I. ASIAN HINTS FOR A DEMYSTIFICATION OF NEGATIVE THEOLOGY
It is said that Beethoven had placed above his desk the great saying (mahâvâkya) uttered nine times by the sage Uddâlaka Âruni to his son Svetaketu in the Chândogya Upanisad (VI 8-16): Tat tvam asi – ‘That art thou’. Why is this fact so very pleasing? Deeper than reasons of cultural or religious interaction lies the revolutionary implication of the choice of slogan. It marks a break with the Platonic image of mystical or contemplative attainment as mounting a ladder to a transcendent goal (Symposium 211C). It proclaims that the ultimate is found in the here and now. Spiritual insight is less a matter of climbing ladders, be they even the scala humilitatis of medieval piety, than of casting them away. Liberation ‘is not a fresh thing to be brought about somehow, it is the removal of error. When a person’s disease is cured we do not say he has obtained something new, but merely that he has been restored to his natural healthy state. Scripture need not enjoin liberation, but it merely wakes a person up to the realization of his actual nature’. This emphasis provides a guiding thread for a more down to earth, phenomenological interpretation of the problematic heritage of negative theology (represented by Plotinus, Proclus, Damascius, Pseudo-Dionysius, Eckhart).
Another pleasing aspect of the Beethoven anecdote is its suggestion that awareness of ultimacy can go together with creative engagement in the world of forms and expression, not merely in a grudging concession but as actually releasing and enriching that engagement. Placing negative theology in that context of contemplative creativity, we can infer that the point of it is not to get beyond language but to free up our relation to concepts and language so that the spirit courses through them in freedom. The entire performance has to do with a manner of being rather than of speaking or thinking.
A negative theology that stresses phenomenological immediacy, that gives a practical liberative function to its apophatic or aphairetic moves, and that maintains an ongoing critical and creative engagement with the complexities of ordinary life and language has more appeal to the contemporary intellectual and even to l’homme moyen sensuel than one that urges an ascent to ever more rarefied mystical heights or a retreat into an interior castle known only to a tiny elite. For in locating the ultimate at the very heart of the everyday, it indicates that mysticism and contemplation are not luxuries, but supply the central piece in the jigsaw of our intellectual and sensuous lives, the key to the riddle of existence, the precise answer to the questions that haunt us: ‘To such a man who then asks “who am I?” scripture answers compassionately “that art thou”’. Everything converges on this centre, as a place of ultimate simplicity. Though we live deluded and distracted lives, we are all in touch with this centre. This immanentist emphasis, though it also poses many problems for a contemporary hermeneutic retrieval, is the most vibrant element in the archaic Indian texts, and it alerts us as well to what is most gripping in the seemingly remote and stilted Neoplatonic tradition, a concern with die Sache selbst of our actual existence in its openness to (divine) being.
Vedantists speak intriguingly of the unsleeping, unchanging witness (sâksin) at the heart of all consciousness. The ‘witness’ is neither the empirical subject nor the absolute Self, but a concretization of the latter as observing the objects of the illusory world without engaging with them. It is described as a subjectivity that witnesses our empirical subjectivity as its object: ‘One who sees a jug distinguishes himself both from his representation of the jug and from the object itself; likewise, Apperception distinguishes itself both from the notion of I and from the subject of suffering revealed by that notion’. This act of knowing is the presence of the ultimate Self, which cannot be objectified; when we try to make the Knower an object of knowledge it has already slipped our grasp.
In Buddhism, ultimate reality is ineffable not because it is above, beyond, away from the world of language, but because it is nearer, more concrete, more intimate. When Nâgârjuna, in the founding text of the Mâdhyamika tradition, develops a radical dialectic which reduces all categories to absurdity, his purpose is not to take us to some hidden place beyond this world, but to show that the reality under our very nose eludes the grasp of abstract categories (which retain, however, a conventional validity and usefulness). It is our habitual thinking that takes us into an unreal world of oppositions, fixations, discriminations, abstractions, and that makes the world a mind-built prison. The dissolution of conceptual thought, the ‘quiescence of fabrications’, allows this samsaric world to be experienced as already nirvana; though to be sure only a Buddha ever realizes this insight fully.
Ma-tsu (709-788 CE), the grandfather of Rinzai Zen, would say ‘This very mind is Buddha’. Buddha, etymologically, means ‘awakened one’, and Buddhist awakening consists simply in seeing oneself and the world as they really are. (That at least is the classical claim, though it has become more complicated in contemporary scholarly hermeneutics.) On another day, Ma-tsu or a disciple of his might say ‘No mind, no Buddha’ – for all this language about ‘mind’ and ‘Buddha’ is but a skilful means (upâya) to prompt awakening, a ladder to be thrown away when this purpose has been served. Another day he might add, in a still more radical aphairesis: ‘There is nothing at all’. The point is not to explode the everyday world in order to break through to another world, but rather to put aside dualistic conceptions that prevent one from living in the immediacy of each moment as it arises, to break out of the linguistic fabrications (prapanca) and discriminating conceptuality (vikalpa) that stand between us and the splendour of things as they are.
The point of negative theology can only be to remove blockages to spiritual freedom, and thus to release the energies stifled by our bondage to conventional ways of thinking. To play its role well, negative theology has to be a flexible skill, adapting its strategies to the crude or subtle obstacles that lie in its path. The word aphairesis catches the spirit of this better than the word apophasis. Negating words or falling silent are only one set of strategies. More fundamental is the shedding of delusive attachments. Plotinus forged the best slogan for negative theology in his famous cry: ‘Take away everything!’ (aphele panta; Enn. V 3, 17). The practical radicality of this is lost if one translates it as ‘Abstract All’. The rather intellectualist translation of aphairesis as ‘abstraction’, with its misleading Aristotelian associations, turns negative theology into ‘the way of successive abstractions’ that ‘seeks to abstract our attention from concepts of God to the true God who cannot be conceptualised’. But negative theology in the hands of its masters is not a search for ever more refined concepts, ending in hyper-conceptuality. Rather it reflects a return to the concrete, the fulness of divine presence that cannot be limited by any of our kataphatic expressions for it. In Eckhart’s terms it is negatio negationis, limitationis, privationis.
In correlating different apophatic traditions one need not subscribe to a ‘perennial philosophy’ that overrides the pluralism of cultural horizons and the tensions between them. Rather each tradition of contemplative apophasis has immediate relevance to the others. The impact or solicitation of the other tradition is most satisfactorily cashed when it enables a phenomenological clarification of our own, an aphairesis of archaic images and structures that have encumbered it and blocked access to its core phenomena.
The Withdrawal of the Ultimate
Vedantists claim that ‘all of ordinary experience is false’ and must be negated in view of ‘the most immediate thing of all, the inner Self’. Common experience continues to present us with a world of distinct entities: ‘Indeed, this experience, though false, is found alike in those who believe that those things do not exist as different from Brahman and those who do not believe so. But those who believe in the highest truth... are confident that Brahman is one alone, without a second, free from all experiencings’. This contrast between world-ensconced truth (samvrti-satya) and the highest truth (paramârtha-satya), runs right through Indian thought, and in the nature of the case seems to elude perfectly satisfying logical formulation. It provides endless resources for aphairesis and apophasis. When the surface realities have been thoroughly undermined, the ultimate becomes manifest. But then it turns out that all our language about the latter is conventional also, which lets us in for another round of aphairesis.
Mahâyâna Buddhism has the same contrast between the ineffable simplicity and unity of ultimate truth, conceived now as emptiness (sûnyatâ), and the illusory multiplicity and complexity of the everyday world. The radicality of Sankara and Nâgârjuna has often been contested within their respective traditions, yet it continues to trouble defenders of a more than conventional reality for the world of distinctions, making them worry that they may be clinging to delusive projections. (To make sense of such language we may perhaps imagine a world of vital spiritual freedom where the distinctions between things will no longer impede and clutter but all eloquently and transparently manifest divine being or love. Plotinus envisaged something of that sort in the totally integrated world of the supernal Nous, which is surpassed however by the sheer simplicity of the One. Blank and barren as that ultimate reach of mystical intuition must appear to us, we may at least recall that all the fulness of cosmic experience is somehow precontained in it.)
The Mahâyâna vision shaped Sankara’s thought so markedly as to draw on him the charge of being a crypto-Buddhist. His predecessor Gaudapâda had built a bridge between the traditions, importing such terms as paramârtha-satya. Gaudapâda was intoxicated by the Buddhist Mâdhyamika and Yogâcarâ philosophies, though his Vedantic commentators seek to conceal this fact. He repeats Nâgârjuna’s arguments about the impossibility of causality, which dismantles the four limbs of the tetralemma: that things are self-caused, caused by another; both self-caused and caused by another; neither self-caused nor caused by another. However, whereas Advaita cuts away words and ratiocinations in order to bring us to an intuition of ultimate being (sat), Buddhism goes farther, practising a thoroughgoing emptiness that leaves the mind no final entity to which to attach itself. Sankara believed that every negation is implicitly the affirmation of something else, and even the ultimate negation of all terms applied to Brahman testifies to its supreme ineffable reality. In contrast Buddhist negation does not posit anything at all. Yet this very non-positing has a positive sense, attuning us to the freedom of nirvana. In the negating itself emptiness is realized, and there is no further ultimate to be sought. Conversely, emptiness exists only as the negation of samsaric delusion; it cannot be set up as an ineffable absolute; rather the ‘emptiness of emptiness’ signifies that emptiness is always correlated with the dependently arising phenomena of which it is the emptiness. Thus the quester after ultimacy always finds him or herself referred back to the world of dependently arising phenomena. Buddhist apophaticism does not project an ever more hyperessential absolute, but rather goes in the opposite direction, allowing one to taste the freedom of emptiness but giving one no foothold in anything absolute.
In its brooding on the emptiness of emptiness itself Buddhism turns the discourse of ultimacy back on its own conventionality. Thus no object of clinging is provided. Yet the upshot is not that emptiness is doubly vacuous but that it is the fulness of all, which is tasted when one comes alive in the dependently co-arising world. One might think that the Vedantic language about the ineffability of Brahman represents just the dogmatic slumbers form which Buddhism would awake us. But perhaps this language, too, is to be cashed in existential terms. ‘Now therefore there is the teaching, not this, not this (neti, neti), for there is nothing higher than this, that he is not this. Now the designation for him is the truth of truth (satyasya satyam)’ (Brhad-âranyaka Upanisad II 3, 6, trans. Radhakrishnan). Here it looks as if apophasis issues in the positing of a massive hyper-essential reality, ‘the truth of truth’. But perhaps the phrase indicates the elusiveness of the ultimate rather than its massive presence, just as ‘the emptiness of emptiness’ does, and perhaps that very withdrawal of the ultimate throws us back on our own existence as the locus of contact with it: ‘that are thou’. Sankara comments on the text just quoted: ‘Words convey their meanings by relating to adjuncts such as name, form, action, genus, species, quality, etc. Brahman has none of these, so it cannot be described as a cow can be. To be sure, Brahman is sometimes described by expressions such as “knowledge, bliss, Brahman, Atman”, etc., but if we wish to describe its true nature it is impossible. Thus we are reduced to “not this, not this,” eliminating all positive characteristics that might be thought to apply to it’. This dropping of all language either makes our rapport to Brahman the merely formal recognition of an unknown quantity or it locates that rapport on a different plane, so that our neti, neti serves as a confession or mantra to set our existence in relation to the ultimate. Moreover, there is a subtle suggestion that neti, neti indicates not only the impotence of our language but, more positively, a certain serene self-sameness of eternal being, beyond all limiting qualifications. This is a recurrent feature of apophatic thought: the failure of language is not mere frustration, but something sensed to have momentous significance. The suppression of words has an indicative function, arousing the joyful suspicion of the presence of ultimate reality. In devotional mysticism this presence may be ‘the Bridegroom,’ but even when it is described as ‘being’ we must suppose that the pallid term carries the same associations of delight. It is as if the withdrawal of the ultimate from our grasp were the very mode of its joyful approach.
For Sankara, ‘the Self is revealed in the very movement by which it eludes (even “inner”) perception as well as inference, etc.’ This idea that the ultimate makes itself known in withdrawing from our grasp is perhaps the key link between the apophatic tradition and the phenomenological concern with the given. It could be claimed that in Heidegger’s thinking Being makes itself known in its withdrawal, der Ent-zug des Seins. In Christianity the divine ‘distance’ (Jean-Luc Marion) is ‘a withdrawal that unites’, a phenomenological mode of presence of the divine: ‘And when I was enveloped in the divine night, seeking what was hidden in the dark, then though I possessed love for what was longed for, the beloved itself fled the grasp of my thoughts’ (Gregory of Nyssa, In Canticum Hom. 6; ed. Langerbeck, p. 181). P. B. Fenton’s essay in the present volume suggests that a similar sense of divine presence in the mode of withdrawal runs through Jewish and Islamic tradition. The kataphatic theology of Aquinas is reconciliable with his claim that God is penitus incognitum only if it enacts again and again the withdrawal of God from the grasp of reason – not by tossing in the towel from the start but by pursuing the possibilities of reason until they come to the end of their tether.
The withdrawal of the ultimate is inscribed within its manifestation; the two are in direct not inverse proportion. Only the one who has fully traversed all the possibilities of kataphasis can enter that ‘condition of complete simplicity’ (T. S. Eliot) where God is known as unknown, is revealed as hidden, is intimately present in the majesty of distance, or speaks in silence. Illustration of this structure can be found in the famous silence of Vimalakîrti. A series of bodhisattvas offer their accounts of non-duality, culminating in Manjusrî’s declaration that ‘To exclude all words and to say nothing, to express nothing, to pronounce nothing, to teach nothing, to indicate nothing, is to enter into non-duality’. Asked for his account, Vimalakîrti remains silent, and is applauded by Manjusrî: ‘That is the bodhisattvas’ entry into non-duality!’ As the Indian party argued against their ‘subitist’ Chinese opponents at the Council of Lhasa (792-794), ‘philosophical silence must be preceded by a long correct analysis without which knowledge of emptiness is impossible’. The silence that betokens ultimacy can be attained only by the traversal of a constantly renewed effort of speech. In the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, on Skilful Means, we hear that ‘the Dharma cannot be expressed; the forms of words are eliminated’; nonetheless, the Buddha expounds the Dharma in parables and other skilful expressions. The Sutra offers no new teaching, but ‘a controversial new style for understanding the existing teaching’, as it signals the provisionality and conventionality and pragmatic function of any doctrine that can be put into words. Such a return to words from silence is a way of sustaining the emptiness of emptiness itself, keeping it from becoming a supreme logocentric or sigecentric referent. Silence signifies wisdom only when words have preceded and is compassionate only when words follow. Silence is deep only when rooted in an authentic existence: Vimalakîrti’s silence would have had no power if he had not lived a bodhisattva life of wisdom and compassion.
The Aphairesis of Ego
Aphairesis in both Vedanta and Buddhism affects the everyday ego, considered as a delusive construct: ‘When the idea of the ego sense is negated, since it is the root of our relation with duality, all duality ceases’ (Suresvara). This is still a stumbling block to the Western mind, despite Plotinus’s suggestions that union with the One entails a loss of ego (Enn. VI 7, 35 [42-5]; VI 9, 10) and despite the way Freud and Lacan have unmasked the Ego as a delusive object projected from our needs – an object masquerading as subject. Henry Corbin protests against the Indian dissolution of the ego and of a personal God. He argues that the oppressiveness of substantial conceptions of a personal God is due to forgetfulness of the apophatic background that should underpin them: ‘If the absolvens absolves the absolute of every determination, it remains to absolve the absolute of that very indetermination’ by the ‘self-generation of the personal God, engendering himself from the Absolute, absolving himself of the indetermination of this Absolute’. Perhaps this scheme might be applied mutatis mutandis to the identity of the human person, reborn after the dissolution of ego just as God is reborn after the ‘death of God’. Corbin admits that the false everyday ego is dissolved, but only in favour of ‘the integral Ego, the integral person’. That would not quite satisfy Vedantists or Buddhists; they too could be seen as striving to release authentic subjectivity from the carapace of the ego, but they would see that subjectivity as devoid of fixed identity.
Corbin contrasts Eckhart’s view of the personal God as merely a provisional construct arising together with the created world, to be surpassed in the quest for the formless deity, the God beyond God, with Boehme’s intradivine process whereby the indeterminate absolute gives birth to himself as the fully realized personal God. Buddhists (D.T. Suzuki, K. Nishitani, S. Ueda) accordingly see Eckhart as the exemplary Christian thinker. Some process theologians have made much of Eckhart’s and Boehme’s bipolar vision of deity, working it out as a formal metaphysical system. But the metaphysics of a self-birthing of the divine essence (reminiscent of the Plotinian or the Cartesian causa sui) are highly problematic. We had best remain on the phenomenological plane: God is known as ultimate indeterminate reality and, more definitively, as the distinct personal presence most fully identified through the figure of Jesus Christ. We are scarcely in a position to overleap the phenomenological horizons so as to construct an objective presentation of God an sich, but if reason urges us to do so, its deliveries on the nature of God are likely to have a disappointingly negative cast, as in Aquinas. (As to the juicier complexities of trinitarian speculation, the suspicion lingers that they have far exceeded their biblical warrant.)
A Buddhist might consider the language of the personal God as a ‘skilful means’, permitting us to connect with ineffable ultimacy. This approach will never be completely satisfying to biblical faith, but it should be allowed to play temptingly around the margins of faith and to ‘solicit’ its certitude, for it could be a salutary corrective to naively kataphatic approaches. Corbin might say that the Religions of the Book do not need to be dogged by the alternative perspectives of Buddhism, since they have developed their own apophatic correctives. But a Buddhist might reply that the dialectical mobility of the mind oriented to emptiness, as it progressively relinquishes attachment to being, to nothingness, and to any dualism, is thwarted in biblically based negative theology by the authority and fixity of the divine names, as it is thwarted in Sankara by a residual attachment to being. Derrida would add that it is thwarted in both Plotinus, Dionysius and all their followers by the onto-theo-logical thought-form from which they proceed. Though Dionysius introduced into Christian thought the intoxication of radical disengagement from clinging to forms and substances, similar paths were explored in India in a more thorough and comprehensive manner. To ignore them would be to deprive the biblical revelation of the full context that can bring it into most luminous perspective.
II. RETRIEVING NEOPLATONISM IN A PHENOMENOLOGICAL KEY
Plotinus’s response when invited to a feast of the gods: ‘They ought to come to me, not I to them’ (Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 10), is as pleasing as Beethoven’s tat tvam asi, and for the same reason. Here we find the foremost Platonist casting away ladders, to claim that the divine makes itself present right where we are. Perhaps Plotinus is merely deprecating inferior daimons and their cult, as Porphyry does in De Abstinentia II 37-43. But the disciples surmised a deeper meaning in Plotinus’s retort: ‘What he meant by this exalted utterance we could not understand and did not dare to ask’. Even the One, though we tend to think of it as ‘pinnacled dim in the intense inane’ (Shelley), can be conceived as a present phenomenon. The One is present negatively in the discontent we feel with the complexity and dispersal of conceptual thought, which betokens a thirst for the One (Enn. VI 9, 4). The One is also phenomenologically accessible in the ‘traces’ offered by the beings it unifies, as it confers on them ‘the form of the Good’ (Enn. VI 7, 18; see also III 8, 11), or, somewhat less vividly, in the ‘marks’ (synthêmata) of itself that it has sown in all things (Proclus, Platonic Theology II 8), and which include ‘the one of the soul’, ‘the summit of the soul’, ‘the centre of the soul’, ‘the flower of our substance’, etc. ‘These figures intend to celebrate our rootedness in the universal centre, by bringing the mind back to the nocturnal source of its clarity’. Yet all these phenomena are only shadows. Plotinus, ‘ever striving toward the divine’ (aei speudôn pros to theion), could sometimes issue from the cavern to gaze on the sun, encountering the One directly: ‘that God appeared who has neither shape nor any intelligible form... To Plotinus “the goal ever near was shown”: for his end and goal was to be united to, to approach the God who is over all things. Four times while I was with him [in Rome, 263-8 CE] he attained that goal, in an unspeakable actuality and not in potency only’. Porphyry himself ‘drew near and was united’ only once in his sixty-eight years (Porphyry, Life 23). Plotinus himself tells us: ‘I have come to that supreme actuality, setting myself above all else in the realm of Intellect. Then after that rest in the divine, when I have come down from Intellect to discursive reasoning, I am puzzled how I ever came down’ (Enn. IV 8, 1).
One might attempt to reduce this language of ascent and descent by thinking of the One as actuality itself, the very quick of the real, and union with it as coincidence with the true nature of things – to be reached then not by climbing a hierarchical ladder but by putting away limiting modes of thought and perception and letting the nature of reality manifest itself in the here and now. We encounter the One beyond being in the very midst of being as the sustainer of its being. Union with the One is the coincidence of our centre with the centre of reality: hôsper kentrô kentron synapsas (Enn. VI 9, 10). The ascents of Platonism become metaphors for a more immanentist understanding of the spiritual quest, in which the superior summo meo is shown to be identical with the interior intimo meo (Confessions III 11). But there is a limit to such readings, posed by Plotinus himself in his insistence on the transcendent identity of the One. Phenomenologists let loose on Neoplatonic texts often use Erl-king hermenutics: ‘Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt’! Plotinus sounds temptingly phenomenological when he states that the One is not conceived, but given: ‘Awareness of the One is neither by way of reasoned knowledge (epistêmê) nor by way of intellection (noêsis) like the other intelligibles, but by a presence superior to knowledge (kata parousian epistêmês kreittona)’ (Enn. VI 9, 4 [2-4]). Does this not recall what Heidegger says about the granting of the presence of being, the Ereignis in which Es gibt Sein? But Plotinus’s sturdy metaphysics gets in the way of a phenomenological reduction of his thought: the One is unambiguously identified as a hypostasis other than the beings that depend on it, and Plotinus formally rejected non-hypostatic understandings (Enn. V 6, 3). Reiner Schurmann’s effort to interpret the One as a non-substantive donative process that can be correlated with the Ereignis runs aground on this objection. As Jean-Marc Narbonne points out, Plotinus’s thought does not culminate in ‘some absence or withdrawal of the foundation, but rather in the representation of an absolute foundation, since the One is for him the infinite foundation of all possible finites’.
Bergson sought a ‘dynamic schema’ sympathetic to his own thought in Plotinus, for the cosmos unfolded in Plotinus (and in Proclus and Damascius) is a mobile one, made up of events rather than static entities. For instance, of the Nous Plotinus tells us that ‘its seeing is its substance’ (Enn. V 3, 10); likewise, the activity of the One is its hypostasis (Enn. VI 8, 7 ; 8, 13 [7-8]). In Neoplatonism, ‘philosophy is nothing other than knowledge of the soul with all the functions that make it up and the presences they imply’. Yet there is a solid backbone of fixed ontological status as well, which for Bergson ‘comprised the most fundamental error of the metaphysical tradition, the misrepresentation of life and movement in intellectual stability’. Though Neoplatonist involvement in the world of form has to do with spiritual liberation, it is also motivated by metaphysical ambition of the most thorough and classical kind. Buddhist concern with forms and words is more disinterestedly soteriological, guided by a principle of therapeutic compassion. In both traditions there is a concern to uphold the validity of the conventional world, in full awareness of its flimsy status. Nâgârjuna upholds the provisional validity of conventionalities that have no ultimate reality, including the teachings of Buddhism, for the reason that they are the means by which emptiness is known, and that to scrap them would be to fall into nihilism and to hypostasize emptiness itself as an object of clinging. As Buddhists worried about an absolutism of emptiness, Neoplatonists worried about an absolutism of the One that would foster a nihilistic contempt for the world of form and language. That was part of the threat represented by the Gnostics, to whom Plotinus says: ‘It does no good at all to say, “Look to God”, unless one also teaches how one is to look’ (Enn. II 9, 15). But the Buddhist accent on emptiness releases it from those features of Neoplatonism that disappointed Bergson.
An alluring possibility is held out by Damascius’s theory of the Ineffable; for this lies beyond the One and is not to be thought of as foundation, or indeed in any way at all, yet is the object of a mute sensibility. John Dillon tentatively proposes that something like Heidegger’s Es gibt is emerging here. But it seems that the Ineffable is really not other than the One. The One is our attempt to conceive this ineffable ultimate, a conjectural projection, but though we groan in travail we never succeed in ridding the conception of the aporiai that prey on it. The reality envisaged in this helpless talk of the One and the Ineffable is in any case the ultimate condition required by metaphysical reason, though now no longer nameable as principle or One or even Ineffable. With regard to the latter point, Augustine counsels that it leads to a futile pugna verborum that is ‘to be shunned by silence rather than allayed by speech’ (De Doct. Chr. I 6). Whether Damascius’s aporetics of ineffability reveal only an ultimate sterile formalism in the Platonic model of negative theology depends on the degree to which they are associated with phenomenological attention to the presence of ultimate reality. If he does not enact such a phenomeenological turn, then the most that can be said is that here the structure of onto-theology runs aground on its inability to put the supreme principle in place, and consigns us instead to a nescient groping and divination. In contrast, Heidegger’s ‘step back’ to the phenomena does not begin at the summit of metaphysics but with the oversights at its base. It is not surprising that Heidegger had an affinity with Zen, the form of Buddhism most concerned with cleaving to the phenomena. Critical theology today cannot rest content with an apophaticism that overcomes metaphysics at its summit, but needs to query anew the formation of the most elementary kataphatic utterances. The ‘laddering’ of apophatic awareness in contemporary philosophy, in an Ockhamite sense of the ineffability of common singulars and of the fragile and inadequate status of common words, can only increase the theologian’s sense of the gap between the makeshift quality of religious languages and the postulated simplicity of the ultimate. The groaning of Damascius is no longer confined to the upper echelons of reflection on the One, but attends the task of articulation from the very start.
If language is problematic and inadequate, that can also allow us greater freedom in our use of it. Thus A.H. Armstrong suggests that the ultimate reality in Neoplatonism need not aloways be rigourously designated as ‘beyond being’ – that is only one manner of speaking, in a given context. The ultimate can equally be identified as the pure act of being, as in Porphyry, and it may be that Plotinus himself went along with this:
In studying Plotinus, and all authentic Neoplatonic thought, one needs to remember continually that the two great negations of Being and Thought (which, as the later Neoplatonists make clear, must themselves be negated) are not designed to project the mind into void and unconsciousness but to liberate it, in the end, from its own theology (a liberation which must sometimes be sought by violent and paradoxical means) and wake it to the presence of God. Once this has been understood, then Being for a Neoplatonist can take its place as an iconic name, a signpost on the way, alongside One, the Good, and Nothing, and the Unsayable, or that variant of the last to which Patricia Cox Miller has rightly drawn our attention, the Sayable-only-in-Gibberish.
Such a relativization of names brings Neoplatonism close to Buddhism and a phenomenology of emptiness. From Heidegger’s point of view it could compound the forgetfulness of being, precisely because of its focus on ultimacy and its reduction of finite beings and words to traces of that ultimacy. In practice, Neoplatonism pays little attention to the presence of common beings and is far from being ‘faithful to the earth’ as Heidegger, following Nietzsche, wishes to remain.
The pure act of being had a glorious career in medieval scholasticism, with little yield for specifically Heideggerian concerns. Yet Eckhart, whom we met above as transcending the concrete manifestations of God towards the purely indeterminate ocean of the deity, might be read in another way, as transcending names and forms to come closer to the phenomena, to what is nearest to hand. Set in the context of a Christian life centered on humble, biblical imitatio Christi, his radical aphairesis of God-language could be an expression of down to earth realism, serving to keep free the relation to the living God. His quest of the naked essence of divinity could be only a hyperbolic way of expressing impatience with abstract conceptions that prevent access to the presence of the divine here and now. Eckhart’s apophatic language is that of a Lebemeister more than a Lesemeister. Eckhart’s negation of truth and knowing, the good and the will, of being itself and of the very name ‘God’, is sustained by a conatus that must have controlled the energies of his life as well as of his speech, hard as it is for us to imagine this: ‘every veil is removed... including the veil of the good, under which the will accepts, the veil of the true, with which the intellect accepts, and universally the veil of being itself’ (tollitur omne velamen..., sicut etiam velamen boni, sub quo accipit voluntas, velamen veri, cum quo accipit intellectus,et universaliter velamen ipsius esse; LW IV, p. 114). Just as within the Buddhist tradition Zen brings the idea of emptiness down to earth, one might see Meister Eckhart as effecting a phenomenological turn to being, the being of common things, within the Neoplatonic tradition. Heidegger recognized that Eckhart’s writings were especially pregnant with phenomenological suggestion for a thinking of being, insofar as Eckhart made the innermost esse of beings a theme of contemplative awareness and sought thus ‘to transform into mysticism the natural theology of St. Thomas’.
Eckhart’s Augustinian ‘interiorization of the apophatic plunge towards the ineffable’ brings further phenomenological enhancement. Other Augustinian thinkers would interest Heidegger less, since their phenomenology lacks specifically ontological resonance. Above all we need to recall the practical bearing of Eckhartian aphairesis, a quite Zenlike trait. Apophatic theology is not a matter of worrying about the credentials of our religious language. It is a very active kind of theology, in which the apophatic reflections are accompanied by aphairetic gestures, by removals, divestments, renunciations, affecting the actual existence of the theologian. The ebullition of the divine being, of which Eckhart so surprisingly speaks, was reflected in his own cheerful energy as he combined action and contemplation (an idea dear to Stanislas Breton, himself the most ebullient of negative theologians).
Despite, or perhaps rather because of its mystical aspirations, Neoplatonism provides the most perfectly constituted metaphysical systems of antiquity. For the vision of ultimate reality does not exclude engagement with words and forms, whether as a preparatory gymnastic, a pedagogic device, a contemplative elevation – the coursing of eros through all the living beautiful forms of the universe until it reaches the summit – , or simply a celebration of the abundance that has come into being through the infinite potency of the One, defined as dynamis panton (Enn. V 3, 13 ). And as this play is developed it yields increasingly comprehensive visions of the whole chain of being, built around the structure of the nine hypotheses in the Parmenides, which are fleshed out with the cosmology and psychology of the Timaeus. The structure of negative theology as founded by Plato and perfected by Plotinus can be regarded as an onto-theo-logy, as can its Jewish and Christian derivatives insofar as they place the encounter with the God of Exodus atop a hierarchical chain of being. The ultimate pole in this system, the One, lies beyond all finite structures of being, which nonetheless depend on it. The grounding and integrating role of a supreme being is largely taken over by the second level of reality, the level of the Ideas or the Nous, leaving the One utterly transcendent in its inviolable simplicity. The flagrant exception constituted by Plotinus’s discourse on the One as causa sui (aition heautou, Enn. VI 8, 14 ) is relativized by the way Plotinus uses the expression hoion (as it were) to put his bold speculation ‘under erasure’. Proclus firmly rejects talk of a self-grounding of the One (Elements of Theology, par. 40).
To what extent is the Plotinian One a release from cosmic structures rather than their kingpin, their pinnacle and foundation? Those structures originate in contemplation of the One and one is completely released from them, and from the metaphysical language that maps them, when one is converted back to union with the One which is beyond difference or form. Buddhism takes cosmic order more lightly than Platonism: the breakthrough to ultimacy occurs when we overcome polarizing discriminations between high and low, good and bad. Buddhist cosmological hierarchies are correlated with levels of spiritual attainment. Movement from lower to higher realms and back is easier than in the West, precisely because the ontological status of the different beings is so much a function of their karmic attainments. Nirvana is not ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ the samsaric world structured by karma, but is simply ‘release’ from the delusions and clinging that keep samsara in business. Much of this could be true, mutatis mutandis, of the ontological speculations of Plotinus, if read as an analysis of the texture of our present being, moving from more superficial to more profound levels of phenomenality.
One might argue that the One represents a space of freedom that lies beyond the ratiocinations of onto-theo-logy. The ascent to the One could be seen as giving metaphysics the slip, and as a leap to the ‘groundless ground’ of which Heidegger. But as we have already seen the One, unlike Being in Heidegger, is a hypostasis, though one without substance (ousia). ‘How does the god come into philosophy?’ is answered at the second level, where the god figures as the self-thinking Mind of Aristotle, or at the third level, Soul, to which its demiurgic functions are delegated (Enn. V 1, 2). The One does not come into philosophy, but frustrates and dislodges all philosophical speech, and can be spoken of positively only in a broken language of ‘so to say’ (hoion) as in Enneads VI 8. The One overcomes metaphysics, as a reality too powerful for the feeble instruments of metaphysical reason. Yet the One is still envisaged and located from within the onto-theo-logical horizon. It is the rational, philosophical quest for founding principles that permits the sighting of an ultimate principle that transcends the horizon of philosophical reason. In Plotinus at least, the link of the One with the Intellect that contemplates it and depends on it is too intimate to be dissolved. If that link is broken, the One becomes totally indeterminate, and we are back at square one – which does not amount to a Heideggerian return to die Sache selbst. One might say that the One is the figure that nirvanic ultimacy assumes when apprehended by the Greek mind, as that which eludes it grasp.
It seems that before the decisive rationalism of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, metaphysical thinking about the supreme principle oscillated between a desire for full rational grounding and a willingness to abide with the ineffable, sometimes erring in one direction, sometimes in the other. (Even Descartes is still torn, Marion argues, between rational control of God as causa sui and the loss of such control when God is conceived as infinite.) Our later experience of achieved metaphysical rationalism, and of the many movements that have sought to overcome metaphysics in the name of the empirical data or the phenomenological given, opens rich critical and hermeneutical perspectives on the ancient texts, which so far have been only timidly exploited by historical scholarship in theology and philosophy.
Negative Theology and Deconstruction
The once-popular exercises of reading Plotinus as a philosopher of mind anticipating Hegel (Bréhier) or as one who overcomes metaqphysics in advance of Heidegger (Aubenque, Schurmann) have yielded more recently to the idea that Neoplatonism is a form of deconstruction, an exploration of la différance (with Derrida, accordingly, featured as the leading negative theologian of our time). The texts of Plotinus, which offer not flat exposition but constant passionate rethinking of basic premisses, are sufficiently varied to offer a semblance of support for each of these readings. Jeffrey Fisher, having noted that in negative theology, ‘negations do not convert simply to affirmations, even of transcendent versions of the negated quality’, goes on to give this an anti-logocentric spin: ‘all the way up to the highest possibility of similarity there remains an aporetic dissimilarity that prevents the final presencing of God’s logos’. It is true that language is left in an aporetic state (as Damascius in particular emphasizes), but that does not exclude a presencing of God in the ultimate silence in which one is ‘alone with the Alone’. As to God’s logos, the logoi of God in the Pseudo-Dionysius are dynamic communicative events (though a certain Cratylian essentialism in Proclus’s view of language may be reflected in the way Dionysius puts the hieroi logoi on a singular pedestal). But it did not enter his head to seek a final presencing of logos; to attribute to him that desire is to intrude a Derridian schema on the historical texts. Neoplatonism is not a logocentrism, but it is a centrism – the center being the ineffable One which is touched with the center of one’s soul in a suspension of the entire dimension of logos. The later recuperation of negative theology by subordinating it to the via eminentiae might be described as a victory for logocentrism. Even Eckhart, under Thomist influence, accepts this subordination, at least on one level.
Some negative theologians are more radical than others. Opposing Porphyry, who saw negative theology merely as a reflection of the weakness of our intelligence before the plenitude of divine being, Proclus states that even the highest Nous knows the One only by negations. But Proclus is not quite as enthusiastic a negator as his heirs Damascius and Dionysius. He emphasizes that negations manifest the One and in addition found the lower realm of assertions: ‘If, then, it is nothing of those things which it produces, and it produces everything, it is no one of all things. If, then, we know all things through assertions, we reveal the nature of that entity by negation from each other thing in the universe, and thus this form of negation is productive of the multiplicity of assertions’. His aphairesis is what Michel de Certeau would call une rupture instauratrice. Dionysius doesn’t seem anxious to follow Proclus in assuring a determinative, and thus in a sense affirmative, function and upshot to apophasis, but seems closer to Damascius, who interprets apophasis as registering only the impotence of language before the ultimate, which can be intuited only in silence. The rupture of apophasis in Damascius is a perpetual rupture, never converting into an instauration. The ways of affirmation and negation do not determine the nature of the ultimate silence in Damascius; at best they prepare it by clearing away all speech as an irrelevance. One scholar dramatically sees Dionysius and Damascius as representing an unwholesome extreme in the Platonic tradition, as the end-point of a decline of the Greek Logos into silence. It is true that Proclus, too, ends with a radical aphairesis of all language as one falls silent before the One, yet in his writing the One retains a more determinate identity than Damascius’s Ineffable. In Proclus, ‘the negation of negation is sublation as consummation, not elimination of the striving of thought toward the One’, so that the One is ‘ground and origin of word and silence’. Pushing these suppositions farther, one might suppose that Damascius in denying the value of language might appeal to Buddhists, for his thought ‘treads the void’ of the Ineffable, whereas Proclus finally comes to rest in the presence of the One, comparable to the Vedantic Brahman; alternatively, Buddhists might see Proclus’s care for language and thought as a responsible concern for conventionalities over against Damascius’s negative extreme. Insofar as language becomes a field of aporetic research for Damascius rather than the means for the orderly unfolding of an ontotheological system as in Proclus, he is the negative theologian closest to Derrida. But again there is a big difference: Damascius can leave language aside and turn to the unknown God in prayerful abandon, whereas Derrida wants to insist that even prayer is caught up in the aporetic structure of language: ‘Thus, at the moment when the question “How to avoid speaking?” arises, it is already too late. There was no longer any question of not speaking. Language has started without us, in us and before us. This is what theology calls God’. Against any logos anchored in an absolute signified beyond language, Derrida proclaims the reabsorption of God in language. The only ‘transcendence’ he explores is the reaching of the signifier after a constantly receding signified, in the play of dissemination. That aporetic milieu is not unfamiliar to contemporary theologians, as they mull over the conflicted repertory of God-language, finding in it more an endless play of signifiers than a sure closure with the Signified. The negativity of this cannot be blithely assumed into an edifying apophatic schema, but leaves talk about God in a condition of irremediable brokenness. That could be the mark of a certain incarnational authenticity which writers like the Pseudo-Dionysius are felt to lack.
Jean-Luc Marion claims that for Derrida, ‘if différance is to “differ” from “negative theology”, it must be shown that the latter always remains subject to a privileging of presence’. Derrida is unlikely to be abashed by the reminder that the ‘hyper’ epithets attached to God (or to the One) in apophatic theology do not signify a supersubstantiality, a restoration of presence on a higher level, but have a purely negative sense, indicating that God is ‘beyond’ being and knowledge; they are ‘a negation (aphairesis) of transcendence’ (DN II 3; 640B). ‘In outward expression they possess the form of the affirmative, but in meaning the force of the negative... “It is superessential”, says not what it is but what it is not; for it says that it is not essence but more than essence, but what that is which is more than essence it does not reveal’ (Eriugena, Periphyseon I, 462C-D; trans. Sheldon-Williams). ‘Unknowability, known as such, disqualifies any possible primacy of presence over God’. Even Thomas Aquinas eludes the stucture of onto-theo-logy: ‘If being remains an inconceivable esse, without analogy, and indeed penitus incognitum, then the mere intervention of being does not suffice to establish an onto-theo-logy’.. ‘God is emptiness of essence’.
Despite all this it is clear that apophatic theology aims to bring us into the presence of ultimate reality, or of the divine distance, whereas différance works to problematize any such quest or discovery. Likewise, when Jeffrey Fisher claims that ‘the process does not bring us back to where we started; rather, it places us prior to the beginning, before knowledge, before signs and symbols, before thought’,[48 ] this has less to do with différance than he supposes, for différance is irremediably entangled in the play of signifiers. As John Caputo points out, if negative theology seeks something ‘so really real that we are never satisfied simply to say that it is merely real’ whereas différance ‘is less than real, not quite real, never gets as far as being or entity or presence, which is why it is emblematized by insubstantial quasi-beings like ashes and ghosts which flutter between existence and nonexistence, or with humble khora, say, rather than with the prestigious Platonic sun’; it is ‘but a quasi-transcendental anteriority, not a supereminent, transcendent ulteriority’. The contrast between Dionysian transcendence and Derridian transdescendence might recall Damascius’s contrast between those who think the nothingness beyond being, the Ineffable, and those who deal with the void of pure nihility: ‘If that (the Ineffable) is nothing, then must nothingness be twofold, that which is superior to the One and that which is below. If in saying these things we are treading the void, then there are also two kinds of treading the void, the one emerging into the Ineffable, the other into what does not exist in any way at all; this too indeed is ineffable as Plato says, but by way of defect, whereas the former is so by way of excellence’. But here again Derrida eludes metaphysical placement. He rejoins a theme in Plato that the Neoplatonists could make little of, the khora, which is neither beyond being nor beneath being, and he uses it to relativize and problematize metaphysical constructions of the absolute and the void: ‘As the very opening of the space in which ontotheology – philosophy – produces its system and its history, it includes onto-theology, inscribing it and exceeding it without return’. Contemporary theologians will gladly admit that God is penitus incognitum but with the sense that there is very little mileage to be got out of that idea. In the Middle Ages divine incomprehensibility had a place – at the ultimate summit of reality – but today we cannot meaningfully locate it. Marion can do so only by a restoration of archaic frameworks. There is a sense that our language about God has become spectral, a matter of remnants and remains, and that tuning in to this altered status is the key to a new style of tactful and persuasive religious eloquence.
III. NEGATIVE THEOLOGY AND THE GOSPEL
Christianity, even before the encounter with Platonism, inherits from Jewish visionary sources the idea of an ascent to God: Paul is ‘caught up to the third heaven’ (2 Cor. 12.2). The ascent is always enabled by divine grace, often spoken of as elevating nature to the supernatural level. So deeply was the idea that ‘God is above’ ingrained in the Christian imagination that when liberal theologians redefined God as ‘the beyond in our midst’ (Robinson) or ‘the ground of our being’ (Tillich) it seemed a daring, liberating move. Yet Christian incarnationalism roots all mystical aspirations in the here and now, and even more than Buddhism sends one back to the realm of words and forms. God is present in the Holy Spirit, active in the immediacy of the here and now, and this presence is always associated with the incarnational economy, in which words and forms are instruments of salvation.
Christian spirituality has been characterized in terms of an opposition or synthesis between the Platonic ascent of Eros to the world of the Forms, or to the Form of Forms, the Good, identified with the One ‘beyond mind and beyond being’ (epekeina nou kai ousias), and the biblical descent of divine Agape into our fleshly and sinful world, where it is received as forgiveness and grace. The oriental conception of contemplation as simply awakening to reality, right where we are, seems at first to contradict both the Platonic and the biblical approaches, for it neither ascends to an ideal realm with Plato nor embraces the saving grace of God with Paul. But as we have seen, the One of Plotinus need not be thought of as ‘up there’; it is the simplicity of what is most immediate, and one puts aside language and thought only in order to be freed to apprehend its nearness. Likewise, divine transcendence in Christianity need not imply the image of some quasi-spatial gulf needing to be bridged by ladders up and down. God is the reality that is simplest and that is nearest to hand. Luke has Paul quote Epimenides: ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17.28). If grace elevates, its more fundamental operation is to free us from bondage to sin and the Law, and this is a event in the here and now which in Paul seems to be a topic of contemplative approfondissement. The indwelling of God, Christ or the Spirit in the believers is evoked in terms that recall the realization of the identity of âtman and Brahman or of immanent Buddha nature (Gal. 2.20, and the Johannine language of mutual indwelling).
One of the most tiring features of the style of the Pseudo-Dionysius is his rhetoric of elevation: ‘Let us raise ourselves then by our prayers to the exalted summit of those divine and good rays’ as if grasping ‘a multi-luminous chain hanging from the height of heaven’ whereby ‘we will raise ourselves to the highest shinings of the exalted and multi-luminous rays’ (DN III 1; 680C). What is the phenomenological correlative of this diction? One thinks of the Platonic bedazzlement before the sun of the Good, echoed in Augustine and many other writers. One recognizes a liturgically inflected reverence and awe before the transcendent God: ‘His speech is like a solemn liturgy in which the celebrant makes visible the greatness of the all-holiest, by again and again making himself small in genuflexions and prostrations’. His hierarchical imagination piled range on range of ascending orders of being, and located God as ever beyond and above them, to be reached by an excessus of mystical transport. Yet the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies are also a ladder of divine Agape reaching down from heaven to earth.
The dialectic between the kataphatic and apophatic theologies should not be thought of as a game of ping-pong that goes on for ever (V. Lossky). They are ladders that can be cast away when they have accomplished their function of freeing us for the presence of God. This is revered in silence; but there is also a role for language, no longer used in a doggedly predicative or scrupulously qualifying way, but almost as a babble, expressing a loving response to that which has revealed itself, a response that comes from a level deeper than words. This language of praise is a mode of intuitive attunement. It will use scriptural names, which have become charged with a new significance, as when Augustine cries: ‘Tu es deus meus’ (Confessions VII 16). It is a language ‘in homology with the Name’, ‘homogeneous with Love’. The positive and negative paths culminate in this reception of the divine names as a gift of grace, a language of love, whereby we are situated before God. These names are proper names, which do not give knowledge of the divine essence: ‘A proper name is never a name of the essence’, but rather ‘marks its absence, its anonymity, and its withdrawal – exactly as every name dissimulates every individual, whom it only indicates, without ever manifesting him’. The divine names license no propositional utterances about God but merely enable us ‘to aim in the direction of..., to refer ourselves to..., to behave in respect to..., to count with..., in short to have to do with’. ‘The Name inscribes us in the very horizon of God’. Theology issues in the practical use of the names in the act of prayer: ‘The third way comes into play beyond the oppositions of affirmation and negation, synthesis and separation, in short the true and the false’, transgressing ‘the two truth-values between which the entire logic of metaphysics is exerted’. ‘God remains incomprehensible but not imperceptible, without a concept that can grasp him adequately, but not without being given in an intuition’ .
Apophatic theology attains its goal in this attunement to the reality of God and to one’s own reality as standing in God’s grace. The Neoplatonists had already explored this realm, and it is no accident that it was Plotinus who first gave Augustine access to it. That God eludes conceptual grasp but is given in intuition is a fundamental Neoplatonic tenet: ‘the One as most intensive actuality is not to be spoken of with categories that may apply to the realm of the many’ (Proclus). Everything that Dionysius says about kataphatic and apophatic language comes from Proclus, even up to the fine point that the negative dialectic of hyper ends in the negation of negations themselves, so that one falls silent before the ultimate, which is beyond affirmation and negation: ipsas negationes removit ab uno (In Parm. VII 72, 1). Dionysius agrees with Proclus that ‘the negation of negation frees thinking from being and non-being... One must transcend even the thinking that negates, so as to become as like as possible to the origin’. What lies beyond affirmation and negation is not their synthesis. Rather, the two paths clear a space for the emergence of something quite independent of them: the intuition of the One in its pure simplicity (Proclus), or the Cause that is ‘above all privations and above all negating and positing (aphairesin kai thesin)’ (MTh I 2; 1000B).
Even the issuance of negative theology in an act of prayer is Proclean: ‘we are always praying in the substance of our soul, beneath the fluctuations of our consciousness. There is a prayer inscribed in the very spontaneity of our being... an indissoluble communication with the divine’. This is not Aristotle’s euchê, a demand that grammatically is neither affirmation nor negation, but it has an affirmative thrust that lies deeper than verbal affirmation or negation. Dionysius’s development of the idea of divinization according to the measure of one’s hierarchical capacities is also derived from Proclus (and it not as connected with the Incarnation as in 2 Peter 1.4, Irenaeus and Athanasius). Of course, as a post-Nicene Christian, Dionysius ‘telescopes’ all Proclus’s divine entities into the one God, who utterly transcends all the created triads and hierarchies. Yet he manages more than any other Christian thinker to introduce the Plotinian sense of ‘God without being’, not only at the level of rhetoric but in the theory that God is essentially above being, and is called the One Who Is only because ‘the before being and the above being pre-possesses and superlatively possesses all being, that is, being in itself’ (DN V 5; 820B; see also XI 6).
The Persistence of Onto-theo-logy in Christian Apophaticism
Janet Soskice, at the Castelli colloquium of January 2002, suggested that Philo’s concern with naming God redirects negative theology in a fundamentally Jewish direction. However, the Platonic thought-form underlying negative theology is not easily subjected to the very different perspectives of biblical faith, even – or perhaps especially – when the phenomenological immediacy of the Platonic encounter with the One is brought out. Philo’s concern with the divine names is indeed very Jewish, yet his stress on divine unnameability is rather unbiblical (despite Gen. 32.29; Exod. 3.14; Judges 13.18; Prov. 30.4). It is probably linked to the absence of the name YHWH in the Septuagint. Unbiblical, too, are the rational explanations Philo offers of such titles as ‘Lord’ and ‘God’. The Jewish sense of the divine names as themselves the shield of divine transcendence is lacking in Philo. Or it has become confused with a Hellenistic sense that the purity of the One is preserved by consigning involvement with lower cosmic levels to subordinate entities such as the Powers or angels (the equivalent of Plato’s mediating daimones). At a certain point the Platonic tradition of divine ineffability becomes an obstacle to articulating the biblical sense of transcendence. Plato forestalls Philo in stating not only that the One is not rhêton (Ep. VII 341C), but also that it has no onoma (Parmenides 142A); that it is arrhêton is repeated by Alcinoos (Didaskalikos X 1 and 4); and Maximus of Tyre insists that God is unnameable (Diss. XVII 9). Philo’s effort to articulate biblical transcendence is again and again recuperated by the thought-patterns of Hellenistic paideia, in which his rhetorical proficiency and impeccable Greek style show him to be thoroughly groomed. Adapting Harnack’s profound thesis about dogma, we might say that Philo’s thought is ‘a product of the Greek mind on the soil of the Torah’. It might be argued that the fundamentally Platonic structures of apophatic theology, including especially the eros language of the Phaedrus and the Symposium, come more to the fore again in his Christian successors.
Did Dionysius force Christian revelation into the mould provided by Greek onto-theology, or did he powerfully reshape the Neoplatonic vision, putting it at the service of the biblical God? To all such questions, whether addressed to Philo, Origen or any of the Greek Fathers, the answer cannot be a simple yes or no. In each case there is a mutual deconstruction of the Hellenistic and biblical elements, and the results call for nuanced critical appreciation. Luther, who had rediscovered the forgiveness of sins as the core of the Gospel, was particularly sensitive to the way that classical Christian texts tended to occlude this founding event. His assessment of the Corpus Dionysiacum in De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae should not be shrugged off:
In Theologia vero mystica, quam sic inflant ignorantissimi quidam Theologistae, etiam pernitiosissimus est, plus platonisans quam Christianisans, ita ut nollem, fidelem animum his libris operam dare vel minimam. Christum ibi adeo non disces, ut, si etiam scias, amittas. Expertus loquor. Paulum potius audiamus, ut Iesum Christum, et hunc crucifixum, discamus. Haec est enim via, vita et veritas, haec scala per quam venitur ad patrem. ‘Dionysius is also most pernicious in his Mystical Theology, which certain ignorant theologists make so much of. He Platonizes rather than Christianizes, so much so that I would wish the faithful mind to give no attention to these books. Rather than helping you to know Christ they are likely to make you lose what knowledge you have. I speak from experience. Let us listen rather to Paul, that we may come to know Jesus Christ and him crucified. For this is the way, the truth and the life, this the ladder by which one comes to the Father’. (WA 6:562).
Luther casts aside the Dionysian ladder, just as John replaces Jacob’s ladder with the figure of the incarnate Christ (Jn 1.51). Luther’s reference to John 14.6 recalls Christ’s dismantling of the disciples’ demands for mystical maps – ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?’ (Jn 14.5) – and for a vision of God – ‘Lord, show us the Father’ (14.8). Many Protestant theologians believe that this recall to the sole sufficiency of the incarnate economy delegitimizes mysticism, which can only be a presumptuous human effort to lift oneself by the bootstraps, bypassing the revealed path of faith. A phenomenological reduction of Dionysius’s language of elevation to a more immanentist language of rejoining one’s reality in the here and now only goes half way to meet the dissatisfaction contemporary Christians feel with these texts. What is needed in addition is an evangelical reduction which will bring Dionysius into clearer accord with Christ crucified. ‘For Paul and many orthodox interpreters, such as John Chrysostom and John of Scythopolis, negative language about God is not itself a means of ascent, but is meant rather to turn one’s sights from the divine transcendence “down” to the revelation of God as incarnate in Christ, indeed, in Christ crucified’.
Anders Nygren formulates a severe and plausible critique of the Dionysian vision. ‘If Augustine’s Caritas is a new conception based on both Eros and Agape, we can hardly say there is anything but simple confusion in Dionysius: the Eros motif has inundated Christianity, and Christianity is literally absorbed in Neoplatonic Eros theory’. Proclus had already introduced the idea that: ‘Eros descends from above, from the intelligible sphere down to the cosmic, and turns all things towards the Divine beauty’ (Alcibiades Commentary, ed. Cousin II 141), a statement Nygren finds ‘almost incredible in a Platonist’: ‘that Eros should stream down from above as a divine gift is an idea of which the original Eros theory was totally ignorant’ and which may be due to influence from Christianity. But the ‘agapeic’ elements in Platonic eros may be more extensive than Nygren admits. When the lover ascends ‘as on the rungs of a ladder’ (Symposium 211C) to the vision of the ever-existent is he not also passing to increasingly less self-seeking forms of love? And is there not a touch of grace in the way the supernal realm gives itself to be known? Eros is characterized as a great daimon ‘interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men’ (202E). It is on this Platonic economy of grace that Proclus builds, as he makes Eros a cosmic ladder, the bond of the universe. This makes luminous sense to Dionysius, whereas the biblical vocabulary of agape had become opaque to him and he supposes the biblical authors avoided the proper name of love out of fear that foolish people would think of the vulgar rather than the heavenly Eros. Eros and agape are synonymous; indeed, ‘it has seemed to some of our sacred authors that the name of eros is more divine than that of agape’ (DN 4.12).
The chief difference from Proclus is that Dionysius’s ultimate is the biblical God, who elicits a response of prayer, praise, trust. Dionysius effects a Christian sublation or overcoming of Neoplatonic structures insofar as he confers a personal face and name on the impersonal absolute, but this process is incomplete and threatened in his writings, and the evangelical reduction builds on it and completes it, often sacrificing Dionysius’s more piquant Neoplatonic tenets. This process of saving Dionysius from himself has been going on since John of Scythopolis and Maximus the Confessor. Today Marion presents an image of Dionysius that even Luther and Barth might find acceptable. Indeed, he transforms the hyper-exalted God of Dionysius into the sovereign God of Calvin. The hierarchical structures are reduced to the figure of Christ crucified before the divine distance, along with a somewhat archaic insistence on the hierarchical status of the bishop within the Church. The vitalism of the Dionysian universe – ‘ou la vie afflue et s’agite sans cesse’ – (see DN IV 2; VI 3), yields to a biblical, almost desertic, drama of call and gift. The pervasive light-imagery is replaced with a sober iconography of transcendence. The figure of Christ crucified, that fits so awkwardly into Dionysius’s world, become its very centre in Marion’s creative retrieval. The energies of Eros that circulate in the Dionysian system are brought back within the circle of Johannine Agape and communion. Dionysius’s eros-language now serves ‘to designate the coming to us of a withdrawal’. Marion identifies the transcendence of the biblical God and his agapeic gift of himself in his Names, rather than the Proclean theory of cosmic eros, as the ground-structure of the Dionysian universe. The infinite withdrawal or ungraspability of the ultimate is identified with the freedom of the biblical God, who graciously makes himself known in his creations, in his names, and in the logia of Scripture. Marion biblicizes the Dionysian Cause (aitia) when he speaks of it as ‘summoning’ beings to participate in it. But even this could be extremely Hellenistic, for oracles and logia play a great role in Neo-Platonism too.
But even when stripped of its Hellenistic garments, the Dionysian posture of reverence for the divine distance has a narrow and archaic cast. The biblical revelation of God as we understand it today is far more dynamic and far-reaching than this cult of one or two figures of the divine. As a theologian, Dionysius is less capacious than the Cappadocians, and indeed may be suspected of the age-old ploy of using apophaticism as a pretext for signing off from theological discussions, as when he says of the Trinity: ‘In what manner these things are, it is possible neither to say nor to know’ (DN II 7; 645B). On the ultimate level dogmatic language falls silent, but on the level of conventional kataphasis we may expect Dionysius to uphold it as he upholds the divine names, and indeed he does so in Christological passages (EH III 440C-444D; Ep. IV). Trinitarian teaching is respectfully received from its scriptural source, but it does not become a living strand in his thought (see DN II 2 640A-B). Following a tradition of bolstering trinitarian and incarnational suggestions in the Dionysian text, Marion reads into it a theodrama that has little relation to biblical realities: ‘The Son is He who loses ceaselessly and from all eternity his life for the Father, and who, by the very fact, saves it ceaselessly and from all eternity, in receiving himself from the Father as his eldest Son’. He stretches the incarnational reading to implausible lengths: ‘With the logia the Logos in person delivers himself... The privilege of the logia... depends on the kenosis of the Son and attests it in its way’. Dionysius already received such biblical and doctrinal injections from his earliest annotator, John of Scythopolis. Even if one consistently translates ‘thearchy’ as ‘Trinity’ the role of the Trinity in the economy of salvation is rather blurred in Dionysius. Defenders of Dionysius’s trinitarianism unwittingly confirm this. Thus Jean Trouillard, a diehard Neoplatonist, criticizes Augustinian trinitarianism for ‘redoubling, on the pretext of grounding them in the Absolute, the distinctions inherent in the created mind. One of the weaknesses of the Augustinian tradition is that it falls short of the Plotinian exegesis of the Parmenides, failing to see that therein the demands of critique and of religious life converge to liberate Transcendence from all that belongs to the intelligible’. Werner Beierwaltes likewise lauds a certain speculative trinitarianism of Dionysius and Eriugena, but fails to assess its relation to the economic Trinity. The situation is similar with those who ascribe a vibrant incarnationalism to Dionysius, Ysabel De Andia claims that Jesus is at the heart of Dionysian ecstasy as self-surpassing and self-dispossession. But the suspicion remains that this is a Jesus shaped in function of a system. One might say that just as Dionysius can always find scriptural texts to bolster his insights, so the pattern of the mystical dynamic finds confirmation in a certain vision of the Cross but does not essentially derive from the New Testament kerygma. ‘The person of Christ is not missing in his system, but doesn’t at all have the significance that the name Christianity indicates and that in fact is assigned to him in revelation’; his role as Redeemer is limited, since sin is merely ‘a disturbance of the order of the hierarchically built world’. ‘To him, Christ the redeemer is above all the one in whom the divine and human analogy have coincided most perfectly – fulfilling the essential task of every creature’. ‘Unlike all the other fathers of the Christian tradition, the author of these mysterious writings is not pressed by existential concern with the grace that comes from God into the world and seeks to be operative there’.
In contrast, Gregory of Nyssa remains engaged in the thickets of scriptural exegesis and dogmatic clarification, so that the apophatic elements in his thought are anchored in the concrete experience of theology running up against the limits of language. Gregory aims less at Plotinian henôsis, union, than at homoiôsis, likeness, with God, in imitation of Christ, and he is not tempted to develop an economy which goes beyond or behind that of Scripture. The three theophanies in Exodus allow him to indicate the place of the negative in the quest for God: the burning bush shows – in very Platonic terms – that God alone truly is, and that earthly passions and cogitations are to be stripped away: ‘knowledge of being is purification from opinions about non-being’ (Life of Moses II 22); the vision of God in a dark cloud (Exod 20:21) shows that ‘the more the mind draws near to this knowledge, the more it sees the unknowability of the divine nature’ (II 162), in ongoing negation of the limits of its previous understanding; the vision of God’s back (Exod 33:23) suggests a development on the ladder of eros (II 227-32) with the conclusion (directed against Origen) that desire of God is never sated for its object is infinite; here negation of limits is a positive mark of the depth of divine being. What characterizes Gregory’s uses of apophasis is a sober, realistic view of human finitude; it goes together with a strong incarnational emphasis and a positive evaluation of signs and words as pointers to the infinite when used in metaphoric or symbolic style.
In Neoplatonism the embarrassment of language before the simplicity of the one is borne with as intrinsic to the travail of articulation: ‘We do indeed say something about it, but we certainly do not speak it, and we have neither knowledge nor thought of it... We say what it is not; what it is we do not say’ (Enn. V 3, 14); alla legomen kai graphomen (Enn. VI 9, 4 ). One is reminded of Beckett: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ (The Unnameable). This linguistic oscillation around the One is left behind at a higher stage for ‘the strain towards the One’ and this in turn is eliminated when the soul finally abides in silence with the One. Christian theology is less concerned with uttering the unutterable than with preserving the full resonance of the biblical language against a dry positivity on the one hand and dissolution in mystical evocations on the other. Dionysius is ill-protected against the latter danger, whereas Gregory of Nyssa can serve (in the context of his times) as a model of vigilance against both.
In Dionysius the divine distance is respected when we each abide in our place in the hierarchy of beings; that is, when we remain authentically where we are, neither falling through inattention nor rising in delusion. Identification with the incarnate Christ should then be our best access to divine transcendence. But it would take a lot of stretching to make Dionysius rejoin Luther here; Christ crucified is very marginal in the Dionysian universe. The existential, Pauline dynamic of grace and redemption is singularly diluted in this theology, or is even perfectly foreign to it. Spiritual ascent is enabled by God’s call, by the indwelling Eros in all creatures that responds to it, and by Christ the photagogue. Christ leads us to the light by identifying us with himself; it is in this context that Dionysius quotes Ignatius of Antioch: ‘My Eros has been crucified’ (Ad Rom. 7, 2; DN IV 12, 709B). The Incarnate economy fills out the Platonist structures, but does not attain sufficient autonomy to overcome them. The biblical inflection that differentiates Dionysius as specifically Christian has a smaller scope and in addition is affirmed less strongly than in Marion’s interpretation.
Marion has the Dionysian names chime with the Jewish theme of the Name, as a fence around the divine holiness. But is Dionysius really responding to this strain in biblical thought? Marion’s insistence on the biblical character of the divine names ignores the overwhelmingly Neo-Platonist character of Dionysian practice. As René Roques remarks: ‘In reality, if most of the attributes expounded are biblical, they are philosophical too, and in any case the manner in which they are philosophically expounded is more philosophical than biblical’. Adopting the perspective of the Eastern Church, Marion declares that ‘the work of the Greek Fathers consisted precisely in liberating the Christian theological concepts from the Greek (and perhaps the metaphysical) horizon, in which they originally arose’. Critical theology cannot simply adopt this monolithic conception of the ‘Greek Fathers’, which levels the differences between sturdily biblical thinkers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, who resist Hellenistic thought-forms, and intensive Hellenizers such as Origen, who positively reshapes originally non-Greek, non-metaphysical theological topics in a more Greek manner. The blanket approbation to the Greek Fathers as liberators of the Gospel from a Greek horizon is over-generous. Melanchthon’s critical stance inaugurates a tradition of discernment which should not be annulled: he has high praise for Irenaeus and Athanasius, who resisted the Platonic horizon in which the Gospel was enveloped – statim post ecclesiae auspicia per Platonicam philosophiam christiana doctrina labefactata est (Loci Communes 1521, I 6) – but he views Origen as diluting the Gospel in Pelagian moralism and John Damascene as too given to abstract philosophy. Such discernment brings out the interesting tensions in the texts and make them more instructive for the articulation of Christian faith today. Dionysius is at the far end of the Hellenizing spectrum, ‘the most extreme example of a Hellenization of Christianity’.
Very Hellenistic is the language in which Marion evokes the encounter with God: ‘Terror attests, in the mode of the forbidden, the insistent and unbearable excess of the intuition of God’. There may be such tremors in the text of Dionysius, though they are more evident in Gregory of Nyssa, who borrows from Enneads I 6, 4 the phrase thambos kai ekplexis, ‘stupor and panic’ (In Canticum, Hom. 6, ed. Langerbeck, p. 192), which seems to evoke an archaic Greek world. Scripture does have awesome cosmic theophanies that inspire fear and trembling (e.g. Job 38-41), but usually it inflects this primordial basis in an ethical and eschatological sense. The ‘terror of the Lord’ in parallel with ‘the glory of his majesty’ (Isaiah 2:10, 19) in scenes of divine judgment. In the Hellenistically tinged cult of mystical vertigo there is a risk that the dynamic whereby Scripture subjects the primeval sacred terror to a sober, covenantal ‘fear of the Lord’ will become undone.
In Luther the terror of death and judgment belongs to the opus alienum Dei, which is overcome in the opus proprium Dei, the forgiveness of sin. Barth has a milder version of Luther’s dialectic: ‘Between God and us stands God’s hiddenness, in which he is remote and strange to us, insofar as he does not of his own accord found and create fellowship between himself and us – and that happens not in actualization of our capacity but in the miracle of his gracious acceptance’ (Kirchliche Dogmatik II/1, p. 204). Barth criticizes the residue in Luther of an ‘unknown God’, a God hidden behind his revelation, to be feared and revered over and above our relation to God as revealed (pp. 236-7). In the revealed economy, it is not in virtue of infinity or aseity but as the God of grace that God is incomprehensible. Wonder, not terror, is the keynote in this awareness of a God who lovingly and preveniently encompasses us in a manner for which the best analogy is perhaps to be found in a Parmenidean awareness of how the ocean of Being encompasses all beings: ‘Ubique es tota praesens et non te video. In te moveor et in te sum et ad te non possum accedere’ (Anselm, Proslogion 16) – words which attest ‘not just any hiddenness, but that of the merciful and holy God’ (KD II/1, p. 215). Such wonder is lost, however, in classic theologians who ‘were not completely clear about whether the incomprehensibility of God was to be interpreted in terms that really came from Plato and Plotinus or in the terms of Psalm 139 and Paul – as a principle of faith attesting divine revelation as such’ (KD II/1, p. 208). Aquinas seems at first sight to belong entirely to the former tradition: ‘Because we cannot know of God what he is, but what he is not, we cannot consider the manner in which God is, but rather the manner in which he is not’ (S.Th. I q. 3, prol.). He treads a narrow rope, for he rejects Maimonides’ view that the names of God are ‘devised rather to remove something from God than to posit something in him’ (q. 13, a. 2). A biblical retrieval of Aquinas would relocate these philosophical wrestlings within the phenomenology of the individual or collective encounter wherein God is addressed or announces the divine name.
This stroll among negative theologians past and present leaves me with a number of tentative impressions. Plotinus, Proclus, Damascius, Dionysius and Eckhart developed styles of miming the situation of humanity before God or before ultimate reality which served well as skilful means within certain historical cultures of religious practice. But their discourses now seem rather laboured or mannered, especially to the degree that they sought to assemble their thought in a system and to outbid one another in the radicality of their conceptions of the ineffable ultimate. It is on these points also that they come most into conflict with the concreteness of biblical, incarnational faith. What is most living and useful in their work is the phenomenological element, when negation serves as a critical tool for cutting through obstructive language to rejoin present reality. This is also the element that provides a ground for dialogue with Vedantic and Buddhist apophasis. The concrete perplexities we face when we try to think religiously in a pluralistic age will sometimes give relevance to negative theology as an arsenal of vigilant critical strategies and positive contemplative insight, but may also increase our sense of distance from this heritage which comes to us across such a great hermeneutic gulf. The classic discourses do not rejoin what is perhaps the most widespread form of negation in our thinking of God today: a sense of the obscurity and intangibility of whatever it is to which our over-abundant inherited discourses about God intended to allude, a sense – laced with diffuse anxiety and guilt – of being ‘at sea’ where God is concerned. Perhaps the best antidote to this is the one the Reformers urged: ‘Et carne filium deus Optimus Maximus induit, ut nos a contemplatione maiestatis suae ad carnis adeoque fragilitatis nostrae contemplationem invitaret’ (Melanchthon, Loci Communes 1521, prol.). Murky broodings about God are assuaged not by further doses of negative theology, but by a return to the fragility of our own flesh as assumed by Jesus Christ. The perplexed explorer of humankind’s religious history will find there more the mire of Calvary than the simplicity of the One. Perhaps it is time for the religions to practice a new kind of negative theology by lying down, with Yeats, ‘where all the ladders start,/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’.
 Suresvara (disciple of Sankara), as summarized in K. POTTER, Advaita Vedânta (The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies III) (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981), p. 422.
 Ibid., p. 543.
 Suresvara, as quoted in M. HULIN, Le principe de l’ego dans la pensée indienne classique (Paris: Collège de France, 1978), p. 203. Suresvara points out that from the ultimate point of view the Self does not change into the witness: ‘witnesshood is itself imagined (parikalpita) through avidyâ [ignorance]’ (POTTER, Advaita Vedânta, p. 539). Similarly Brahman’s presence within the illusory world is concretized as the illusory Isvara, much as Eckhart’s essential divinity is concretized in the limited figure of God the creator. For Sankara’s teaching on the witness see S. MAYEDA, A Thousand Teachings: The Upadesasâhasrî of Sankara (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), pp. 180-9; K. BHATTACHARYYA, ‘Vedanta as Philosophy of Spiritual Life’, in K. SIVARAMAN, ed. Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta (World Spirituality 6), (New York: Crossroad, 1989), pp. 231-58..
 See R. OTTO, West-Ostliche Mystik (Munich: Beck, 1971), p. 9.
 R. MORTLEY, From Word to Silence II: The way of negation, Christian and Greek (Bonn: Hanstein, 1986), II, p. 55; approved by W. BEIERWALTES, Selbsterkenntnis und Erfahrung der Wahrheit: Plotins Enneade V 3 (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1991), p. 253. BEIERWALTES himself associates aphairesis and abstraction in Proklos: Grundzuge seiner Metaphysik (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1979), pp. 280-7. The same translation is found in T. BOHM, Theoria, Unendlichkeit, Aufstieg: Philosophische Implikationen zu De Vita Moysis von Gregor von Nyssa (Leiden: Brill, 1996). The Lexicon Plotinianum (J.H. SLEEMAN and G. POLLET, Leiden: Brill, 1980) does not give ‘abstraction’ among the senses of aphairesis.
 K. HART, The Trespass of the Sign (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 176, 177.
 I discuss the conundrums of the linguistic, cultural embeddedness of encounters with ultimacy in ‘Ultimacy and Conventionality in Religious Experience’, in J. BLOECHL, ed. Religious Experience (Northwestern University Press); see also ‘Religions as Conventions’, in G. WARD, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 413-24; ‘Emptiness and Dogma’, The Japan Mission Journal 55 (2001), pp. 227-45.
 Suresvara, in POTTER, Advaita Vedânta, p. 426.
 Sankara, ibid., 197.
 See D. FOX, Dispelling Illusion: Gaudapâda’s Alâtasânti (SUNY Press, 1993); R. KING, Early Advaita Vedânta and Buddhism (SUNY Press, 1995).
 See G. CHANG, The Buddhist Teaching of Totality (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971), pp. 93-5.
 ‘Whenever we deny something unreal, we do so with reference to something real’; G. THIBAUT, trans., The Vedânta Sutras Of Bâdarâyana with the commentary by Sankara (New York: Dover, 1962), II, p. 168.
 POTTER, Advaita Vedânta, p. 193,
 HULIN, Le principe de l’ego, p. 117.
 É. LAMOTTE, L’Enseignement de Vimalakîrti (Louvain-la-neuve: Institut Orientaliste, 1987), p. 317.
 Ibid., p. 318.
 M. PYE, Skilful Means (London: Duckworth, 1978), p. 21.
 POTTER, Advaita Vedânta, p. 538; see HULIN, Le principe de l’ego, p. 200.
 H. CORBIN, Le Paradoxe du monothéisme (Paris: Grasset, 1992), pp. 192-3.
 Ibid., p. 204.
 Ibid., pp. 198-9.
 Thus A.H. ARMSTRONG, Plotinus (Loeb Classical Library, 1966-1988), I, pp. 34-5). Compare Sankara: ‘The one who knows Brahman becomes all; even the gods cannot prevail against him... The gods depend on men for ritual support, etc., and fearing that by liberation they would lose that support they may try to hinder liberation’ (POTTER, Advaita Vedânta, p. 188).
 Compare Proclus: ‘In our speculations about the first principle we should especially stimulate the common intuitions, since everything is naturally and unaffectedly related to it’ (G. MORROW and J. DILLON, trans., Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides [Princeton University Press, 1987], p. 440).
 PROCLUS, Théologie platonicienne, ed. H.D. SAFFREY and L.G. WESTERINK (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968ff.), II, p. 56.
 J. TROUILLARD, La Mystagogie de Proclos (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1982), p. 100.
 J.-M. NARBONNE, ‘Henôsis et Ereignis: Remarques sur une interprétation heideggérienne de l’Un plotinien’, Les Études philosophiques (1999), 108-121, p..
 J. TROUILLARD, L’Un et l’âme selon Proclos (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1972), p. 3.
 W. HANKEY, ‘French Neoplatonism in the 20th Century’, Animus 4 (1999)[internet]. Bergson ‘reverses Plotinus, placing him on his feet!’. ‘With Trouillard we arrive at Neoplatonism developed within an anti-metaphysical and essentially postmodern position’ (ibid.).
 J. DILLON, ‘Damascius on the Ineffable’, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 78 , pp. 120-9. J.-M. NARBONNE gives Damascius a taste of his own medicine by pointing out that ‘the Ineffable, just like the One, is a relative term, because it is tied, as Damascius himself tells us, to the divining power of the soul that aims at it’ (Plotin: Les deux matières [Paris: Vrin, 1993], p. 20). But that is the very reason that ‘the Ineffable’ too is dropped; we can say nothing at all of the supreme unknowable that nonetheless makes its reality felt.
 A. H. ARMSTRONG, ‘Plotinus and Christianity’, in: S. GERSH and C. KANNENGIESSER, ed. Platonism in Late Antiquity (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 115-30, p. 121. That Plotinus would be willing to conceive of the One as being itself, the complete act of being, is also argued by NARBONNE (Plotin: Les deux matières, pp. 23, 27). But when Plotinus says of the One that ‘one allows him his “existence” (to “estin”) without attributing to him anything which is not there’ (Enn. V 5, 13 [13-14]), this may merely echo the old idea (attested in Philo, De Praemiis 39) that we can know that God is (hoti estin) but not what God is (ho estin), without any marked emphasis on being as such (there is more in Philo: God is the one ‘to whom alone belongs to einai’ [De Vita Mosis I 75]). Porphyry innovates in ‘identifying the activity of being, the “verb” to be, with the pure essence, taken in its most absolute indetermination’, and opposing ‘being, an action without subject, to the entity, which is the first subject, the first form, resulting from being’ (P. HADOT, Porphyre et Victorinus [Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1968], p. 490).
 See V. LOSSKY, Théologie négative et connaissance de Dieu chez Maître Eckhart (Paris: Vrin, 1998), p. 193.
 Ibid., p. 31.
 Ibid., p. 29.
 M. Heidegger, Der Satz vom Grund (Pfullingen: Neske, 1957), pp. 93, 183-8; see J.S. O’LEARY, ‘Theological resonances of Der Satz vom Grund’, in C. MACANN, ed. Martin Heidegger: Critical Assessments (London: Routledge, 1992), I, pp. 213-56.
 J. FISHER, ‘The Theology of Dis/similarity: Negation in Pseudo-Dionysius’, Journal of Religion 81 (2001), 529-48, pp. 534, 538.
 See LOSSKY, Théologie négative, p. 43, n. 6; BEIERWALTES, Proklos, p. 396. Even contemporary scholarly commentary on Dionysius can suffer from a logocentric bias. For instance: ‘In the heightening of eminence (hyperochê) kataphasis and apophasis are bound together to a higher unity. The via eminentiae is really the result that the theological enterprise fights for in the battle of positing and negating’ (SEMMELROTH, Scholastik 25, p. 223).
 See HADOT, Porphyre et Victorinus, p. 283; MORROW/DILLON, Proclus’ Commentary, pp. 431-2.
 MORROW/DILLON, Proclus’ Commentary, p. 428.
 See R. MORTLEY, From Word to Silence II, pp. 119-27, 230, 242, 253-4.
 BEIERWALTES, Proklos, pp. 363, 365.
 Y. DE ANDIA recalls Thomas’s objection to Maimonides: ‘Distance, if understood as radical apophaticism, ruins negative theology itself as a possibility of discourse on God’ (Henosis: L’Union à Dieu chez Denys l’Aréopagite [Leiden: Brill, 1996], p. 382).
 In H. COWARD and T. FOSHAY, ed. Derrida and Negative Theology (SUNY Press, 1992), p. 99.
 J.-L. MARION, De surcroît (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000), p. 159.
 Ibid., p. 183.
 Ibid., p. 175.
 F. Bertin, cited ibid., p. 170. Compare Plato, Parmenides 141e: Oudamôs ara to hen ousias metechei; ‘the One in no way participates in being’.
 FISHER, ‘Theology of Dis/similarity’, p. 540. Compare HART, The Trespass of the Sign, pp. 201-2: ‘Negative theology is both within metaphysics, as a restricted economy, and outside it as a general economy. That is, negative theology plays a role within the phenomenon of positive theology but it also shows that positive theology is situated with regards to a radical negative theology which precedes it’.
 J. CAPUTO, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), pp. 2, 3.
 L.G. WESTERINK and J. COMBES, Damascius: Traité des premiers principes, I (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1986), pp. 7-8.
 J. DERRIDA, Margins of Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 6.
 SEMMELROTH, Scholastik 25, p. 218.
 MARION, De surcroît, p. 183.
 Ibid., pp. 171, 173.
 Ibid., p. 174.
 Ibid., p. 189.
 Ibid., p. 166.
 Ibid., p. 193.
 Quoted, W. BEIERWALTES, Platonismus im Christentum (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2001), p. 53.
 BEIERWALTES, Proklos, p. 361.
 TROUILLARD, L’Un et l’âme, p. 178.
 See FISHER, ‘Theology of Dis/similarity’, p. 531.
 See E. STAROBINSKI-SAFRAN in Dieu et l’être [Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1978], p. 50).
 For the Jewish attitude to the divine names (seven to nine proper names!), see B. DUPUY in Heidegger et la question de Dieu (Paris: Grasset, 1980), pp. 105-6, 118-19. The holy names are unlike ordinary names; they cannot be manipulated, and they guard the divine transcendence.
 See J.S. O’LEARY, ‘Logos and Koinônia in Philo’s De Confusione Linguarum’, in L. PERRONE, ed. Origeniana Octava (Leuven University Press, 2003).
 ROREM/LAMOREAUX, John of Scythopolis, p. 82. It would be confusing, however, to include under the rubric of ‘negative theology’ Paul’s strictures against puffed-up gnosis, and every theologia crucis that is pitted against a theologia gloriae (not to mention Hegelian speculative negation or Heideggerian phenomenology of das Nichts).
 A. NYGREN, Agape and Eros (London: SPCK, 1953), p. 563.
 Ibid., p. 570.
 J.-L. MARION, L’Idole et la distance (Paris: Grasset, 1991), p. 178.
 See MORTLEY, From Word to Silence, pp. 229-31. Mortley no doubt exaggerates the dissolution of dogma in Dionysius’s ecumenical use of apophasis, even suggesting that Dionysius is not a Christian thinker at all (p. 254).
 MARION, L’Idole et la distance, p. 214.
 Ibid., p. 220.
 See P. ROREM and J.C. LAMOREAUX, John of Scythopolis and the Dionysian Corpus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), pp. 67-70, 79.
 On Dionysius’s discomfort with trinitarian thinking, particularly with regard to the trinitarian structure of the economy of salvation, see SEMMELROTH, Scholastik 25, pp. 213-15; 28 (1953), p. 483; FISHER, ‘Theology of Dis/similarity’, p. 534. DE ANDIA, Henosis, p. 440.
 J. TROUILLARD, ‘Pluralité spirituelle et unité normative selon Blondel’, Archives de philosophie , 21-28, p. 23).
 W. BEIERWALTES, ‘Unity and Trinity in Dionysius and Eriugena’, Hermathena 157 (Winter, 1994), pp. 1-20).
 DE ANDIA, Henosis, p. 442.
 SEMMELROTH, Scholastik 24 (1949), p. 374.
 SEMMELROTH, Scholastik 20-24, p. 375.
 Ibid. p. 367.
 ‘Not a modest sense of the inadequacy of naming, which would preserve all the more jealously the concrete texture of the hard won store of traditional names, but a fluent mastery over names in view of a privileged access to the nameless which grounds them, appears to be the dominant instinct of Pseudo-Dionysian thought, an instinct which signifies the reappropriation of [Christian] negative theology by the ontotheological habit of mind it was designed to resist’ (J.S. O’LEARY, Questioning Back: The Overcoming of Metaphysics in Christian Tradition [Winston-Seabury, 1985], pp. 158-9).
 See H. Dörrie, ‘Gregor, III (Gregor von Nyssa)’, RAC 12 (1983), 863-95, p. 880.
 MORROW/DILLON, Proclus’ Commentary, p. 603; see MORTLEY, From Word to Silence II, pp. 116-17.
 R. ROQUES, Denys l’Aréopagite: La Hiérarchie céleste (Sources Chrétiennes 58), (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1970), p. xxv.
 MARION, De surcroît, p. 187.
 See E.P. MEIJERING, Melanchthon and Patristic Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1983).
 BEIERWALTES, Platonismus im Christentum, p. 49. Beierwaltes nonetheless considers that Dionysius represents a ‘successful symbiosis’ of Platonism and Christianity (p. 20).
 MARION, De surcroît, p. 194. On the vocabulary of terror in Gregory and Chrysostom, see J. DANIÉLOU, in Jean Chrysostome: Sur l’Incompréhensibilité de Dieu I (Sources Chrétiennes 28bis), (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1970), pp. 30-9. ‘It is an elementary reaction of religious feeling in its still primitive form’ (p. 31). R. OTTO observes that in Augustine’s Confessions the uncanny otherness of God is mysterium fascinans, whereas in Chrysostom’s Homilies it is mysterium tremendum: ‘The irrational in the feeling of God strives here against the rational and rationalizable and threatens almost to break free’ (Das Gefuhl des Überweltlichen [Munich: Beck, 1932], p. 232-3).
 ‘While the traditional idea of the incomprehensible God, still at work to some extent in Luther, signified first the inaccessible transcendence of God, even in his revelation, the Barthian idea of the hidden God absorbs the transcendence of the Ineffable in the act of grace and revelation, accomplished in Jesus Christ’ (H. BOUILLARD, Karl Barth [Paris: Aubier, 1957], III p. 185). Barth cools toward his earlier talk of the Totally Other, which now seems to him more a metaphysical projection than a revealed datum. The incomprehensibility of revelation is of a different order from the acrobatics of natural theology and negative theology in the Platonic line. Now, ‘the idea of grace has absorbed that of infinite qualitative difference, by which formerly it tended to be absorbed’ (ib., p. 186). Bouillard regrets this: ‘the idea of the ineffable God recedes too much before idea of the hidden God, and the latter has not the same high profie as in Luther (p. 188).
 My thanks to Jean Greisch, Emmanuel Falque, and John Manoussakis for valuable comments.
From: Archivio di Filosofia 70 (2002)