Friday, 16 May 2008

Pope Benedict XVI and Pseudo-Dionysius

My attention was caught a day or two ago by ZENIT's report of a General Audience address on the sixth century writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius. I have had an (unfulfilled) interest in Pseudo-Dionysius since I read a few months ago about his writing on angels, and realised that Edith Stein had made considerable use of it in the section of her book Finite and Eternal Being devoted to created pure spirits.

The first point to arise from the ZENIT report is an understanding of the nature of dialogue in general, and that between Christianity and contemporary culture in particular:

The Holy Father noted how Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, "'I would not like to cause polemics; I simply speak of the truth; I seek the truth.' And the light of truth by itself makes error fade and makes what is good shine. With this principle he purified Greek thought and related it to the Gospel.

"This principle, which he affirms in his seventh letter, is also the expression of a true spirit of dialogue: It is not about seeking the things that separate, one must seek the truth in Truth itself; this, then, shines and causes errors to fall," the Pontiff affirmed.

The second point to emerge is one that is reflected in Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's recent lecture. It is the question of how the greatness of God is related to our ability to talk about Him, and how we can find a proper language in which to talk about this relationship.

Benedict XVI contended that the theology of the sixth-century author is "the first great mystical theology." His teachings use "negative theology," that is the idea that "the most elevated concepts of God never reach his true greatness" and that "it is easier to say what God is not than to express what he really is."

This formulation seems to me a very helpful one. There is no implication that the "most elevated concepts of God" are not true, or are inaccurate - in so far as they may be part of what God has revealed, they are true and certain. However, as the effort of the human mind, even supported by faith, to reach God, they still have a way to go in order to "reach his true greatness".

Pseudo-Dionysius tells us that "in the end, love sees more than reason. Where the light of love is, the shadows of reason fade away. Love sees, love is an eye and experience gives us much more than reflection," the Holy Father added.

Again, there is no implication that reason cannot "see", or is false or inadequate for our knowing something of God. Instead, there is a statement of the "more" that is seen by love. In comparison to the "light of love" reason is "shadows"; but in the comparison, and not in the sense that reason is "shadows" in which nothing can be "seen".

And the final point that emerges is the possibility that Pseudo-Dionysius provides a model that could be followed for dialogue with the eastern religions:

[Pope Benedict] said [Pseudo-Dionysius] has a new relevance as a "great mediator in the modern dialogue between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia, marked by the conviction that it is impossible to say who God is, that only negative expressions can be used to speak of him; that God can only be spoken of with 'no,' and that it is only possible to reach him by entering into this experience of 'no.' And here is seen a similarity between the thought of the Areopagite and that of the Asian religions. He can be today a mediator like he was between the Greek spirit and the Gospel."

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