From Dionysius (i.e. Pseudo-Dionysius, probably a Syrian monk, writing under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite from Acts 17/34, writing around 500 AD). We have four works from Dionysius: The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, The Celestial Hierarchy, The Divine Names, Mystical Theology. The latter two are particularly important in this context.
Dionysius himself is dependent on the pagan neo-Platonist Proclus, himself
dependent on Plotinus, ultimately dependent on Plato. Some similar ideas
are to be found in Gregory of Nyssa, and also Maximus the Confessor (580-662
Key words: God “is” or “is like”, where “is” is meant either analogously or metaphorically.
Characterised by IMAGES.
Procedure: to ascend to the divine realm by images and affirmations, starting with the lowest of creatures.
(‘Kataphatic’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘affirmative’ kataphatikos,
from kataphasko, to make a positive statement, to affirm.)
Key words: God “is not”.
Procedure: to ascend into the divine realm, via progressive denials, starting with the lowest of creatures, to progressively deny of God the attributes and qualities of creatures.
(‘Apophatic’ comes from the Greek word ‘apophatikos’, meaning ‘negative’, derived from ‘apophemi’, to say no, to deny.)
The intention with Pseudo-Dionysius and the Mystic Way generally is to provoke an experience, rather than to come up with a clear view of what God is in Godself, an experience of union in the Divine Darkness, with the Ineffable, Incomprehensible Divine Being who is indeed Beyond Being and Beyond Thought. For Dionysius this is the better way, more appropriate to the Divine Mystery. Though one must start with the Affirmative Way, this has to be transcended.
This apophatic preference was continued in the East for example by Maximus the Confessor, and as an alternative tradition particularly among the Mystics in the West. We see it, for example, in John the Scot (9th C.), Meister Eckhart, the Cloud of Unknowing, The Dark Night of the Soul. It is also strong in the medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 AD).
Even St Thomas says things like, “The first cause surpasses human understanding and speech. They know God best who acknowledge that whatever they think and say falls short of what God really is” (In librum De Causis, lectio 6, quoted in Copleston, Aquinas, p. 136). And, “Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what God is not, we have no means of considering how God is, but rather how God is not.” (Summa Theologiae, Part 1, Q. 3.) However, see later, on Aquinas’ doctrine of Analogy.
The Negative Way itself gives access to a Third Way, already implicit in Dionysius but more clearly distinguished in later writers. This continues the denial, but with a twist which makes it more than just a denial:
Key words: God “is beyond”, that is, the other side of, in excess of – so no longer purely a denial.
From Dionysius, Mystical Theology: God is hyperousious, superessential, or, in the more commonly known phrase, God is “beyond be-ing, beyond beingly before all”. In contemporary philosophy, compare especially Levinas, the Divine Mystery is “otherwise than being”.
(For details and references, see Kevin Hart, The Trespass of the Sign (CUP, 1989), Ch. 5 and Ch. 6.)
Language and concepts and images may be used, but only for the purpose of going beyond them, with the object of aiming or directing ourselves or being opened up, with the heart more than the mind, beyond language, beyond concepts, beyond images, beyond thought.
This Third Way can be regarded as a sophistication of the Negative Way, pushing it beyond mere denial while still keeping a strong element of denial. Or else, we may consider it as the original aufhebung, the dialectical overcoming, reconciling the previous two ways in a higher synthesis which overcomes the inadequacies of each – this 1300 years before Hegel.
Go now to the medieval doctrine of Analogy
or else you can return to the Unit Outline