Let me introduce Fran O’Rourke’s book, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas. It’s a solid contribution to the history of Christian thought. O’Rourke, a philosopher, teaches in Dublin and the book came out with E. J. Brill in 1992. It’s now in paperback from Notre Dame.
Why mention a book intended for academics? Will it help grow us spiritually? Or make for better marriages? Or resolve climate change? The answers are: unlikely, no, and certainly not. It’s robustly impractical. But it still invites notice.
Here’s why. It helps explain why some Bible college students fade spiritually while at seminary. That is, as the theology O’Rourke describes is offered in part or in whole at a given school, a student’s vision of God starts to change. The divine image cools down as quickly as an autumn day turns cold after sunset.
To be clear, O’Rourke isn’t addressing students or their faith; or God’s temperature. He writes, instead, about the theology of the brilliant 13th century thinker, Thomas Aquinas. And it’s what Aquinas taught that brought the chill. The warmth once offered by Augustine’s Triune God—portrayed as Lover, Love, and Beloved—was pushed aside by newer portrayals of God.
And we need to acknowledge that Aquinas is still a big dog in some circles—particularly among the Post-Reformation Scholastics of the Reformed tradition. Even though Martin Luther opposed his main tenets; as did John Calvin; Richard Sibbes; and many others.
O’Rourke tells us that Aquinas relied on Pseudo-Dionysius for his view that God is wholly other: existing beyond the reach of any human thought. God is, Pseudo-Dionysius believed, beyond being—“the cause of all being, is yet himself non-being since he is beyond all being.” Aquinas differed a bit, holding instead that God is absolute Being. But either view led to a premise of God’s complete transcendence.
God, in other words, is so completely unlike his creatures that we really don’t know what he/she/it is actually like. This, in turn, sets up God’s incommensurability—his necessary lack of connection with the creation—and a requirement that grace must be a divinely created quality to bridge the gap between God and creation.
As a result these beliefs objectified the nature of the relationship between the Creator and the creation: no sort of mutual affection was in view. For the Thomists God exists without any emotional connections. We only have the traces left behind from God’s past activities.
That would seem to signal the end of the story of God for us—since it’s hard to talk about a God who is completely out of reach. But we’re still left with a need to find some sense of identity and meaning; so for any hard-working theologian or philosopher the project continues. We still need to ask about who we are as creatures—as humans—even if we don’t have any real access to the Creator.
So who was this Pseudo-Dionysius? And why did he carry so much weight?
The answer is that Aquinas would have viewed him as Paul’s convert in Athens as cited in Acts 17:34. So there was no “pseudo” tag to his name back then. It was as if Dionysius offered Paul’s deepest Christian insights but with more logical precision. But in the 15th century Lorenzo Valla noticed that Dionysius was actually echoing the 3rd and 4th century teachings of Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and Proclus—both pagans. So Dionysius was actually telling a fib!
Just what version of God did Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus and others offer? The version then passed on to Aquinas by way of Pseudo-Dionysius?
One essential theme was clear: they held to Plato’s view, from centuries before, that God is an ultimate singularity—“One”—in whom every idea has its ultimate reality. Yet God is greater than his ideas—he just “Is.” And as an absolute Monad there isn’t space for speaking or listening in his being.
An analogy is that he is like the sun and we experience his divine rays—our own existence and ideas—as metaphysical sunshine. But we can’t ever hope to know him or to know about him. Why? Because an ultimate “One” doesn’t have any conversation partners! He just exists.
What Plotinus and Porphyry added to the mix was a claim that this One has, in fact, extended himself as both Mind and Soul—which accounts for divine distinctions and the human opportunity to encounter something of God’s being. These double-extensions are only temporary and necessarily return into the One in a process of “emanation and return.”
What Pseudo-Dionysius then offered was a Trinitarian revision: the Father is the One, and the Son and Spirit are the Father’s temporary emanations who return to the One. So the One is Ultimate and ultimately inaccessible. The Son and the Spirit offer us traces in his direction, but no real access.
The human role, then, is to climb a threefold ladder: to first purge oneself of dialog-based thinking; then to wait for some sort of encounter or illumination; and then, perhaps, union: so the searcher gets to experience something of whatever God leaves in his trail. But it still can’t be talked about—God, after all, isn’t a conversationalist in the Platonic vision of reality.
To be clear, O’Rourke doesn’t press into all this. What he does tell us is that Aquinas embraced Pseudo-Dionysius’s metaphysics. And it’s helpful to be informed about his views in light of the enthusiasm of various Thomists and Pseudo-Dionysian mystics.
I also believe that very little of what Pseudo-Dionysius promotes will have traction for those who abide in their Bibles and who know God’s love poured out in their hearts by the Holy Spirit—as a living and relational grace.
But we should be ready to help any Bible college students who catch a theological cold.