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The immediate vision of God

February 15, 2010 8 comments

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.)