There is probably no more enigmatic author in church history than Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. This anonymous author’s works exerted a profound influence on theology and philosophy within the early church, St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Thomas Aquinas notably among those within their purview.
From the earliest days of this work its authorship was open to debate; some believed it was actually penned by the Areopagite who was a convert under St. Paul, while others held the opinion that the ascription was a pious act of an author who wished to demonstrate humility, grounding the work in the memory of a beloved saint. Since the late middle ages it has generally been understood to have been written in the sixth century, as no mention of this work is found before then. Additionally, the author’s philosophy is heavily Neo-Platonistic, bearing remarkable resemblance to the thought of Proclus, leading many scholars to speculate that our author was perhaps a disciple or student of Proclus.
Despite its being steeped in Neo-Platonism, it is steeped more fully in Christianity. Pseudo-Dionysius’ aim is to divest the idea of God of any categories that could ground the Godhead in that which is not God. As such, God is beyond the capacity of words to describe or thought to contain. God is not one being beyond many; rather, God is beyond the concept of Being, beyond the concept of Good, beyond any of the names that we might predicate of God. Pseudo-Dionysius’ approach to theology is the via negativa; that is, the least inadequate thing we can say about God is that God is not this or God is not that. Pope Benedict XVI describes it like this:
These images bring us to understand, in reality, that God is above every concept; in the simplicity of the images, we find more truth than in the great concepts. The face of God is our incapacity to truly express what he is. In this way he speaks — Pseudo-Dionysius himself says — of a “negative theology.” It is easier to say what God is not than to express what he really is. Only through these images can we grasp at his true face and, on the other hand, this face of God is very concrete: It is Jesus Christ… Pseudo-Dionysius shows that in the end, the path to God is God himself, who makes himself close to us in Jesus Christ.[1. Pope Benedict XVI, On Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, http://www.zenit.org/article-22588?l=english]
In this way, the via negativa is really a positive approach. Much as a sculptor has to chip away at a shapeless block of marble to reveal the image behind the rock, so when we approach thinking about God we need to remove the impediments of our categories and finitely grounded classifications to begin to grasp who God is. It is in this un-knowing that knowing God can begin, for behind the brightness of God’s glory is the darkness, so to speak, of who God is which the unapproachable light obscures.
In this passage for my series of church father paraphrases, Pseudo-Dionysius considers the name of Good as applied to God.
The scripture writers give the Godhead-Beyond-Divinity the name of Good, a name that rises to heights infinitely beyond all goodness, so that God in his very existence is said to be Good. This chasm between the Good and its manifest goodness in things is infinite, so vast that even distinction fades into meaninglessness, for creation is steeped in the goodness that flows from the very be-ing of God, a goodness which supplies its actuality while transcending its identity, for God cannot be contained even in the idea of goodness.
We know that the sun burns because it is in the nature of the sun to burn; it makes no decision to do so but by its very nature illuminates the heavens and the earth below, simply because these have an inherent quality of being illuminated. In a similar manner the transcendent Good casts forth its rays upon being and upon beings; they exist because of the undivided goodness which grounds their diverse being and reflect in varying ways the goodness which sustains their existence, as less luminous images glisten forth beneath the light which causes them to be and to be able to glimmer.
If we really believe that the Good is beyond everything and even the idea of thing, it is clear that every shape and size and class and category flows from that which cannot be contained by them. The Good is so far above the idea of ‘being’ that the only way we can adequately speak of it is to say that it is Not-Being; that is, it is an overflowing abundance of being. Likewise, God is so far removed from life as to be Life-less as an overflowing of Life, soaring on heights of Wisdom so as to be Mind-less in an excess of knowing. Anything we could say about God transcends every category, and only negative words can peek a bit behind the veil to catch a glimpse of the ineffable and unknowable. In this way, that which is truly not- that is, non-being (evil)- is an attempt, so to speak, at a mimicry of God, in that its deficient being is a failed likeness of the divinity beyond all being, its resting place a denial of all things so as to be like that which transcends to-be-a-thing.