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The immediate vision of God

I got into a conversation with a friend recently about the possibility of seeing God directly, and I surprised myself by taking a directly Dionysian line: that the unmediated vision of God is constitutively impossible. I’ve written about Dionysius’s principle of necessary mediation before, and complained that he offered no philosophical justification for the axiom. But I don’t think that’s true. Dionysius doesn’t justify his idea that mediation has to occur stepwise down an ontological hierarchy, but he does (implicitly) justify the necessity of some form of mediation. I find the latter pretty convincing.

We have to begin from a premise (maybe controversial, I don’t know) that Dionysius just takes for granted: God is absolutely infinite. By absolutely infinite I mean not just infinite in one way, but in every way, simultaneously. To make this thinkable, though, consider one example: God as infinite being. All discrete beings are derived from/created by the divinity as infinite being, but the divinity’s being is not itself discrete. On the contrary, as infinite, God’s being encompasses every discrete being. To use Eckhart’s formula, God is indistinct from all creatures—and distinguished from them precisely in the fact that God alone is indistinct from them. (The distinctio indistinctionis he calls it: the distinction of indistinction. Beautiful, hm?) In trying to “see” God as infinite being, therefore, it makes no sense to look for something “besides” discrete, created being; God is actually seen in created being, though as transcending it. “Negative theology,” such as it exists in Dionysius, is just the name for this paradoxical way of seeing: God is this discrete being but not this discrete being.

An interesting consequence of this is that the “necessary mediation” in our vision of God ends up coinciding with a constant immediacy of vision: that creature’s being really is God’s being (which is not to say it’s not the creature’s own, but that’s another story), unmediated but partial. Just as we can only ever see a limited set of numbers in contemplating an infinite series, but what we’re seeing is not “something besides” the infinite series, so in seeing a limited being (or a limited good, etc.) we are not seeing something besides God. And that necessity of seeing God “in parts,” as it were, is intrinsic to the relation between the infinite and the finite, not a result of sin or some eschatologically surmountable limit. (One would have to explain how sin and historical limitations do affect the nature of our current vision of God, but that won’t alter this structure of mediation.)

  1. Cass
    February 16, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    cf. 1 Cor 13:12 and 1 Cor 15:28
    The jury is still out on whether I find your thoughts on this terrifying or delightful. But it does make some sense.
    Very interesting your note about what is intrinsic to the relation between the infinite and the finite. Then, too, consider this, if you will. Let alone God, people are themselves both finite and infinite, no? We are contingent and distinct, but we also are windows onto the infinite…we are so vast and multi-faceted that we are a little like that infinite series of numbers–if you think of your friend or look him in the eyes, you are only ever getting a glimpse–never able to envision–neither physically nor intellectually–the whole man at once.
    Then, leaving aside the analogical gulf between man and God of the “seeing face to face” in the scripture above, what does it even mean to see another human being face to face? Have you ever seen one? Yes and no, right?
    So…the jury is still out.
    But this is definitely stuff worth taking an interest in.
    May God bless us, protect us from all harm, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.

  2. February 16, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    I would actually extend that thought: not only human beings are inexhaustible in the way you describe, all of creation is. (Have you ever seen a tree?) But I would take that (qualified) infinity as a result of its derivation from the absolutely infinite.

  3. Cass
    February 16, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    Okay, so then, WHEN God will be all in all, and the earth will be full of the knowledge (glory/wisdom?) of God as the waters cover the sea (cf. Habakkuk, Isaiah, Psalm 22, Zechariah)…we will be looking at creation, a piece at a time, as though hearing God tell us a story, and we will be offering all of creation back to Him, rather than trying to pocket it or devour it on the sly, because we know that it belongs to Him, and in this way we will know ourselves to be and experience ourselves as being, a vital and valuable contribution to the story…and all of that at once because there is no time…
    …am I even vaguely close?
    I have to get away from this website for a little during Lent, or I will start to neglect my more pressing and normative obligations.
    Nice to know you’re here, though.

  4. Cass
    February 16, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    …and, of course, the story we hear God telling will be the story of Himself, as if we are sitting on Pa’s knee before the fire as he recounts hilarious antics from his own childhood days…oh goodness…is there an off button on this thing?
    Does it matter much that I’ve changed vision to story? I think it doesn’t.
    And…can I go there now, tomorrow? Please.
    Doesn’t work like that, though, does it?

  5. Cass
    February 16, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    Except that, in my excitement, I appear to have mislaid the analogical interval, or analogia entis, which is what I came here looking for in the first place. Would you happen to have noticed where it got to?

  6. andrewlp
    February 17, 2010 at 12:45 am

    Some questions that came to mind while reading your post:
    1. Are the questions of *immediate* vision and *full* vision the same?
    2. How do Christology and eschatology affect the claim that God is seen by creatures in only a partial and mediated way?
    3. To what extent does vision fail as a description of the quality of the human encounter with God–that is to say, is God intrinsically just not the kind of “thing” that is seen?

    • February 17, 2010 at 11:26 am

      Those are helpful questions. Quick thoughts on each: (1) I meant to bracket the impossibility of full vision from the start—surely anyone who grants that God is infinite must also grant that we can’t see God “fully.” But what I was trying to get at is that infinity also implies is that God is not a discrete object one could see immediately. (2) Eschatology remains to be thought through, on my part. Christology marks the central place where this is all seen, as the absolute coincidence of mediated and unmediated vision of God. (3) I think that’s right that vision fails—though not in the sense that some other discrete faculty (love, for instance) could pick up and carry on. Cusa’s little book De visione Dei tracks exactly this question, actually, showing that under the aspect of infinity vision collapses into love, causation, tasting, seeking, showing mercy, and a million other things. I.e, it collapses along with everything else into divine simplicity.

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