Per Caritatem

As I noted in a previous post, a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology, giving special attention to Dionysius. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found Dionysius a valuable resource in the development of his own theology. In this post, I want to briefly mention some of the ways that Marion incorporates Dionysian thought into his own project. Both Dionysius and Marion are concerned with upholding God’s transcendence and avoiding conceptual idolatry of any sort. For Marion, there are two basic orientations to world: (1) an iconic consciousness or (2) an idolatrous consciousness. As Marion explains, “[t]he idol measures the divine to the scope of the gaze of he who then sculpts it.” Hence, an idol is produced when we attempt to conceptually circumscribe God, which is in essence to limit God to the human gaze. In our attempts to measure God by human understanding, we become trapped in a kind of self-reflexivity in which the idol becomes a mirror that reflects the human gaze back to itself. In contrast, the icon allows one’s gaze to move through the icon (visible) to that which is invisible. That is,

“[w]hat characterizes the icon painted on wood does not come from the hand of man but from the infinite depth that crosses it—or better, orients it following the intention of a gaze. The essential in the icon […] comes to it from elsewhere. […] Contemplating the icon amounts to seeing the visible in the very manner by which the invisible that imparts itself therein envisages the visible—strictly, to exchange our gaze for the gaze that iconistically envisages us.”

Following a Dionysian emphasis on the positive value of symbols, Marion likewise underscores that signs and images are not to be despised, as they can and should be used as contemplative aids in our worship of God. In fact, not only does creation itself function iconically to reveal the invisible things of God through that which is visible (Rom 1:20), but Christ Himself is said to be the Icon of God (Col 1:15). Moreover, given the kind of creatures that we are, it is fitting that we embrace signs and images which simultaneously hide and reveal that which exceeds this, so to speak, “clothing” of the formless.

Marion’s aim is of course to bring us into a more iconic consciousness, which in turn allows God to manifest himself according to his terms (not ours). If we embrace an iconic orientation, then, as Marion puts it, we must abandon any attempt to measure the divine by our own human gaze. Here Marion again seems very much in harmony with Dionysius. That is, for both Marion and Dionysius, there is no concept that adequately captures God. God, who is beyond being, is ipso facto beyond definition, and Marion is at pains to free God from our limiting (idolatrous) gaze. As Robyn Horner observes, Marion both continues within the Dionysian trajectory and also furthers the conversation with his own distinctive contributions. That is, in addition to drawing our attention to conceptual idols, Marion likewise speaks of conceptual icons as a way of thinking God in a non-idolatrous way. This path does not move “through the traditional metaphysical route that focuses on being, but through the mystical route of love.” Marion also adds to the discussion of icons, the idea of our being gazed upon and hence transformed by the other. Instead of a self-reflexive gaze necessitated by the idol, the icon breaks the circle of reflexivity and “gives the invisible to thought, not on the basis of the capacities of the metaphysical ego, but on its own terms.” Contrasting the two gazes, Marion writes that with the icon

“our gaze becomes the optical mirror of that at which it looks only by finding itself more radically looked at: we become a visible mirror of an invisible gaze that subverts us in the measure of its glory. The invisible summons us, ‘face to face, person to person’ (1 Cor. 13:12), through the painted visibility of its incarnation and the factual visibility of our flesh: no longer the visible idol as the invisible mirror of our gaze, but our face as the visible mirror of the invisible. […] It [the icon] transforms us in its glory by allowing this glory to shine on our face as its mirror—but a mirror consumed by that very glory, transfigured with invisibility, and by dint of being saturated beyond itself from that glory, becoming, strictly though imperfectly, the icon of it: visibility of the invisible as such.”

Though the icon indeed “opens distance,” it never claims nor pretends to exhaust God or to produce any kind of comprehensive knowledge of the incomprehensible.


In recent years a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology and Neoplatonism. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found within negative theology an inexhaustible resource that harmonizes well with his own theological and phenomenological project. Jacques Derrida has also engaged negative theology; however, he seems to have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward it and particularly dislikes what he interprets in Dionysius’ thought as the retention of a “transcendental signified.” As Eric Perl explains,

“Deconstruction is fundamentally a theory of signification, which attacks the (supposedly) traditional notion that a signifier (word, text, or image) refers to a signified, the meaning which itself is prior to and independent of the signifier. Derrida calls this the “transcendental signified”: the meaning underlying the expression, the archetype underlying the image, that which is not sign but “pure signified.” On the traditional assumption, any system of meaning, be it a written text or the cosmos itself, has such a transcendental signified. In the case of a text, it is the author’s intent, what he means to express; in the case of the world, understood as a system of signs, it is God” (“Signifying Nothing,” p. 125).

Derrida takes the description above to be characteristic of Western metaphysics, and thus his own project attempts to show that no such transcendental signified can be found outside, beyond or prior to the text or world. In the end, all we have are signs. “We can never transcend signs to arrive at a pure signified which is not itself a sign” (Ibid., p. 126). Here is where Derrida’s attraction to negative theology and Neoplatonism comes in focus. As we have seen, in Dionysian thought, God is beyond being and thought. That which can be thought exists and that which is is not God but “only an image, sign, or expression.” Hence, for Derrida, the common bond between negative theology and deconstruction is their mutual agreement that everything in the realm of existence and hence thought is sign all the way down. No transcendental signified or ultimate meaning is accessible, but remains forever deferred. “But whereas for Neoplatonism this implies that the world is infinitely meaningful, the manifestation of God, for deconstructionism it implies that the world is meaningless” (Ibid., p. 126).

Though Derrida has no doubt contributed significantly to contemporary thought and his insights have and should continue to be appropriated, one wonders whether he has correctly interpreted Neoplatonism and negative theology particularly as manifest in Dionysius. For Dionysius, as is the case with Plotinus, God is both beyond being (transcendent) and excessively present (immanent). As Dionysius explains,

“God is […] known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything (DN VII.3).

Here Dionysius highlights both creation (i.e., everything that exists) as theophany, where everything that is manifests God, and God’s radical transcendence in light of the fact that He is beyond the order of being, the created realm. Derrida seems to focus only on the “and” side of the Dionysian world, i.e., on God as wholly other—other in the sense of a transcendental signified, a being beyond Being who is still entangled in a signifier/signified dualism. Hence, the Derridean read of Dionysius is that of “a kind of ‘mystical iconoclast,’ who calls us to strip away all created symbols and images and attain a non-symbolic vision of and union with God as ‘pure signified’” (Ibid., p.) Dionysius, however, in no way suggests that we must finally do away with all symbols in order to encounter God. “This divine ray can enlighten us only by being upliftingly concealed in a variety of sacred veils which the Providence of the Father adapts to our nature as human beings” (CH I.2). Hence, we experience God not by peeling away or overcoming signs, but by embracing the signs as icons. In other words, God is present and manifest in the signs and “sacred veils” that both conceal and reveal Him. Derrida has done a superb job of describing the concealing aspects of Dionysius; however, it seems that he has not properly understood the iconic function of signs.


Dionysius, as is the case with Parmenides and Plotinus, firmly held that to be is to be intelligible. In other words, being and knowledge go hand in hand. Being implies that which is determinate and derivative; hence, God is not a being but is the creator of being, who necessarily transcends being. God is not a “facet of being. Rather, being is a facet of him. He is not contained in being, but being is contained in him” (DN V.8). Given what we have said so far, we discern a strict logic at work: if to be is to be intelligible, and God is not a being, then God is not intelligible. That is, God transcends our rational abilities—“He [in his essence] is completely unknown.” Moreover, since God is beyond being and knowing, he is likewise beyond predication. As Dionysius explains in the Divine Names, his purpose is not to reveal God in his transcendence—that is an impossible task beyond mind and words altogether—rather, he wants to “sign a hymn of praise for the being-making procession of the absolute divine Source of being into the total domain of being” (DN V.1). In other words, Dionysius recognizes that the divine names in no way (quidditatively) define God, yet this is not to say that Dionysius is confined to complete silence. Rather, Dionysius emphasizes the significance of the divine names in their liturgical, and hence, doxological context. Given that God himself, who is completely enfolded (and beyond our comprehension), unfolds himself via the hierarchs and a mediated process of illumination, the divine names do in fact refer to God and reveal him in a non-exhaustive, yet meaningful manner. In fact, Dionysius’ opening words of the Divine Names provides a kind of broad outline as to what he hopes to accomplish in his work, as well as what he understands himself to be communicating and not communicating. Though somewhat lengthy, the following passage is worth quoting in full:

“I come now to an explication of the divine names, as far as possible. Here too let us hold on to the scriptural rule that when we say anything about God, we should set down the truth “not in the plausible words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the power granted by the Spirit” to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from what the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor. For, if we may trust the superlative wisdom and truth of scripture, the things of God are revealed to each mind in proportion to its capacities; and the divine goodness is such that, out of concern for our salvation, it deals out the immeasurable and infinite in limited measures” (DN I.1).

As Dionysius explains, he seeks to explicate (to “unfold”) the divine names in so far as this is possible. Likewise, he contrasts “plausible words of human wisdom” with those of scripture, which were given in a revelation which surpasses human cognitive abilities. In other words, the scripture writers were granted a special illumination from God—not through their own rational processes—but through a union that surpasses human knowledge. Yet, they in turn hand down what they received in a way those below them can understand. Thus, the divine names are not the product of (merely human) theological activity in which human beings attempt to form propositions about God that define him in quid. Rather, the divine names are given by God through a process of mediated illumination, and thus “we may trust the superlative wisdom and truth of scripture.” Consequently, the divine names are one way in which Dionysius’ “wise silence” speaks.


In chapter three, section three, “Being or Else (the Good),” Marion enters the debate concerning the issue of the primary name for God, which St. Thomas claims (based on Ex 3:14) is ens and Dionysius claims is bonum. Marion links agape with bonum because certain texts of the Denys (Dionysius) seem to justify such a connection. Hence, the debate between ens and bonum is likewise a debate between ens and agape (1 John 4:8, ho theos agapē estin). We should here emphasize that when Dionysius privileges Goodness as the first divine name, he is not simply replacing one category for another, which would be to replace one conceptual idol with another. In fact, Goodness as the first name for God speaks against any categorical statement concerning God. As Marion explains, Dionysius “does not pretend that goodness constitutes the proper name of the Requisite [aitia=cause], but that in the apprehension of goodness the dimension is cleared where the very possibility of a categorical statement concerning Gxd ceases to be valid, and where the reversal of denomination into praise become inevitable. To praise the Requisite as such, hence as goodness, amounts to opening distance. Distance neither asks nor tolerates that one fill it but that one traverse it, in an infinite praise that feeds on the impossibility or, better, the impropriety of the category. The first praise, the name of goodness, therefore does not offer any ‘most proper name’ [contra Thomas and ipsum esse as ‘maxime proprie’ name of God] and decidedly abolishes every conceptual idol of ‘God’ in favor of the luminous darkness where Gxd manifests (and not masks) himself, in short, where he gives himself to be envisaged by us” (p. 76).

For the Denys, Gxd is the principle of beings from which both beings and existence itself derives. Moreover, this Gxd gives Being to beings but himself is greater and beyond the gift of Being that he gives. Being is a gift which is disclosed in the act of giving and this act is goodness, a goodness which in fact gives itself. [For the Dionysian tradition, the denomination “Goodness” allows for a Trinitarian vision of God—after all Christ as ultimate gift gives Himself on our behalf]. Moreover, for Dionysius the good is preferred because it extends not only to beings but to non-beings. According to Thomas, Dionysius goes this route because it takes “God” into view not only as efficient cause [the Creator of beings] but also as final cause and hence desirable even by non-beings (p. 78). [Question: Would those versed in the Dionysian tradition help me to understand what is meant by non-beings here?] For Thomas this becomes a question of whether the good indeed “adds” something and becomes primary or not. If not, then ens must be established as primary.

Thomas takes the second path and attempts to establish the primacy of ens. Thomas does this, according to Marion, by introducing a “new point of view”—a point of view that “limits one’s view to the measurements of the ens” and from this certain point of view, the ens becomes a “solid-point.” In other words, though convertible with the other transcendentals (one, good, and true), ens exhibits a primacy because “the ens finds itself comprehended in their [i.e. the transcendentals] comprehension, and not reciprocally.” Ens is both the “first term that falls within the imagination of the understanding,” and the primary and proper object of the intellect and is primarily intelligible because “everything is knowable only inasmuch as it is in actuality” (pp. 79-80).
In addition and somewhat summing up Marion’s point, “[t]he primacy of the ens depends on the primacy of a conception of the human understanding and of the mind of man. The primacy of the ens has nothing absolute or unconditional about it; it relies on another primacy which remains discreetly in the background. But it is this second primacy that one must question, since it alone gives its domination to the ens, to the detriment of the good (and of the Dionysian tradition)” [p. 80]. Ens as an object of the human intellect and hence as a representation seems a prime candidate for an idol. In fact, Marion does not see how Thomas’ doctrine of analogy can uphold God’s transcendence given that the “primacy of ens over the other possible divine names rests on primacy of human conception” (p. 81).

According to Marion, if theology is to be understood as a “science” that proceeds by the apprehension of concepts, then ens will be primary and the human being’s point of view normative as to method. However, if theology wants to be theo-logical, it must “submit all of its concepts, without excepting the ens, to a ‘destruction’ by the doctrine of divine names, at the risk of having to renounce any status as a conceptual ‘science,’ in order, decidedly nonobjectivating, to praise by infinite petitions” (p. 81). Thomas seems to attempt a both/and (maintaining both the primacy of ens as the first conception of the human understanding and a product of the faculty of imagination and a doctrine of divine names), which makes his view (as Marion sees it) idolatrous (see pp. 81-82).

Near the end of the section, Marion asks whether a new path, viz., agapē can “transgress Being” […] Can it manifest itself without passing through Being?” Again, Marion states that he does not want to simply substitute one divine name (goodness or agapē) for another (ens), rather in order to free Gxd from Being he will attempt to show “how the Gxd who gives himself as agapē thus marks his divergence from Being” (p. 83).