Pseudo-Dionysus: The Cloud of Unknowing

Hey there! We’re all back to business as usual. On Wednesday we had a post about coins and narrative levels in Kingdom, and over here we’re starting to talk about Pseudo-Dionysus. I’ve got Kierkegaard steaming away in the background, and we’ll get to him after we’ve dealt with our friendly neighbourhood Neoplatonist. The first thing to know about ol’ Pseudy is that nobody actually knows who he (she?) is. There’s this old tradition of writing in the style of pre-existing writers – it’s one of the reasons people are uncertain about the authorship of certain Biblical letters. The historical Dionysus pops up in Acts 17, where he gets converted by a sermon of Paul. There’s a bunch of texts ostensibly written by Dionysus, and they were treated as super important because this guy was converted by Paul – so he’s got proximity to a figurehead of the early church. Eventually we figured out that this writer wasn’t actually Dionysus, because he was using systems of Neoplatonist thought that didn’t exist back then. All we really know is that Pseudo-Dionysus is somebody writing from around the 6th century AD, instead of the 1st. 

There’s a few things about Pseudo-Dionysus that make him really interesting to modern thinkers. Probably the really big one is this idea of negative theology. That’s what we’re going to chat about today, with reference to the most wonderfully short text, The Mystical Theology. The literal meaning of ‘mystic’ is ‘hidden’ – it’s related to ‘mystery’, which is what you have when you don’t know why smoke’s pouring out of your butthole. In both cases, there’s something hidden that you don’t know about.

The initial premise for negative theology is that God is bigger and more infinite than any of the words we can use to describe Him. We can say that God is good, but actually the term ‘good’ is insufficient as a description. Similarly we can say that God is loving or just or any of these other things, but they’re all insufficient: our concepts just don’t cut the existential mustard. It’s easier to imagine if you start with physical attributes. In Chapter Four of The Mystical Theology (which is about ten lines long), Pseudo-Dionysus writes that God “is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched.” He continues on like this, simply making the point that although God underpins the world we perceive with our senses, we cannot perceive Him with our senses.

The next step simply ramps the same idea into the conceptual sphere: we have these concepts about the world, but “the Supreme cause of every conceptual thing is not itself conceptual“. If God created our concepts, He cannot be a concept, because then He’d be on the same level as the created universe, rather than being above it (which Christians claim He is). It would be the same as saying that God has physical perceivable qualities: if God created things like shape or form, He cannot have shape or form Himself, because He’s actually above all that. Can you see the hierarchy at work here? There’s the created universe, which includes all the physical perceivable elements like colour and sound, but also all of the conceptual elements – things like number, order, similarity and dissimilarity. Then, above that, there is the transcendent realm of God: beyond the physical, but also beyond the conceptual.

There’s a bunch of objections and problems to raise here, but we’re going to shelve all of them and power through to the end of this theory: we’ll mention the issues later. So we’ve got the physical world and the conceptual world, and Pseudy’s arguing that God is beyond all of those things. Negative theology, then, is the practice of denying everything created in order to orient ourselves towards God in Himself. We know that God is not physical, so we shouldn’t be looking for God in the physical realm. In the same way, we know that God is not conceptual, so we shouldn’t be looking for God in the conceptual realm. Pseudo-Dionysus draws on the story of Moses travelling up into Mount Sinai: Moses leaves the Israelites and the realm of the known and goes up the mountain into “the mysterious darkness of unknowing“. This phrase, incidentally, is more famously translated as “the cloud of unknowing“, but ‘mysterious darkness’ is how my book has it.

For Pseudo-Dionysus, this cloud of unknowing is the place where true relationship with God takes place:

Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and invisible, he [Moses] belongs completely to Him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.” (Bold mine)

If God is beyond every physical attribute and every conceptual label, then we cannot ‘know’ God intellectually. Both concept and perception are insufficient methods of knowing God – so we can only come to God by rejecting knowledge, thought, and perception altogether. We know God, who is beyond the mind, by knowing nothing.

It’s pretty hefty stuff, but honestly, this shit is my jam. We’ll briefly cover some of the issues rising from this theory now, and I’ll go over them again in more depth over the next couple of weeks. The first issue is simple: if we can’t know God through perception or concept, what use is the Bible? We perceive the words on the page, and we conceptually grasp their meaning – and doesn’t the Bible reveal things about God’s nature? Similarly, what about Jesus? Wasn’t Jesus truly human? If Jesus took on a physical body, then God could be perceived and conceptualised in the person of Christ – so where does that leave this theory? Like I say, we’ll address these concerns (or rather how Pseudy dealt with them) over the next couple of weeks. We’ll also tackle the other few works that’re extant, and after all that we’ll move on to Kierkegaard – fun for all the family. See you then!

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