Pseudo-Dionysus: Prayer and the Unchanging

I’m still chugging away through Pseudo-Dionysus: this week, we’re looking at a little offhand comment he makes in The Divine Names about prayer. At the start of Chapter Three, Pseudy claims that whenever we pray we’re stretching ourselves towards God – moving towards Him, rather than Him moving towards us. It would, of course, be ridiculous to suggest that God moves towards us when we pray, because God is everywhere already. Instead, we orient ourselves towards Him: when we pray, “we are being lifted up to that brilliance above, to the dazzling light of those beams.” Sounds like a weekend.

So when you think about it, it might not make much sense to say that we’re being lifted up to God when we pray either. If God is everywhere already, then He’s with us now, which is why He can’t come to us – but if He can’t come to us because He’s already with us, then in what sense can we come to Him? Aren’t we both just with each other? This depends on your understanding of evil. Pseudo-Dionysus runs the same line as Augustine, which we’ve discussed before: if God is the source of all things, then all that is stems from Him. Ergo, evil (or sin or whatever) can only be that which is not: it is an unbecoming, a dissolution. We are sinners to the extent that we are dissolved, and coming to God is a matter of committing our partially dissolved bodies to be rebuilt. This is the sense in which we can be said to come to God: if it’s possible for us to cast ourselves into non-being, then it’s possible for us to stop doing that and focus on being again.

That’s what Pseudy means when he refers to us being lifted up into brilliance – it’s the process of re-committing to God and re-entering His presence, thus halting the dissolution and maybe even allowing for some quick pit-stop repairs along the way. However, part of the whole metaphor is this idea of God being unchanged by our prayers. The examples Pseudo-Dionysus uses includes a sailor on a boat pulling on this rope that’s connected to a rock. The rock seems to be coming closer, when actually it’s the boat moving closer to God. Leave aside the implicit suggestion that we can somehow come to God by our own strength – just imagine the rock threw the rope to you in the first place. Uh, and also the rope is doing all the pulling. Anyway: the metaphor suggests that God isn’t actually changed by these prayers. The rock doesn’t move – it makes sense, when you think about it, because God’s perfect. Any change in His nature could only be for the worse, right – because when you’re perfect there’s nowhere left to go.

However, what’s also implied is that prayer can’t change God – it just changes us. You might think that that sounds fine: it’s not like we pray and God just changes His nature to give us whatever we ask for. That might be true, but there are other issues. For example, what’re we supposed to do about the verses in the Bible where God changes His mind about things? After Moses prays, we get this: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on His people” (Exodus 32.14). Alternately, in Genesis 18, Abraham haggles God down from fifty decent people to ten. Basically God agrees not to destroy a city if Abraham can find fifty people worth saving in it, and Abraham goes “Oh, but what if there’s only X good people?” The context isn’t the most important thing here – the key is that God was planning to blow up a city, and Abraham haggled Him out of it. It’s not only in the Old Testament, though – in Matthew 20:34, Jesus is “moved with compassion“, indicating a change in state or attitude. He’s moved again with pity with Mark 1:40, and there’s a couple of examples where foreigners ask for healing and Jesus initially says no, only relenting after they perservere (Mark 7 24-30; Matthew 15:21-28).

Now, some of these examples we can write off as “Oh, God was never serious in the first place – He was just testing people.” That could plausibly be the explanation for the last two examples with the foreigners, as well as the Genesis example. At other points, where Jesus is moved with emotion and decides to help people, we could say that it doesn’t really represent a change in state, because Jesus was always compassionate. That said, it seems hard to argue that the actual cries of these people didn’t impact the decision – which is as much as to say that God was changed by us. However you spin it, there’s really no getting around the first example: the text explicitly says that God changed His mind.

This is where we have to return to some of the stuff we were talking about last week, to do with reading the Bible. Either we abandon the idea that God doesn’t change (at which point we have to explain how a perfect being can change and still remain perfect), or we try and explain how this thing that the Bible literally says isn’t literally what it means. For me, and I’d argue for Pseudo-Dionysus, that’s not really an issue. As we discussed last week, Pseudo-Dionysus would argue that God didn’t literally change His mind, because He doesn’t have a mind to change. It’s simply a figure of speech, in that sense – and what’s important is what that figure of speech means. We could read it as suggesting that God literally had a change of heart, or we could read it as meaning something bigger and more figurative. We could argue that ‘punishment’, as a category, is not so much something caused by God and more something that we do to ourselves – it’s the aforementioned dissolution. In that sense, any ‘punishment’ that God’s ‘planning’ is really dissolution we’re causing ourselves. When Moses, as interlocuter, interceeds on behalf of the people, returning to God and ending the dissolution of self, that’s potentially how the (self-inflicted) disaster is avoided. Of course, this raises other issues about whether or not we’re respecting the integrity of the initial text – are we just reading it to suit ourselves? And what about the people who believe that the Bible’s a reliable historical record of what was going on? They’re going to be hella mad when they find out it’s all just a figure of speech.


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