Transcendence in Pseudo-Dionysius

September 26, 2005

I wrote this reflection paper for a course I took in my first semester at Catholic University, The History of Christian Spirituality. I responded to the selections of Pseudo-Dionysius found in the anthology, Light from Light.

In a religious spectrum ranging from immanence to transcendence, most American Catholics are likely close to the immanence pole. No doubt there are many reasons for this statistic, but chief among them must be our materialistic culture. Probably, a single factor is the culprit: wealth. Wealthy people are not likely to focus on the hereafter. As Our Lord might say, they have already received their reward.

Some may argue that Christians belong close to the immanence pole. After all, ours is the religion of the Incarnate God and ours is the Church of the sacraments. But the early Christians would hardly agree. In contrast to their own cultural setting, they believed in one, perfect God, not a pantheon of immoral deities. Although the Incarnation was one of their most important beliefs, it was held alongside the Trinity – a mysterious relationship of Persons utterly unfamiliar to people.

Christians, then, belong somewhere in the middle of this religious spectrum, in a tension between immanence and transcendence. Reintroducing the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius could well be the catalyst for a shift toward the middle. But I think not.

The overarching theme of Pseudo-Dionysius is, in one word, transcendence. In the most extreme language, he emphasizes God’s complete otherness. Although he saves a place for so-called affirmative theology, real progress in the Christian life means for him rejecting even the divine attributes (e.g., almighty, all-knowing). In his final chapter of The Mystical Theology, where he drops the use of the masculine pronoun for God, he writes, “It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or timeā€¦It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness.” This language is sure to shock most Christians, and this is doubtlessly Dionysius’ goal. Here I see how Dionysius might be an antidote for today’s immanence. A study of his thought might rouse Catholics from their earthbound stares. On the other hand, they might reject him as an extremist or totally embrace his thought and find themselves on the other end of the spectrum!

The introduction to Pseudo-Dionysius in the anthology Light from Light identifies a sharp distinction between Dionysius and Gregory of Nyssa. Although both employ negative theology, the latter integrates it with a theology of the Image (p. 79). Dionysius stands opposite the paganism of his time. Paganism made the divine too human, but Dionysius makes God too “other.” Gregory stands in the middle – and, I think, Christianity with him.

If Dionysius did not seek to deny the traditional mysteries of the Catholic Faith, he nonetheless seemed to have little use for them. He thinks one may for a time find spiritual nourishment in them, but if he is to grow, he must set aside this food. But Christ came to reveal truth so that, knowing it, it might make us free (cf. John 8:32). Dionysius proposes a different program, in which we end “speechless and unknowing” (p. 90). Furthermore, at the end of The Mystical Theology, Dionysius possibly falls into heresy by subordinating the Trinity to the divine nature (or worse, some other notion of God). Authentic Christian transcendence is entering into the communion of the three divine Persons, or joining the Trinitarian “family.”

Dionysius seems to anticipate some modern arguments against divine revelation. How can human language express the divine? How can we talk about something that is not part of our experience? How can God talk to man? It is more than doctrine that Dionysius finds useless; it is also language itself. This is why Dionysius’ spiritual journey ends in silence. Whereas the Christian’s intellect is elevated by the grace of faith, Dionysius “plunge[s] into that darkness which is beyond intellect” (p. 90). Whereas we who have seen Christ have also seen the Father, Dionysius delights that he has seen nothing. Whereas the Christian praises the culmination of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ – perhaps the central proposition of Christianity – Dionysius worships in a dark cloud.

Still, I am tempted to think my criticism is too harsh. Indeed, Dionysius’ crime is only one of omission: he teaches a half-truth. We should acknowledge God’s transcendence over all creatures. But we should also respect human reason and revelation as true sources of knowledge about God. It is easy enough to synthesize these two elements of truth – and it has already been done in the mainstream Christian traditions. Rather than rejecting the divine attributes to safeguard His transcendence, we should become aware of it precisely by meditating upon the attributes. Take, for instance, the statement “God is eternal.” I affirm this statement; its words give me real knowledge about God. However, when I consider what “eternity” means, I realize that I cannot completely understand it. I cannot come to an understanding of eternity through my experience: eternity is not time forever extending into the past and again into the future. In fact, it must be something altogether different: a single, indivisible moment. Although God’s eternity remains a mystery, my intellect can continue to work upon it and – faith cooperating with reason – grow in knowledge of it. This must be the more biblical approach, for St. Paul writes, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

There is no need to expunge Pseudo-Dionysius from the theological record. His thought, lurking as it does behind an unknown figure in a far past time, quietly reminds us that God is above. Although He has drawn near to us in His Incarnation and has become our Brother, he remains also our Lord and God. If this creates a tension, it is a tension not to fear but to rejoice in: for the most high God has chosen to dwell among us.