought difference does not eventuate at all, but is; Christianity has no tale to tell of a division or distinction between a transcendental unity and a material multiplicity that achieves—in the tension between them and in the speculative convertibility of one with the other—the coherence of totality, but knows only differentiation and the music of unity, the infinite music of the three persons giving and receiving and giving anew. Created difference “corresponds” to God, is analogous to the divine life, precisely in differing from God; this is the Christian thought of divine transcendence, of a God who is made inconceivably near in—whose glory is ubiquitously proclaimed by—creation’s infinity of difference from God, its free, departing, serial excess of otherness. Theology speaks of nothing if it speaks taxonomically of the one and the many, because difference as revealed in the trinitarian economy precedes this static and mutually conditioning opposition; the motion of divine love shows self-contained singularity to be a fiction of thought, for even in the “instant” of origin there is the otherness of manifestation: knowledge and love. Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος: God is always articulate, an address, given over in the image that repeats and yet repeats at a distance and is borne over into yet another open intonation; God, one might presume to say, is God in supplementation, repetition, variation; and yet the one God. The triune God is not that which negates—or is unveiled through negating—difference; he has no dialectical relation to the world nor any metaphysical “function” in maintaining the totality of being. He is not the high who stands over against the law, but is the infinite act of distance that gives high and low a place. As the God who gives a difference that is more than merely negative and that opens out analogically from the “theme” he imparts (the theme of free differentiation, oriented in love toward the other and all), he shows that difference is—still more radically, more originally, love and peace. … Nor is there any negation or alienation in the relation of God to creation: the latter is but a further address, another modulation of the way in which he utters himself, in that which is infinitely different from him and which is—and for this very reason—his tabernacle and the manifestation of his beauty. …

God, in short, is not a hierarchy of prior essence and posterior manifestation, but is always already expression, already Word and Likeness; to speak of his ousia is not to speak of an underlying and undifferentiated substrate (a divine ὑποκείμενον), but to name the gift of love, the glorious movement of the divine persons, who forever “set forth” and “converge.” Thus God is the distance of the infinite, the actus of all distance. … The Plotinian descent from unity to plurality was displaced by God’s perichoresis as unity and difference, and the tragicomic ambiguity of emanated finitude was displaced by the joy of God’s immanently diverse fullness and of finitude’s gratuity. (The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 180–183)

At the moment Dionysius replaced the undifferentiated One of Plotinus with the Holy Trinity, Neoplatonism was changed from the inside-out. A new understanding of divine transcendence was introduced into the world (though perhaps that honor goes to St Gregory Nyssen, whose writings the Areopagite knew well). I do not know if Dionysius would agree with Hart’s Trinitarian construal of divine transcendence, nor do I know if Hart would agree with my reading of Dionysius. I’m just trying to connect the dots.

Perl, on the other hand, denies that the Trinity inform Dionysius’s metaphysics: “Although Trinitarian doctrine is fully present in Dionysius, it does not enter into his philosophical understanding of being as theophany” (p. 122, n. 24). All can be explained by his Neoplatonic commitments. God is intrinsically ecstatic,

not a self-contained-self but always already ‘out of himself’ and ‘in all things’ as their constitutive differences. His being “in himself” consists in his being “out of himself” and “in all things,” just because God is no thing, not any being, but the causal determination, the production, or in Plotinus’ phrase the “power of all things.” (p. 46)

Procession is just a way of speaking of ontological dependence. I surmise that Perl would therefore dispute the projection of the Palamite distinction between the divine essence and energies into the Areopagite. The One has no essence, no nature, no attributes, no energies. These categories only apply to finite entities—that is the point of the Dionysian hyperousios. Neither hyperousios nor proodos may be nominalized; deity is verb, not noun. God simply is his energetic self-communication and love, the letting-be of finite existence. In Perl’s words: “God is pure exteriority, having no inner core of ‘selfhood’ that could be distinguished from his ‘outward’ productive activity” (p. 46). Yet for this very reason, God is simultaneously “pure interiority, absolutely unconditioned by any relation to beings that would be an accident or an affect additional to his inner self” (p. 46). To return to the image of the sun and its rays of light: eliminate the body of the sun, leaving only the rays—the rays are God, divinity-in-action, the Holy Trinity pouring itself out in love. Just remember: don’t reify the light. God is the ambient illumination by which we see and touch and know all sensible and intelligible reality, and in so knowing know him (cf. “Emanation, Cosmos, and the Plotinian One“).

Golitzin, however, interprets the Areopagite’s formulation of the processions as a significant departure from Neoplatonism. For the latter, he says, proodos “refers primarily to the effects’s departure from its cause, i.e., the next level of existence down the scale of being”—hence the divine henads of Proclus. But for the God of Dionysius the proodoi “have no reality independent of his essence … Instead they refer back directly to their transcendent source. Like the sun’s rays they have a certain ‘oblique’ reality, but the viewer (or contemplator) gazing—by grace—directly up at them encounters the blinding ‘darkness’ described in the Mystical Theology” (p. 77). The subordinate hypostases posited by the Neoplatonists vanish with a stroke, replaced by the immediate causality and gifting of the self-manifesting Trinity. Golitzin also sees a subtle difference between Dionysius’s use of proodos/proodoi and energeia/energeiai, which are often paired together, as in this passage when he discusses the motion of God in creation:

But again [what are we to say] when the theologians say that the unmoved proceeds to all and is moved? Must not this be understood in a way appropriate to God? For we must reverently suppose that God is not moved according to locomotion, or alteration, by becoming other, by conversion, or by spatial motion—whether straight, circular, or that motion arising from both—or by intellectual, psychic, or natural motion. Rather God leads and conserves all in being, provides for all in every manner, and is present to all by the unbounded encompassing of all and by its providential processions and activities in all.  However, we must concede to celebrate motion of the unmoved God in a way appropriate to God. Thus straight motion must be understood as the unswerving procession of its activities and as the genesis of the whole out of itself. Spiral motion must be understood as the steadfast procession and the productive rest. Circular motions must be understood as the same, as containing the means and extremities, which encompass and are encompassed, and as returning into itself all of those which have proceeded from it. (DN IX.9)

Golitzin suggests that energeia here represents something more concrete and realized than proodos. Perhaps … but I can’t help but feel that he may be straining for a precision and subtlety that Denys was not intending.

Most strikingly the Areopagite dares to speak of the Creator as divine eros, diffusing himself, as it were, throughout his creation:

We must dare to say this beyond truth: the cause itself of all beings—by the beautiful and good eros of all and through the throwing forth of erotic goodness—comes to be outside of itself and into all beings through its providences and is, as it were, charmed by goodness, eros, and agape. In an ecstatic power beyond being, it is brought down out of a separation from all and beyond all, to what is in all, yet does not wander out of itself. (DN IV.13)

Though Dionysius treats agape and eros as synonymous, he appears to prefer the latter, perhaps because it intimates reciprocity. “The divine eros,” he writes, “is ecstatic; it does not permit lovers to be among themselves but bids them to be among their lovers” (DN IV.13). He quotes the Apostle Paul’s words from the Epistle to the Galatians, “I live no longer but Christ lives in me” (2.20), and comments: “He says this to God as a true and ecstatic lover; he does not lead a life for himself but he lives the life of a lover, a life which is exceedingly beloved” (IV. 13). In love God speaks the universe into being and in love he summons it to himself in deifying union:

Of the one—
it is cause and, as it were,
projector and progenitor;
it is the other
By the one, it is moved;
by the other, it moves:
it alone is productive and moveable
of itself and by itself.

Thus the theologians call it
Loved and beloved:
beautiful and good.
Eros and agape:
Moveable all at once
An upward power to itself;
it alone is beautiful and good through itself,
Manifest of itself and through itself,
A good procession of the separated unity,
A simple, self-moved, erotic motion—
active of itself,
Before be-ing, in the good,
Flowing forth out of the good to beings,
Return again into the good;
in this the divine eros is excellently
manifested to be without beginning and without end.
The divine eros is like an everlasting circle—
moving around in unerring convolution
through the good,
out of the good,
in the good, into the good,
always abiding, proceeding, and returning,
in the same, and
according to the same. (IV.14)

Dionysius here invokes the Neoplatonic pattern of remaining—procession—reversion. Thus Proclus: “Every effect remains in its cause, proceeds from it, and reverts upon it” (El. Th., prop. 35). Not only is everything dependent upon the Good for its existence; but everything is directed to the Good for its unity, identity, and intelligibility. “For Plotinus and Proclus,” explains Perl, “the One is not only the containment of all things and the source (ἀρχή) from which they come, but also the end (τέλος) toward which they go” (p. 35). Whereas Aristotle posited his unmoved mover as the final cause of beings, for the Neoplatonists God is the efficient, formal, and final cause. And so Plotinus: “And the One is on both sides of them; for it is that from which they come and to which they go; for all things originate from the One and strive towards the One. For in this way they also strive towards the Good; for nothing whatever among beings could have come to exist or endure in existence if its striving were not directed towards the One” (Enneads VI.2.11.25-29). Hence we must think emanation as an atemporal yet dynamic and simultaneous movement. An entity receives its being and determination from the One, “but this dependence is an active receptivity on the part of the effect. Reversion represents existing as the activity of a being, of that which is: any being can be only by actively receiving its identifying determination, which is to say by performing the act-of-existing in its proper way, by enacting or ‘living out’ its constitutive nature” (Perl, p. 40). To be is to proceed from and return to the Good (exitus/reditus). Synergism is built into the ontology of emanation.

Dionysius assimilates the Neoplatonic ontology but incorporates it into the biblical dynamic of exodus and restoration. “Just as through love God moves to create, so is it also through love that he works in creation to bring the latter to himself,” states Golitzen (p. 89). Note the image of the circle in the long quote from Dionysius above: in his love God proceeds out of himself not only to bestow being but to restore being. The Trinity is origin, being, life but also the “recalling and resurrecting of those who have fallen away from it” (DN I.3). All desire the Good, even maple trees and rocks, for they are made by the Good for union with the Good:

Similarly, goodness—as unifying and authoritative divinity—returns all to itself and is the source of the binding of those which are sundered. All desire it as source, connection, and end. For, as the writings say, the good is that from which all subsist and are—insofar as they are brought forward from the all-complete cause, that in which all are connected—for they are protected and held fast in its almighty power—and that into which all are returned according to the proper limit of each being. It is that which all desire. Intellects and rational beings are turned knowingly; sensible beings, sensibly; living beings without sensation, by the emerging-motion of their desire for life; lifeless beings, by being enable to share only in being.

According to the logos itself of the illuminating image [the sun], the light brings forward and returns to itself all that is visible, moving, illuminated, heated, and in general all those that emerge by its flashing-forth. Thus is it helios since it produces all together and brings together those which are sundered. All sensible beings desire it, for they desire to be visible, moved, illuminated, heated, and, in general, to be brought towards the light. (DN IV.4)

No wonder that Ilaria Ramelli sees the Areopagite as intimating—only intimating, nothing more—the universal restoration of all things (The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, pp. 696–721).

Blessed Dionysius, pray for us.

(Go to “To let be or not to let be”)