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Hans Urs von Balthasar


From his book, Cosmic Liturgy, The Universe according to Maximus the Confessor.
Translated by Brian E. Daley, S.J., Ed. A Communio Book Ignatius Press, San Francisco

Chapter 2: Divine Unknowing

Evagrius left us a saying that summarizes classical Greek teaching on mystical knowledge, from Philo to Maximus: "God cannot be grasped by the mind; for if he is grasped, he is surely not God"(22)! Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine say similar things, as does Maximus: "Whoever has seen God and has understood what he saw has seen nothing"(23)!

Even the saints never saw God's face (24). God is rightly called 'sunlight' and not 'the sun' itself. For just as we cannot look directly into the sun, but at best at its rays, so we can neither think of God nor comprehend him"(25). Only by recalling to our minds the great attributes of creatures in the world does God give us hints of himself: "In himself, God is not known; insofar, however, as he is origin and end of all things, he is the simplicity of the simple, the life of the living, the superessential essence of essences, and finally the fulfillment of all that is good"(26). So Maximus repeats the advice of Gregory of Nyssa: μὴ πολυπραγμόνει, "Do not search like a busybody into what the essence of God might be"(27)!

Even our knowledge of creatures is simply a movement from subject to object, or from the process of thought to the thinker who sustains it and who is never identical with the act of thinking (28); so it is a kind of suspension between poles that never come together in simple identity. "To comprehend accurately even the least of creatures is beyond the power of our reason"; we understand only general qualities, never the unique, existent subject that lies beneath these qualities (29). In an emotional excursus, Maximus repeats the long warnings of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa against the childish rationalism of the Eunomians;
he praises the unknowability of the world and the miracles, far exceeding all comprehension, that lies hidden in the unfathomable depths of the least of its parts. Only such a sense of reverence can be the true presupposition for knowing the far more unknowable God.

For the divine mystery is utterly without parts, because completely without quantity, ... without characteristics, ... completely simple ... and without distance from us, ... without limits, because completely free of movement, ...and without relatedness. That is why it is, in every respect, ineffable and mysterious and why it remains, for all who stir themselves toward it with a seemly reverence, the ultimate limit of knowledge, possessing really only one characteristic we can know with certainty: that we do not know it as it is (30).

This lack of knowledge is not an empty indifference, not a lack of interest. It is an encounter with the inconceivable, an encounter that lies above all conceptual knowing and becomes all the more intense, the closer this inconceivable mystery comes. "The Divine is inimitable, without comparison; for to the very degree that one makes progress in imitating and comparing oneself to God, one experiences how impossible imitation and comparison are"(31). This constant balancing of "however much" and "to that degree" (ὅσον-τοσοῦτον) reflects the basic relationship, on the level of ideas, of God and the world. Distance grows with increasing nearness. Fear, hesitation, and adoration grow with love. Silence increases with the progress of revelation—"that great, echoing voice of the dark, inconceivable, polyphonic silence of God", which man begins to perceive "through that other, buzzing, noisy silence" of his own knowledge (32). Once one penetrates "into the innermost noiselessness of God"(33), the silence that lies above the inarticulateness of concepts becomes the only appropriate form of praise (34), "pure wonder, which alone describes the indescribable majesty"(35).

And yet there is a genuine way into this mystery. The play of affirmation and negation not only engages God and the world but even within the world engages its various levels of being. So Paul, perhaps, was initiated into the positive qualities [of the heavenly spirits] through the negation of insight on his part, and through the ecstatic loss of his own natural condition he was able to imitate theirs. For every intellectual nature, in ways that befit its rank and capacities, is initiated into the intelligible condition and positive characteristics of the rank and essence above it, through the loss and the stripping away of itself; in this way, it comes to imitate the higher being. The affirmation of the knowledge of what is ranked above is a negation of the knowledge of what is ranked below, just as the negation of the knowledge of what is below implies the affirmation of what is above. The ultimate goal is to move on through a step-by-step process of negation to the nature and rank that, as the highest of all, is incomparably superior to all others, until one receives that reality as gift, after all the steps and powers have been left behind, in a negation of knowledge that directly involves God himself. This negation cannot be affirmed in a positive sense by any other being, since now there is no further limit or definition that such a negation can once again absorb.

So the knower mounts from level to level, "but he comes to rest (λήγει) ultimately in the ineffable, in the unthinkable, and in the absolutely impenetrable"(36). The only word that remains for this encounter is "unity", since it is no longer "thought": the soul has nothing left to think about, after it has thought through everything that is naturally thinkable. Beyond mind and reflection and knowledge, it comes to be without thought, without knowledge, without words, and it simply rushes forward to throw itself into the embrace (προσβολή) of God and to be one with him. It thinks no more, it imagines God no more. For God is not an object of knowledge, whom the soul can objectify by some pattern of behavior; rather, it knows him through simple union, without comparisons and beyond thought—in a way that cannot be uttered or explained, and which only he knows who shares this unspeakable gift with his chosen ones: God himself (37).

Maximus tells us no more about this "divine unknowing". But what he says is enough to let us see which of the two ways of conceiving the divine transcendence—that of Evagrius or that of Dionysius—he prefers. One must, of course, resist seeing the two as sharply opposed to each other; both are Christian thinkers and men of prayer and neither can be accused of pantheism, despite their Neoplatonic tendencies. But Evagrius finds his way to God by prescinding from all sensible and intelligible forms: a way that leads to its goal only through committed asceticism and the consistent practice of contemplation; and that goal is to allow the mind to emerge into the infinite, divine light of the Trinity "free from both matter and form". The knowledge of God is for him no longer objective consciousness; rather, the light of God can be nothing else but what simply enfolds one, beyond all distinction of subject and object. In its own light, the purified mind directly perceives the radiance of the light of God. Hence, the notion of the soul as a "divine spark" is not far from Evagrius' thought: this pantheistic image from Stoicism becomes here a way of expressing a Christian truth.

Pseudo-Dionysius, on the other hand, emphasizes first of all the transcendence, the total otherness of God. He emphasizes it so strongly that all the forms and realms of creation seem to be posited and explained from the point of view of this boundless elevation of the Divine; the highest degree of insistence that God is beyond the world becomes the highest degree of affirmation of the world, the strongest stress on God's immanence. Here Dionysius can clearly be seen as expressing the final form of all Christian Platonism, while Evagrius represents something more preliminary.

If this is true, then one can understand how Maximus can make his intellectual home basically with Pseudo-Dionysius yet, from this home, can draw the whole Evagrian system to himself and bring it to a fulfillment that exceeds its own capabilities. One would be wrong, then, simply to oppose these two approaches to mysticism to each other as if they were mutually exclusive. Even if Maximus uses the Evagrian term ἐκδημία, "migration" from the world and from all created reality toward God(38), it is not entirely clear—pace Viller and Hausherr (39)— that he is not using it in the Pseudo-Dionysian sense of ἔκστασις, of "being transported beyond" all creation into the inconceivable reality of God. Basically, Pseudo-Dionysius' dialectical language and level of philosophical reflection is simply more fully developed, more refined than that of Evagrius; his message is the same, as long as one agrees that Evagrius, too, may not be presumed a pantheist, even though the "knowledge" (gnosis) of God (theologia) [in his system] may not be taken in an objectifying sense.

Maximus' first concern is to preserve God's transcendence. Accordingly, he stands at first, especially in his major works, completely by the side of Pseudo-Dionysius. At the end of the passage we quoted just above, he expresses the concern not to identify with God that "infinity, into which the whole movement of the world and the mind finally empties itself, where thought breathes itself away and the water we swim in drains away. For infinity is surely something that comes from God, but not God himself, who is beyond even it to an incomparable degree"(40). If Maximus emphasizes, perhaps more strongly than Pseudo-Dionysius, the ascending line from sensation to mind, from stage to stage, it is because he is more strongly influenced by the Alexandrian theology of the Logos and its sense of a transforming upward movement [toward the divine mystery]. Still, he is aware that at the end of this ascent, of these progressive revelations, the divine mystery will not be revealed—as in Evagrius' system—as the naked core of Being; rather, the bottomless abyss of divine freedom and sovereignty, and the corresponding lowliness of all that God has created, will first of all yawn before us as an unbridgeable chasm.

Of course, Maximus also encounters, in this unapproachable midpoint of being—more consciously than does Pseudo-Dionysius—the simple, original idea of the world, divested of all its robes of multiplicity: the Logos, the "dawning realization" (cognitio matutina) of all things. In this respect the Neoplatonic image of the center of a circle receives, in his thought, a slight twist in the Alexandrian direction. "As in the center of a circle we see the indivisible point of origin for the straight lines that go out from it, so the one who is worthy to be found in God comes to know in him all the preexistent ideas of the things that have come to be, in a simple and indivisible act of knowing"(41). In this respect, too, Maximus comes closer than Pseudo-Dionysius to Hegel's principle, "The mystical is the speculative"(42).

But even if this convergence in God of the ideas of the world does, in the end, also open up the possibility of a scientific and "systematic" theology (and not just a theology of images and likenesses, as in Pseudo-Dionysius); even if thought, for Maximus, always takes the form of a quest that sweeps through all the world's realms in search of self-forgetting union in God; even if his style of thought is thus, necessarily, one of a progressive synthesizing of poles, tensions, limited differences, all of which—when thrown into the melting pot of the Logos— are meant to rise from his fire as complete, simple wisdom: still he realizes, with utter clarity and certainty, not only that this unity can never be the result of our own laborious ascent, but also that God always remains something infinitely other than the unifying idea of the world. Only this certainty explains the tendency of Maximus' thought, in contrast to the oversimplifications of Origen and Evagrius, to conceive of the particularity and mutual nonidentity of things as something final and positive—his horror of "mixing, as the pagans do, what ought not be confused"(43), Note how far into the realm of mystical speculation the echoes of the Chalcedonian formula have penetrated! The highest union with God is not realized "in spite of" our lasting difference from him, but rather "in" and "through" it. Unity is not the abolition of God's distance from us, and so of his incomprehensibility; it is its highest revelation.

This is also clear in the way Maximus describes the Incarnation of the Logos. Far from taking away our ignorance of God, the Incarnation increases it, in that the Unknowable One has here revealed himself as he is. It is true, certainly, that "otherwise creatures would never have conceived of the Creator, whose nature is infinite and inconceivable"(44). But it is still more true that he was not subjected to nature or made a slave by becoming human; rather, he has elevated nature to himself, by transforming it into a second mystery, while he himself remains completely inconceivable and has revealed his own becoming flesh as something beyond all intelligible being, more inconceivable than any other mystery. He became comprehensible in [human] nature to the very same degree as he has been revealed more fully, through this nature, as the incomprehensible One. "He remained the hidden God, even after this epiphany," says the Teacher [Gregory of Nazianzen], "or, to put it in a more theological way, even in this epiphany. ..." Even when uttered he remains unspoken, even when seen he remains unknown (45).

In the revealing of the mystery, then, and in the experience of union, the liturgy of adoration comes to its full celebration.


22. PG 40, 1275C.

23. In Epistula Dionysii i; PG 4, 529A.

24. In Coel. Hier. 4; PG 4, 56BC; ibid., 13; PG 4, 96C.

25. In De Div. Nom. i; PG 4, 188A.

26. Ibid.; PG 4, 193B.

27. Ibid.; PG 4, 192B.

28. Centuries on Knowledge 2, 2-3; PG 90, 1125CD.

29. Ambigua; PG 91, 1224D-1229A.

30. Ibid.; 1232BC

31. In Epistula Dionysii 2; PG 4, 529D~532A.

32. Mystagogia, chap. 4; PG 91, 672C.

33. Quaestiones ad Thalassium, prooemium; CCG 7, 21, 75f.; PG 90, 248B.

34. In De Div. Nom., i; PG 4, 192C.

35. Ambigua; PG 91, 1244A.

36. Ibid.; 1240C-1241A.

37. Ibid.; 1220BC; see also Moscow Centuries on Knowledge 72 and 92 (ed. Epifanovich, 48, 53).

38. Centuries on Love 2, 28; 3, 20. On this term, see Sherwood's introduction to his translation of the Centuries: The Ascetic Life: The Four Centuries on Charity, Ancient Christian Writers, 21 (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1955), 89.

39. See M. Viller, "Aux sources de la spiritualité de s. Maxime: Les Oeuvres d'Evagre le Pontique", Revue de l'ascetique et de la mystique II(1930): 156-84, 239-68; I. Hausherr, "Ignorance infinie", Orientalia Christiana periodica 2 (1936): 351-62.

40. Ambigua; PG 91, 122OC.

41. Centuries on Knowledge 2, 4: PG 90, 1125D-1128A.

42. Philosophic der Religion, ed. G. Lasson (Leipzig, 1927), 2:235, n.

43. Ambigua; PG 91, 1244C.

44. In Psalm 59; CCG 23, 16, 242-17, 244; PG 90, 868AB.

45. Ambigua; PG 91, 1048D-1049A.

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