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Religious Language


An attempt to combine philosophical ideas (especially those of Plato) with religion. ... by the understanding...It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Religious Language

Religious Language
  • Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite

Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite
  • C. 500AD
  • Also known as Pseudo-Dionysius
  • Wrote several treatises on the theme of how
    humans can know and talk about God
  • Influenced by Plotinus (a Neo-Platonist)

  • An attempt to combine philosophical ideas
    (especially those of Plato) with religion.
  • Plotinus (205-270AD) claimed that reality is
    derived from a single supreme something also
    known as the Good or the One.
  • The One transcends existence and is unknowable.
  • The One emanates downwards into a persons soul
    and eventually into matter.
  • It is only by meditating on higher things that
    an individual may encounter the One.
  • This meditation has to be imageless or apophatic
    if a valid encounter is to be achieved.

  • Dionysius is famous for his insistence upon the
    absolute and unqualified ineffability of God. He
    is as emphatic as it its possible to be, that God
    is utterly transcendent , totally ineffable,
    indescribable and incapable of being
    conceptualised by the human mind.
  • John Hick The Fifth Dimension 1999

Two key texts written by Dionysius
  • The Divine Names
  • The Mystical Theology

In The Divine Names Dionysius points out
  • that believers use several names to describe God
  • These names are not intended as literal
  • They are pointers towards the fact that God is
    the cause of all things
  • Dionysius argued that is the via negativa, rather
    than the via positiva that helps to speak about

In The Mystical Theology Dionysius argues
  • God is beyond and outside all categories of human

Dionysius describes three states of knowledge
and meaning in what we can know and say about God
The First state the via negativa
  • Where we can state what God is not
  • e.g. God does not have a body,
  • God does not have human features
  • God is beyond all knowledge
  • Go is beyond all human categories of thought

Dionysius says of this supreme cause of all that
  • is not soul or mind, nor does it possess
    imagination, conviction, speech or
    understandingIt cannot be spoken of and it
    cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not
    number or order, greatness or smallness, equality
    or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is
    not immovable, moving or at restIt does not
    live, nor is it life. It is not substance, nor is
    it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the
    understandingIt is neither one nor oneness,
    divinity nor goodness. Nor is it spirit, in the
    sense in which we understand the term. It is not
    sonship or fatherhood, and it is nothing known to
    us or to any other beingThere is no speaking of
    it nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and
    light, error and truth it is none of these. It
    is beyond assertion and denial.
  • Dionysius Mystical Truth

The second state the state of affirmation
  • Having established that God can only be referred
    to in non-personal terms, such as the One, the
    Source etc and that God is beyond human
  • Dionysius asks what can be said about God that
    is, what we can say affirmatively (but
    inadequately) about what is known of God
  • This knowledge of God is based on the Bible,
    through which Christians gain revelation that God
    is loving, God is just etc. However, such
    knowledge is within the limitations of human
    understanding and is symbolic

The third state qualifying what we say about God
  • In the third state Dionysius says we should try
    to convey that God is beyond human understanding
    by qualifying what we say about God by adding God
    is beyond the human condition
  • e.g. God is beyond human goodness
  • The metaphorical character of this language leads
    people to a greater spiritual awareness
  • What can be said about God is known as a
    cataphatic statement, as opposed to an apophatic
    statement which describes what God is not

  • In asserting that God is revealed through the
    Bible is Dionysius in danger of contradicting the
    idea of divine ineffability? (Hick)
  • Dionysius accepts the Trinity and incarnation of
    Jesus as literal truths he does not see these
    central Christian claims as symbolic why not?
  • (NB It may be that Dionysius had a C6th
    understanding of the Trinity as a manifestation
    of the ineffable deity. (Bernard McGinn argues
    that for Dionysius there is a fundamental
    distinction between God hidden and revealed)