Beyond the God of Light

by jdavidcharles

Beyond the God of Light: Re-Reading Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite


Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,

up to the farthest, highest peak

of mystic scripture,

where the mysteries of god’s word

lie simple, absolute and unchangeable

in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.[1]

St. Bonaventure, following classical Greek thought, makes the claim that “we can contemplate [the] god not only outside us and within us but also above us: outside through his vestiges, inside through his image, and above through the light.”[2] For the sake of this post I’m going to read Bonaventure against Pseudo-Dionysius which, granted, isn’t terribly fair, but Bonaventure is clearly following a discourse of Western metaphysical thinking which Pseudo-Dionysius outright rejects, particularly in The Mystical Theology.

First point to note about Bonaventure’s tri-fold distinction is it is wrapped up strictly in the language of sight—we see the “vestiges” of the god outside of us, the “image” of the god within us, and the “light” of the god above us. Bonaventure later propounds the classical notion of sight as a mingling of lights—the light from the object mingling with the light of the viewer. This tri-fold knowledge of god then is ultimately the Western understanding of the trinity: god the father as the vestige (the god “without” or outside us), god the son as the image of the vestige (the god “within,” the one who became like unto us), and the third which appears between the two lights, namely the holy spirit (what god-as-without looks like from the perspective of humanity through the god-within), the mingling of these two lights.

This is all very neat and tidy—too neat and tidy. For this sort of ocularcentric-theology, god is as knowable and understandable as the book in front of my face. In other words, the only kind of doubt for god I can have is doubt of her or his existence not of his or her (a-)metaphysical “makeup.” Just as doubting whether or not the book in my hand “exists” takes for granted a whole metaphysics of what a book is as such and what eyes are and how they work and the makeup of these things, etc., so too a god of pure knowing and access, of light, takes for granted a metaphysics. This ocularcentric god is one for whom existence is either possible or impossible, and all questions as to what she or he is are assumed and never called into doubt.

Enter Pseudo-Dionysius who begins his “letter to Timothy” with,

“my advice to you as you look for a sight […] is to leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, […] strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge.”

In other words, sight in the mystical sense for Pseudo-Dionysius, is a glimpse of something beyond sight—a unification with the beyond precisely in not “seeing” it. Although god takes on names, as Pseudo-Dionysius works out in The Divine Names, “our words are [always] confined to the ideas we are capable of forming.” Our words never leave behind the language of sight, that is to use Bonaventure’s categories, the language of mingling. In yet other words, there is no light from the god abovethere is no god who knows—there is no god who cares.

These and other “names” are all analogies at best and only true as regards a contextual mingling, i.e. god’s interaction with certain creatures at a certain place and at a certain time. We can make affirmations from these contexts, name the mingling-of-lights, but, “more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations,” because “the cause of all is considerably prior to all this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.” Every negation is the other side of an affirmation and, further, there are unknown names withdrawn from our context because this god is a god who is “beyond everything (emphasis mine).” We can only describe god from this side of the infinite, i.e. the finite—therefore no name for god is lasting.

To worship the name is to worship an idol in a quite formal sense—to worship the ideas of our own language above that which is beyond it. In the names we give god we find at best icons—finite, tendential means of accessing something beyond them, and, at worst, idols. In this way theology as a naming, and I mean no slight, is strictly an aesthetics. It is only by entering the habitat, the non-presence of this god always beyond, the habitat Pseudo-Dionysius describes as pure darkness and silence, that:

“being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.”

[1] All Pseudo-Dionysius’ quotations from The Mystical Theology

[2] The Soul’s Journey into God, Ch. V