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Harvard Divinity School

Sculpting God: The Logic of Dionysian Negative Theology Author(s): John N. Jones Source: The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 355-371 Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Harvard Divinity School Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1509922 Accessed: 05/12/2008 03:56
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SculptingGod:The Logic of Dionysian NegativeTheology*


John N. Jones
Yale University

n recent decades, the theology of Dionysius the Areopagitel (pseudoDionysius) has recaptured the attention of a number of scholars. These scholars address Dionysius's importance for the history of philosophy,2 for Christian aesthetics3and liturgical and biblical symbols,4 and for postmodern
*I thank Michael Foat, Jeff Fisher, Dan Grau, Antony Dugdale, David Kangas, and Nancy Gratton for their patient and helpful responses to this work, with special thanks to Rowan Greer and Cyril O'Regan. 'All citations of the Dionysian corpus are numbered according to J. P. Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus (Athens: Typographeiou Georgiou Karyophylle, 1879) 3.1, from which all Greek quotations are taken. Except where otherwise noted, all English quotations are from the invaluable Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (trans. Colm Luibheid; notes and additional trans. Paul Rorem; New York: Paulist Press, 1987). 2Stephen Gersh, From lamblichus to Eriugena: An Investigation of the Prehistory and Evolution of the Pseudo-Dionysian Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 1978). 3Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 2: Studies in Theological Style: Clerical Styles (trans. Andrew Louth, Francis McDonagh, and Brian McNeil; San Francisco: Ignatius; New York: Crossroads, 1984) 144-210. 4PaulRorem, Biblical and Liturgical Symbolswithin the Pseudo-Dionysian Synthesis (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984). Although Rorem's most recent monograph (Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to Their Influence [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993]) is an important contribution to English-language scholarship in the field, with respect to negative theology it rehearses quite precisely Rorem's comments in Symbols and especially in the footnotes of Complete Works. When discussing Rorem, therefore, I will refer to these earlier volumes.

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theology.5 Much of this attention focuses on the brief and historically influential The Mystical Theology, written ca. 500 CE.For scholars, however, this text, like the God of which it speaks, seems to embody contradictions. Is there a consistent logic in the text, or is it deliberately inconsistent? In this essay, I shall analyze passages throughout the Dionysian corpus in order to interpret the sometimes dense expressions of Mystical Theology and uncover the logical structure of Dionysius's negative theology.6 I shall suggest that Dionysius's primary task is to deny that God is a particular being.7 By identifying the patterns of language used to speak of beings, Dionysius can identify both affirmative and negative language that avoids such patterns and hence is appropriatefor speech about God. This interpretation demands close attention to the distinction between particular assertions or denials and the assertion or denial of all beings. By focusing on this distinction and on the higher status of negative over affirmative theology, I shall show, against the dominant trend in Dionysian scholarship, that this negative theology logically coheres; it is neither self-negating nor logi5Jacques Derrida, "How to Avoid Speaking: Denials," in Harold Coward and Toby Foshay, eds., Derrida and Negative Theology (Albany: SUNY, 1992) 73-142. 6There are several a priori presumptions against even the possibility of finding a logical structure in Dionysian negative theology. First, Dionysius claims, humans cannot know God as God knows himself (Divine Names 1.588b; for a discussion of the difficulty in Neoplatonism of imputing knowledge to the undivided God, see Gersh, lamblichus, 267-68). The fact that human epistemology is limited, however, does not mean that there is no discernable structure to the highest kind of knowledge. Second, Dionysius sometimes writes humbly about the ability of his words to describe divine matters (Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 7.568d; Celestial Hierarchy 15.340b; Divine Names 13.98 lc-84a). Even if one takes these expressions of humility at face value, it does not follow that what Dionysius manages to say is not clearly structured. (For the view that Dionysius's expressions of humility should not be given too much importance, see Ronald F. Hathaway, Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letters of Pseudo-Dionysius [Hague: Nijhoff, 1969] xvii). Third, several scholars imply that since Dionysius understands theology as a prayer, a hymn of praise, and a form of direct address, it should not be externally analyzed as an abstract discussion of philosophical language. See Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981) 164-66; and Rorem, Symbols, 51. This merely shows, however, that identifying a coherent logical structure in Dionysian negation is not equivalent to grasping the religious meaning of the contemplative practices that manifest such a structure. For an example of postmodern anxiety about this question as it applies to Dionysius, however, see Derrida, "Denials," 79, 91, 98, 111. 7For the sake of analyzing Dionysian negative theology, it suffices to say that the denial of all beings will deny individual existents, being itself, and the totality of all existents. For a study of the kinds of being in Dionysius, see Bernhard Brons, Gott und die Seienden: Untersuchungen zum Verhaltnis von neuplatonischer Metaphysik und christlicher Tradition bei Dionysius Areopagita (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1976) esp. chap. 1: "Die Seienden: Ontologie und menschliche Hierarchie," lemma 1: "Die Ontologie" (pp. 29-52).

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cally contradictory. Against Rorem and von Balthasar, it does not negate certain statements about God only to negate the negations; against Gersh, it employs logical contradiction only in a highly qualified way. The positivity of this negative theology, that is, the presence of language that Dionysius does not wish to negate, shows the appropriatenessof Dionysius's metaphor of sculpture for theology. In the conclusion, I use the preceding discussion to reinterpret Mystical Theology and suggest how logic and aesthetics merge as Dionysius "sculpts" God.8 E

The Problem:Inappropriate Ways of SpeakingaboutGod

In large part, Dionysian theology is a critical theology, addressed polemically against what Dionysius sees as erroneous ways of speaking about God.9 For Dionysius, the fundamental error in certain speech about God is to confuse God with beings, that is, with things or concepts.'0 In Mystical Theology, he writes: But see to it that none of this comes to the hearingof the uninformed, that,is to say, to those caught up with the things of the world, who imaginethatthereis nothingbeyondinstancesof individualbeing and who think that by their own intellectualresourcesthey can have a direct knowledgeof him who has made the shadowshis hiding place. And if initiationinto the divine is beyond such people, what is to be who describethe transcensaid of those others,still moreuninformed, dent Cause of all things in terms derived from the lowest orders of being, and who claim that it is in no way superiorto the godless, multiformed shapesthey themselveshave made?" According to Dionysius, idolaters confuse God with things. The other "uninformed" ones, perhaps Middle Platonist philosophers, confuse God with concepts."2In another text, Dionysius anticipates how this latter group might
8Dionysius drawsthe metaphorof sculpting from Plotinus (Enn. 1.6.9). Aphairesis (daXaipeoTc, "clearing aside," "removal") includes both a sculptor's carving and a logician's denial, the "subtraction" of attributes from a subject. 9Some scholars, particularly von Balthasar, downplay or even deny this polemic tone. Citing Letters 7.1077c-80a, von Balthasar writes (Glory, 149): "Nothing is more characteristic of Denys than his rejection of apologetic: why engage in controversy? To do so is only to descend to the level of one's attacker." Elsewhere, von Balthasar implies that Dionysius wishes to "adopt an irenical position" (p. 162). This is a generous interpretation of Dionysian motives, but it is not supported by the corpus. '0For Dionysius, both things and concepts "exist"; see Mystical Theology l.lOOO1a-b. "Ibid. '2Regarding such Dionysian passages, Derrida remarks "one is not far from the innuendo that ontology itself is a subtle or perverse idolatry" ("Denials," 90). In Dionysius, this is not merely innuendo but an explicit, definitive statement of his entire theological project.

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criticize the biblical use of material images for God, preferring to liken God to concepts.13 It could be arguedthat if the [scripture writers]wantedto give corporeal form to what is purely incorporeal, they. .. should have begun and transcendent with what we would hold to be noblest, immaterial beings [for instance,WordandMind].14 Now these sacredshapescertainly showmorereverence seem vastly and to the makingof images drawnfrom the world. Yet they are superior actuallyno less defective than this latter,for the Deity is far beyond of every manifestation being and of life. . every reason or intelligence falls shortof similarityto [the Deity].15 Dionysius accepts the philosophers' view that material images cannot reach God. The philosophers' own solution, that is, to regard concepts as more adequate for representing God, however, fails as well. Concepts and material images both fall short of Dionysius's God, and for the same reason: God is beyond being. Thus he writes: "In the scriptures the Deity has benevolently taught us that understanding and direct contemplation of itself is inaccessible to beings, since it actually surpasses being."16 For Dionysius, knowing that God is beyond being (U'Oepootooc) gives structure to theological speech. Any way of attributing being to God is mistaken. Moreover, Dionysius suggests, such attribution follows a clearly defined pattern. As a preface to Dionysius's discussion of this pattern, I shall first briefly consider how things or concepts are spoken about in ordinary language. If someone says that a thing x is white, the listener understands as well that it is not red. To assert a characteristic of any x is also to deny some other characteristic(s) of it. The converse is also true. If someone says that x is not red, the listener assumes that it is some other characteristic-perhaps white, or transparent,or invisible but audible. That is, she understands that there is some assertion to be made about x, even though she may not know what that assertion is. To be a thing x is to have certain characteristics and not to have others.
'3Dionysius's discussion of biblical names in chapter 2 of Celestial Hierarchy begins with the issue of names for angels. As Rorem notes (Symbols, 86), however, it is clear that the discussion is also about the use of names for God. 4Celestial Hierarchy 2.137b-c. 15Ibid., 140c-d. Among other interpreters of Dionysius, Aquinas was uncomfortable with the apparent sense of this passage. Appealing to common sense, Aquinas denied that Dionysius regarded all affirmations concerning God as equally defective. For example, Aquinas emphasized (S.th. la.13.2) how much better it is to say that "God is good" than to say "God is a body." 16Divine Names 1.588c.

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In The Divine Names, Dionysius writes, "It is not that [the Cause of all] exists here and not there. He does not possess this kind of existence and not that.""7Thus, Dionysius characterizes the way that assertion and denial are ordinarily juxtaposed when speaking about things, and rejects this juxtaposition in the case of the Cause of all.18 Later in the same chapter, Dionysius adds that the Cause of all "is not any one thing"; therefore the language one uses only for a particular being-"it is this and not that"is not appropriatefor the Cause.19 Although Dionysius rejects the juxtaposition of assertion and denial for speech about the Cause of all, he does permit some kind of role for multiple assertions or multiple denials. E

The Corrective: Appropriate Ways of SpeakingaboutGod


In the same Divine Names passage, Dionysius writes: He is all things since he is the Cause of all things. .. But he is also superiorto them all because he precedesthem and is transcendentally above them. Thereforeevery attribute may be predicatedof him, and he is not any thing.20 yet

'7Ibid., 5.824a-b. '8Particularly on the basis of Mystical Theology 4-5, almost all interpreters agree that denials occur when Greek nouns, and adjectives of both positive and negative form (such as "in motion" and "motionless"), are said not to apply to a subject. Thus, in Mystical Theology 5.1048a, Dionysius writes that God is not "in motion," not "motionless," and neither error nor truth. 19Inother words, for Dionysius any of the "names" for God, such as "mind" or "life" or "lifeless," are privative, since they refer to particular being and therefore imply a lack of perfection. Letters 6 may also address the juxtaposition of assertion and denial. Dionysius writes (Letters 6.1077a) that "what is not red does not have to be white. What is not a horse is not necessarily a human." Although this letter does not discuss denial or assertion explicitly, there are three reasons for linking this passage with Divine Names 5.824a-b. First, both discuss that false conclusions are drawn from incorrect assumptions about the relation between negative and positive claims. Second, the letter's overall message, that the addressee has merely traded one mistake for another, correlates well with the Dionysian view of ambiguous denials. Third, according to Hathaway (Hierarchy, 71), Letters 6 contains terms that "one would normally associate with a treatise on logic." If Letters 6 addresses denial, then Hathaway's provocative suggestion about the relation between the numbering of the Parmenidean hypotheses in neoplatonism and the numbering of the Dionysian letters would find support. He writes (Hierarchy, 80), "the sixth hypothesis represents (the absurdity of) relative not-being, and the Sixth Letter connects the problem of falsehood and appearance with relative not-being (no one should attack a particular religious belief or practice as not being good, since not-being-X never necessarily implies being-Y, i.e., it is the being, the positive nature of a thing, which must be known or recognized)." 20Divine Names 5.824b.

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For speech about God, assertions belong together and denials belong together, thus forming distinct ways to name God. Because they function differently, however, one should not combine assertions and denials. The former articulate God as Cause of all; the latter articulate God as transcendent. Combining the two yields language that may apply equally to God and to things, thus failing to show that God is unique and separate from beings. Assertion (Oicnc): In order to avoid using language that does not reflect God's uniqueness, one hastens to qualify any assertion about God in a way that implies no denial. For example, one juxtaposes several assertions that cannot in ordinary language apply to any one thing. The multiplicity of names for God in Divine Names, such as "power itself' and "truth,"typify this kind of speech.21 Since these names, in combination, clearly do not refer to any particularbeing, the way of assertions, or what Dionysius calls affirmative theology, adequately distinguishes God from beings. As a result, the "is" of an expression such as "God is power itself' takes on a metaphorical sense; any asserted name both is God and is not God, depending upon the sense in which it is used. This double sense, identity and difference, follows from the role of assertions in articulating God's causality: for Dionysius as for Greek Neoplatonists, a cause is both immanent to its effect and distinct from it. The "not" of "is and is not" is part of how affirmative theology articulates divine causality. Discussing the sense of biblical names in Dionysius, Rorem correctly calls attention to the negative element, the "not," of names understood in a metaphorical sense.22 I do not, however, agree with his claim that this kind of negativity emerges only when negative theology corrects affirmative theology. Affirmative theology has a kind of negativity proper to itself; for Dionysius, affirmative theology in its own right is metaphoricaldiscourse distinguishing God from all beings. Individual Denials and the Denial of All Beings: The case of denials, which articulate God's transcendence, is more complicated logically than the case of assertions. If one says that God is both power and truth, one avoids any confusion between God and thing or concept, since no thing or concept that exists in a particular way is both power and truth. If one says that God is neither power nor truth, however, one has not excluded much:
21"Power":ibid., 11.953c; "truth":ibid., 7.872c-73a. 22Rorem, Symbols, 89. Although the "symbols" in the title of Rorem's monograph suggest material images for God, such as those discussed in chapter 2 of Celestial Hierarchy, Rorem's analysis applies equally to non-material, conceptual names, such as those in Divine Names. Hence I prefer to speak of "metaphors."

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or God could still be a "lion," a "drunkard," several other things.23 One can use denial (dctaipeotc) adequately to distinguish God from beings by making contradictory denials about God, denials that cannot both be true of any being. Thus, as Dionysius writes in the conclusion of Mystical Theology, God neither "lives" nor is "lifeless," neither "possesses speech" nor is "speechless."24 This way of speaking is unusual, imparting to Mystical Theology its paradoxical character. It does not, however, imply that one has abandoned all rules for speech about God. It is only the case that God is both y and not-y because other statements about God are true without being negated in any way; the equivalence of y and not-y does not hold for all y. One can also deny all possible names of God simultaneously. In the first chapter of Divine Names, Dionysius writes that: since the union of divinized minds with the Light beyond all deity occurs in the cessation of all intelligentactivity, the godlike unified mindswho imitatethese angels as far as possible praiseit most approenpriatelythroughthe denial of all beings. Truly and supernaturally afterthis blessed union,they discoverthat althoughit is the lightened cause of everything,it is not a thing since it transcends things in a all manner beyondbeing.25 This passage is central to Dionysian negative theology. It shows that the highest articulation of God that humans can achieve is through "the denial of all beings" (8td trc av vcovT3v d0tpOVO pc<o). There is noth6v This high regard for the denial of all beings has a close ing higher.26 parallel in the following passage from Mystical Theology: I pray we could come to this darknessso far above light! If only we lacked sight and knowledgeso as to see, so as to know, unseeingand unknowing,that which lies beyondall vision and knowledge.For this would be really to see and to know:to praisethe Transcendent in One a transcending way, namelythroughthe denial of all beings (t&a Tijc
TCOv Tov doatlpoecOX). Ov mdvTcoV

set out to carve a statue.They removeevery obstacleto the pureview of the hidden image, and simply by this act of clearing aside
(d(XaitpEoet)

We would be like sculptors who

they show up the beauty which is hidden.27

23"Lion":Celestial Hierarchy 2.144d; "drunkard":Mystical Theology 3.1033b, c. 24Mystical Theology 4-5.1040d; 1045d. 25Divine Names 1.593b-c. 26Unlike Mystical Theology 5.1048b below, the translation for i;v does not affect the meaning of Divine Names 1.593b-c; to deny each being is to deny all beings. 27Mystical Theology 2.1025a-b.

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As Divine Names 1.593b-c indicates, this transcendentknowing is not merely to be hoped for: some humans do achieve it.28 In both of these passages, the transcendent God is articulated through "the denial of all beings."29 If the denial of all beings articulates the highest God, however, why does Dionysius write, in one of the concluding phrases of Mystical Theology, that the Cause of all is "beyond every denial" ()KTE?pniooav d(aip?elv)?30 This passage suggests that one cannot reach God by any kind of denial at all. For this reason, interpreters such as Rorem, von Balthasar, and Vanneste suggest that in Mystical Theology, even denial is ultimately denied as adequate for speech about God. Dionysian negative theology involves, as Roques calls it, "negations doubles," or self-negation.31 This interpretation, however, is inconsistent with the previous pas28Divine Names 1.596a suggests that scripture writers are among the "unified minds." As Rorem emphasizes throughout Symbols (for example, 18), "theologian" for Dionysius means scripture writer (as in Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 3.432b). Chapter 2 of Mystical Theology makes clear that Moses is among the unified minds as well. 29Forexample, Paul knew the inscrutable and unsearchable God by knowing that God was beyond mind (Letters 5.1073a). In Letters 1 as well, knowledge as "unknowing" is a reference point for discussing the highest God: "Andthis quite positively complete unknowing is knowledge of him who is above everything that is known" (1065a-b). 30Mystical Theology 5.1048b. 31Rene Roques, Structures theologiques de la Gnose d Richard de Saint Victor: Essais et analyses critiques (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962) 143. Treating negations and denials as synonymous, Rorem (Complete Works, 140 n.17) writes that Mystical Theology concludes by negating negation, by "abandoning all speech and thought, even negations." On p. 136 n. 6, he also writes of Mystical Theology 1.1000b: "Here at the outset and again at its conclusion (MT 5.1048b 16-21), the treatise refutes the impression that negations can capture the transcendent Cause of all." Similarly, von Balthasar (Glory, 206) interprets the conclusion of Mystical Theology as saying that "God is not only beyond all affirmations but beyond all negations too." Mystical Theology does not, however, abandon all forms of negative language; since the denial of all being is appropriate to the transcendent God, individual denials are abandoned. Jan Vanneste also understands the denial that falls short of God in chapter 5 of Mystical Theology as including even the denial of all being (Le Mystere de Dieu: Essai sur la structure rationelle de la doctrine mystique du pseudo-Denys I'Areopagite [Brussels: Declde de Brouwer, 1959] 48-51, 119-20, 154-55, 165). Apparently, Vanneste notices the difficulty of harmonizing this reading of Mystical Theology 5 with passages such as Divine Names 1. He suggests, therefore, in part on the basis of Dionysius's discussion of Moses' ascent of Mount Sinai in Mystical Theology 3, that no kind of denial reaches God; the moment of aphairesis is surpassed which in turn is surpassed by union (evootc). Vanneste's by unknowing (dyvo/oia), groundbreaking exegesis of Mystical Theology, however, is inaccurate on this point. In Mystical Theology 3, Moses does not leave aphairesis behind in favor of agnosia. "He pushes ahead to the summit of the divine ascents. And yet he does not meet God himself, but contemplates, not Him who is invisible, but where he dwells." Clearly the summit of divine ascents is equivalent to "the holiest and highest of the things perceived with the eye of the body or the mind," that is, things and concepts, or beings. Moses is united with God at the very moment he breaks free of "all that the mind may conceive, wrapped. . . in the invisible." That is, the

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sages and is exegetically unnecessary. The problem is the translation of


TCav. As the previous passages show, Dionysius holds that there is nothing

beyond the God who is reached through the denial of all beings. This passage, therefore, does not mean that the highest God is beyond denials considered as a whole. Here iCavdoes not mean "all together" but "each": the highest God exceeds what any individual denial expresses. Although the denial of all beings adequately and unambiguously expresses that God is not a being, individual denials do not do so. This is the first main point of this study: there is a difference between individual denial(s) and the denial of all beings at once; this difference is central to Dionysian theology. This difference underscores the ambiguity of individual denials and the importance of using them correctly. Dionysius elsewhere implies that denials have both an ordinary sense and a sense appropriateto God as transcendent.32 Individual assertions and denials, therefore, are inadequate for the God spoken of in terms of "the assertion of all things, the denial of all things, that which is beyond each assertion and denial."33 Divine Names 2.641a may illuminate another phrase in the conclusion of Mystical Theology: "[The Cause of all] is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it."34If consistent with the previous passages, this phrase does not mean that one does not employ assertion, and neither does one employ denial, since one must deny all beings of the highest God. The phrase means that God exceeds what can be expressed by each individual assertion and each denial.35 The Subordinate Role of the Assertion of All Beings: For Dionysius, the highest God is correctly known or sculpted through the denial of all beings, through multiple denials not conjoined with assertions.36On purely logical grounds, Dionysius might have given the assertion of all beings the same status, since assertions together suffice to distinguish God from paraphairesis of all beings, agnosia, and henosis are not successive moments. They are simultaneous. Although Vanneste rejects the idea of temporal succession (Mystere, 49), his discussion of logical succession still introduces a division not found in the text. 32Divine Names 2.640b. 33Ibid., 2.641a. Here, Luibheid and Rorem translate inv as "every." 34Mystical Theology 5.1048b. 35Thisreading shows other apparently contradictory phrases in the corpus to have a straightforward meaning. For instance, in Mystical Theology 3.1033c, Dionysius discusses how to "deny that which is beyond each denial" (Complete Works: "every denial"). Despite its paradoxical appearance, this phrase means simply that Dionysius will show how to employ some kind of aphairesis to articulate the transcendent God, "that which is beyond every denial." This is done through the denial of all beings. 36This denial applies to the three persons of the Trinity as well (for example, Mystical Theology 5.1048a).

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ticular beings. Indeed, Dionysius's frequent juxtaposition of assertion and denial, and even of the assertion of all things and the denial of all things,37 shows how closely the two are related. Although both suffice to separate God from beings, however, the two ways do not have equal status. In Divine Names, Dionysius writes: This is the sort of languagewe must use aboutGod, for he is praised fromall thingsaccording theirproportion him as theirCause.But to to again, the most divine knowledgeof God, that which comes through unknowing,is achievedin a union far beyondmind, when mind turns away from all things, even from itself, and when it is made one with the dazzlingrays, being then and there enlightenedby the inscrutable depthof Wisdom.38 In a passage preceding this one,39 transcendence/the denial of all things is juxtaposed with the cause of all things; both are ways to approach God. In this passage, the denial of all beings, which as we saw earlier correlates with union and unknowing, is made superior to assertion. Dionysius reaffirms this superiority in passages pertaining to negation which I shall examine below.40 Before discussing negation, however, I shall briefly examine the implications of the hierarchical relationship between two ways of articulating God. Following Corsini, Gersh suggests that Dionysius and other Christian Neoplatonists represent a decisive moment in Western philosophical history. This moment is characterized by a move to logical self-contradiction, wherein the first two Parmenidean hypotheses, which correlate to some degree to what I call denials and assertions, are both attributed to God. Thus, it is true both that God is "at rest" and "moving" and that God is not at rest and not moving.41 The characterization "self-contradiction" misrepresents Dionysian theology, however, and exaggerates its departurefrom its sources. First, self-contradiction often implies incoherence or ambiguity in a logical structure; Dionysius's structure, that is, his ways for speaking
37Divine Names 2.641a. 38Ibid., 7.872a-b. Mystical Theology 2 also discusses the relation between unknowing, union, and denial. 39Divine Names 7.869d-72a. 40Celestial Hierarchy 2.140d-41 a; Mystical Theology 2.1000a-b. 41Gersh, lamblichus, 11, 155-56; Eugenio Corsini, II trattato 'De divinis nominibus' dello Pseudo-Dionigi e i commenti neoplatonici al Parmenide (Turin: Giappichelli, 1962) esp. 42, 115-22. Andrew Louth (Denys the Areopagite [Wilton, CT: Morehouse Barlow, 1989] 87), implicitly following Gersh and Corsini, suggests that Dionysius rejects the Proclean framework, which clearly distinguishes negative and affirmative theologies. According to Louth, Dionysius brings the two together "in stark paradox." Louth undermines the force of this claim, however, by writing that denials are truer than affirmations (ibid., 88).

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about God, is quite coherent. Second, even if one finds "self-contradiction" a useful expression for coherent language, assertions and denials do not have equal status in Dionysius. The kind of contradiction Gersh mentions requires that the same thing x be in the same respect both y and not-y. Of course, one may read Dionysius as saying that even though the two ways of speaking refer to different aspects of God, nonetheless they both somehow refer to the same God. Third, even if this were true, the problem of kinds of predication arises. As noted earlier, at least some forms of Dionysian theological language are metaphoricallanguage, not ordinarylanguage. Since Dionysius uses "is" in a particular way, therefore, one cannot reject the logical coherence of his statements such as "God is at rest and not at rest" unless one can show their metaphorical sense to be contradictory. Fourth and most importantly, even if one wishes to analyze metaphorical language as literal predication, the peculiarity of Dionysian logic does not arise only when he applies assertions and denials to God. He already violates ordinary logic within the way of assertions, wherein he applies nonidentical names, such as "power" and "truth," to God;42 moreover, this aspect of Dionysian negative theology is unremarkable in Neoplatonist thought. However one chooses to characterize the relation between assertions and denials in Dionysian theology, the denial of all beings remains appropriate to God in a way that individual assertions, individual denials, and the assertion of all beings do not. Negations clarify and indeed exemplify this distinction. Negations and the Way of Negation (cda6dao}c): Few have studied the precise relation between denial and negation. Although Vanneste long ago observed that the two appear to function differently, scholars often regard them as synonymous.43 Properly understood, however, negations help illustrate the difference between kinds of denial, because they are distinct from individual denials and correlative to the denial of all beings. In Mystical Theology 1.1000la-b, Dionysius writes: But see to it that none of this comes to the hearingof the uninformed, that is to say, to those caught up with the things of the world, who imaginethat thereis nothingbeyondinstancesof individualbeing and
420r, to choose examples from the Parmenidean hypotheses, God is both at rest and moving (Divine Names 9.916b-d). 43Vanneste, Mystere, 58. Louth (Origins, 167, 174), translates docaip?ol as "negation," but in his discussion of related passages refers to denial. An early French translation of the corpus (Maurice de Gandillac, trans., (Evres Completes du Pseudo-Denys L'Areopagite [Paris: Aubier, 1943]) sometimes rendersdoatip?oti as "depouillement,"but also rendersboth d(oaipeoti and danoaotlc as "negation." Rorem and Roques consistently refer to both d)atipe?ct and dcoir6aots as negation (negation).

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who think that by their own intellectualresourcesthey can have a direct knowledgeof him who has madethe shadowshis hiding place. And if initiationinto the divine is beyond such people, what is to be said of those others,still moreuninformed, who describethe transcendent Cause of all things in terms derived from the lowest ordersof being, and who claim that it is in no way superiorto the godless, multiformed shapesthey themselveshave made?Whathas actuallyto be said aboutthe Cause of everythingis this. Since it is the Cause of we all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regardto beings, and, more appropriately, should negate all these affirmations, since it surpassesall being. Now we shouldnot concludethatthe negationsare simplythe oppositesof the affirmations, but ratherthat the cause of all is considerablyprior to this, beyond beyondeach denial,beyondeach assertion.44 privations, This passage clarifies the meaning and relation of assertion, denial, affirmation, and negation. Dionysius relates all affirmations to God as Cause, and he subordinates all affirmations to negation. I have already shown that divine causality relates to the assertion of all beings and that this is subordinate to transcendence and the denial of all beings. This raises the possibility that the denial of all being correlates with what Dionysius calls negation. Chapter two of The Celestial Hierarchy supports this suggestion. Dionysius insists that concepts are as deficient as material images in representing God.45 After saying this, Dionysius proceeds to contrast such ways of representing God, that is, affirmations, with negation, another kind of scriptural device.46 He states that the way of negation "seems to [him] much more appropriate"than affirmation, "more suitable to the realm of the divine." This is similar to the preference he showed earlier for the denial of all beings over the assertion of all beings. Similar too is his reasoning: "God is in no way like the things that have being and we have no knowledge at all of his incomprehensible and ineffable transcendence and invisibility."47 This strengthens the case that for Dionysius, negation and the denial of all beings are synonymous. As I noted earlier, however, the denial of all beings functions very differently than an individual denial. Thus negations, too, would function differently than individual denials. To explain this difference, I shall examine two unusual features of this passage. First, in this chapter, Dionysius discusses not merely affirmation
44Luibheid and Rorem render diav in the final phrase as "every." Throughout the corpus, Dionysius explicitly relates being and knowability. One can know only what has being; what is beyond being is by definition unknowable. 45Celestial Hierarchy 2.140c-d. 46Ibid., 2.140d-41a. 47Ibid., 2.140d-41a.

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in general but specific examples of biblical representations of God, such as "Word" and "life." Few have noted that, similarly, when Dionysius discusses negation, he does not merely describe a general way of speaking but specific examples of such speech. Indeed, this passage is the only one in the Dionysian corpus where particular words are explicitly and unambiguously identified as examples of negations.48 According to Dionysius, "[the This sentence sugdeity] is described as invisible, infinite, ungraspable."49 gests that the following passage in Divine Names discusses negation proper, and not merely negative language in general:50 it is customaryfor theologiansto apply negative terms to God, but contraryto the usual sense of a deprivation.Scripture,for example, calls the all-apparent light "invisible."It says regardingthe One of many praises and many names that he is ineffable and nameless. It says of the One who is presentin all things and who may be discovered fromall thingsthathe is ungraspable "inscrutable." and Similar clusters of such words appear elsewhere in Divine Names5l (invisible, incomprehensible, "unsearchable and inscrutable") and in Letters52 (invisible, inscrutable, unsearchable, inexpressible). These words share certain features. Dionysius describes each of them as biblical representations; he does not describe all denials in this way. Moreover, each negation is not only alpha-privative in form, a feature shared with Greek words such as "at rest" and "lifeless," but also denotative of the denial of what is characteristic of all beings.53 This explains the continuation of the Celestial Hierarchy passage: "[The deity] is described as invisible, infinite, ungraspable, and other things which show not what he is but
48Rorem (Symbols, 86) suggests that tropos in this passage does not convey any technical sense; it means simply "manner"or "mode" of speaking. Whatever its meaning here, however, note that Dionysius provides specific examples of negations, not simply negative language in general. 49Celestial Hierarchy 2.140d. 50Divine Names 7.865b-c. 51Ibid., 1.588c. 52Letters 5.1073a-76a. 53The word "negation" always articulates transcendence. Yet, although most words that can function as negations logically denoting God's transcendence (for example, "unknowable," "ungraspable"), two do not: infinite and invisible. For this reason, Dionysius can at times apply these words to beings. Why then does he use them as negations at all? There are two possibilities. First, these words derive from the same scriptural passages as other negations, so the words may connote transcendence. Second, the words may denote transcendence in a modified way. Whenever Dionysius uses "light" as a metaphor for the conceptual, the "invisible" indicates what is beyond both thought and perception. Also, if Dionysius, like other Neoplatonist writers, is undecided whether the realm of being has an infinity of its own, "infinite" may at times negate all being.

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what in fact he is not."54As we saw in chapter seven of Divine Names, this kind of negativity does not imply the privation and particularbeing implied by individual denials. Indeed, if negations were simply like individual denials, the rhetorical structureof chapter two of Celestial Hierarchy would make little sense. Dionysius has just finished describing words that seem to honor God but in fact fail to do so because they do not adequately distinguish God from beings. Why then offer as a corrective other inadequate words? Negations are in fact not inadequate for speech about the transcendent God. Indeed, whenever Dionysius mentions them, he identifies them as the justification for saying that God is beyond being. One sees the methodological importance of negations in the second remarkable feature of this Celestial Hierarchy passage. Dionysius writes: this second way of talkingabouthim seems to me much more approGod is in priate,for, as the secret and sacredtraditionhas instructed, no way like the things that have being and we have no knowledgeat all of his incomprehensible ineffabletranscendence invisibiland and ity.55 Regarding negation, this passage is tautological: one says that God is "ungraspable" because one cannot grasp God's ungraspability. The word and the justification for using it are identical. This negation, like others, is not one biblical representation among many; it is a representation that governs the use of other representations. A negation repristinates transcendence, providing a summary of Dionysian negative theological method; individual denials are logical operations that follow from a negation.56This is the second main point of this study: a negation and a denial are not synonymous. Unlike an individual denial, a negation relates to the (im)possibility of knowing and saying anything about God. It is, so to speak, a second-order rule for the employment of first-order names.57 As a result, Dionysius never rejects negations for speech about God; because Dionysius's God surpasses individual assertions and denials, one negates when speaking theologically.58
54Celestial Hierarchy 2.140d. 55Ibid., 2.140d-41 a. 56Rorem (Symbols, 6, 25, 49, 63, etc.) persuasively argues that Dionysian theology, both affirmative and negative, is a method for interpreting the concrete representations in scripture and liturgy. Rorem may not give sufficient attention, however, to what kind of method the theology is. Negations, which are ultimately true, show that all other biblical representations fall short of the transcendent God. 57Mystical Theology 5.1048a. 58This reading implies that there are negations as well as denials in Mystical Theology 5. In his helpful discussion, Roques (L'univers dionysien: Structure hierarchique du monde

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Implicationsof this Interpretation

I have argued that in Dionysian theology there is a strong distinction between two kinds of denial, the denial of particular being and the denial of all beings, and that negation correlates with the latter. I have also argued that, properly understood, Dionysian negative theology is neither selfnegating nor self-contradictory. Without debating the philosophical or theological merits of this theology, I consider it important to note briefly why its logical structure, even when properly understood, lends itself so easily to such readings. I summarize Dionysian negative theology roughly as follows: "God is not a being and so cannot be known or spoken of as beings are known or spoken of." Is this statement itself a kind of assertion about God? Many modern and most postmodern readers would answer in the affirmative, regarding any sentence about a subject as a kind of predicative act, a kind of knowledge and speech. This view makes even the denial of all beings an assertion, because it is considered impossible to avoid saying something about "what God is" when speaking, even when speaking of what is beyond being.59 For instance, Derrida interprets Dionysius as struggling to utter God's inutterability but always saying too much, bringing God into the realm of word and being by the very act of speaking.60Dionysius never says, however, that he regards all speech about God, including negative theology, as speech about being. Moreover, his systematic distinction between negation and the language of privation, to which he assigns distinct functions, shows that he does not regard both as languages of particular being. In light of this distinction, current constructive theologies should be conscious of the difference between how Dionysian theology may be retrieved and how it is to be interpreted in its own right.

E SculptingGod: a Reinterpretation TheMystical Theology of


In light of the previous discussion, I shall attempt a summary of Mystical Theology. This short treatise opens with Dionysius's address to the
selon le pseudo-Denys [Paris: Aubier, Montaigne, 1954] 206-7) understands the negations of Celestial Hierarchy 2 as quite similar to "monstrous," dissimilar images for God from scripture, such as eagle or drunkard. Both fall short of God, but at least both leave the intelligence unsatisfied, so that the mind knows not to dwell on them as adequate representations of God. In my reading, Dionysius juxtaposes negations and monstrous images not because they have the same status but because negations are the rationale for the value of dissimilar images. Dionysius's God is indeed "ungraspable." If one must use images, therefore, it is better to use images that are less likely to appear adequate for depicting God. 59In other words, as Celestial Hierarchy 2.141a in particular shows, Dionysian negative theology requires that some predicates are not conceptual. 60According to Derrida, Dionysius wishes to gesture to a hyperessentiality beyond predication, negation, and conceptualization ("Denials," 74, 77). I would respond that, for Dionysius, negations proper are so stripped of conceptuality that they do not risk delimiting God.

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Trinity beyond being, asking it to lead Christians to the "highest peak of mystic scripture," a place characterized by paradox. Then, beginning his address to Timothy, Dionysius urges him to leave behind "everything perceptible and understandable," that is, as I have said above, things and concepts. He urges Timothy to say nothing of this ascent to those who think that God is a material object or a concept. It is appropriate to liken God to particular beings, "since it is the Cause of all beings," and more appropriateto negate, since "it surpasses all being." Using language similar to that of Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius interprets Moses' ascent of Mount Sinai as the mind's ascent to the place of unknowing.61 In chapter two, Dionysius introduces the metaphor of the statue: sculptors "remove every obstacle to the pure view of the hidden image, and simply by this act of clearing aside (dCoaipeotc) they show up the beauty which is hidden."62 Dionysius carries out this carving in the following chapters. In chapter three, he gives examples of beings that form the material for carving: descriptions of God according to "forms, figures, and instruments" such as "sleeping," "drunk,"and "hungover."As such perceptible images are carved away, only concepts remain.63The higher the mind's ascent, the less that remains to be carved away. Language ultimately "falters" where the final obstacles have been removed, the final beings denied. The statue is carved; language is "at one with him who is indescribable."64 Despite their more paradoxical appearance, chapters four and five merely rehearse these same ideas in greater detail. Chapter four says that God is not anything that might characterize material objects: having shape, form, quality, quantity, and weight; perceptible; changing; divisible. Chapter five removes concepts from God, but nonetheless continues to say a great deal about the ungraspable God, for example, that God cannot be named or known.65 It is only the presence of such unnegated speech that makes sculpture, and the concreteness and specificity it implies, an appropriate metaphor for Dionysian negative theology; as Rolt observes, a theology of pure negativity would seek not to carve a block of marble but to destroy
61Louth(Origins, 175) discusses Dionysius's relation to Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysian ecstasy; Louth's further discussion of the difference between the human and angelic hierarchies and the hierarchies of names for God (Origins, 176-78 and Denys, 105) is unequalled in its clarity. 62Mystical Theology 2.1025a-b. 63Ibid., 3.1033b. 64Ibid., 1033c. 65Ihope, in a later study, to examine the relation between negations proper and phrases that appear to be roughly synonymous with them, such as "free of every limitation" (Mystical Theology 1048b).

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it.66 The conclusion of Mystical Theology, that God is beyond each individual assertion and denial, serves an aesthetic and a logical function. It shows that in Dionysius's view no more carving (denial) is necessary. Moreover, by repeating the language of chapter one, it shows that the project of (non-)predication announced in chapter one is completed. Nonetheless, the work of sculpting this statue may not be as finished as Dionysius believes. To some, the stone remaining on the pedestal appears indistinguishable from the stone pieces carved away. Artists taking Dionysius as their master may both appreciate the beauty of his creation and wonder if it must be sculpted still further, and what form, if any, would represent its consummation.

66C. E. Rolt, trans., Dionysius the Areopagite: "The Divine Names" and "The Mystical Theology" (8th ed.; London: SPCK, 1977) 195 n.1.