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.


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.)

Whatcha reading? 2

DarknessofGodThis is a good place to make a quick plug for a second book. I’m presently in the middle of Denys Turner’s The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge, 1998). Turner describes his book as “an essay in the philosophical history of some theological metaphors.” Those key metaphors include “interiority,” “ascent,” “light and darkness” and “oneness” among others. He reviews the origin and development of these metaphors as expressions of human transformation and relationship to God, beginning with Pseudo-Denys, then Augustine, Bonaventure, Eckhart, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Denys the Carthusian, and finally John of the Cross. And you get a decent survey of other significant persons along the way. Thus far it’s been a great tour of the cataphatic-apophatic approach to theology and the difference between what has come to be known today as “mysticism” (on the one hand) and “mystical theology” (on the other hand) as it was pursued and expressed before the modern era. I was surprised. Turner writes:

imagesCA1QI2QF“I began to see that not only would it be dangerous to assume that the similarities of language entailed a similarity of purpose, but that it would be actually wrong to suppose this. For the purposes being served by this cluster of metaphors in the mediaeval traditions began to seem very different from those it is serving today and, in one important respect, it looked as if it is serving the opposed purpose.”

Part of the book’s purpose is to expose this difference between what is typically called “mysticism” today and what is properly called “mystical theology” and then to recover the latter. Again:

“Put very bluntly, the difference seemed to be this: that whereas our employment of the metaphors of ‘inwardness’ and ‘ascent’ appears to be tied in with the achievement and the cultivation of a certain kind of experience—such as those recommended within the practice of what is called, nowadays, ‘centering’ or ‘contemplative’ prayer—the mediaeval employment of them was tied in with a ‘critique’ of such religious experiences and practices.”

“I have drawn the conclusion from my study that in so far as the word ‘mysticism’ has a contemporary meaning; and that in so far as that contemporary meaning links ‘mysticism’ to the cultivation of certain kinds of experience—of ‘inwardness’, ‘ascent’, and ‘union’—then the mediaeval ‘mystic’ offers an anit-mysticism. For though the mediaeval Christian neoplatonist used that same language of ‘interiority’, ‘ascent’ and ‘oneness’, he or she did so precisely in order to deny that there were terms descriptive of ‘experiences’…. what is decisive about the employment of these metaphors within the mediaeval traditions of ‘mystical theology’ is the Neoplatonic dialectical epistemology—its apophaticism—within which those metaphors are set and by which their employment is governed. What differentiates the mediaeval employment of those metaphors from ours is the fact that we have retained the mataphors, evacuated them of their dialectics and refilled them with the stuff of experience.”

“At its boldest, my hypothesis is that modern interpretation has invented ‘mysticism’ and that we persist in reading back the terms of that conception upon a stock of mediaeval authorities who knew no such thing—or, when they knew of it, decisively rejected it.”

Spoiler alert. Turner hopes to apply this retrieval of a cataphatic-apophatic theology to contemporary (Western?) ‘experientialism’:

“‘Experientialism’ in its most extreme forms is the displacement of a sense of the negativity of all religious experience….It abhors the experiential vacuum of the apophatic, rushing to fill it with the plenum of the psychologisitic. It resists the deconstructions of the negative. It is happy with commendations of the ‘interior’ so long as it can cash them out in the currency of experienced inwardness and of the practices of prayer which will achieve it.”

I’m not finished the book yet, but I’m anxious to know whether Denys sees Christian faith as an experience at all. I’m sure he does. And while I’m all for checking an unrestrained experientialism that reduces God and the truth about God to one’s experience, we don’t want to lock ourselves existentially out of our own faith either. In the end (as Orthodoxy itself says), theology IS the experience of God (albeit not the shallow experientialist fix that pays the bills for so many churches). So I’m curious to know in what senses Turner will AFFIRM the existential after chastising experientialism.

Bridging the ontological divide?

bridge-to-nowhereFr Aidan’s comments about open theism’s inherent tendency to collapse the distinction between the immanent and economic trinities is well taken. If we express his concern in terms of distinctions we’ve already made, it would be the distinction between Process and Classical approaches — viz., the Process insistence that divine and created being constitute between them a ‘single order of content and explication’, that is, both are embraced categorically and univocally (in which case God is one being (even if an exemplary and all-inclusive one) in the inventory of beings), and the Classical insistence that God ontologically transcends created being.

Open theists, we noted, pretty much all stand within the Process camp on this question, and in that case Fr Aidan’s comments are spot on. Process theism doesn’t just entail the collapse of the ontological distinction between divine and created being; it aims at and argues for this collapse. But must it be the case that open theism also stand within this Process tradition? We think not. Recall what we posted earlier from Denys Turner regarding the apophatic/cataphatic dialectic. Turner comments that:

“You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God.”

And again:

“The way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible….”

Allow us two important comments, then a suggestion.

First, apophaticism isn’t the attribution to God of every irrationality (logical or moral) conceivable. For example, we are not to attribute evil to God just to demonstrate God’s transcendence of the world. Such an affirmation is not admissibly cataphatic. We shouldn’t say it. Second, as Pseudo-Denys said, even with regard to those things we can and must say about God, apophaticism isn’t simply placing the logical operator for ‘negation’ (the sign ~) in front of all our affirmations. “We should not conclude,” says Pseudo-Denys, “that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations.” Apophatic negation is not mere ‘contradiction’. Why? Because eadem est scientia oppositorum (affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge). To “merely contradict” is to collapse the ontological distinction as well, because affirmation and mere contradiction both leave God embraced entirely within the categories of the created “cognitively possessed” by us and at our disposal.

What’s our suggestion? The suggestion we want to explore is to conceive of open theism’s defining claim and three core convictions expressed by us here as part of that “prolixity” which Denys Turner insists defines the cataphatic/apophatic dialectic, part of what he claims “we must say about God,” the true negation of which is not mere contradiction but is rather, as with all human claims and categories, an admission of its inadequacy (because its affirmation fails to render God unqualifiedly possessed by us cognitively). As Merold Westphall says, “God never becomes our cognitive property.” And as part of what must be said about God cataphatically, open theism would be appropriate to affirm and inappropriate to contradict (following Pseudo-Denys line of thought).

So can one affirm open theism cataphatically and negate it apophatically in this Dionysian sense (as we must all such statements)? We think so. But in this case open theism is no more or less transcended by God than any other Orthodox belief which is expressed cataphatically and negated appropriately.

The problem this creates for Dwayne and me with our open theist friends is that we do not share the reigning metaphysical (Process) assumption that “God and world constitute between them a single order of content and explication,” and this makes us appear too “classical” and “orthodox” (words that open theists have invested a lot of energy to expose as perversions of biblical faith). On the other hand, the problem this creates for us with our Orthodox friends is that we are tampering with that list of affirmations believed to constitute “that which we must say about God” in order to be led, apophatically, to the truest sense of our finitude and thus to the truest experience of our salvation.

(Picture from here).

Eadem est scientia oppositorum

marco4The phrase was used by Aquinas, following Aristotle, meaning that affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge and it’s theological application is the affirmation of Aquinas’ apophatic theology. Apophatic theology, or the “way of negation,” is resoundingly rejected by open theists as a virtual blasphemy. It’s believed to represent the core methodological error that lands one ultimately in the mistaken belief of classical theism’s actus purus.

This is so among open theists because, as we said earlier, methodologically speaking open theists stand squarely within that Process assumption that God and world constitute between them a single order of content and explication, that is, God is not to be thought of as the exception to (nor an apophatic negation of) our metaphysical principles but as their chief exemplification. Open theists embrace this Process belief in a single and univocal ontology that embraces and explains both divine and created being. And just so you remember, to challenge the necessity of this methodology to open theism is one of the goals of this blog.

Ask open theists what ‘negative’ or ‘apophatic’ theology is and you’ll likely be told that it means “taking back everything you say about God” or “negating by way of contradiction everything you affirm about God” or worse yet that it means “attributing the most nonsense possible to God.” This is not the kind of apophaticism one finds in, say, the Orthodox thinker Pseudo-Denys who is much more thoughtful and complicated.

For the past couple of years I’ve repeatedly returned to the scrumptious provocations of British philosopher/theologian Denys Turner. I keep returning, in particular, to his chapter “Apophaticism, idolatry and the claims of reason” in Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation (eds Oliver Davies and Denys Turner, 2002). I’d like to share several quotes I think shed light on our understanding of the proper limits of theological language.

…all talk about God is tainted with ultimate failure. But this is because an adequate cataphatic theology has to be unremitting in its affirmations of theological language, for everything about the world tells us something about the creator. You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God. And the reason for this, as I see it, logical interdependence of the negative and the affirmative ways is not the true but trivial reason that logically until you have something to affirm you have nothing to negate. The reason is the more dialectically interesting one that it is in and through the very excess, the proliferation, of discourse about God that we discover its failure as a whole.


…the way of negation is not a sort of po-faced, mechanical process, as it were, of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false; nor is it…simply adding the prefix ‘super’ to already superlative Latin adjectives predicated of God…. Rather…the way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it….


So it is not that, first, we are permitted the naïve and unself-critical indulgence of affirmation, subsequently to submit that affirmation to a separate critique of negation. Nor is the ‘way of negation’ the way of simply saying nothing about God, nor yet is it the way simply of saying that God is ‘nothing’: it is the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God to represent God adequately. If talk about God is deficient, this is a discovery made within the extending of it into superfluity, into that excess in which it simply collapses under its own weight.

(Picture from here.)