“There is no evidence in the Dionysian corpus of creatio ex nihilo,” avers Timothy D. Knepper; “rather, the divine names, the properties they source, and the beings that participate in them, all preexist in and process from God” (Negating Negation, p. 26). The statement immediately raises the question, why does creatio ex nihilo exclude the divine names and processions? Unfortunately, Knepper does not explain. As we saw in an earlier article, Plotinus advances a doctrine of emanation that approximates the classical Christian view: pre-existing matter is rejected by both; both assert the absolute ontological dependence of beings upon the One. Behind Knepper’s negative verdict on the creatio ex nihilo lies the Areopagite’s fondness for impersonal imagery (cause, source, flow-over, bubble-over). The biblical depiction of the personal Creator bringing the cosmos to reality by will and command seems to be relatively absent. Occasionally, though, one will come across a statement like this: “To sum up. It is the Life of the living, the being of beings, it is the Source and Cause of all life and of all being, for out of its goodness it commands all things to be and it keeps them going” (The Divine Names I.3). The predominance of impersonal imagery leads Knepper to conclude that for St Dionysius the emanational act “seems to be necessary or ‘automatic'” (p. 26, n. 65). Knepper is not alone. Other scholars have reached similar conclusions. Hence the question I wish to explore in this article: Did the Lord God Almighty have to create the world?
Consider the following passage:
Think of how it is with our sun. It exercises no rational process, no act of choice, and yet by the very fact of its existence it gives light to whatever is able to partake of its light, in its own way. So it is with the Good. Existing far above the sun, an archetype far superior to its dull image, it sends the rays of its undivided goodness to everything with the capacity, such as this may be, to receive it. These rays are responsible for all intelligible and intelligent beings, for every power and every activity. Such beings owe their presence and their uneclipsed and undiminished lives to these rays, owe them their purification from corruption and from death, from corporeality and from the process of birth They owe them too their immunity to motion, to flux and to all that goes with change. They are understood as bodiless and immaterial, and as minds they too understand, although in a supra-mundane way. They enlighten the reasonings of beings, and they pass on what they know to their own kind. They abide in the goodness of God and draw from it the foundation of what they are, their coherence, their vigilance, their home. Their longing for the Good makes them what they are and confers on them their well-being. Shaped by what they yearn for, they exemplify goodness and, as the Law of God requires of them, they share with those below them the good gifts which have come their way. (DN IV.1)
The Sun and its rays is a favorite Neoplatonic metaphor for the One and its emanating processions; it is not surprising that Dionysius should also favor it. The first couple of sentences jump out at us: “no rational process,” “no act of choice.” The sun does not personally decide to radiate, it just does; it’s what suns do. But are we to infer on the basis of a metaphor that Dionysius also conceived divine creation as necessitated? Given that he is writing for a Christian audience, a monk for monks, it seems more likely that he anticipated that his fellow monks would not jump to a pagan conclusion. The impersonal radiation may reasonably be interpreted as bespeaking the fidelity of God in his self-communication and grace. Metaphor is not theory. Moreover, in this particular passage Dionysius is focusing on angelic intelligences who are expected both to freely share their gifts with lesser beings and to freely return to God in praise and obedience. Is the One less personal, less free than the rational beings he creates?
Eric Perl believes that the question of divine freedom has been misformulated. It hiddenly presupposes the belief that God is a finite substance and person confronted with the choice to create or not create:
Dionysius’ presentation of God as productive Love raises the much-vexed question of whether, for Dionysius, God makes all things “freely” or “by necessity.” The entire issue is almost always misconceived, because it is usually assumed that to say that God creates “freely” means that he “might not create,” and that he “chooses” between possible alternatives to creating and not creating; while, conversely, to say that there is no such choice between possible alternatives, that God “cannot” not create, means that he is subject to some “necessity.” (Theophany, p. 49)
As embodied beings living in time, we know all about choices and decisions. Should I get out of bed this morning? Should I make myself a hearty breakfast, as all mothers tell us we should, or will I skip it, as I usually do? Each day we are confronted with innumerable possible courses of action. Each decision contributes to our well-being or ill-being. As Marsilio Ficino remarks: “Human reason acts by deliberation and subsequent to deliberation by choosing” (On Dionysius the Areopagite, I:285-287). But now try to imagine the counterfactual of the supra-essential Deity choosing to make a universe that does not “yet” exist. He does not inhabit time but the realm of eternity. There are no other beings for him to worry about. There is literally nothing else but God in the infinite plenitude of his “beyond be-ing beyond-beingly before all” (DN V.8). He doesn’t need to do anything to add to his happiness. In the simplicity of his Trinitarian life, the Father possesses with his Son and Spirit unlimited happiness and joy, bliss and delight. He doesn’t have any places to visit. He doesn’t have to make a living. He doesn’t need friends. He doesn’t have an aging grandparent to care for. He doesn’t require anything outside himself to express his infinite creativity. Does the notion of choice even make sense in this scenario? It’s hard to see how it does. Our finite categories of freedom and necessity do not apply. God’s existence, or more accurately his hyper-existence, cannot be described as necessity; for there is no principle or power above him that can subject, coerce, or constrain him. He is thus radically and surpassingly free, free in a way we cannot imagine. The Deity of Dionysius is the source of creaturely freedoms and necessities yet transcends both in supra-essential unity.
Yet here we are. How? Why? Plotinus says that finite reality exists “by necessity,” but Perl warns that this does not mean what we usually take it to mean. Given that God is not subject to anything other than himself, and given that he exists in asymmetrical relation to beings (beings participate the One; he does not participate beings), then the fact that beings do exist means that no other alternative obtains. God is the unconditioned enabling condition for the existence of anything and everything. He is the metaphysical reason why the world exists rather than nothing. As Dionysius puts it: “by merely being there is the cause of everything” (DN I.5). If it were possible for God to have decided not to create a universe, writes Perl, then that would entail that “his productive activity would be distinct from himself and he would be conditioned by a relation to his product. Only a God who is not a producer but Production itself can ‘produce’ without entering into a relation with his products. The necessity of procession, therefore, is in no sense a limitation on the One, but rather an expression of his absolute freedom from any limiting condition whatsoever” (p. 50). The counterfactual, we might say, is excluded by the fact that the world does exist. Given the simplicity and immutability of the Creator, it isn’t a logical possibility. As Dennis Bonnette comments: “What is de facto metaphysically impossible renders the alternative ‘logical possibilities’ not logically possible at all, except as contrary-to-reality mental imaginings. That is, they are not actually real possibilities at all.”
Perl’s logic here is difficult and counter-intuitive, I admit, yet it seems to follow from the Dionysian apprehension of divinity as beyond-beingly being. God is not a being; he is no-being, no-thing. Hence he does not first exist as a something which then acts; he is his act, the act of imparting being to beings, nothing but act:
We have already seen that to call the One ’cause’ in fact means only that all things depend on the One in order to be. It follows that the One’s ‘generating’ or ‘producing’ all things is nothing but the existential dependence of all things on the One. The One ’causes,’ ‘generates,’ or ‘makes’ all things only in the sense that all things depend on the One as the condition of integrating determination by which all beings are beings. This ‘making,’ therefore, must not be conceived as a change or a beginning, as if beings first did not exist and then are made to exist by the One: intelligible reality, as in Plato, is eternal in the strict sense that it is not temporally extended, and even the sensible cosmos, as in Aristotle, has no temporal beginning. Being is, eternally; and it eternally depends for its existence on the One. Nor is the One’s generation of being an action or an event, as if the One first is and is itself and then, additionally, acts to produce all things. To think in these terms is both to regard the One as a being and to misunderstand the sense in which it generates all things. The making of all things by the One is not an event but a relation, the relation of dependence of all things on the One as the condition for being.
Consequently, there can be no distinction between the One itself and its productive activity. This is the point of Plotinus’ insistence that being is not made through any ‘choice,’ ‘wish,’ or ‘motion’ on the part of the One. “It is necessary that without [the One] being moved, if something is second after it, without [the One] inclining or willing or in any way moving, it is established” (Enneads V.1.6.25–27). Not only would such a ‘motion’ reduce the One to a being and introduce distinction, and hence complexity, within it, but it would mean that this choice or motion, rather than simply the One itself, would be the true cause of beings. “For it did not so to speak will intellect to come to be, so that intellect came to be with the will between [the One] and the generated intellect …” (V.3.12.28–30; cf. V.1.6.23–25). But as we have seen, the One signifies simply unity, in the sense of wholeness or integration, as the condition by which beings are beings. As such, the One itself just is the ‘making’ of all things: not a thing-which-makes, which would imply a distinction between the One and its act of making and thus treat the One as a being and as having activities distinct from itself, but simply ‘making’ itself, not an ontic producer but rather the production of all things. As Plotinus so often says, the One is not any thing but rather the “power of all things” (e.g., III.8.10.1; V.1.7.10; V.3.15.33; V.4.1.36; V.4.2.39; VI.7.32.31), the enabling condition in virtue of which they are beings. Thus if we are to speak of the generation of being in terms of ‘will’ or ‘activity’ at all, we must allow no distinction between the One and its will or activity but say that this will or activity just is the One itself: “His, as it were, existence is his, as it were, activity” (VI.8.7.47), and again, “If we were to grant activities to him … and the activities [are] his, as it were, reality, his will and his reality will be the same” (VI.8.13.5–8). (Eric Perl, Thinking Being, pp. 123-124)
Lloyd Gerson advances an analysis of Plotinus similar to that of Perl’s:
Plotinus identifies the will of the One with its “essence” and activity (see VI.8.13.1–8, 53; VI.8.16.38–9; VI.8.21.12–15). Elsewhere, Plotinus insists that will in the One is not the result of its desire for any good since it is the source of goodness for everything else (V.5.9.36; VI.9.6.41). Nor does the One deliberate (see III.2.1 and V.8.7). Positively, attributing will to the One means that it is the paradigm of action. There is a perfect “fit” or better, coincidence, between what the One does and what it wants to do. We must distinguish what the One wants to do from desire which occasions deliberation. Its “wanting” is perfectly and immediately identified with its activity. This same point can be more easily understood if we express it negatively. Neither is the One constrained in its activity from outside itself nor is there any hesitation or error as typically results in us when desire, deliberation, or will are corrupted. If will were not identical with “essence” in the One, then the former would be constrained by the latter. By implication, wherever essence is in composition with another principle, that is, everywhere but in the One, essence is a principle of limitation.
Since the One, lacking nothing, desires nothing, its activity, which is in perfect conformity to its will, is not to be understood in terms of its own good. The One is goodness itself and its activity the paradigm of goodness. Following Plato, Plotinus wants to make a metaphysical connection between the desire for good wherever it occurs and an activity which goes out from the agent. The connection is precisely that the desire for good, when successfully fulfilled, produces goodness.
From the point of view of all of the effects of the One’s activity, the will of the One is the explanation for the existence of anything at all. The answer to the question, “why does so and so exist?” is always, finally, that the One willed it to be so. In claiming this, however, no real distinction is implied in reference to the One. Its will is really the same as its simple, perfect activity conceived of in one aspect.
Plotinus sees no conflict in saying both that will in the One is limited in no way and that the One cannot do otherwise than it does (see VI.8.13.24–40; VI.8.15.18–26; VI.8.18.38–41; VI.8.20.17–19, 28–39; VI.8.21.1–19, 30–3). What this means is that perfect activity has by definition no defect and “doing otherwise” for the One would mean doing something imperfect. But it also means that the One does not refrain from doing anything, where refraining would not necessarily be a defect but simply indicate an unselected possibility. If the One refrained from acting either because of impotence or grudging, defects would be indicated in it. The One is perfectly free in its operation because it is identical with goodness (VI.8.13.38). (Plotinus, pp. 37-38)
Perl believes that Dionysius is best interpreted along such a Neoplatonic line. The One is not a godlet who deliberates among possibilities and then chooses to overflow into differentiated finitude. In eternal self-determination he is overflowing itself, the agapeic gifting of being. “God as the Good itself,” comments Ficino, “creates by His own pure existence, that is, by his goodness” (I:287). That the transcendent Creator is neither an ontic entity nor celestial manager compels this strange way of talking. The radicality of the Dionysian vision turns our metaphysical world upside down. For this reason, suggests Perl, the question “Did the Lord God Almighty have to create the world?” is meaningless. Its mere posing reveals that one has misunderstood:
The disjunctive proposition that either God chooses between possible alternatives or he is necessitated to create situates God within a total framework of possibilities, as though the logical conditions of possibility and impossibility were prior to and more universal than God, conditions to which even he is subject. This presupposition envisions God either as confronted with a multiplicity of logical possibilities among which he can choose, or as subject to a logical law such that there is only one possibility open to him. This is precisely the “ontic” conception of God that Plotinus, and Dionysius, are concerned to avoid by declaring him “beyond being.” God is not a being, subject, as are beings, to the conditions of logical possibility such as the principle of non-contradiction. This is not to say that God can violate that principle; on the contrary, it would be more accurate to say that for the Neoplatonists, God, or the One is the principle of non-contradiction. … God is not a being, contained within a framework of possibilities determined by an abstract logic independent of himself. Rather, he is that framework within which all beings are contained, and hence he cannot be considered either as a being who chooses among a multiplicity of logical possibilities, or as a being confined by principles more universal than himself to a single possibility. (Theophany, pp. 50-51)
I personally find Perl’s reading of Dionysius compelling. It seems to rhyme with the radical sense of divine transcendence that the Areopagite articulates throughout his writings. But David Bradshaw is unconvinced. He believes that Dionysius is best read as standing within the tradition of the Greek Fathers: “In light of the apparent unanimity of this tradition regarding divine choice it would be odd if Dionysius were so thoroughly out of step” (“Divine Freedom in the Greek Fathers,” p. 6). I agree. How else can we explain the reception of the Corpus Areopagaticum into the life of the Church? Yet this does not mean that Dionysius has not brought something new to the apophatic table, something that might change the way we think about a difficult theological problem. I’m thinking here of the Neoplatonic hyperousios. It’s one thing to say that the divine essence is incomprehensible; it’s another thing to identify God as beyond being, beyond existing, beyond unity and difference. This move introduces a deeper level of metaphysical analysis. One does not need to be a patristics scholar to observe the significant differences between Denys and, say, St Athanasius. If we were able to interview the two theologians and pose to them the question of divine freedom, might they not give different answers? Why shouldn’t they? I can imagine Dionysius muttering: “Weren’t you listening? How many hyper- prefixes do I need to add?” I suspect Athanasius would find all of this as metaphysically perplexing as we do.
Bradshaw challenges Perl’s contention that the disjunctive proposition “either God chooses between possible alternatives or he is necessitated to create” subjects God to a higher condition. What if the possibility of choice is intrinsic to the divine nature, as presumably it must be since God determines what gets created and what doesn’t? “Certainly the framework of possibilities is prior to the act of choice, in the sense of being presupposed by it,” he states; “this does not mean that it is prior to God Himself, for it is already implicit in the divine nature” (p. 9). Bradshaw’s objection raises an interesting metaphysical question about possible beings and how God judges which to actualize. Denys may even be aware of the problem: “The divine name ‘Good’ tells of all the processions of the universal Cause; it extends to beings and nonbeings and that Cause is superior to being and nonbeings” (DN V.1). What are these nonbeings? possibles that will never be created? possibles that have yet to be created but will be? Does it even make sense to speak of possibles “before” the act of creation? In any case, the objection misses the point. If the One is truly beyond being, as the Neoplatonists insist, it surpasses the either/or duality of freedom and necessity. Even talk about a “divine nature” becomes problematic, as the Areopagite makes clear in the concluding chapter of his Mystical Theology:
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.
By the Dionysian apprehension of divinity, we affirm, we deny, we deny the denial. We are thus brought before the “preeminently simple and absolute nature,” before which we must be silent in our unknowing. We can no more say “God freely makes choices” than “God necessarily makes choices.” Both are true, both are false, both are hidden in the darkness of the ineffable Trinity. With Bradshaw I too wish to affirm the divine freedom and the nonnecessity of creation, and it’s hard for me to imagine Denys not also affirming both. But I suspect he would also tell us that we are here confronted with an aporia that metaphysics—Neoplatonic, Thomist, Palamite, or otherwise—cannot solve. The theological tradition clearly discerns that the agapeic origin of being entails that the world need not have been, despite philosophical misgivings to the contrary (see “The Christian Distinction“). Reason bows before the gospel. The following statement by David Bentley Hart faithfully expresses the Dionysian view:
The doctrine of creation constitutes an assertion regarding the eternal identity of God. It is chiefly an affirmation of God’s absolute dispositive liberty in all his acts: the absence of any external restraint upon or necessity behind every decision of his will. And, while one must avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s decision to create as an arbitrary choice made after deliberation among options, one must still affirm that it is free, that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent on the world’s, and that the only necessity in the divine act of creation is the impossibility of any hindrance upon God’s expression of his goodness. (“God, Creation, and Evil,” p. 3; cf. this short article on St Thomas Aquinas)
Would Perl and Bradshaw agree with Hart? Would Dionysius? Do you?
Bradshaw helpfully suggests that we might think of the divine freedom along the lines of “the free expression of a creative intent” (p. 11). When an artist sits down to paint a landscape, he may not in fact be making a deliberative choice between discrete possibilities. He is just painting, spontaneously, extemporaneously, improvisationally, in the fullness of freedom. At this point Bradshaw and Perl may be closer than they realize. Perl again:
Since the conventional antithesis between “Neoplatonic necessary procession” and “Christian free creation” is a misconception, so too is any attempt to situate Dionysius within these categories. For Dionysius as for Plotinus, God is nothing but the making of all things, so that the possibility of not making does not arise. As Dionysius says, “Since, as subsistence of goodness, by its very being it is cause of all beings, the good-founding providence of the Godhead is to be hymned from all the effects … And by its being it is the production and origin of all things” (DN I.5, 593D; cf. DN IV.1, 693B). As in Plotinus, to produce all things is not a “choice” on God’s part. But also as in Plotinus, this means not that God is subject to a constraining condition, but rather the very reverse, that he is subject to no conditions, so that all things proceed from nothing but himself. That God “cannot not create” is a consequence, not a limitation, of his absolute transcendence, his unrelatedness to that which proceeds from him. Dionysius offers an excellent formulation of this principle when he says, “Love … pre-existing in excess in the Good, did not permit it to remain unproductive in itself, but moved it to production, in the excess which is generative of all things” [DN IV.10]. “Did not permit it”: no alternative, then, is possible. Precisely as the Good, as the productive condition of beings, God cannot not produce. But the “cannot” lies purely in himself, as Love. It is not imposed on him, as a condition to which he is subject. As not any being but the ecstatic Love by which all beings are beings, therefore, the God of Dionysius, like the One of Plotinus, transcends both choice and necessitation and the opposition between them. (pp. 51-52; emphasis mine)
Perhaps the answer to our question lies in the infinite creativity and love that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Blessed Dionysius, pray for us.