Your eyes tell blue to be

10501702_10152329724368167_6402482564191659901_nEvery so often we put the breaks on debating theological positions and share an experience, a song, a rap (Dwayne), or some poetry. I’d like to share a bit of a journey my family has been on. Hope you don’t mind.

I have four amazing children. They all grew up as missionary kids in a cross-cultural context. Half my life and most of my kids’ lives have been spent outside the United States in the Middle East. As our kids approached their eighteenth birthday, their Mom and I would settle on a ‘life-gift’ that captured each child’s call, gifting and personality. Our oldest daughter’s gift was a ‘compass’. She’s a therapist now. Our oldest son’s gift was a ‘cymbal’. He’s a worship leader on staff at a church in Texas. Our youngest son’s lift-gift was a special ‘magnifying glass’. He’s a composer (among other things), very focused. Jessica’s lift-gift was a ‘kaleidoscope’. She’s colorful, creative, adventurous and artsy.

Jessica left home a year ago and became a third-grade teacher in Beirut, Lebanon, at the same British school she attended growing up there as a missionary kid. And while there she met and fell in love with a young Syrian gentleman, Samer, a musician/artist.

There are a lot of words floating around in my mind that express bits and pieces of what I feel about Jessica’s journey, and those words haven’t yet all fallen into place to form meaningful sentences. But I know this much — I love my daughter without condition. And I don’t think I’ll have any trouble loving Samer as unconditionally as I have my own children. I’m looking forward to welcoming Samer into my home and heart.

Each of our kids has his/her own poem I wrote for them. I’d pleased to share Jessica’s poem here. Hope you enjoy it.

Your Eyes Tell Blue To Be —
Jessica, your eyes tell blue to be
And form the skies for sailors set to sea;
From your hair gold acquires its fair hue;
And your tears when shed become the morning dew;
Where‘er you trod the sky is a cathedral made,
The ground beneath your feet a pew within its shade
Where weary souls, bowed low in offered prayer,
Find sacrament and grace imparted there.
Earth’s finest moments do within your smile combine
And in your eyes colors all rest until you bid them shine
By gazing on a world whose heavy darkness weighs it down;
The joys it finds become upon your brow a crown.
Oh how can this meek poetry of mine proclaim
The beauties that lie restlessly within your name?
Shakespeare set you first upon Venetian streets*
Where he with a more sacred text by far competes;
For Holy Writ describes the wealth which your name frees,
The treasure of our knowing that Jehovah sees**.
From your first days you saw within all colors charm
And could by no means bring the smallest thing to harm;
But when your touch or stroke of pen or colored brush applied
No darkness of the mind or heart could ‘ere abide,
But all would spring to life and take its final form
In celebration of life’s pleasures there adorned;
Oh sweet child! You have brought a father’s heart such rest,
Safe from life’s storms I am with you locked deep within my chest.
When first in Venice it was said, “All that glitters is not gold,”
Who could have known the truest treasure would be just to hold
Within my arms the art and beauty that you are and in your eyes to see
The place where God decided to bring blue to be.

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* The first appearance of the name “Jessica” in English is in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
** “Jessica” is the Anglicized form of the Hebrew ‘yiskah’ (the niece of Abraham, daughter of Haran, in the book of Genesis). It means “Jehovah sees.”

Divine experience of beatitude the summum bonum—Part 3

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I’m thankful for several comments (public and private) made regarding Part 2 of this series. I thought I’d like to respond by way of clarification. One friend’s comment, representative of several others, wondered whether what I’m suggesting regarding a strictly passibilist interpretation of motivation, if applied to God, would undermine the sense in which God’s love is truly disinterested. I do think this would be the case.

But in the hope of clarifying, let me offer two convictions to serve as bookends—

(1) It seems an obvious failure of love to have no regard for the good of those who suffer. And it seems especially reprehensible if this lack of regard is due to being preoccupied or obsessed with the enjoyment and ease of one’s own wealth and luxury.

Whatever else we might mean by supposing God’s beatitude to be undiminished, we certainly don’t mean to say that God’s beatitude preoccupies him or that he is so self-absorbed with his own beauty and happiness that he either doesn’t notice or, if he notices, has no regard for the well-being of others. That would fail as an understanding of ‘love’. God never fails to notice us, never fails to will our highest well-being (in him), and never fails to fully intend and pursue that well-being. The question we’re asking is: Must God be ‘moved’ to do so? And our answer to that question is ‘no’.

(2) While it’s right to criticize the above disregard for the well-being of others and to value as benevolent those who give themselves to pursue that well-being, we also praise that form of benevolence the motivations of which are free from regard for self-preservation and self-interest as well as from self-absorbed co-dependence

Point (2) takes us in the direction of that form of disinterested benevolence we’re ascribing to God here. If the self-absorbed disregard for the pain of others is a failure of love, so is a self-absorbed regard for the pain of others. The latter (in its varying degrees) springs from a certain codependent way of possessing one’s self. One thinks of those who chase fire trucks to appease their sense of duty or obligation. God doesn’t chase fire trucks, so to speak, nor does his benevolence fall along a continuum of that sort of motivation.

Given (1), God is not preoccupied or self-absorbed with his own beatitude. He has regard for our highest well-being and never fails to desire or pursue it. I think all theists (except for Calvinists) would agree. Given (2), as a necessary and blessed being who is the summum bonum of infinite and unimprovable value, God is neither co-dependent nor emotionally needy, nor can he stand in need of us for any of what constitutes the essential beatitude which is his necessary existence as infinite beauty. I don’t need to appeal to a classical theistic text to argue this much (though they have it as well). Greg Boyd’s Trinity & Process will do.

So my point in Part 2 below was that if divine benevolence can only act on behalf of the highest good of suffering individuals by first being moved to do so by a felt diminishment of its own experience, then it’s arguable that the virtue expressed in (2) above is sacrificed, for it would be with reference first to Godself that God acts on behalf of others, in which case God’s love would not be free from self-interest. God, arguably, would be less than fully self-possessed in terms of his aesthetic value.

A profitable question might be what would fulfill the virtues of both (1) and (2)? On the one hand open theists are well-known for championing (1). Whether they have in fact secured (2) is debatable. Classical theists are famous for championing (2), and whether they have in fact secured (1) is debatable. This looks like a conversation starter to me, not a conversation stopper. At the very least nothing about the nature of the future as open, nor about God’s knowledge of it as open, nor creaturely freedom as such, nor the contingent nature of how the future unfolds is jeopardized by differences of opinion on the question of God’s experience of aesthetic value or beatitude.

Eventually I’d like to bring James Loder into the conversation, particularly his description of ‘the Void’ and God as our rescue from it, and make my way to suggesting (controversially of course!) that:

(a) all failure of experienced aesthetic value (i.e., all failure of experienced beatitude) is a version of Loder’s ‘Void’ and, indeed, only possible for created persons (limited as we are, in virtue of being created, by both finitude of perspective and surpassability of beauty) and that

(b) no necessary being of infinite value (facing no limitation of perspective and being unsurpassable in beauty) could conceivably be defined in its essence by any measure of the Void, i.e., could conceivably fail to experience its true value in aesthetic terms, experiencing the fullest possible meaning and value of its being and existence. Aesthetic failure (of any measure) would be a consequence of the need to world-construct in the context of the Void, not something imaginable for God (essentially/ad intra), a necessary being of infinite value.

(Picture here.)

Divine experience of beatitude the summum bonum—Part 2

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The more time I spend with struggling and suffering people in the Recovery community (in which I work), walk with close friends through difficult times, and weather my own storms as well, my view of God continues to be shaped around the growing conviction that God’s self-defining joy and delight are undiminished and undefeated in the loving concern with which he pursue us. I believe this is biblically/theologically sound and defensible, philosophically convincing, and existentially healing/transforming.

As an expression of love, sympathy and compassion cannot simply mean that we feel what a suffering person feels, for I can feel what a suffering person feels without loving the other and without doing anything to relieve him/her. There is, it seems, an additional benevolent intentionality that must accompany our attitude toward those in pain. How that variously works with us and how we’re to imagine God as intimately related to us in our pain can be a perplexing question. I suggest that in the end, this benevolent intentionality requires only that what I in fact feel motivates me to seek the relief of those who suffer, and that’s possible without having to sacrifice a measure of my own happiness as an essential motivating ground for acting.

I agree that acting in love to relieve the suffering of another must be motivated and that such acts are in response to the suffering of others. But surely it’s possible to conceive of a personal satisfaction/happiness which need not be diminished by the suffering of others before it can benevolently intend their well-being and act on their behalf or, additionally, that sympathy means one’s own happiness is diminished to a degree proportionate to the misery of those who suffer. The motivation of such beatitude would be a self-motivating fullness which need not be prodded into action either by the inconvenience of a diminished sense of well-being brought on by the lack of well-being in the world or by the prospect of increasing one’s aesthetic value by addition. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its own completeness.

If we suppose that one can only be motivated to act on behalf of another who suffers by suffering a loss of some measure of one’s own happiness, what sense remains for it to be the case that we (or God) can act solely with the sufferer’s interest at heart (what is typically understood properly as the ‘disinterestedness’ of love)? Part of the reason to seek the relief of others now becomes the relief of one’s own suffering incurred in the perceiving of their misery. Arguably, this reduces motivation to self-preservation and self-interest. It is ‘other’ interest in the sense that alleviating the suffering of others is the means by which one restores one’s felt quality of life or well-being, but it remains self-preserving/self-serving in the end. In such cases love comes to mean, among other things, the conditional nature of one’s happiness upon the happiness of others. Love becomes defined as a certain vulnerability, an openness of one’s well-being, to be defined by the well-being and happiness of others. I admit this makes increasingly less sense to me as an understanding of God’s love for us.

There is truth to aspects of it. Love does seem inconceivable in the absence of all interpersonal, interdependent relations. But if this obtains in God essentially and triunely, how are we to account for loving relations between God and created beings, that is, between God and created relations that do not define God essentially-necessarily? This is a fundamental question at the heart of disagreements over various understandings of (im)passibility. Must creation be free to define God’s sense or experience of well-being and happiness coincident to or co-extensively with the triune relations if it is also true that God is lovingly motivated to act on behalf of our highest good? One reason for answering ‘yes’ is that this is how we (almost universally) experience concern for the suffering of others we love. Reasons for answering ‘no’ are, arguably, the essential aesthetic nature of God’s necessary triune actuality (in contrast to the contingency of the world) and those many persons who do experience an abiding equanimity and undisturbed sense of well-being while engaged in loving concern for the world around them.

How are we then to conceive of God’s loving us and being open to experience us in our suffering? Must our suffering define God ‘without existential remainder’ (i.e., must our sufferings qualify God’s experience exhaustively) for us to be justified in affirming God’s loves of us at all? I think not. Love need not be motivated by its own suffering, experienced at the perceiving of the suffering of others, before it can be motivated to act on behalf of others. And arguably, to the extent one is motivated by one’s own suffering (suffering that is the effect of perceiving the suffering of others), one has oneself as the object of concern and not solely the interests of the other. Indeed, in this case one only acts on behalf of another when one’s own well-being and happiness are sufficiently diminished by thought of the sufferings of others, in which case one must have the restoration of one’s own happiness as the primary object of concern and interest. One would, conceived in this way, not act on behalf of suffering people without being sufficiently inconvenienced by first suffering the diminishing of one’s own experience.

And if we suppose, as many today do, that one truly loves those who suffer only to the extent one is motivated to act by suffering an appropriate loss of happiness, then have we not introduced self-interest into the act of love in a way that objectifies the sufferer to some extent? This would undermine a traditionally accepted tenet of belief regarding divine love, namely, that God can truly have us as the object of his concern without any self-preserving or self-serving interest as part of his concern for us. But what is his love for us if not self-preserving or self-serving if God can only act on our behalf if his own experience and felt quality of existence is sufficiently diminished by us?

Boyd (Trinity & Process) suggests that “…the person who enters into the sufferings of others with a sense of internal fullness is in a better position to genuinely enter into these sufferings than one who lacks such ‘fullness’,” or again, “a person who suffers for another because she needs the other…is more inclined to yet have herself as the object of concern, and thus more inclined to be, to that extent, shut off to the real needs of the other.” In contrast, Boyd argues, “one who enters into solidarity with a sufferer but who is self-content, who loves herself, who possesses an internal fullness which is not destroyed by the suffering, is free to have the sufferer as the sole object of her concern. She is free, in a sense, to ‘forget herself’ in devotion to another.” (emphasis mine)

What we’re aiming at is an understanding God’s existence as (a) irreducibly an experience (no great mystery there; God is not, nor can God be, an unconscious reality), and that (b) this self-constituting divine experience is irreducibly an experience of aesthetic value or beatitude, and that (c) in God’s case (as the summum bonum) this self-constituting experience of aesthetic value is unimprovable.

It’s (c) that creates problems for many. If I can’t ‘improve upon’ God’s existence/experience, then what do I mean to God? Boyd expresses this objection well in Trinity & Process:

The objection is this: it seems that if God is eternally characterized within Godself as an unsurpassable instance of aesthetic enjoyment, then the infinite compossibility of finite relations can mean nothing to God. It seems that if “God can be neither increased nor diminished by what we do,” then “our action, like our suffering, must be in the strictest sense wholly indifferent to him.” It seems that if we do not increase God’s enjoyment, then all talk about “serving God” is meaningless and “our existence is idle.” In short, it may seem that either our existences increase the value of God’s experience, or our existences are of no value to God.

Greg goes on to offer his own resolution to this objection which I’ve no room to expound upon at this time but which we fundamentally agree with. At its worst, however, this objection reflects a fundamental desire for it to be the case that God “needs” us to be happy and fulfilled and/or that if God remains untouched by us on some transcendent level then creation is entirely pointless. In the end, for Dwayne and me, apatheia is a way to say that our salvation is found precisely in the fact that God does not “need” us in this way. To suppose that he does we think has more in common with the kind of codependency we treat as a dysfunction than with healthy identity and self-possession. And it complicates how one unpacks the consequences of creation ex nihilo which, in our view, implies the kind of unimprovable/undiminishable divine existence we’ve been trying to describe.

(Picture here.)

Divine experience of beatitude the summum bonum—Part 1

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Just thinking out loud. Chime in if you want. God, all theists would agree, is the summum bonum—the greatest good, the highest value. I’m going to assume that here. What I’d like to suggest in addition to this (though it is nothing new) is that this highest value is God’s experience, more precisely his experience of “beatitude” or “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (to employ Greg’s expression from Trinity & Process). You might be thinking that I’ve said this all before and wonder what’s new here? Just this: God’s experience of his own beatitude is that about God which constitutes God as the summum bonum and that from which all created experiences derive their value. This is something we think one ought to say about God and something which seems impossible for a passibilist to say.

What would follow if God’s beatitude (God’s self-constituting experience of ‘beatitude’, ‘bliss’ or ‘aesthetic satisfaction’) were to suffer diminishment? Would not God’s value as the summum bonum be diminished? But God’s value, theists have traditionally believed, is infinite. So just what is it about God that makes God infinitely valuable? Just the mere fact that he exists (necessarily)? That’s hard to see. Perhaps the fact that God loves us is what makes God so valuable. Also unlikely, since that writes contingent created beings into the self-constituting value of necessary existence per se. While it’s true that God loves us, and that we conclude many things about God as the highest good and supreme value from our experience of his love, it seems more true to say that God gives value to us rather than derives value from us.

I suggest (as others have) that it is the experience of being God which is God’s infinite value. And while many of the traditional attributes that get associated with this are important, they do not in themselves constitute God’s value per se. That value, rather, is the sheer beatitude of God’s experience, his own necessary actuality as triune, loving experienced beatitude. One might express this by saying that the greatest value in the universe is the greatest beatitude. And an infinite value would be an infinite(ly intense) experience of aesthetic satisfaction (or experience of loving beatitude), just as Greg Boyd argued in Trinity & Process.

All this is argued elsewhere by thinkers more capable than I, though we’ve discussed much of this here. What I’m curious about is bringing this into conversation with passibilist claims that construe divine suffering as God suffering the diminishment of experienced beatitude. If God is the summum bonum — the highest good and supreme value — and if this is understood in terms of the supreme experience of value as loving, personal existence, then all created values are relative to (not determinative of) the value of God’s experienced beatitude. The question for passibilists then becomes: If God’s experience of beatitude suffers diminishment, does it not follow that in some sense God’s value suffers diminishment? And if so, what happens to the value of all created experience which is derived from the value of God? Would not all values suffer diminishment?

The catch here is understanding the ‘absolute value’ or the summum bonum (from which all things derive their value) first as an ‘experience’ of value and thus as God’s experience of beatitude; i.e., God’s value as God’s experience of beatitude. I’m inclined to agree (with Orthodoxy) that there are no ‘parts’ to God from which God is assembled or constructed and (with Boyd in Trinity & Process) that there is nothing to, or more fundamentally constitutive of, God than his own triune experience of Godself. If this be the case, then this divine experience of beauty just is the infinite value of God and in turn is that from which all created experiences consistently derive their value (as good or evil). They are more or less valuable, more or less privated, to the degree to which they approximate that experience of infinite and absolute beatitude which is God’s existence. If I were pressed for a definition of apatheia as I understand and employ it, I’d say it is just the infinite value of the beatitude of God’s triune experience.

My struggle extends to further questions: How can the summum bonum (God’s experience of beatitude) as the absolute value of all created values rise and fall like a barometer (rise and fall with the fluctuating success and failure of created experiences to approximate the divine beatitude)? Against what metaphysical reality would it be measured? What experience could then measure God’s experience in aesthetic terms? By asserting that God’s beatitude (God’s actual experience of aesthethic satisfaction) rises and falls as the world’s fortunes rise and fall, do passibilists not in effect deny the absolute value of God’s experience? Or are they not committed to ground such value in something other than God’s own experience? What would that something be?

Lastly, I also suggest that God’s goodness toward us (the predictably loving character of his actions) is best understood as a function of his self-constituting triune experience of beatitude. God is good because God’s experience is beautiful, beatific. God is as good as he is to us because he is as beautiful as he is to himself. God’s ad intra beatitude (his experience of his own triune beauty) grounds the predictably loving and gracious nature of his acts ad extra. Diminish the ad intra experience of beatitude and what do you get? What do we do as passibilists if we agree that God’s essential self-constituting ‘experience’ (the act by which God is the self-existent triune God he is) is the summum bonum and that this summum bonum is infinite beauty and beatitude?

(Picture from here.)

Pseudo-Denys on the Law of Non-Contradiction

denisI’ve tapped into Denys Turner writings before (Unspeakably Transcended Series, Whatcha Reading? 2, Eadem est scientia oppositorum, and Mapping the Divine). I ran across an interesting and helpful portion of his Ch. 8 from Faith, Reason and the Existence of God that may address concerns some have about the abiding relevancy of the laws of logic in theological language. Here’s the portion of that chapter. It’s not a guest blog (I wish!), and it’s a bit long, but I hope those interested find it helpful.

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Difference and hierarchy: the pseudo-Denys

At first blush, however, one would have supposed that classical forms of negative theology would hardly commend themselves to the ‘democratic’ temperament of post-modern philosophy, if only for the reason that hierarchy is ineradicable from the earliest classical formulations of negative theology; they are born twins in their first incarnations. And if not the first, then certainly the most influential of those incarnations in Western Christian thought must be that found in the pseudo-Denys’ Mystical Theology. For the pseudo-Denys a hierarchy is a differentiated structure of differences. Thus, in the fourth and fifth chapters of that work he describes a hierarchy of differentiated denials — denials, that is, of all the names of God. Those names, to use a later, medieval, metaphor, form a ladder, ascending from the lowest ‘perceptual’ names – ‘God is a rock, is immense, is light, is darkness…’ – derived as metaphors from material objects – to the very highest, ‘proper’, or ‘conceptual’ names of God: ‘God is wise and wisdom, good and goodness, beautiful and beauty, exists and existence’. All these names the pseudo-Denys negates one by one as he progresses up the scale of language until at the end of the work the last word is that all words are left behind in the silence of the apophatic. This ascending hierarchy of negations is, however, systematic, is governed by a general theological principle and is regulated by a mechanism. It has a grammar.

As to the general theological principle, the pseudo-Denys has already said earlier in Mystical Theology what he had emphasized in Divine Names, that all these descriptions denied are legitimate names of God and yield the possibilities of true and of false statements about God. Hence, these fourth and fifth chapters of his Mystical Theology are, in the first instance, expositions of an intrinsically hierarchical affirmative theology. Moreover, the foundation of this affirmativeness lies in God’s being the Creator of all things. It is God’s being the cause of all which justifies God’s being described by the names of all the things he has caused, even if what they mean as thus predicate of God must fall infinitely short of what God is; nor is there any sign, anywhere in the Corpus Dionysiacum, that Denys anticipates a problem of consistency between an epistemologically realist affirmative theology and a thoroughgoing apophaticism.

Indeed, it is probably one of the chief arguments of Divine Names that if we are not to be misled in our theological language, we not only may but must use as many different ways of describing God as possible: as he himself says, if we gain something in how we think of God be describing her as a ‘king in majesty’, then we ought to remember that she can appear to behave towards us in a manner so irritable and arbitrary that we may as appropriately describe her, in the manner of the Psalmist, as behaving like a soldier maddened by an excess of wine. Theological language, for the pseudo-Denys, consists not in a restraint, but in a clamour of metaphor and description, for negative theology is, essentially, a surplus, not a deficit, of description; you talk your way into silence by way of an excessus embarrassed at its increasing complexity of differentiation. Hence, if we must also deny all that we affirm, this does not, for the pseudo-Denys, imply any privileging of the negative description or metaphor over the affirmative. For those denials and negations are themselves forms of speech; hence, if the divine reality transcends all our speech, then, as he says in the concluding words of Mystical Theology, ‘the cause of all…is’ indeed, ‘…beyond every assertion’; but it is also, and by the same token, ‘beyond every denial’. You can no more ‘capture’ God in denials than you can capture God in affirmations.

The point of the serial negations of the last two chapters of that work, therefore, is not demonstrate that negative language is somehow superior to affirmative in the mind’s ascent to God; rather it is to demonstrate that our language leads us to the reality of God when, by a process simultaneously of affirming and denying all things of God, by, as it were in one breath, both affirming what God is and denying, as he puts it, ‘that there is any kind of thing that God is’, we step off the very boundary of language itself, beyond every assertion and every denial, into the ‘negation of the negation’ and the ‘brilliant darkness’ of God. But even here we should note that this ‘negation of the negation’ entails neither that some ultimate affirmation gains grip, nor that some ultimate negation does so. The ‘negation of the negation’ is precisely the refusal of ultimacy to both the affirmative and the negative, to both similarity and difference. In this sense the theology of the pseudo-Denys is neither an ‘apophaticism’ nor a ‘cataphaticism’. It is the entirely ‘unclosed’, ‘unresolved’ tension between both. It is within that tension that, for the pseudo-Denys, all theological language is situated; it is situated, in a certain sense, within indeterminacy.

So much for the theological principle of his apophaticism – which is necessarily at the same time the general principle of his cataphaticism. As for the mechanism which governs this stepwise ascent of affirmation and denial, we may observe how that mechanism is itself a paradoxical conjunction of opposites: the ascent is, as I have said, an ordered hierarchical progression from denials of the lower to denials of the higher names, and yet at every stage on this ascent we encounter the same phenomenon of language slipping and sliding unstably, as the signifying name first appears to get a purchase, and then loses grip, on the signified it designates. We may say legitimately, because the Bible says it, that ‘God is a rock’ and as we say the words they appear to offer a stable hold on the signified, God: we have said, Denys supposes, something true of God, albeit by metaphor, and something of the divine reliability is thereby disclosed. But just as we have let some weight hang from the grip of this word ‘rock’ on the being of God, the grip slips: God is not, of course, ‘lifeless’, as rocks are, and we also have to say, since the Bible tells us we must, that God is love and must be possessed of intellect and will, and so enjoys the highest form of life of which we know. Hence, in order to retain its grip on the signified, the signifier has to shift a step up the ladder of ascent, there itself to be further destabilized. For God is not ‘intelligence’ or ‘will’ either, and the signified again wriggles away from the hook of the signifier and shifts and slides away, never to be impaled finally on any descriptive hook we can devise, even that of existence. For in affirming that ‘God exists’, what we say of God differs infinitely more from what we affirm when we say that “Peter exists’ than does ‘Peter exists’ from ‘Peter does not exist’. For the difference between Peter’s existing and Peter’s not existing is a created difference, and so finite. Whereas the difference between God’s existing and Peter’s existing is between an uncreated and a created existence, and so is infinite. Hence, any understanding we have of the distinction between existence and non-existence fails of God, which is why the pseudo-Denys can say that the Cause of all ‘falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being’. Mysteriously, the pseudo-Denys insists that we must deny of God that she is ‘divinity’; more mysteriously still the signified eludes the hold even, as we have seen, of ‘similarity and difference;’ mysteriously, that is, until we are forced to discover just why God cannot be different from, nor therefore similar to, anything at all, at any rate in any of the ways in which we can conceive of similarity and difference; or else God would be just another, different, thing. Just so, for the pseudo-Denys: for ‘there is no kind of thing’, he says, ‘which God is’. Therefore, there is nothing we can say which fully circumscribes what God is, and, which is more to the point, there can be no language of similarity and difference left with which to describe God’s difference. In short, for the pseudo-Denys, only the otherness of God could be ‘totally’ other, and that otherness of God is, perforce, indescribable – God’s ‘otherness’ is to be beyond ‘otherness’. Hence, as to ‘this’ difference between God and creatures, we cannot even describe it as a difference, the difference, of which we can give an account.

Moses_Burning_Bush_Bysantine_Mosaic_thumb[1]For the pseudo-Denys, then, we are justified in making true affirmative statements about God, because if God is the Creator of all things, all things must in some way reveal, in what they are, the nature of their origin. That is his concession, as we might put it, to ‘foundationalism’. But creatures do not all reveal the same things about God, or in the same way, or to the same extent. For this reason, it is correct to say that, for the pseudo-Denys, there is a ‘grammar’ of talk about God, a grammar which governs equally its cataphatic and the apophatic ‘phases’. For even if we do not have a proper ‘concept’ of God (there being no kind of things which God is for there to be a concept of), we have a use for the name ‘God’, a use which is governed by determinable rules of correct and incorrect speech. In fact, it is clear that, for the pseudo-Denys, that grammar is complex and differentiated, governing, that is to say, different logics of grounding in truth, different logics of consistency, and above all, different logics of negation, negation being the foundation of all logic, and so of ‘difference’. These ‘logics’ are determined by the order of creation in so far as creation is an order and scale of revelation, a hierarchy, for as some things are ‘nearer’ to God in their natures, and others ‘further’ from God, so their likeness to God is more or less ‘similar’. Of course, all the names of God fall short of what God is: you can even say that God is equally ‘other’ than all these names, though they are not equally other than God. But because there is a hierarchy of affirmations, there is a corresponding hierarchy of denials.

For, in general, what you are doing in negating predicates of God depends on the logical standing of the predicates you are negating, and four logical types of negation – and so of ‘difference’ – seem to be theologically at play. First, at the level of metaphor, and so at the ‘lowest’ level of our discourse about God, we affirm and deny of God what is proper to material creation: ‘God is a rock’, ‘God is a lion’. Obviously ‘God is a lion’ negates the force of ‘God is a rock’ to the extent that a rock is lifeless and a lion alive. Hence, one metaphor is negative by its metaphorically negative counterpart. But even metaphors which cancel each other in one respect are with consistency affirmed of one and the same thing in another, for there is no inconsistency in saying that God has the stability of a rock and the fierce energy of a lion. In any case, a negative metaphor, as ‘no man is an island’, negates an affirmative, such as ‘some men are islands’, but is for all its negativity still a metaphor. Consequently, the relations of affirmation to negation within the metaphorical differ from those between a metaphor, whether affirmative or negative, and its negation as a metaphor.

For, secondly, the negation of metaphor simply consists in a recognition of its literal falsehood: ‘It is not the case that God is a rock’, which is simply a way of acknowledging that ‘God is a rock’ is a metaphor. But then again, at a third level, a literal affirmation entails the negation of its literal contradictory, for eadem est scientia oppositorum. Hence, you may legitimately say that ‘God exists’, which is in no way a metaphor, and is no more than to say the contrary of what the atheist says; and you may legitimately say that ‘God is good’, which entails the falsehood of ‘God is evil’. In either case, the first, being true, excludes the truth of the second. And all these three relations of affirmation and negation are straightforwardly ‘Aristotelian’; they are negations governed by the laws of classical logic.

But as to a fourth level of negation, that which the pseudo-Denys calls ‘denial by transcendence’, this is the ‘negation of the negation’, as when he says that the Cause of all ‘falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being’. And it is clear that the pseudo-Denys’ apophatic negations are of this last kind. For in the sense in which it is correctly said that ‘God is not good’, it is not now entailed that God is evil; in the sense in which God is said, correctly, not to be ‘a being’, ‘not-being’ equally fails of God. What is being negated, therefore, is that any creaturely understanding of the difference between good and evil, between being and non-being, finally holds its grip on God. The ‘negation of the negation’ is ultimately the negation of that hierarchy which structures the oppositions of affirmation and negation which lead up to it. For that hierarchy is a structure of differentiation, an articulation of a scale of negations; whereas the ‘negation of the negation’ places God beyond hierarchy itself, for to say that God is ‘beyond both similarity and difference’ is to say that God is not different by virtue of any of the differences on the scale, but that God is, ultimately, off the scale itself. But how do such denials – the double negation – achieve this?

It is sometimes said that they do so by ‘going beyond’ Aristotelian logic. And this is in one way true, and in another way distinctly misleading. For in so far as what is meant by saying that the ‘apophatic denials’ reach out to some space ‘beyond’ the realm in which the principle of contradiction holds is that here, when talking about God, we happily say contradictory things without ‘Aristotelian’ scruple, this clearly misrepresents the pseudo-Denys’ view. For it is, on the contrary, because two propositions which formally contradict each other could not both be true of God – in other words precisely because here, too, Aristotelian logic does hold – that we know our language to be failing of God. The ‘negation of the negation’ is not the abandonment of logic’s hold on language. On the contrary, it is precisely because logic does retain its hold on language that the negation of the negation is the abandonment of language as such. Hence, for the pseudo-Denys there is no such thing as ‘apophatic language’. If it is apophatic, then it is beyond language. If it is within language, then it is obedient to the laws of ‘Aristotelian logic’. It is only ‘beyond speech’, therefore, that, for the pseudo-Denys, indeterminacy rules. In the meantime, and leading up to that point, there is a hierarchical differentiation and structure within negativity, and so within ‘otherness’, a hierarchy which is intrinsic to the statement of his apophaticism.

(Pictures here and here.)