Theology at the Service of Mysticism: Method in Pseudo-Dionysius

By Beggiani, Seely J. | Theological Studies, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Theology at the Service of Mysticism: Method in Pseudo-Dionysius


Beggiani, Seely J., Theological Studies


Theology in all its aspects must deal constantly with the reality of God who remains incomprehensible, nameless, and hidden. While manifesting the divine, creation and revelation in no way diminish its mystery. The affirmations of systematic theology must be corrected continually by negations. And the apophatic should permeate all dimensions of theological activity. Mystical theology should be an essential part of the theological process.

While traditional theology has employed the via negativa and used analogy to safeguard the incomprehensibility of God, the tendency has been to separate the mystical from the intellectual. The mystical dimension has often been relegated either to the pretheological realm of religious experience or the posttheological study of those who practice extraordinary levels of piety. On the other hand, there is the realization that the great Catholic mystical traditions should not remain marginalized. As David Tracy observes: "The future of serious Catholic theology lies with its ability to recover these classic resources of the mystical tradition without forfeiting the need to retrieve them critically."(1)

The Eastern writer now referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius attempts to achieve a synthesis between the mystical and the systematic. He delineates at least three stages in theology: symbolic theology, theology of affirmation and negation, and mystical theology. For him theology in all its forms must be conscious always of the unknowability of God, and the driving purpose of all theological activity should be mystical union. Mystical theology is the goal and ground of the other stages of theology.

The constant in the Dionysian world-view is that God is always the Other who is hidden and ungraspable. Nevertheless, creation and humans exist; they are in fact the image and likeness of God. Reality would not be, if God were not present within it. Creation by its very nature is theophany. God's manifestation is realized especially in Scripture and the holy mysteries (sacraments).

For Dionysius, theological knowledge is a rather limited but necessary human achievement enabled by divine grace, offering at most a pale glimpse of divine activity, and in no way a knowledge of God's self. Theology is directed to the fulfillment of the believer which is ultimately mystical union with God. Theology articulates the journey of humans being uplifted toward God, through a process of purification and understanding, as they rise from the world of sense to the level of intellectual knowledge of the holy, and finally by way of negation to ecstatic surrender in mystical union. In a sense, the goal of theology is not to arrive at truth, but to reach the threshold of ignorance. Theology is not intellectual analysis and rational discourse, but a hymn of praise.(2)

My purpose in this article is to show that the Dionysian synthesis represents a fruitful attempt in integrating the mystical and discursive in theology. Since the role of the divine mystery and the apophatic is of concern to both Western and:Eastern theology, I shall begin by presenting the state of the question from a Western perspective, primarily through the observations of Karl Rahner. I shall then highlight the Dionysian view of the radical transcendence of God, God's presence in creation especially by light, the illuminative role of the hierarchies and of symbol as expressed in Sacred Scripture and in the holy mysteries, and the soul's progressive return and union with God.

THE STATE OF THE QUESTION

Reflecting the Thomistic heritage, Karl Rahner teaches that God remains incomprehensible to all created beings, angels and humans, even in the beatific vision. This is due to the disproportion between the "infinite God who is the sustaining `ground' and the `object' of this immediate vision and the finiteness of the contemplating subject."(3) God's incomprehensibility, rather than decreasing, increases in this unmediated vision, and the presence of mystery which is experienced is an aspect of God's incomprehensibility.

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