Foundations & Fundamentals Once More: A Return to The Mystery and the Knowledge of God

Over a year ago I did a series of postings on what I called “Foundations & Fundamentals” of the spiritual/mystical path within the Christian tradition, with an eye open to whatever might help us on our way that the other great traditions teach. Indeed, there is much to learn from them. In any case, one posting was entitled “The Mystery of God and the Knowledge of God”—a very important topic. Needless to say we are only skimming the surface of what needs to be said, and so, as promised, we return to this topic again and again. In this posting we will discuss this in three parts: A. the nature of religion; B., the Gospels and the figure of Christ; C. Pseudo-Dionysius. So let us begin.

A. The Nature of Religion.
Among the various things that could be said about religion in general is that whatever historical forms it takes on it seeks to relate the human to an ultimate, absolute Reality. Each of the great world religions has its own set of symbols, rituals, teachings, and practices, all of which are meant to point toward that Absolute Reality, to make one more and more aware of it, and most importantly to embody that relationality in one way or another. (We will set aside Buddhism here because it needs “special treatment” in this regard.) And the embodiment that is most universal, cutting across all the traditions, is precisely “in” a human being. This is what we mean by the terms “holy man,” “holy woman,” “saint,” “mystic,” etc. There is this person in each tradition who is awake, more or less, to varying degrees, to his/her relatedness to the Absolute Reality.

Now there are two things that each of the great traditions can be said to hold in common concerning this topic: 1. The Absolute Reality is also essentially an Absolute Mystery; 2. That relationship to the Absolute Reality is in itself an impenetrable mystery. But even by using the word “mystery” we are in danger of trivializing what we want to express. This “mystery” is not something that can or ever be lifted—it is not due to some insufficiency of our minds that somehow falls away when we die. It is not some “add-on,” a cover as it were, that temporarily conceals the Absolute Reality. No, Mystery is of the essential nature of the Absolute Reality and our relationship to it is to travel deeper and deeper into it. So that relationship is also wrapped in absolute mystery. What that means is that this relationship cannot be “unwrapped” for our scrutiny as some scientific object—that it will always be BEYOND our understanding but which will fill our lives and our being more and more in an unspeakable way. This is very important to note because for too many adherents of the various traditions that relationship seems pretty well mapped out. One reason for that is that we are also made for “knowledge” of this Absolute Mystery. A seeming contradiction because our word “knowledge” almost always connotes a rational, scientific grasp of the reality in front of us—or else it does not get the term “knowledge.” Knowledge of the Absolute Mystery and knowledge of our relationship to that Mystery will be of a totally different kind. Thus, we better be careful about all our “maps”!

Note, I have avoided the use of the word “God.” Those of us in the Christian tradition tend to use this word and overuse it without any sense of awe of the Mystery behind it. It’s as if this Reality were merely an adjunct to our lives, or as if our little minds had a grasp of it. So, “God does this,” “God doesn’t do that,” “God loves you,” “God’s plan,” “God’s reward,” “God’s punishment,” etc., etc. Some of this God-language is important and carries meaning in its own limited way; some of it is misleading; some of it is downright wrong. Without a sense of the Mystery underlying the word “God” we use it at our peril—even if we are quoting Scriptures. Not to jump too far ahead at this point, but it is interesting how very little God-language there is among the great Desert Fathers, the great early monks.

Now we have to encounter another important word in this regard, “transcendence.” There is a lot of overlap between this term and Mystery, but Transcendence in reference to God covers a lot more ground as it were. In a sense God is an absolute mystery because of that absolute and unspeakable transcendence—there is a “Beyondness” to God that is not measureable, not understandable, not comprehensible, not imagineable, not communicable. The Reality of God is so Beyond that it is not even able to be symbolized. Thus the tradition of contemplative prayer in Christianity always insists on the way of negation: silence, abandoning all images in one’s mind, etc. To borrow from the Upanishads, pertaining to that Ultimate Reality, it is always “not this, not that.” And what is most important is that our very relationality to that Absolute, Transcendent Mystery is also wrapped in that Beyondness. In other words, be careful about what you think your relationship to God is, what image or idea you carry in your head, what feelings may connect to that, positive or negative. Whatever you feel or think or imagine about this falls short by the width of the universe!! That very relationship is so Beyond anything we can conjure. It is neither dualism, nor monism, not theism nor pantheism—these are only feeble concepts—we are neither one, nor two—we are beyond that kind of counting! That’s why I enjoy these words from the Heart Sutra (a modern translation):

Gate’, gate’, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!
Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, wow!

Now we have to face the fact that even this Transcendence gets trivialized. It simply becomes “God way out there somewhere.” Or it becomes “God is all-powerful and can do anything.” And then we get stupid logical games like, “Can God square a circle?” “If God knows the future,…..” And so on, and so on. And if we are a bit smart and religiously educated we can even play the transcendence/immanence game, trying to create a logical conundrum like a puzzle to solve. Suffice it to say that whatever the term “immanence” connotes is already packed within that term “transcendence” when it is truly expressed.

Let me conclude this part with one positive affirmation. Your life is totally wrapped in the Absolute Transcendent Mystery of God. There is no “outside” to this where you could stand and observe this or make statements about it. Your relationship to that Mystery makes itself known to you through a kind of “unknowing,” which can also be termed as an “awakening.” There are degrees of this awakening, or to put it better, once awake you never cease “becoming more awake” as it were, journeying ever more deeply into the Mystery filled with the Beyond, beyond all comprehension. So—final statement—there is no gap, no distance between you and God. The language of separation is at best a symbolic discourse of human exhortation, modeled on human love. At worst it is delusional. Wherever you are, whoever you are, God is more there than you are, and in fact God is more you than you are yourself.

B. The Gospels and the figure of Jesus
Here we venture into more difficult territory! The Gospels are the central documents of the Christian tradition, and the figure of Jesus Christ and how we interpret him is the pivotal point for all else. Truly this Word is a “two-edged sword,” but not in the traditional sense. On the one hand this Word is a source of and a summons to real wonderment, puzzle, questioning, awe, mystery—all of which beckons us always toward that Absolute Mystery. On the other hand that Word easily gets “captured” and trivialized. A veritable “Jesusology” develops where the figure of Jesus is somewhere out there on whom are projected our longings, our fears, our fantasies, our neurotic behavior, etc. This kind of thing happens in all the great world religions in different ways, but in Christianity this kind of misappropriation of the Scriptures and especially of the Gospels is almost rampant.

What do we actually see when we look at the Gospels? Primarily two things: 1.) A very strange, perplexing form of life; 2.) the person and figure of Jesus. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a whole new way of life is emphasized. The person of Jesus is obviously prominent but when we get to John this person becomes the “whole thing.” In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the parables, the healings, the injunctions and descriptions of a new way of life(like in the Sermon of the Mount) signal a break with our usual understanding of things. Suffice it to say that in our rationally organized social matrix the “last” are not the “first,” etc. It is interesting to see what Christians often do with all this language that steps outside their normal boundaries. For example, the Sermon on the Mount is sometimes presented as a call to a “Super Ethics,” one which of course no one lives up to and so then we have this teaching on forgiveness. Another “ethical” option is to push this into the eschaton, the Second Coming—the language and activity of Jesus presages this final and ultimate action of God. Still another option is to see all this as symbolic (but of what?—here often the “symbolized” is simply some projection of something within us, within our psyche). And finally there is the option where you simply use that language to “get a fix” on Jesus’s identity as “Son of God.” (Of course there are the few saints and holy people who have taken these words literally and truly made much of that.)

Now of course none of this is completely wrong; it’s just that they all fall short of something incredibly profound. All these readings stand at an unspeakable Door that opens on that Absolute Mystery. But perhaps with the Gospel of John you step through that Door, indeed you are almost pushed through it! Indeed, it is in this Gospel that Jesus says, “I am the Door”—and a host of other symbolic identity statements. How to even approach reading these without trivializing or making into platitudes or religious clichés? Consider Thomas Merton’s little meditation on Jesus as Door in the Gospel of John—it can be found in his collection, The Asian Journal. Short but very effective and most importantly evocative of that great mystery underlying this figure of Jesus. And it is extremely significant that Merton can do this kind of reflection within his exposure to the other great world religions. That speaks a ton!

We have not touched on the Pauline Letters or the figure of the “Risen Christ.” That we will have to do in a later posting because that needs a whole treatment in itself. Here I just want to emphasize that the language of the Gospels and the figure of Jesus in them does not take away the Absolute Mystery of God. In fact we can say that the Jesus of the Gospels is not so much a “comfort figure,” a “church creator,” but one who brings that Mystery awfully close to our hearts! In Paul, then, we will discover that Mystery in our own hearts! Lots more to discuss here, and some of it we will touch in the next section.

Addendum: Jesus on the cross, the message of Jesus crucified, the Cross/Crucifix—all this is the central symbolism of Christianity. Nothing else is even close. (For Abhishiktananda’s Christology that is not the case, and that needs a close look.) This is the “last stop,” one might say, in what can be said as Jesus “passes over” into the Absolute Mystery that he came from and now becomes the Risen Christ. All this and the Pauline Letters we will need to reflect on later as we get closer to next Lent.

C. Pseudo-Dionysius
Among the great early Christian figures, this person is lost to history. We really do not know who or what or where he was. There have been many guesses but the only reasonably reliable information places him in the 6th Century and perhaps in Syria. Why is he important? He is the most intense exponent of the absolute incomprehensibility and transcendence of God. Yes, he does have some good company in this regard in Gregory of Nyssa among others, but his focus on the Absolute Mystery is so total that other aspects of Christian doctrine seem to get lost and inevitably his “orthodoxy” has been questioned. No matter. St. Maximus the Confessor endorsed his writings, and so Pseudo-Dionysius became a foundation stone for Eastern Orthodox theology and mysticism. In the West his influence was also wide but more problematical. You can see him in The Cloud of Unknowing, in Eckhart, in John of the Cross. He is used extensively by Aquinas, but perhaps in a mistaken or distorted way, at least from the Orthodox point of view.

There are four works attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius that we have: The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. The latter two are, in my opinion, practically unreadable for most modern Western Christians—I mean they will really have no idea what is going on in the text! (Eastern Christians, hold your peace! You are in the same boat with us but a.) You don’t quite want to admit that; b.) Yes, you are closer to what Pseudo-Dionysius is saying than we are, but once you step outside your liturgy you are there with us in this rationalistic, scientific myopia that cannot see beyond its mental nose!) Now if you were a person living in Constantinople around 600 and went to the Holy Liturgy at the Church of the Hagia Sophia, The Celestial Hierarchy and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy would be perfectly and lucidly meaningful and fit right in. It is a Neoplatonic vision of the cosmos, the homo religiosus, and Divine Revelation in an incredibly beautiful and unified structure. Everything in it opens us to a new awareness and points toward that Absolute Beauty which is Absolute and Transcendent Mystery. The Neoplatonic universe is one in which we live immersed in rich symbolism and an unspeakable interconnectedness and inner-connectedness. The reality of Church and worship then takes on a wholly different look and feel—and present day Orthodox practice is a pale shadow of that and Western practice is…well, the less said the better….

So let us turn to the two works that are more accessible to us—though definitely not everybody’s cup of tea! Here we also find Neoplatonism and here I can’t help but be amused. When I was studying theology about 30 years ago, it was very “in” to disparage Neoplatonism—it was a real “bad word” in Christian theology! Both in Roman Catholic and in Protestant circles the call was for a return to the “authentic Christianity of its Jewish background.” Orthodox theologians had already for a long time been running away from any “contamination” by Platonism—alas, with not too much success because independent scholars would embarrassingly point out the various Platonic elements in the early Church Fathers. This call to a “pure Christianity” is bogus. This call to some “original Jewish Christianity” was a serious mistake and a diversion from some real problems. At the time of the beginnings of Christianity there were actually multiple Judaisms. Not one. So which one do you want to return to? Certainly the Jews of Alexandria were thoroughly Greek and Platonic. How about Qumran? Not too well-known, but there were folk at Qumran who were translating Plato into Hebrew(in Alexandria they were translating everything Hebrew into Greek!). Even in the Palestine of Jesus there were different versions of Judaism. It is only later that the Rabbinic and Talmudic Judaism suppressed and eliminated the thought-world of all these other Judaisms, and so what we have today is this one Rabbinic Judaism(but the modern period has produced some splintering even here).

Sorry for the digression, but it is important to see that the Neoplatonism in Christianity is not some kind of distortion or obfuscation. Neoplatonism is the rails on which early Christianity rides(Philo and his friends in Alexandria were already doing that). It is an essential feature of the growth and developing self-understanding of this religious awakening. Now our problem is that the Church so emphatically privileges that early language that it becomes impossible to rearticulate and reinterpret that profound religious awakening as laid out in the New Testament and especially in the Pauline Letters. We are afraid to see the very limited human boundaries of these writings. At times we turn this Scripture into an idol, indeed even that! And I don’t mean “make it modern”!! Please! I am thinking of our God-given encounter with all the great world religions. I am thinking of how Abhishiktananda struggled and suffered to “refind” Christianity in the experience of Advaita Vedanta, which was as real to him as the experiences of John of the Cross. Could Advaita be another “set of rails” that Indian Christian experience could ride on(and a few other of us as hitchhikers!)? Frankly I don’t think so—the Church won’t allow it; “conversion” for Indians became a “leaving behind” not a “bringing with” experience; and finally not many want to pay the price that Abhishiktananda paid. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground….”

Back to Pseudo-Dionysius! In his Neoplatonic vision the whole cosmos, this beautiful ordered reality, the whole world and everything in it down to a blade of grass, comes from this Absolute Transcendent Source, and then it returns there. This two-fold movement is matched by a two-fold paradox. On the one hand all of creation, because it flows from God, reveals God (Rom 1:20). On the other hand, no one has ever seen God (Ex 33:20; John 1:18; 1John 4:12). In so far as everything proceeds from God and reveals God to a certain extent, we will always have “names” for God. From our human experience of reality and from the revelation found in Scripture we can “name” God to a certain extent. This is the thesis of Pseudo-Dionysius in his Divine Names. But every name, even the names we derive from Scripture, are severely limited and do not reveal the Absolute Transcendent Mystery of God. This is very important. Because we have all these names for God from Scripture especially, like “God is Good;” “Father;” “Savior;” “Love;” etc; etc., we tend to lose sense of the Absolute Mystery and most importantly we lose the sense that our relationship to that Absolute Mystery is also a Mystery and not ever exhausted by or through any of these names. If that happens, then our prayer becomes shallow and our minds and hearts become sanctuaries of pious idolatry. That’s why the journey in contemplative prayer is always a journey of rooting out these “pious idols,” and going beyond all names into deep silence and Mystery where we and God are in an unspeakable relationship.

A quote from The Divine Names (the Luibheid translation): “Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process. Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this Supra-existent Being. Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name. It is and it is as no other being is. Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence….”

Another quote from The Divine Names (the Luibheid translation): “Truly and supernaturally enlightened after this blessed union, they discover that although it is the cause of everything, it is not a thing since it transcends all things in a manner beyond being. Hence, with regard to the supra-essential being of God—transcendent Goodness transcendentally there—no lover of the truth which is above all truth will seek to praise it as word or power or mind or life or being. No. It is at a total remove from every condition, movement, life, imagination, conjecture, name, discourse, thought, conception, being, rest, dwelling, unity, limit, infinity, the totality of existence. And yet, since it is the underpinning of goodness, and by merely being there is the cause of everything, to praise this divinely beneficent Providence you must turn to all of creation. It is there at the center of everything and everything has it for a destiny. It is there ‘before all things and in it all things hold together.’ Because it is there the world has come to be and exists. All things long for it…. Realizing all this, the theologians praise it by every name—and as the Nameless One.”

And one more: “And the fact that the transcendent Godhead is one and triune must not be understood in any of our own typical senses. No. There is the transcendent unity of God and the fruitfulness of God, and as we prepare to sing this truth we use the names Trinity and Unity for that which is in fact beyond every name, calling it the transcendent being above every being. But no unity or trinity, no number or oneness, no fruitfulness, indeed, nothing that is or is known can proclaim that hiddenness beyond every mind and reason of the transcendent Godhead which transcends every being. There is no name for it nor expression. We cannot follow it into its inaccessible dwelling place so far above us, and we cannot even call it by the name of goodness.”

Now The Mystical Theology is an extremely short work of only a few pages. In The Divine Names the emphasis was our “procession” from God—a very Neoplatonic notion—and so the possibility of drawing “names” for God from our experience and the Scriptures—though each “name” is extremely limited in its communication of the Divine Reality. Now in The Mystical Theology the emphasis, and most intensely so, is on our “return” to the Divine Reality, and here there can only be loss of all our concepts and names for the Divine Reality. So Pseudo-Dionysius advises us “to leave behind…everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge. By an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be uplifted to the ray of the divine shadow which is above everything that is.” (Luibheid translation)

Pseudo-Dionysius is so intense in this that I think he scares the “willies” out of our basic “Christian-in-the-pew” piety! Here he is again: “Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.” (Luibheid translation)

And so it is that it must be emphatically underlined that not only is this Absolute Reality an Absolute Mystery, but our relationality to this Absolute Reality and indeed our very identity is also wrapped up within this Inexpressible Mystery. This realizaton should have great consequences for our spiritual life!

In conclusion, I am reminded of the words of a still more ancient friend, Lao Tzu: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.”

No wonder that when John Wu, a Catholic Chinese scholar, translated the Gospel of John, he wrote: “In the beginning was the Tao….”

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