Pseudo-Dionysus: Knowing God?

Last week we talked about negative theology in Pseudo-Dionysus’s The Mystical Theology, which basically consists of a series of denials. God is not to be found in perceivable attributes like colour or weight or shape, because He’s above all of those things – they’re attributes of the physical world, and He is transcendent and divine. In the same vein (Pseudy argues), God is not to be found in concepts: “the Supreme cause of every conceptual thing is not itself conceptual”. He’s above thought, above knowledge – language itself is entirely unsuitable to talking about God, because our thoughts and words belong to the physical plane, while God is utterly transcendent. Given that line of Neoplatonic thinking, how do we explain away the Bible? 

Today we’re looking at the start of The Divine Names – it’s the longest extant work of Pseudo-Dionysus, and it touches on this question of how we (as Christians) can claim that the Bible is God’s Word, given everything that Pseudy’s spouting about language and knowledge etc. It’s a pretty serious question: if God is said to be beyond language, how can we say anything about Him at all? And if God is beyond all thought and knowledge (and presumably all emotion too), how can we consider ourselves to have any tangible relationship with Him? Surely, logically, the Divine must be entirely opaque.

As far as Pseudo-Dionysus is concerned, that’s pretty much the case. Well, initially, at least. Partway through The Mystical Theology he slags off those clever cookies who think that by their own intellectual resources they can have a direct knowledge of Him who has made the shadows His hiding place.” Near the start of The Divine Names he’s got a similar line: “Many scripture writers will tell you that the divinity is not only invisible and incomprehensible, but also ‘unsearchable and inscrutable’, since there is not a trace for anyone who would reach through into the hidden depths of this infinity.” That’s it: there’s no trace, no hint, nada.

So how do we justify the whole Christianity thing? Well, I’ll start paraphrasing, rather than turning this article into one extended quote: basically the idea is that God reveals Himself to us. Rather than us seeking to grasp at knowledge of the Divine, that knowledge is gifted to us. It’s the difference between somebody swimming in the pool and the baby getting buoyed up by their parents. We kind of have to juggle a little bit here, because on the one hand Pseudy’s emphasising that the knowledge we have isn’t like unfiltered access to the Divine itself, but on the other hand, the knowledge is useful as far as it goes. It points us in the right direction, because it comes from God, but it’s only ever to be treated as a helping hand, and not to be mistaken for God Himself. Pseudo-Dionysus describes the truths conveyed by Scripture as being “wrapped in sacred veils [that]… cover the truths of the mind with things derived from the realm of the senses.” We’re using words and ideas and symbols as a stopgap, not because they’re literally precisely exact, but because they help us get a hold on the thing we’re talking about.

You can see the Platonic influences here: there are many cats in the world, but they are only shadows on the wall, instantiations of the one true Cat, the form of Cat, which exists in Plato’s realm of forms. It’s a similar sort of thing, but with reference to words that we’re using to describe God instead. Plato’s idea was that everything in the world is derived from some sort of idealised Form, and all the forms hang out on a different plane of existence. The objects themselves are thus once removed from the ‘true’ reality – that is, the realm of Forms. This has a similar hierarchy of planes, but it’s more that certain words and ideas that we use to describe God are once removed from the ‘true’ reality of God.

As a theory, Pseudo-Dionysus’s ideas also fit with certain contemporary understandings of language. When you use a word – say, ‘cat’ – the shape of the word doesn’t actually represent the nature of the Cat Itself. (Quick terminology chat: when we say ‘X Itself’, ignore the word, and think of the actual object that it’s referring to.) So the word ‘cat’ refers to the Cat Itself, but there’s no inherent connection between the word and the thing – we could say katze or chat or mačka or pisîk – and these are all just placeholders, ways of talking about the Cat Itself while the bloody creature’s out licking itself in the garden. That theory of language gels nicely with what Pseudy’s talking about: language as placeholder – something that ultimately fails to properly encapsulate the thing that it’s talking about. The difference is possibly a bit greater between ‘cat’ and the Cat Itself and ‘God’ and God Himself, but you get the idea.

This theory of language also changes how we think about the Bible – or at least it opens up certain questions. For example, the Bible uses a whole bunch of metaphors to talk about God: God hears us (1 John 5:14), even though He doesn’t literally have ears; He sits on His holy throne (Psalm 47:8), even though He doesn’t literally have a booty; and He’s a shepherd (Psalm 23:1), even though He’s never actually been a farmer. Because this language is used as an illustration, and not used literally, there’s a level of active interpretation that goes on as we read. It’s not a matter of just sitting down and reading it and there’s all the meaning – we’ve got to mine away at the text to figure out what’s going on. The language is not transparent, in that sense – it’s rooted in our culture and our concepts and social structures, and digging past all of that is part of what we’re supposed to do. It’s a process that opens up a challenge to certain readings: are we really supposed to read the creation story as literal? That said, the process bites both ways – the liberal assumption that Genesis isn’t literal ought to be taken out and beaten just the same as any hide-bound conservative notion. It should probably be beaten harder, come to think of it. The hope is that whichever reading you end up choosing, you’ll be familiar enough with it to be aware of its limitations and problems. These limitations aren’t deal-breakers: after all, it’s only a crutch. 

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