I pray we could come to this darkness so far above light! If only we lacked sight and knowledge so as to see, so as to know, unseeing and unknowing, that which lies beyond all vision and knowledge. For this would truly be to see and to know: to praise the Transcendent One in a transcending way, namely through the denial of all things.
It is always a difficult thing to talk about God, for a moment’s reflection on the language we might use brings to light its utter lack of adequacy. After all, words are mediated through experience and the cognitive limits of our intellects. Thus, any word about God would seem to fall infinitely short of saying anything meaningful about God.
To think about God is little better. While our thoughts may be able to abstract realities from the limits of language in some manner, nevertheless thought and conception still falls under the limitation of the mind which cannot fathom the intricacies of the material world, let alone that which by nature is supposed to transcend it.
Is there thus any value in saying or thinking anything about God? Is not the entire project doomed from the beginning, negated by its very endeavor?
For Dionysius the Aeropagite, there is a correlative movement of epistemology in regards to what we say or think about God. In the theology of Dionysius, it is axiomatic that the Divinity is beyond conception and description- no positive affirmation can adequately encapsulate God, for God is beyond all circumscription. Thus, the best thing to say about God is to say nothing at all. In the silence and darkness is the way to union with God.
That is perhaps too simplistic to say. Dionysius advocates above all an apophatic approach- since God is beyond all being, the mind and soul can only ascend to God through the negation of being. For example, we speak of God as being Good. The difficulty with the title Good is that it is also applied to created and finite beings, and thus our conception of Good is mediated through the way in which we experience Good in creation. Because our minds are limited and finite, our understanding of Good is inexorably linked to the limited way in which we can understand Goodness as evidenced in its relation to creation.
To approach God as Good thus involves more than just a mere abstraction of Good; it involves its negation as we apply it to God. Good must be negated in every way as it applies to created and finite things, until we arrive at a conception of Good that ultimately negates Good as it applies to God. Since God transcends everything and every conception, God is infinitely above our ability to conceive of Good. In this manner God is so far removed from Good as to more appropriately be conceived of as Not-Good. This doesn’t mean that God is evil, but rather that God’s goodness is so far transcending our ability to conceive of the Good as to be something absolutely other than this sort of Good. One might as easily say that God suffers from an overflow or excess of Goodness.
This sort of movement would of course apply to any other thing we might say of God- Beautiful, Light, Eternal, Being, etc. In the end all appellations applied to God end in the same unknowable and ineffable object, (indeed, not even an object, for God transcends the ability to be conceived of in any way) for in God there is no distinction between Goodness and Beauty and Being, but rather God is the Ultimate reality beyond all Being.
In the end, even the final negation we could achieve is not enough, for every negation is the product of a limited mind. In the ascent to God the end is a union in which our deepest understanding arrives at an ocean of unknowability, our eyes are illumined by a light so far beyond light as to be darkness, at words that can only stand dumb in the silence.
Dionysius illustrates this in the figure of a statue: A statue begins as a chuck of rock, and for the sculptor to reveal the image latent within he must chisel away at the rock that obscures the image. Only through this removal can the true form be revealed.
Epistemologically, there is a dual movement in the way in which we speak of understand God. There is the ascent previously mentioned where we abstract away from Goodness everything which pertains to Goodness as it is found in created things. This epistemological ascent has its corollary descent, in that the ultimate negation demonstrates that rather than being Good like other beings are Good, God is the source of Goodness in all beings.
The further we move up the ladder and the more we proceed with negations, the smaller the affirmations become. Conversely, the further we traverse in the descent and engage in affirmations, the larger the affirmation.
From the view of the ascent in negation, we begin with the multiplicity of the world and proceed up to the singularity of Divinity, and from the perspective of the descent in affirmation we begin with the Divine unity and arrive at the plurality of creation. The very multiplicity of creation leads the mind to the unity and otherness of Divinity, while the absolute transcendence of God proceeds in its overflowing gift of being to creation. Dionysius describes it in this way:
For as our sun, through no choice or deliberation, but by the very fact of its existence, gives light to all those things which have any inherent power of sharing its illumination, even so the Good (which is above the sun as the transcendent archetype by the very mode of its existence is above its faded image) sends forth upon all things according to their receptive powers, the rays of Its undivided Goodness.
The Incarnation thus becomes a nexus of sorts, for in Jesus both the tangibility and comprehensibility of creation and the ineffable and incomprehensible-ness of Divinity are united in the same person. In Jesus creation is perfectly and inexorably united to God without becoming something it’s not or losing its otherness from God. Transcendence and immanence meet and each take on new dimensions. God remains utterly transcendent and ineffable yet has a human face; creation is finite and circumscribable yet is taken up into the mystery of God.
In Jesus the ladder of being reaches to heaven while being planted firmly on earth. The Incarnation becomes the analogy for our union with God. Union with God does not eradicate our being or lead to an absorption into the divine nature; rather, in this union our nature is taken up and beyond its mere limitation as a created being and is refashioned into what it was meant to be. As the Council of Nicea states:
God, therefore, and the Word of the Father, who became without change of nature perfect Man, having recovered him from the fall and delivered him from the errors of idolatry, reconstructed him for immortality, and bestowed on him the gift which is without repentance. This gift was more God-like than the forms, the reconstruction exceeded the original formation, and the benefit is eternal.
God, who is infinitely beyond us, became like us in Jesus, and in Jesus we become like God. The difference will never be extinguished, and we will never achieve the comprehension of the ineffable in the ascent, but in his descent we can have a sense of his presence, as in Jesus we can behold the darkness beyond light and the silence beyond words.