Mystics: Presence and Aporia

Mystics: Presence and Aporia

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by Michael Kessler

When we speak of mystics, we normally think of people who have confessed extraordinary experiences of divine presence. But mysticism can also refer to the ways that people have described and explained such phenomena—ways that challenge our normal modes of thinking and believing. And the study of mystics can show problems inherent to experience and… See more details below


When we speak of mystics, we normally think of people who have confessed extraordinary experiences of divine presence. But mysticism can also refer to the ways that people have described and explained such phenomena—ways that challenge our normal modes of thinking and believing. And the study of mystics can show problems inherent to experience and language—how to speak and think about what affects people but lies beyond language or thought.

Mystics presents a collection of previously unpublished essays by prominent scholars that consider both the idea of mystics and mysticism. The contributors offer detailed discussions of a variety of mystics from history, including Dionysius the Areopagite, Thomas Aquinas, Joan of Arc, Nicholas of Cusa, Saint Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, and George Herbert. Essays on mysticism in George Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and contemporary technology bring the volume into the twenty-first century.

For anyone interested in the state of current thinking about mysticism, this collection will be an essential touchstone.

Thomas A. Carlson, Alexander Golitzin, Kevin Hart, Amy Hollywood, Michael Kessler, Jean-Luc Marion, Bernard McGinn, Françoise Meltzer, Susan Schreiner, Regina M. Schwartz, Christian Sheppard, David Tracy

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University of Chicago Press
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Religion and Postmodernism Series
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Presence and Aporia

The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003 The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-43210-6

Chapter One
"Suddenly, Christ": The Place of Negative Theology in the Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagites


I should begin with a caveat: I represent a minority in Dionysian scholarship. In fact, I stand at the very terminus of a series of progressively shrinking minorities. To shift to an arboreal image, the great trunk of Dionysian studies over the past century has been devoted to my subject's undoubted debt to late Neoplatonism, in which tradition our topic in this volume, apophatic theology, plays a considerable role. A sturdy branch of the scholarly literature does seek to take into account Dionysius's equally undoubted efforts-hence the first-century pseudonym of a disciple of Saint Paul-to supply at least the appearance of a Christian background. Narrower is the offshoot that tries to read him against the setting of specifically Eastern Christian thought, and perilously thin the branch from that branch that has sought to apply to this mysterious, late-fifth- or early-sixth-century writer insights from that Christian Syria that, everyone agrees, represents his at least geographical point of origin. Thinnest of all, really the merest twig at the end of all of these branchings, is my argument, which proposes that the Eastern and especially Syrian ascetico-mystical tradition offers us a kind of royal path to the comprehension of the Areopagitica as a coherent and even emphatically Christian vision. The setting of Syrian monasticism in particular, with its roots extending back into those native traditions of Christian Syria that include the wandering ascetical visionaries known to us, for example, from the gospel and the Acts of Judas Thomas and, more distantly still-though this is more speculative-into the vision tradition of apocalyptic literature deriving from Christianity's original matrix in Second Temple Judaism, is, I submit, the Sitz im Leben of the Corpus Dionysiacum.

I admit that I am quite alone in this view. I am also alone in arguing, elsewhere at greater length than here, that Dionysius's more specific context is the conflict or, at least, tension between the figures of the ascetic holy man and the bishop or, more elaborately, between the personal authority of the monastic visionary, peculiarly beloved by the laity of the Syrian Church, and the ecclesiastical, sacramental thrust of Christian worship and polity. This tension, and sometimes conflict, was several generations old by the time our author set his quill to parchment. It had also elicited an equally venerable and distinctive set of replies from within the ascetic tradition itself, replies from which I believe Dionysius drew, especially in his treatises on, and invention of the word, hierarchy, to which I shall return below.

For now, though, any ecclesial or, indeed, obviously Christian element is not immediately obvious in the Mystical Theology, the little treatise that is perhaps the most famous and influential of the Dionysian corpus. True, it begins with a prayer offered to the Christian Trinity and goes on to invoke the biblical account of Moses ascending into the cloud atop Mount Sinai as an image of the mind's ascent into the darkness, gnophos, and silence, sige, of divinity. The remaining four chapters, however, are devoted to a discussion of negation, apophasis, which appears to be largely devoid of any ostensibly Christian elements. As God descends into the world, creating and sustaining it, Dionysius explains in chapter 3, so he acquires many names, from Trinity and Unity at the highest stage to all the attributes of human emotions, bodily form, and even to the names of inanimate creation at the lowest end. This is the realm of positive, or kataphatic, theology. "But now," he continues, "as [our discourse] ascends from what is lower to what lies above, it contracts to the extent that it ascends, and, once it has completed its ascent, it will be wholly speechless and wholly united to the Unutterable." In the concluding two chapters, he supplies us with this ascent of negations. In Mystical Theology 4, he begins with the denial of the attribution of corporeal and passable aspects to the divinity: "Therefore we say that the Cause of all ... has neither body [soma] nor shape [schema] nor form [eidos] ... neither is He a place [topos] nor seen ... nor perceived [by the senses] ... nor is He troubled by material passions ... nor is He in need of light ... nor does He either have nor is He any one of the things which are perceived [by the senses]."

We then proceed to the intelligible names in the fifth and concluding chapter:

Moving yet higher we say that He is ... neither soul nor mind; neither has He imagination nor opinion nor reason [logos] nor intuitive knowing [noesis]; neither is He reason nor intuition; neither can He be reasoned or intuited. He is neither life nor does He live; neither is He being [ousia] nor eternity [aion] nor time.... He is neither oneness, nor deity, nor goodness. He is not spirit, as we understand [the term], nor sonship nor fatherhood.... He is no one of the things which are not, nor any one of those which are ... [thus] beyond affirmation ... and beyond negation is the transcendence of Him Who, simply, is beyond all things and free.

While I shall come back momentarily to a detail or two in my translation of these passages, I should like for now to finish up what we might call the case for the prosecution. In what we have just seen, there seems to be precious little support for declaring Dionysius a Christian thinker and a very great deal for regarding him as a Neoplatonist metaphysician whose Christian trappings this treatise in particular exposes as, to borrow a phrase from Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros, "an exceedingly thin veneer." The increase of discourse as it expands through affirmation to cover the divine descent into multiplicity and its corresponding contraction through negation in our ascent to the "cause of all" correspond, furthermore, precisely to the cycle of procession (or emanation) and return, proodos-epistrophe, which is the bedrock of Neoplatonist thought and, equally, of the Dionysian corpus. More disturbing still to any who would like to read this author as a Christian writer is the concluding section's apparent denial of the same Trinity with which the Mystical Theology began, together with the facts that neither love nor, indeed, Christ himself appear anywhere at all. There would thus seem to be nothing to counter the assertions made forty years ago by Father Jean Vanneste and by John Rist, who were both echoing earlier critics, that the Areopagite's is a purely "natural mysticism"-if, indeed, even the term "mysticism" is at all applicable. Vanneste thought it was not. More recently, Paul Rorem at Princeton and Ysabel de Andia at the Sorbonne have published a number of weighty studies advancing similar views, though with some qualifications in the latter's case. For Rorem particularly, it is the Mystical Theology that stands at the center of the Dionysian project, an enterprise that is grounded on the timeless relation obtaining between cause and effect-the Neoplatonist bedrock, in other words-and for which there can in consequence be no real place either for Christian eschatology or, indeed, for Christ himself, whose frequent appearances elsewhere in the Corpus Dionysiacum are therefore purely "cosmetic."

In my case for the defense, and with it for the place of the Mystical Theology and apophatic theology within the Corpus Dionysiacum, let me begin with those details I promised just above. The first concerns the initial negation I cited from Mystical Theology 4: God does not have either "body" or "form." I daresay that this must sound to most of us like an unnecessary truism-of course, we think, deity, if it exists at all, is necessarily formless and bodiless. I suggest, however, that this axiom was not so obvious in Dionysius's own time and place. Those ascetic visionaries whom I take to have been at once his targets and, at least in part, his readership may well have held very archaic yet still quite lively views about the divine form and were likely to have understood it as the object of the vision that they sought. The divine form or body features prominently in the throne visions of apocalyptic literature, at the term of the seer's ascent to heaven, and continue to play an important role in the hekhalot texts of Rabbinic Judaism that are more or less precisely contemporary with the Areopagitica. While I doubt myself that fifth- and sixth-century Christian monks were reading much rabbinic literature-though, who knows? oral crossover was certainly not impossible, especially in a commonly Aramaic-speaking milieu-I can point to the fact that Christian ascetics were copying and, presumably, reading the apocalypses not only of the biblical canon but also of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, for example, I and II Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and Apocalypse of Zephanaiah, together with the second-century Christian apocryphon The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, to name a few. It is not accidental, I think, that we find Dionysius thus concluding his corpus with a letter addressed "To John at Patmos."

This leads me to an initial remark about the first treatise on the hierarchies, The Celestial Hierarchy, which is traditionally-and I think correctly-held to begin the corpus. Dionysius himself tells us that he was moved to write it because he "had ... been troubled by the ... imagery used by scripture in reference to the angels." He dedicates in consequence both the second and fifteenth chapters to an angelic iconography taken almost entirely from Ezekiel, especially from Ezekiel 1, which is to say, from the vision text par excellence-perhaps even the template for the later apocalyptic throne visions-with its zoomorphic cherubim, its wheeled throne (the divine chariot, or merkavah), and the human-like form [demut] of God's Glory on the throne. Chapter 13 of the Celestial Hierarchy is likewise devoted entirely to a second, nearly as important, throne vision, that of Isaiah 6. Here I think my supposition about monastic fondness for the Pseudepigrapha is somewhat confirmed by the presence of an interesting detail. Dionysius's Isaiah does not see the Glory of God within the earthly temple, as in the biblical text, but is "lifted up" by his angel guide to look upon the heavenly throne and liturgy, which the angel then explains to him. This is the same sequence, much compressed and shorn of the passage through seven heavens, that we find in the Ascension of Isaiah. Here something else of interest emerges. Dionysius is not at all interested in denying the theophanies of the Old Testament nor, by extension I think, the visionary experiences of his contemporaries. To the contrary, unlike an Augustine, he affirms them. What he does want to do, though, is define them in such a way as also to affirm divine transcendence as he understands it, that is, as free of all forms and concepts.

It is God's sovereign freedom, a second detail from the Mystical Theology, which I sought to underline with a translator's trick at the end of my rendering of chapter 5. The Greek text actually ends with "beyond all things," epekeina panton. Trick or no, I think this device justified in that it highlights what I take to be one of Dionysius's two fundamental concerns in stressing the use of negative theology: God is subject to absolutely none of our conceptions. Even the revealed names-Father, Son, Spirit-are finally icons, images, drawn from human experience. They are given us in order to point to a reality in the Godhead, indeed, to a community, but that community in and for itself escapes definition. Note as well a third detail in Dionysius's careful qualification: "not spirit as we understand [it]." Here he echoes an earlier Christian writer, Gregory Nazianzus, called "the Theologian" because he was the preferred interpreter of the Trinity for the East after the fourth century, whose remarks concerning the divine names even of the Trinity carry a markedly similar thrust. Elsewhere, in Divine Names 2.8, Dionysius deals in a similar way with divine fatherhood and sonship. Here, very interestingly and quite in line with my premise of a monastic Sitz im Leben, it is the relationship between spiritual father and son at the heart of Eastern Christian ascetic literature from the time of monasticism's fourth-century emergence that he holds out as his preferred image of the first two persons of the Trinity. Yet, he adds, the latter "supremely transcends" even this most exalted and refined instance of human relations. God cannot be known by our kind of knowing but, instead, only by a special kind of "unknowing," agnosia, which leaves us free for the experience of the divine presence. Here, then, is the second thrust of the negations: they open up a way to the cognitio dei experimentalis.

They do not do so, however, purely and simply as the result of our efforts. Pace Father Vanneste and Rorem, Dionysius's negations are not a kind of metaphysical-cum-mystical trampoline. Thus my fourth detail, which does not appear in the citations I quoted above but does elsewhere in the Mystical Theology and throughout the Corpus Dionysiacum: whenever Dionysius speaks of the human experience of God, his verbs are invariably in the passive voice. This points as well to a second aspect of the divine freedom that my hero is concerned to emphasize: not only is God free from circumscription by any of our notions, but he is also thus free to reveal himself, to become present to us when we do open up ourselves to becoming present to him. This reciprocity, which Dionysius occasionally refers to as synergia, cooperation, after the example of the Eastern Fathers before him, he elsewhere describes in terms of a symmetry of ecstasies. As God comes out of himself, exestekos, in a "departure from His own being," kat'ekbasin tes ousias, in his processions [proodoi] to create, sustain, and save the world, so we are called to an ecstasis, a departure from ourselves, as the act of our return [epistrophe] to him. Yet the ecstasies are by no means perfectly reciprocal, since the power enabling our return to him and firing our longing for him is, according to Divine Names 4.10-17, the very same divine love that moved him to call us and our world into being. This "single moving power" governing the creation, the divine love of Divine Names 4.17, is one and the same, I take it, with "the infinite and selfless sea of the divine light, ever ready to open itself for all to share," quoting from Celestial Hierarchy 9.3, and I think is also allied-as we shall see presently-with the divine darkness, gnophos, into which Moses ascends in Mystical Theology 1.3: "The truly secret darkness of unknowing ... He [Moses] closes [his eyes] to all perceptions open to knowledge and enters into Him Who is altogether untouchable and invisible ... he is, in accordance with what is greater and by a cessation of his own activity of knowing, united to Him Who is wholly unknowable." As Dionysius writes in Divine Names 2.9 of his alleged mentor, Hierotheus, the final stage of our ascent is in fact to become vessels for God's presence, to "suffer divine things" [pathon ta theia].


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