thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Karen’s on the case #2

with one comment

There is being in denial, and there is being in denial of denial. But ‘being in denial’ typically follows implicit or explicit affirmation. What if you just start with denial – pure and simple, with no presupposition?

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

Second in a series responding to Karen Armstrong’s The case for God: What religion really means1

See also Karen’s on the case #1.

There are references to apophasis all through The case for God, but Armstrong explores it in particular depth when she discusses ‘Pseudo-Denys’, aka Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Although he wrote around the end of the 5th century and the beginning of the 6th century AD, his work only achieved wide popularity in the late 9th century when John Scotus Erigena translated it into Latin. It was originally ascribed to an Athenian convert of St Paul – the ‘real’ Dionysius the Areopagite.

For Pseudo-Denys creation was

not something that had happened once in the distant past but was a mythos, a continuous, timeless process.

It was a process in which God was eternally

enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things… [but at the same time had the] …capacity to remain, nevertheless, within himself.2

But we cannot understand how a being can do two irreconcilable things at the same time. Denys thought that religious people

need to know when to fall silent. [His] theological method was a deliberate attempt to bring all the Christians he taught… to that point by making them conscious of the limits of language.

We may say God is a rock, stressing his permanence and stability. But a rock is not alive, so we would never be tempted to say God actually was a rock.

The more sophisticated attributes of God, however – Ineffability, Unity, Goodness and the like – are more dangerous, because they gave us the false impression that we knew exactly what God is like.

…God is not Mind in any sense that we can understand; God is not Greatness, Power, Light, Life, Truth, Imagination, Conviction, Understanding, Goodness – or even Divinity. We cannot even say that God ‘exists’ because our experience of existence is based solely on individual, finite beings whose mode of being bears no relation to being itself…

Or in Denys’s own words:

God is known by knowledge and by unknowing; of him there is understanding, reason, knowledge, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name and many other things, but he is not understood, nothing can be said of him, he cannot be named. He is not one of the things that are, nor is he known in any of the things that are; he is all things in everything and nothing in anything.3

This, says Armstrong, was

not simply an arid logical conundrum… [but] a spiritual exercise that, if properly performed, would bring participants to… stunned insight.

Denys’s spiritual exercise consisted of three steps. First step is to affirm what God is or does: God is a rock; God exists; God is good; God is life. In the second step, silenced by the ‘weight of absurdity in such God-talk’, we deny what we have just affirmed: God is not a rock; God is non-existence; God is not goodness; God is lifeless. But this is just as absurd. If we cannot know what God is, then nor can we know what he is not. So the third step is to deny the denials: God is not lifeless or non-existent: God

falls neither within the predicate of existence or non-existence.4

This leads us to apophasis:

The breakdown of speech, which cracks and disintegrates before the absolute unknowability of what we call God.

We experience as a result an ‘intellectual ekstasis’ (‘stepping out’; going beyond the self; transcending normal experience). Our insight that ‘there is no kind of thing that God is’5 is a kenosis (‘emptying’; the emptying of the self; the dismantling of egotism). But this

Mosaic of Moses

Mosaic of Moses

is not an emotional experience. If we cannot know God, we certainly can neither feel nor have any sensation of unity with God. Denys’ dialectical method leads to an intellectual rapture that takes us beyond everyday perceptions and introduces us into another mode of seeing. Like Moses at the top of the mountain, we embrace the darkness and experience no clarity, but we know that, once we have rinsed our minds of inadequate ideas that block our understanding, we are somehow in the place where God is.

…Once we have left the idols of thought behind, we are no longer worshipping a simulacrum, a projection of our own ideas and desires. There are no longer any false ideas obstructing our access to the inexpressible truth and, like Moses, forgetful of self, we can remain silently in the presence of the unknown God.

But this would, of course, be incomprehensible unless you had personally put yourself through this spiritual exercise again and again. Denys did not regard this ekstasis as an exotic ‘peak’ experience. Everybody… should apply this threefold dialectical method to the scriptures, as they listened to them read aloud during the liturgy… This [will achieve] a communal not a solitary ekstasis. Priests and congregants should plunge together ‘into that darkness which is beyond intellect’…

Talk like this makes me uneasy. I find myself wondering what kind of denial, and what kind of denial of denial, would there have been if Maxentius had defeated Constantine I at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312, and not the other way round. Of course apophasis and ekstasis and kenosis appear in other religious traditions – but that is the point: they appear in a religious tradition. So the starting position is not ‘pure’.

Dream of Constantine I and battle of the Milvian bridge

Dream of Constantine I and battle of the Milvian bridge

The sequence seems to go something like this:

I believe in God.

I describe the God I believe in.

I question/deny/reject/transcend my description of the God I believe in.

I understand (and/or understand that I do not understand) that the God I believe in is beyond understanding …etc.

It starts with ‘I believe in God’. No matter that (as Our Lady reminds us) ‘believe’ comes from Middle English bileven which meant ‘to love; to prize; to hold dear’; and that therefore ‘belief’ derives from bileve meaning ‘loyalty; trust; commitment; engagement’. No matter that the equivalent Latin credo comes from cor do: ‘I give my heart’. So no matter that belief in God is therefore in origin and essence more a matter of mythos than of logos.

The point is not whether the person who starts out on Denys’s dialectical journey believes in God in the sense of believing that God exists in the universe, or believes in God in the sense of trusting and being loyal to God. The point is that the journey starts from a personal commitment to something real to the believer, because the believer shares that something with the political and/or tribal and/or communal entity to which the believer belongs.

Eleusis Relief

Eleusis Relief

Every example of religious mythos which Armstrong gives us – whether it is the Eleusinian Mysteries, sacred rites in the caves of Lascaux, Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox liturgies, or the training of a Buddhist monk – takes place within a community of fellow participants, within a tradition, within a structured organisation which is significant in the lives and values of its members.

Denys is saying in effect: this God whom we subscribe to – describe him; now deny your description; now deny your denial… He is not saying: I am going to introduce a concept to you which I will call ‘God’. First I shall say this God is a rock, he is good, he is life. Now I will say he is not a rock… etc.

There is all the difference in the world between a pretend rock and a real hard place.

More next time


1 Karen Armstrong, The case for God: What religion really means, The Bodley Head, London, 2009.

2 Denys, The divine names, 712A-B. From Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem (trans.), Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, Mahwah NJ and London, 1987.

3 Denys, 1987: see 2 above, 872A.

4 Denys, Mystical theology, 1048A. From Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem (trans.), Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, Mahwah NJ and London, 1987.

5 Denys, 1987: see 2 above, 817d.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

12 September 2009 at 1:17 pm

One Response

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  1. Chris – I laughed out loud when I got to your comment “Talk like this makes me uneasy.” Because as I was reading along up to that point, I was thinking “Chris isn’t going to like this one little bit.”

    Do I find it also makes me uneasy? I don’t know. I’m familiar with DS Erigena. I think that if one is going to talk about God at all, understanding that one can’t possibly know what one is talking about is a good starting point.

    But more often I find myself wondering what this kind of “unknowing” possibly adds to what we know. It seems just another way of saying “God” must be the answer to those ultimate questions to which we do not know the answers. Is it just an idea of God for people who realize that all the definitions of God we have are inadequate or illogical, but who still want there to be a God, so they say that God is beyond understanding?

    Most often I prefer to say we live in mystery and not to call that mystery “God.” Life seems worth living to me, and I am grateful for it, In fact, I’m overwhelmingly grateful for the particular version that has been given to me. As you said in another post “Love is hard enough. But love is enough.”


    Terry Sissons

    19 September 2009 at 10:42 pm

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