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Knowing God


By Michael Kurkowski, University of Notre Dame

“Into the dark beyond all light / we pray to come, / through not seeing and not  knowing, / to see and to know / that beyond sight and knowledge, / itself: neither  seeing nor knowing.” Pseudo-Dionysius begins the second chapter of The Mystical  Theology with a roadmap for knowing anything about God. Man begins in the state of  “Divine Dark[ness],” essentially not having any knowledge about God; then, via  affirmations (or positions, the results of positing something) and negations, man can  draw nearer through preeminence to that Be-ing which transcends human “sight and knowledge.” He in fact ends this quote by taking the first step: he denies two qualities of God, seeing and knowing. Specifically, “The Cause of All” is “neither seeing nor knowing,” but rather so much more than both. Each of these qualities falls short as a description of God and thus is not entirely true, i.e., false, of Him. 

In this method of knowing, preeminence follows affirmation and negation. However, despite the acts of positing and denying qualities of God being very different, in fact opposite, actions, they perform the same function with reference to God. An affirmation is a confirmation of a quality of God that He in some way is or possesses, and a negation functions in the same way. By saying God is not in unity with some quality, there is again a delineation of a boundary, so to speak, thus giving a clearer idea of God. In each of these actions, man’s “knowledge” of God is increased through an enumeration of qualities either in unity with God or not. This is a “that” knowledge since it describes qualities “that” God is, but not “what” God is. This knowledge of God can always be increased without ever capturing the essence of God, the “what” knowledge; however, to say man has no knowledge would fall short of the truth in the same way that “that” knowledge of God falls short of truly knowing God. Some examples will serve to show this. 

In chapter V, Pseudo-Dionysius continues his journey towards knowledge of God nearer the top: “Ascending higher we say: / It is / … / not spoken, not thought, / … / not dark nor light.” He explicitly denies that God is “spoken,” but man had been speaking about God for millennia. Regardless, this denial (and position) confirm that God is not a spoken being. Here, spoken means spoken as by man since that is the only sense of the word that man has sensible and even intellectual contact with. Although man had been speaking of God, the speaking itself added nothing to God’s essence nor captured it in its entirety. Yet, each of these notions adds to man’s understanding and “knowledge” of God. However, this statement about God can be better understood as belonging to a step above the affirmation-negation stage; Pseudo-Dionysius has already described God using many qualities and with plenty of detail. This step, the preeminence stage, serves to nuance the knowledge attained in the previous stage. We can certainly speak about God, but God’s essence is not “spoken.” 

Likewise, God is not “thought” (meaning thought of, the object of an action, rather than the noun “thought”). In the same way, man had been thinking about God throughout history, but God is not that which is thought. God may be thought of, but man’s thought of God adds nothing to nor captures any part of His essence. In this sense, this denial of a quality of God increases “knowledge” of God, by saying what He is not, as well as describing characteristics of Him, e.g., not able to be thought of in essence. Again, as belonging to the preeminence stage, Pseudo-Dionysius seemingly contradicts everything he previously said by claiming that God is not “thought [of],” since he spent a while thinking about God. This serves to demonstrate the beauty of his method of knowing in that the posited/denied notions of God each add to man’s “knowledge” and yet fall short when considered in the context of God’s essence. Yet the preeminence stage illuminates these shortcomings and nuances the seeming “knowledge” that man had built up, allowing for a clearer, more accurate idea of God while acknowledging that man’s “knowledge” will doubtlessly fall short. 

Considering the claim that God “is…not dark nor light,” in the context of Pseudo-Dionysius’s method of knowing, he seems to contradict his claim in chapters II and III that affirmations should be made in the order closest to farthest and negations in the opposite order, since he juxtaposes two qualities that are perfect opposites and denies both of their unity with God’s being at the same time. This is a clue that he has already advanced to the preeminence stage with this assertion, but considering it first in the affirmation/denial stage, the claim itself seems self-contradictory. The denial that God “is…not dark” functions in the same way as the affirmation God is light, but this is contradicted in the next two words. Thus the only “knowledge” that can be obtained from examining the claim in this stage is again that of delineating boundaries around qualities that fail to capture the essence of God. As a preeminence move however, this declaration of qualities of God (or lack thereof) stands out as an exemplar for preeminence professions. Of course, God is not darkness (strong negation), but He is also not the light man is sensibly or intellectually aware of. The conclusion then, is not that God resides somewhere in the middle since the middle has parts of both qualities (unless darkness is simply a lack of light, then the middle simply has only some of the quality of light). The conclusion must be that God is something other than light or darkness. As a preeminence claim, this does not mean that there is no light or darkness in God, but rather that God’s essence is not relegated to either of those sensible or intellectual qualities. The denial of each extreme implies that the other has some unity with God, but it falls very short of a complete description of God’s essence, or even of the idea of God’s essence. 

Through this journey along Pseudo-Dionysius’s method of knowing, man ascends from the depths of the “Divine Dark” to building a structure of negations and affirmations made out of qualities from his experience, to then standing on top of the incomplete structure with the tools of nuance and preeminence. This structure is built out of man’s senses and intellectual faculties to describe what is like God and what is not. The likeness has an intrinsic order: “we position these / by beginning from what is first… / … / we deny them all / … / from the last to the very first.” This is a very sophisticated notion of the first step toward “knowledge” since the structure on which man must stand to come close to this knowledge must in fact have structure. And when building, structure is necessary, especially when comparing experienced qualities to anything seemingly unexperienced, here, God. The final step is a transcendent one resulting from further negations of every previous position and denial within the context of a higher truth outside the sensible and even the comprehensible for the created man, since, “In Preeminence, the Cause of All that is Sensible/Intelligible is not Anything Sensible/Intelligible.” This results in a hybrid “knowledge” that pulls from the sensible and intelligible and combines it with the transcendent which, although it falls short of knowing God in His essence, acknowledges this shortcoming and recognizes the gap between its reach and its goal quite exquisitely.

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