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“To an Unknown God”: Paul and Mystical Union - Oxford Scholarship
Have Institutional Access? Forgot your password? Where is God in the Megilloth? Table of Contents. Related Content. Author: Brittany Melton. In Where is God in the Megilloth? Brittany N. Melton constructs a dialogue among Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs centred on this question, in an effort to settle the debate about whether God is present or absent in these books. Author: Dean R. Ulrich explores the joint interest of Daniel in the Antiochene crisis of the second century B. This study is necessary because previous scholarship, though recognizing the jubilee structure of the seventy sevens, has not sufficiently made the connection between jubilee and the six objectives of Daniel The Command to Exterminate the Canaanites: Deuteronomy 7.
Author: Arie Versluis. According to Deuteronomy 7, God commands Israel to exterminate the indigenous population of Canaan.
Following an exegesis of the chapter, the historical background, possible motives and the place of the nations of Canaan in the Hebrew Bible are investigated. The theme of religiously inspired violence continues to be a topic of interest. This verse from Paul's letter to the Colossians is a favorite of Dionyius': he quotes it four other times in the Divine Names.
Paul, therefore, not only provides support for Dionysius' general affirmation of divine immanence but also contributes to Dionysius' peculiar theological lexicon. Thus the theological lexicon of the CD betrays a linguistic coherence that is impossible to convey in translation. The tension between the immanence and transcendence of God is no more resolved in the CD than it is in the letters of Paul. In fact, Dionysius seems to have little interest in relieving the tension.
He calls upon his teacher Paul not so much to unravel the knot of divine presence and absence as to bear authoritative witness to it. On the contrary, he wishes to heighten the tension by insisting that while one is bound to affirm and negate the divine names just as God reveals and conceals, still neither affirmations nor even negations are ever adequate and always miss their target. One denies p. Michael Sells has done better than most to put his finger on this quandary:.
- Agnōstos Theos.
- Religious experience!
- Shadows of Seduction.
Any saying even a negative saying demands a correcting proposition, an unsaying. It is in the tension between the two propositions that the discourse becomes meaningful.
That tension is momentary. One of the many incontrovertible debts of Dionysius to Proclus regards precisely this insistence that any negation of the transcendent must itself be negated. As he says in Platonic Theology 2. The most significant difference between the celestial and the ecclesiastical hierarchies consists in the fact that angels are intelligible while humans are sensible. This difference, then, leads Dionysius to ask why it is that the heavenly ranks are revealed in scripture in a sensible fashion entirely at odds with their intelligible nature.
The anagogic goal is contemplation of the intelligible reality of the heavens, a contemplation that engages our intelligence or nous. But our nous can only vault into contemplation of the heavens on the shoulders of our bodily senses. In other words, the way of similarity can lull our intelligence or nous to sleep, since the sensible is thought to be so like the intelligible reality it clothes that it might be mistaken for it.
This rhetoric of similarity and dissimilarity, however, is not limited to the heavens.
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No light, indeed, expresses [his] character, and every description and mind incomparably fall short of [his] similitude. But as it turns out, the nous needs precisely to stumble in order to find its feet. A single chain's transformations can be charted: from its source in the One, the chain emanates first as a god, then in the realm of Nous as a kind of Platonic form, then in the realm of the soul as a particular kind of soul, then, as it enters the realm of the material, the chain emanates as actual physical objects, and does so in succession, from more exalted objects to less, until it reaches its nadir in a very quotidian item.
His account of why he so esteems them constitutes his theory of the symbol, the development of which Struck traces throughout antiquity, from Homer to Proclus and beyond. Much like Dionysius, who in the CH tries to explain the grotesque biblical revelations of God and the heavens, Proclus tries to explain Homer's grossly anthropomorphic gods. He does this in his commentary on Plato's Republic , where he answers Plato's express worries about such poetic license.
Contrary to expectation, Proclus congratulates Homer and the other poets for describing the gods in the basest of terms, for he argues that base p. The lowest element on the chain of being becomes, in Proclus' hands, a symbol, which for him means a base or even grotesque name or object with which the process of cosmic reversion can begin. And yet these names, however affirmative they seem, contain within them the seeds of their own denial.
In fact they hover between transcendence and immanence, and resemble, in this regard, the negation of negations. At such moments, language and mind are pushed to such a point that they begin to disintegrate and only then is one able to receive the gift of unknowing union. One affirms and negates the divine names precisely in order to be delivered from the impasse of how God is both present and absent. Even if union with the unknown and unknowable God only occurs unknowingly through unknowing, still one must insist that one does not achieve this unknowing.
Rather we wait for it at the tense cusp between our affirmations and negations, where the dynamis of perpetual apophasis calls out to the God beyond being. But what does unknowing do to knowledge? Does the descent of unknowing herald the end of knowledge or its fulfillment?
For this is veritably to see and to know. Darkness becomes invisible by light, and especially by much light. And, if any one, having seen God, understood what he saw, he did not see Him , but some of His creatures that are p. But He Himself, highly established above mind, and above essence, by the very fact of His being wholly unknown, and not being, both is superessentially, and is known above mind. What of this unknowing then, and its relationship to Paul?
First of all, for Dionysius Paul had in his letter to the Romans already given voice to the divine movements of procession and return long before the Neoplatonists fixed the nomenclature. Third, while Paul of course cannot be credited with providing Dionysius a dynamic procedure, as Proclus did, for negating negations, when it comes to the very goal of the entire enterprise—the unknowing union with the God who surpasses all—Paul appears again as the authoritative witness.
Dionysius' Fifth Letter makes clear, then, that Paul is the exemplar of the paradoxical knowledge of God: an unknowing union with the God who surpasses all knowledge. For apart from the letters of Paul, Dionysius also had the accounts of Paul's missionary activity from the Acts of the Apostles. The climax of that wandering evangelism is p. Paul therefore emerges from this speech as the very first advocate of Dionysian unknowing, the authoritative apostolic witness to the goal of all saying and unsaying.
As with the divine movements of procession and return, Dionysius can see in Paul the wellspring of any subsequent elevation of unknowing from mere ignorance to blessed union. Dionysius never comments directly on this verse in particular or on this speech in general. This is a curious omission, as it is from precisely this passage that the author draws his pseudonym.
Despite this silence, the influence of Paul's speech to the Areopagus on the CD is evident everywhere. Furthermore, while it may not have been the intention of Paul or the author of Luke—Acts , Dionysius does find in this speech a nascent account of unknowing. To this point, I have been walking a rather thin line: acknowledging, where appropriate, Dionysius' clear debts to late Neoplatonism, and yet insisting that scholars have often focused exclusively on these debts and so have been blind to Paul's influence, and how Dionysius understood Paul as anticipating many Neoplatonic themes.
I need now explain how Dionysius understands his own allegiances and whether there is a conflict in those allegiances. The dichotomy is in fact a false one, not least because the labels do not name equal and opposing commitments—two masters, if you will. Chief among these clues is his very pseudonym: Dionysius the Areopagite, member of the esteemed judicial body of Athens to whom Paul delivers his famous speech in Acts In order to understand how Dionysius figures the relationship between Christ and pagan wisdom, we would do well then to look closely again at that speech.
We will see that Dionysius follows the model of his master, and opts not to oppose Christ to pagan wisdom, but to enfold that pagan wisdom into a new dispensation, a new order over which reigns an unknown god and a resurrected man. He clothes his distress in feigned admiration for their piety. From the very start of this speech and the mention of the unknown god, Paul looks forward to a resolution to this apparent conflict between divinities and a restoration of the past: Athens, once more, will have something to do with Jerusalem.
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals all life and breath and all things. From one p. As has been amply documented by scholarship, this portion of Paul's speech employs themes and even phrasing familiar to the Greek literary and philosophical tradition. This is considerably more than mere flattery or rhetorical skill, for it is motivated by the conviction, as expressed in his letter to the Romans, that the Athenians still possess traces of their former faith.
Unlike so much of Paul's speech, the notion of resurrection was foreign to the Athenian mind, even preposterous. Into this proclamation of an unknown god, Paul so successfully folds the traditions of Athens that some among his audience will hear more and at least a few come to believe. A new order is thereby established: the pagan tradition is absorbed into and subordinated to the new dispensation.
This new order is set apart from and above the pagan past by calling upon the world to repent in preparation for a day on which a resurrected man will judge in righteousness. Thus the resurrected Christ stands with the unknown god at the zenith of this new order, which absorbs ancient wisdom and baptizes the past into a new life. Writing sometime in the early sixth century, probably in Syria, the author of the CD would not have faced the urgent need to enfold popular pagan piety into a new order. Might this author be turning to Paul—especially the Paul who speaks to the Areopagus—to provide a template for absorbing and subordinating pagan wisdom?
After all, the Athenians are the same Gentiles who, according to Paul in Romans, once knew the invisible power and nature of God, and then fell to worshipping images.
For Dionysius, the seeds of Paul's wisdom were sown on foreign soil and grew to fruition in Neoplatonism, and these are the very fruits he now plucks from the likes of Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus. For Dionysius, Neoplatonism does not compete with Paul; rather, Paul completes Neoplatonism by once again returning this pagan wisdom to the fold and baptizing it again into the life of Christ. This speculative foray into the relationship between Christianity and Neoplatonism in the CD is buttressed and deepened by Letter 7 , addressed to none other than Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna.
The question is not, Dionysius insists, what is Greek and whether one is faithful to it, but rather what is true and whether one is faithful to that. According to this reading, then, Dionysius does not value or scorn Neoplatonism on the grounds of its being Greek, but rather on the grounds of its being true.
And like the piety which Paul witnesses in Athens, it bears some of the traces of its ancestor, the true philosophy revealed to the Greeks by God, although obscured by the accretion of human foolishness. Dionysius is therefore called, as Paul was before him, to summon the Greeks back to their true philosophy. His deep appreciation for and debt to Neoplatonism amounts to a deep appreciation for and debt to Paul, who admonished the Greeks to return to their roots and submit their wisdom to the unknown God, and an even deeper appreciation for and debt to that unknown God, who first sowed the seeds of this wisdom.
The pseudonym expressed the author's belief that the truths that Plato grasped belong to Christ, and are not abandoned by embracing faith in Christ. According to p. If we return now to the question of whether Dionysius is really a Christian or really a Neoplatonist, we can safely answer that he is both.
One concluding example will suffice to make our point. In DN 5. And every age and time is from Him. And all things participate in Him, and from no single existing thing does He stand aloof. And He is before all things, and all things in Him consist. The penultimate sentence is a quote from Proclus' description of the First Cause, while the ultimate sentence should be familiar from our discussion of immanence above: it is a quote from Colossians According to H.
It would be wiser to disguise the provenance of this sentence.
From the Western Mystical tradition
Perhaps he does not want to mask this dependence at all. Perhaps, on the contrary, he wants his reader to notice the coupling of Proclus and Paul. This seems much more likely, not only here but elsewhere in the CD where Dionysius quotes freely from the Athenian philosopher.
A writer anxious about the influence of Neoplatonism would, we suspect, go to greater lengths to disguise his debt. And yet Dionysius consistently flaunts his p.
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