God beyond every assertion … and every denial

Again, as we climb higher, we say this. It [i.e. “the Cause of all”] 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. ~Dionysius, Mystical Theology, v. in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988 ), p. 141.

That’s quite a few words about something about which nothing can be said. This passage from the conclusion of Dionysius’ Mystical Theology is the locus classicus for the relationship between apophatic, or negative, theology, and cataphatic, or positive, theology. Literal minded readers may trip up on the apparent contradictions in this dialectical text, which circles around a divinity that is utterly transcendent (even of divinity) yet gives itself out of sheer ecstatic goodness (even as it is beyond goodness).

Earlier, in his Divine Names, Dionysius insists on our need to use names, especially those given in Scripture, to approach God. And yet, in the end, we can speak only about “what is next to” God and not about God per se and even the term “God” is misleading.

In some ways, concrete symbols like the “Rock of Ages” or the “Lion of Judah” are less dangerous because we are less apt to confuse them for the “thing-in-itself,” as we might be prone to do with more relatively adequate symbols like being, goodness, or oneness.

Various theologians have various ways of living with the tension between assertion and denial. Not all would reach first for the Neo-platonic language of Dionysius. In the life of faith, we wrestle with a God who is really given yet remains Absolute Mystery.

Ultimately, there’s quite a bit in this brief chapter. The heart of the matter is this: God is not just beyond every assertion but also beyond every denial.

The Rev. Bill Carroll serves as rector of Emmanuel Parish, Shawnee in the Diocese of Oklahoma. His new parish blog is Emmanuel Shawnee Blog

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