October 9, 2007

"Dionysius" on God-Talk

A collection of writings have come down to us under the name "Dionysius the Aereopagite" (after Acts 17:34) which effectively form the foundation of the tradition of Christian mysticism. Most scholars today believe the writer lived in Syria, c. 500 AD. The general consensus is that he couldn't have written earlier than this because he seems to have been influenced by 5th century Neo-Platonists. All this by way of background; I don't have any particular opinion as to when the writer lived or by whom he was influenced.

The principle work of "Dionysius" is only a few pages long and is called "On Mystical Theology." His surviving book-length works are The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, The Celestial Hierarchy, and The Divine Names. I read "On Mystical Theology" recently, first in the original Greek (available online), and then in the English translation included in Bernard McGinn's The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. The work begins with a discussion of the divine darkness beyond understanding, i.e. of mystical, non-discursive knowledge of God. Predictably, this section is virtually incomprehensible (the English translation doesn't help that much, and if it followed the text more closely it would help even less). What is interesting to me, however, is the discussion of the different types of theologies - that is, of the types of "God-talk" that are possible while preserving God's status as beyond knowledge and intellect. This passage is interesting in and of itself, and when I read the Greek it was the part I felt I understood, so I was even more puzzled when I read the translation and found that the things I thought I understood weren't there! I'm going to first give the very beginning of the treatise in my translation and McGinn's for flavor (I should note that McGinn's translation is an adaptation of an anonymous one published in 1923), and then translations of a large chunk of chapter 3 to see if we can figure out what is going on.

McGinnPearce
1.1 Trinity beyond all essence, all divinity, all goodness! Guide of Christians to divine wisdom, direct our path to the ultimate summit of your mystical lore, most incomprehensible, most luminous, and most exalted, where the pure, absolute, and immutable mysteries of theology are veiled in the dazzling obscurity of the secret silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories surpassing all beauty. 1.1 Trinity beyond existence and beyond divinity and beyond goodness, guide of Christians to godly wisdom, direct us on [the way] of mystical discourses beyond ignorance and beyond assertions and at the highest peak; inside [of it] the pure, the uncorrupted, the unturning mysteries of theology according to that which is beyond light have been unveiled, a darkness of silent mystical secrets, in the darkest [place], that which is beyond appearance, beyond luminescence, and in the entirely impalpable and the unseen thing of the splendor beyond name, beyond filling the sightless mind.

The first thing you will notice is, of course, that the McGinn translation is rather more polished. Mine is more literal. (Well, actually, the first thing you might notice, is that I was serious about this being incomprehensible.) I had originally wanted to follow "Dionysius" literally and user the prefix "hyper-" where I have used the word "beyond," since he has the prefix huper in the Greek, but I couldn't get that to make sense in English. At any rate, keep in mind that this whole section is about hyper-this and hyper-that; later I will try to explain why that is and draw an interesting conclusion from it.

"Dionysius" goes on, as I have said, for a page or two in this fashion, before getting to chapter 3 which is, as I have said, what I'm interested in:


McGinnPearce
3 In the Theological Outlines [a lost work] we have set forth the principle affirmative expressions concerning God, and have shown in what sense God's holy nature is one, and in what sense three; what is within it which is called Paternity, what Filiation, and what is signified by the name Spirit; how from the uncreated and indivisible good, the blessed and perfect rays of its goodness proceed, and yet abide immutably, one both within their origin and within themselves and each other, co-eternal with the act by which they spring from it; how the super-essential Jesus enters an essential state in which the truth of human nature meets it; and other matters made known by the oracles [i.e. scripture] were expounded in the same place.

Again, in the treatise on Divine Names, we have considered the meaning, as concerning God, of the titles of Good, of Being, of Life, of Wisdom, of Power, and of such other names as are applied to him [Divine Names, chpaters 4-8]. Further, in the Symbolic Theology [another lost work] we have considered what are the metaphorical titles drawn from the world of sense and applied to the nature of God; what is meant by the material and intellectual images we form of him, or the functions and instruments of activity attributed to him; what are the places where he dwells and the raiment in which he is adorned; what is meant by God's anger, grief, and indignation, or the divine inebriation; what is meant by God's oaths and threats, by his slumber and waking; and all sacred and symbolical representations. And it will be observed how far more copious and diffused are the last terms than the first, for the Theological Outlines and the discussion of the divine names are necessarily more brief than the Symbolic Theology. (Brackets McGinn's)

3 Therefore, in the Theological Hypotyposes we praised the most dominant things of the cataphatic theology: how the divine and good nature is called 'simple' [i.e. 'one']; how [it is called] 'triune;' what [nature] is called 'paternal' and what 'filial;' what the theology of the Spirit wants to clarify; how the lights in the heart of the [nature] of goodness grow out of the immaterial and indivisible good, and [yet], subsisting in it and in themselves and in one another, remain alone without growth moving about; how Jesus, [though] beyond existence, took on existence with the truly human growths; and however many other things concerning the discourses have been made clear in the Theological Hypotyposes, were praised. But in On The Divine Names, how [the divine nature] is called 'good,' how [it is called] 'being,' how [it is called] 'life,' and 'wisdom,' and 'power,' and however many other things of the understanding are divine names, [were praised]. ['divine names' = Gr. 'theonyms' � what a nifty word!] And in the Symbolic Theology, certain metaphorical names [Gr. 'metonyms' � another nifty word] for the divine nature from sensible things, certain divine shapes, certain divine outlines and parts and tools, certain divine places and worlds, certain desires, certain sufferings and wraths, certain drunkennesses and carousings, certain oaths and imprecations, certain sleeps and certain wakings and however many other forms are holy falsehoods of symbolic God-patterns.

And I think you have seen how very many more words the last things take up than the first things: for also it was necessary that the Theological Hypotyposes and the exposition [lit. 'unfolding'] of the divine names should be a shorter discourse than the Symbolic Theology. The general view given by thought [must] account for [lit. 'set up'] as much as is denied of the opposite: just as even now when we were entering the darkness beyond thought we did not find a short discourse but, [rather, it was] entirely non-discursive and without understanding.

Now, I think that what I am about to say is compatible with the McGinn translation, so I'm not too worried about my interpretation being out to lunch, but I sure wouldn't have thought of this if I hadn't also read the Greek, and I didn't understand it very well, so I'm waiting to be corrected in terms of my interpretation of "Dionysius," but I'm nevertheless going to tell you what I think, if for no other reason than that it is independently interesting, regardless of historical accuracy.

Traditionally, especially in Eastern Christianity, theology is divided in apophatic and cataphatic forms. Apophatic theology says what God is not (he is infinite, atemporal, unlimited, immaterial, etc.), and cataphatic theology says what God is (he is good, loving, powerful, three, one, etc.). Now, it seems to me that Dionysius uses these terms rather differently (well, he actually doesn't, in this work, use the word apophatikos, but he uses some cognates). That is, traditionally the words are interpreted with the etymologies "affirming away from" and "affirming toward," whence saying what something is not vs. saying what it is. But there is reason in this passage to suppose that what Dionysius really means is not "affirming away from" but "away from affirming," and, similarly, "toward affirming" - that is, he means discursive and non-discursive knowledge of God. In my translation I consistently used "discourse" and its cognates for logos and its cognates, and transliterated the word "cataphatic" (and also "hypotyposis," but I'm coming to that).

This, then, is the first distinction in theology: the mystical theology in which we know the unknowable and speak the ineffable in the cloud of brilliant darkness beyond light, existence, understanding, and language (note that if this made too much sense, it would mean that I had actually succeeded in giving a discursive account of what can, according to "Dionysius," be known only non-discursively, and so his theory would be false, so you shouldn't get too upset if you didn't understand it), and the discursive theology of the understanding. In God's true nature he is understood to be beyond the understanding, and so only accessible to this non-discursive knowledge-beyond-knowing, insofar as he is accessible at all. We cannot speak literally of God. (The debate on whether we can speak literally of God continues to this day, with the majority of traditional monotheists on the side of "Dionysius" to date.)

This is where things get really interesting. Although we cannot speak literally of God, nevertheless not all ways of speaking of God are equivalent. This seems intuitively true: it is very different to say that God is good or loving than to say that God is our Father, or that Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, or - in an even more extreme example - that "a mighty fortress is our God." But, if we deny that we can speak literally of God, then what is the distinction here? "Dionysius" actually gives an analysis of this, having written books on each of the three divisions.

The first division is that of the "Hypotyposes." This word usually means outlines or some such, and so McGinn has translated it as such, but I'm not sure that's what it means in "Dionysius," exactly, because I think there's reason to suppose that "Dionysius" is playing on the etymology. A tupos is a pattern, imprint, outline, or some such, and hupo is the opposite of "Dionysius'" favorite prefix, hyper. God, he says, is hyper-existent, hyper-good, and so forth. What then are existence and goodness? They are hypo-types of God! That is, God is, strictly speaking, beyond existence and goodness, but existence and goodness don't misdescribe God as the "holy falsehoods of symbolic God-patterns" strictly speaking do; rather, they fall short of describing him, which is, after all, what hupo means.

The next category is that of the divine names. I'm not totally certain what the difference between the divine names and the hypotyposes is supposed to be, so let's simply assume that they are items that fall on the boundary of the hypotyposes and the symbolic theology. Goodness and existence are actually among the examples of this category, so "Dionysius" must not think that they are strictly hypotyposes, the way threeness, oneness, Fatherhood, Sonhood, Spirithood, the "lights of goodness" (whatever that means), and Christ's humanity are, but I chose them above because they are among the examples of hyper-attributes in chapter 1.

The final category is the symbolic theology, which contains the truly metaphorical. These are cases where we describe God in terms of sensible things (but apparently Fatherhood and Sonhood are not sensible?), and succeed in saying something true about him by this means.

This, at any rate, is what I got out of it. I encourage all you Bible translation bloggers to try your hand at interpreting/translating "Dionysius" to stretch your Greek muscles a little more and to tell me if you come to the same conclusions (and critique my translation!). I'd also appreciate any comments on this account as either (1) an interpretation of Dionysius, or (2) an actual assertion about our knowledge of God from anyone who has anything to say about such things.

Posted by Kenny at October 9, 2007 9:28 PM
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