The Demand of the Text

Reading the Apophatic Tradition through Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics

1. Language, Being, and Infinity

Near the conclusion of his sprawling opus, Truth and Method,1 Hans-Georg Gadamer, progenitor of the school of philosophical hermeneutics,2 makes a profound assertion. Having methodically dissected the history of the “human sciences”3 from Kant to his own present (with frequent reference to Plato and Aristotle, amongst other classical thinkers), Gadamer is finally prepared to make his claim that “being is language.” 4 Excised from context as it is here, this claim appears to be more radical than it is, or even worse, reductive. One is led to ask: how can being be language? Does Gadamer’s claim imply that different languages produce communities of different kinds of beings, or that the so-called ‘human being’ is a fiction, insofar as language is an arbitrary and conventional system? Not so: Gadamer would not assent to either position. Both the deterministic and nihilistic perspectives of language neglect the conclusions of his study.

Earlier in the chapter, Gadamer distinguishes two concepts: “environment” and “world.”5 Gadamer argues that all “living beings” have an “environment,” but that only humans have a “world.”6 This is to say, every animate creature has an environment in that every such creature’s biology is necessarily constrained by and entangled with its surroundings. The human creature, on the contrary, can have “an orientation toward the world,” a world-view we might say, which “means to keep oneself so free from what one encounters of the world that one can present it to oneself as it is.”7 Such a “capacity is at once to have a world and to have language.”8 This relationship of the human to the world, in which the world is presented as such, is what defines and separates the human creature from all others.9 Human being, therefore, is “characterized by freedom from environment” and this “freedom implies the linguistic constitution of the world”.10

Gadamer nuances both the determinist and nihilist positions. Our “language-view is a worldview,11 in that language is the vehicle for human culture, practice, and relation. This view is also constructed, but this does not render it a fiction in the pejorative sense, or an “imprison[ment] within a verbally schematized environment.”12 Rather, Gadamer sees the construction of language as the condition for human freedom, the means by which the human creature can “rise above the pressure of what impinges on [it] from the world.”13 This rising above or distance from is what it “means to have language and to have “world.””14 As such, human “freedom in relation to the environment is the reason for [the human] capacity for speech and also for the historical multiplicity of human speech in relation to the one world.”15 Far from being a reduction of or a constraint upon our understanding, Gadamer’s conception of being-as-language “reveals the existent itself,” through the knowledge of which “our insight can be enlarged and deepened.”16

Significantly, then, this existent is always in excess, effecting an “increase in being” of the world.17 Insofar as language is not the world, but makes it comprehensible, discloses it, allows it to present itself to us, language is, in a sense, a reflection or speculation that is “essentially connected with the actual sight of the thing through the medium of the observer.”18 It is an image that represents the thing to the observer through a process of “constant substitution” afforded by the distance, the gap, or the negative space of the “mirror” as the medium of reflection.19 This movement of substitution and duplication is the movement of dialectic, but Gadamer is sure to clarify that this dialectic is not of a kind with Hegel’s, in that it does not move beyond the speculative through a sublation of the “inner block”20 that is the gap of reflection, but rather preserves the distinction that the “dialectical is the expression of the speculative,”21 that the speculative structure of thought as reflection and presentation of the world is manifested or expressed through dialectic, and that this movement is, therefore, “the coming-into-language of the thing itself,”22 the understanding of the existent and the very “concretion of meaning.23 This meaning, the comprehended existent as expressed in language, is added to the world, increasing it, enlarging and deepening our experience of it. In that it is constructed around the gap or the difference of speculation, language, and its movement in dialectic, is essentially negative. It is always open, always questioning, always anticipating a new image, a new meaning. Thus, Gadamer is able to claim that to “say what one means” is to “hold what is said together with an infinity of what is not said in one unified meaning and to ensure that it is understood in this way.”24 So, through the speculative gap that structures language “an infinity of meaning [can] be represented within it in a finite way.”25

The implications of Gadamer’s thesis are far-reaching, but for our purposes here, I will apply his argument to a specific discipline, that of negative theology, the via negativa, or as I will refer to it throughout this paper, apophasis or the apophatic way, from the Greek meaning “denial,” “to ‘speak off.’”26 The apophatic way is deeply resonant with Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, concerned as it is with the limits or the finitude of speech and thought in the face of an infinite, inexhaustible divine Other. There is much contemporary scholarship concerned with the notion of ‘God after the death of God,’ from both secular and religious thinkers alike.27 Though God has been proclaimed dead, his spectre remains, and with it, the persistent traces of religious belief and practice the world over. Indeed, we could say with Gadamer that, because our “being is language,” and because “tradition ... is language” (in that it “expresses itself like a Thou”),28 then, transitively, we can say that our being is tradition, or that tradition is being, which is to say that our tradition “is always a part of us,”29 and that we are always “historically effected.”30 The past makes a “claim” on us.31 Furthermore, in that our being in language and tradition is finite and historical, structured around the difference of speculation, our being is open to an “infinity of meaning”32 that is always before us, always unfolding. The “event of language,”33 then, is an encounter with this infinite, with the transcendent beyond or other that is inaccessible to finite reason yet paradoxically implied (or manifested) by the infinite succession of finite speculations. Indeed, the finite dialectical process of language and understanding is dependent on this infinite for its movement, forever attaining to, but never quite reaching it. Indeed, the very possibility of experience and learning requires the openness that this infinite relation affords. As Gadamer demonstrates, the transcendent is always implied by the finitude of our understanding, given by the infinitely generative space of the speculative gap.

Few other disciplines think the limits of speech and understanding in the face of this infinity better than the apophatic way. In fact, apophatic thought begins with the premise of the total alterity of God (we could say, the “absoluteness of the barrier that separates man from the divine”34) before proceeding to think through the implications of the existence of such a being that, nevertheless, chooses to relate to us. Given the obvious congruities between philosophical hermeneutics and apophatic theology and the lack of scholarship considering this relationship, an interdisciplinary study is warranted. To this end, the present study will undertake an analysis of the apophatic tradition as it emerges in Gregory of Nyssa, and is applied by others like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Through an examination of the common terms of transcendence, ineffability, and devotion to the tradition, and an application of Gadamer’s notion of “claim,” as referred to above, this paper will explicate the demand that constitutes the genesis of apophatic thought, and argue that this demand, in being given to us today through tradition, opens up our understanding of the infinite to new domains of possibility.

2. Foregrounding the Apophatic Horizon

For Gadamer, understanding is “part of the event in which meaning occurs, the event in which the meaning of all statements—those of art and all other kinds of tradition—is formed and actualized.”35 Following Heidegger, Gadamer contends that these traditions, these actualized meanings, are “fore-structures” that must be continually “foreground[ed]” to be understood, and that this foregrounding is vital to the event of meaning.36 This foregrounding takes the form of a “fore-projection,”37 which means, in other words, that our understanding occurs through an imaging (a speculation) of the gap between one’s own self-continuity and the continuity of history, and the relationship there between. This is what Gadamer refers to as the “fusion of horizons,”38 the process by which one’s self and one’s tradition speak to each other, the “speculative relation”39 that produces a new and expanded image, a new horizon “into which we move and that moves with us.”40 So, then, to understand something, and to understand one’s tradition in particular, is always to understand the “in-itself” of history as a “for-me,”41 as a “Thou” 42 by which one is addressed, and by which one is claimed. To talk about the apophatic tradition, then, and Gregory of Nyssa here specifically, it is necessary to foreground the horizon that claims him, and from within which he speculates upon the world. As Gadamer says elsewhere in Truth and Method, “[w]e can understand a text only when we have understood the question to which it is an answer.”43 So what is the question Gregory seeks to answer?

2.1. Transcendental openings

In The Life of Moses,44 we see Gregory respond to two different traditions which address him, claim him, and which he fuses together with his own convictions and understandings to produce a radical new conception of the divine. For Gregory, the “Divine One” (a descriptor he receives from the Greek tradition) is “himself the Good ... whose very nature is goodness.”45 Having already “demonstrated that there is [not] any limit to virtue except evil, and since the Divine does not admit of an opposite, [Gregory] hold[s] the divine nature to be unlimited and infinite.”46 He asserts the same point again later, that “the Divine is by its very nature infinite, enclosed by no boundary.”47 In that it is his purpose to demonstrate to his readers “what the perfect life is,” and that the “perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness,” which is God, who is infinite, growth in perfection is necessarily an infinite task.48 God has no limit, and so the devotee’s “desire itself necessarily has no stopping place but stretches out with the limitless.”49 As both Martin Laird and Albert-Kees Geljon identify, this is a significant departure from the Platonic/Neoplatonic tradition and its emphasis on union with the divine One through the intellect.50 In the Greek tradition, “infinity—seen as undetermined and imperfect—is never predicated of the highest being.”51 But because God, who is good, cannot be limited by evil, Gregory concludes that God is, therefore, without limit and infinite. And yet, because God is revealed in Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ, Gregory also concludes that God is still knowable, and that one can still pursue the divine and ultimately be made one with the divine. Gregory responds to two competing claims, the claim of philosophy and the claim of scripture, and fuses them together in his own thought. He does not sublate one or the other, as we saw with Gadamer’s critique of the Hegelian dialectic above, but maintains both in their speculative relation to the world and to each other.

Gregory fully recognizes with the Greeks that “[i]nfinity of the highest principle entails that it is also unknown,”52 but he also recognizes the scriptural claim of God’s existence. Rather than attempt to dissolve this “inner block,”53 Gregory maintains it, allowing it to generate a new dimension of meaning. As Laird notes, the intellect, “which by nature seeks to grasp, seeks God who cannot be grasped,”54 an “aporia” which can only be “resolve[d]” by faith.55 This is neither equivocation nor intellectual surrender; instead, faith is a “continuous process of detachment,”56 a paradoxical holding together in separation of the finite and the infinite that creates “one unified meaning” while preserving the distinction of both.57 The “grasp of faith”58 allows Gregory to fuse his Judaeo-Christian tradition with the Greek philosophical tradition, opening the Judaeo-Christian to a fuller understanding of union with the divine, and the Greek to a complementary fullness of understanding of divine infinity.

2.2. Seeing through not-seeing

With the opening of religion and philosophy to the conception of an infinite God, further questions arise. We have seen how Gregory applies the Greek philosophical tradition of divine union in his theology and, in the process, makes it new. In a similar way, Gregory adopts an “exegetical tradition” that he receives from Philo and Clement of Alexandria59 regarding Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai in Exodus 20:21, along with the general method of allegorical interpretation utilized by Philo, Clement, and Origen.60 Just as Gregory possesses a set of philosophical tools from the Greek tradition, he also possesses a like set of exegetical tools from the Judaeo-Christian tradition of scriptural interpretation. As Laird identifies, the “mysticism of darkness” that “finds its center and its flowering” in Gregory,61 the seeds of which can be seen in Philo and Clement, is “tied exclusively to his interpretation of specific scriptural texts and has decidedly apophatic concerns.”62 This is to say that Gregory is responding to scripture’s “claim to validity”63 as an imaging of a meaningful human reality, and that his attribution of darkness to the divine is a matter of epistemology and not ontology, a “faithful reading of the imagery of the texts.”64 Thus, Gregory’s account of Moses’s ascent of Sinai, which he titles “The Darkness,” is specifically concerned with the implications of divine infinity to the intellect.

This section of the Life of Moses begins with a question: “What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it?”65 Taking the scriptural claim as valid, this image poses a problem. What does it mean to see in darkness, and more so, why is it that God, who is light, reveals himself to Moses in darkness? For certainly this is “contradictory to the first theophany, for then the Divine was beheld in light but now he is seen in darkness.”66 As we have demonstrated previously, however, Gregory’s exegetical practice does not resort to dialectical sublation. We know God, but God is infinite, which cannot be known, so faith is required, not a reversion to either an unknowable-infinite or knowable-finite God. Similarly, if God is light, but here he is revealed in darkness, the solution for Gregory is not to revert to an ontology of God as either darkness or light, but to hold them ‘separately together,’ as with the grasp of faith above. Gregory asserts that scripture “teaches ... that religious knowledge comes at first to those who receive it as light ... But as the mind progresses and, through an ever greater and more perfect diligence, comes to apprehend reality, as it approaches more nearly to contemplation, it sees more clearly what of the divine nature is uncontemplated”67—which is the total alterity of divine infinity. So, as the mind reaches this point of the “uncontemplated ... leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God.”68 This is “a seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness.”69 Gregory is thus able to make the link to “John the sublime, who penetrated into the luminous darkness, [and] says, No one has ever seen God, thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men but also by every intelligent creature.”70 So we see that the paradox is not an obstacle but a generative space, which allows Gregory to continue to think through the infinity of the divine.

2.3. The necessity of devotion

Following on the propositions of divine infinity and ineffability, there emerges the question of practice. As noted above, Gregory’s purpose in The Life of Moses is instruction, so much so that the subtitle of the text is “or, Concerning Perfection in Virtue.” He urges his readers in his prologue to “leap[] and strain[] constantly for the prize of the heavenly calling.71 We learn, too, that The Life of Moses was written in response to a “request[] ... [for] counsel concerning the perfect life.”72 So, then, we can say that The Life of Moses is, first and foremost, a devotional text, concerned with the application of divine knowledge to the personal development of the faithful. As Paul Decock notes, such a concern is characteristic of “early Christian readers,” who strove “to let the text become part of their context and so to let God speak through the text to the present.”73 Decock argues that this method has “firm roots in the Hellenistic Jewish tradition,” exemplified by Philo’s reading of scripture “in an intense interaction with the various Greek philosophical traditions.”74 Philo’s method of reading “is not in view of building a system, but in view of letting the texts speak and contribute to the transformation of the lives of his readers” 75—he is looking for “present meanings—both literal and allegorical.”76

This same method is at work in Gregory.77 The Life of Moses is structured around “two levels of interpretation”—the historia and the theoria—through which Gregory is able to apply the letter of scripture (historia) to the spirit and practice of his readers (theoria).78 As Robert Jenson writes, in The Life of Moses “exegesis and the provision of spiritual guidance” are not separate.79 Gregory present’s Moses’s life as a “canon” against which the faithful can measure themselves, another idea which Gregory derives from the Greeks.80 Olga Solovieva81 takes this idea of spiritual guidance and measurement through Gregory’s Life even further. In Gregory, “spiritual exegesis [is] a textual performance enacting the ascetical agenda of transformation of the self.”82 It is a “theatrical display”83 that requires knowledge of the ideal (or canon), which can only be obtained through faith and the seeing that is not seeing.

The allegorical method is of vital importance here. If the divine is infinite and therefore entirely ontologically removed from finite creatures, and if the divine is ineffable and therefore entirely epistemologically removed from us as well, how is one to speak of any relation to the divine? This relation is demanded by the claim of scripture on its readers, and yet scripture also presents its readers with reason for believing this relation impossible. This is the necessity of devotion. As above, the “grasp of faith,” which functions in the same way as Gadamer’s “speculative relation,”84 the ‘holding together separately’ of the finite and the infinite, is a “continuous process.”85 Faith in this sense is an effort, a task, a practice. Gregory’s exegesis of Moses’s life effects an “enthusiastic allegorical traversing of the gap between the words and meaning,”86 and so between the finite and the infinite, an “ongoing process”87 which, through the ‘holding together’ of the finite and the infinite around the gap of their absolute ontological difference, transforms that gap from a “block” 88 into a space that is open to the infinite unfolding of meaning. In this way, the allegorical interpretation of scripture is a “transformance”89 that crosses the “ambiguity”90 of the space between the human and the divine, drawing all readers of scriptures into the fusion of horizons that attains to the infinite beyond. Gadamer’s position is here nuanced: in the divine person, the infinite is not some abstract real, but a welcoming word through whom and in whom the finite person finds her voice.

So, the existent that is disclosed through Gregory’s language is reflexive: the human being, in its finite relation to the infinite, is not static in nature but is a “super-becoming” constantly accomplished and anticipated through “the ever-extending dimension of love towards God,”91 the infinite and ineffable transcendent other upon whom human being-in-language92, and so meaningful being-in-the-world, is completely dependent. Thus we see, in Gregory’s early elaboration of the apophatic way, that devotion is the necessary counterpart or response to the absolute ontological difference that constitutes and sustains human being, to the word that makes a claim upon all beings from the beyond, a devotion which must remain constantly open to the newness of an eternally unfolding infinite. As such, this devotion is also, in the words of another scholar, a “dispossession93 of the self, an acknowledgment of the reality of our “epistemic surfeit,” that we “are not yet adequate to the radiance we have received, which means we must become adequate to our gift, to prepare ourselves to receive it.”94 Through Gregory’s apophasis, through the denial of any and every limit to the divine, we are opened to an “endless creaturely becoming” of infinite possibility.95

3. Toward an Iconic Hermeneutic

It is important to clarify here the character of this possibility. We have argued that devotion to the divine infinite in Gregory opens the finite being to an “endless creaturely becoming.”96 With Gadamer, we have argued that the speculative gap of understanding allows “an infinity of meaning to be represented within [language] in a finite way.”97 This effects an “increase in being”98 in the world, creating space from within that is added to the existent, an infinite beyond that is paradoxically intrinsic to and emergent in the world as a product of human being-in-language. Following Cirelli’s explication of von Balthasar’s study of Gregory of Nyssa, a distinction must be made between this human infinite and the infinite of the divine that Gregory wrestles with in the life of Moses. The human being is not “the necessary vehicle for the realization of the infinite,” but is, instead, “radically dependent” upon it.99 The relation of devotion between finite creature and infinite creator, as presented in Gregory, is, therefore, a speculative one, an imaging of the infinite One in the infinite unfolding of human multiplicity. Thus, for Gregory, the true “vision of God” is “never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.”100 The infinity of meaning contained in language, which Gadamer details, is essential to the devotion that Gregory describes as “continual development of life.”101 Only in this infinite process of creaturely “super-becoming”102 through constant negation and “dispossession,” can the creature be made “adequate to [the] gift” of the “radiance” of the divine.103

The apophatic way, through its asymptotic approach to the divine, makes possible “the coming-into-language of the thing itself.” 104 Apophatic discourse enables a speculative imaging of the infinite One that cannot be contained by finite means of representation, but which, in its radiance, is manifest in the unfolding of the word and the world. Through the speculative gap of representation, the One, who is entirely self-sufficient, perfect, and complete, draws finite creatures into a relation that will not terminate in a dissolution, absorption, or transcendence of the creature, but in a flourishing of the creature and its world through an immanent and intimate participation in the divine infinity. As such, the second two terms of the apophatic tradition, the ineffable (and its representation) and devotion, are necessarily intertwined in the finite creature’s pursuit of the infinite, the first and determinative term of all that follows. In the thought of two inheritors of the tradition, Pseudo-Dionysius and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, we see the implications of these two terms worked out further.

3.1. The ineffable and the icon

In Pseudo-Dionysius’ Mystical Theology, the question of the divine darkness and the ineffability of the divine comes to the fore. In the hymn with which he opens the text, Dionysius tells us that “the mysteries of God’s Word,” his wisdom, reason, or logos, “lie simple, absolute and unchangeable / in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.”105 These mysteries “pour overwhelming light / on what is most manifest,” and it is there, in that brilliant darkness, “Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen,” that “they completely fill our sightless minds / with treasures beyond all beauty.”106 For Dionysius, to “look for a sight of the mysterious things,” these emanations or manifestations of the Word, is to “leave behind ... everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is.”107 When one has thus left all behind, then one can “plunge[],” as Moses did, “into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing ... renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, [and so] belong[] completely to him who is beyond everything.”108 In one’s apophatic ascent, as detailed by Dionysius, one steadily denies every positive statement of God, every attribute, form, and image, every idea and concept.109 To attain to the ineffable God, one must “deny all things,” even the denials, because God is beyond those as well.110 Only then may one “unhiddenly know that unknowing which itself is hidden from all those possessed of knowing amid all beings.”111 To “unhiddenly know” the “unknowing” which is “hidden”—this is the paradoxical demand that the ineffability of an infinite God makes upon finite creatures, a demand that Dionysius draws from the tradition of the Fathers and of scripture.

Much has been written of Dionysius’ Mystical Theology. But recent scholarship, much in response to Jacques Derrida’s provocative reading of Dionysius in “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,”112 has attempted to reclaim Dionysius from his various modern appropriations (and critiques) through more comprehensive readings of his corpus. As Jeffrey Fisher writes, contending against Derrida, Dionysius is not simply “still caught up in (affirmative) theology,” but rather that Dionysius’ “theological semiotics” is an infinite unfolding of “dis/similarity” within the “unbridgeable gap [that] persists between even the “most God-like” symbol and God.”113 It is “[p]recisely the dissimilarity of everything to God [that] enables everything to be similar to God.”114 By reading the negation of The Mystical Theology in conjunction with the overabundant positivity of The Divine Names, and within the devotional-spiritual structures of The Celestial Hierarchy and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, we see that Dionysius and Derrida are committed to entirely different projects. For Dionysius, situated as he is in his context as the recipient of the scriptural and apophatic traditions, the existence and authority of God make unquestionable claims upon him. The question to which he responds is with regard to God’s manifestations, which is to say that Dionysius is concerned with God’s willing kenosis, his self-emptying into creation and his welcoming of his creatures into an intimate relation of devotion.

Reading The Mystical Theology exclusively can lead one to conclude that Dionysius is practicing nothing but equivocation and sophistry. But if we broaden our scope, we can see in The Divine Names, for instance, that the infinite, ineffable God is revealed to us and can be named in his “beneficent processions.”115 Dionysius’ theology is not a theology of barren abstractions and utter negation, but an imaging of the richness of the creation, and of the all-surpassing richness of the creator. He continues in The Divine Names to write that we, “in the diversity of what we are, are drawn together by it [God] and are led into a godlike oneness, into a unity reflecting God.”116 This unity is a “transcendent fecundity,”117 an “indivisible multiplicity, the unfilled overfullness which produces, perfects, and preserves all unity and all multiplicity.”118 The divine One cannot be understood outside of the “love [in which] he has come down to be at our level of nature and ... become a being.”119 This is the claim and the question to which Dionysius responds, that “He, the transcendent God, has taken on the name of man,” and that through this kenotic act his “fullness was unaffected.”120 The proposition of the divine and the incarnation demands of Dionysius an answer, and through the framework of apophatic thought that he has received, he does so.

Through the oscillation of “dis/similarity,” Fisher argues that Dionysius essentially “orients his semiotic iconically.”121 In Dionysius, the “semantics of divine anominability go[] hand in hand with the syntax of divine omninominability.”122 There is a sort of “semiotic symbiosis” that occurs between the affirmation and negation of the divine, which allows the “negative to be negative” by “disappear[ing] into itself.”123 Negation requires a “return to affirmation in order to indefinitely defer an affirmative victory. Only in losing does the negative win, because it is in/by losing that it indicates its own vulnerability, its own risk of affirmation, and in that indication, indicates a beyond which is beyond its ability to indicate.”124 In this way, the icon in Dionysius—which takes the form of an artwork, an image, an idea, a name—constitutes a “pure appearance” that discloses the transformative relation of the finite to the infinite through the continual speculation of the ontological gap between.125 The icon is not God, but an imaging of the total difference of the infinite divine from finite creatures. The icon, like a picture, “is not a copy of a copied being, but is in ontological communion with what is copied.”126 As Michael Craig Rhodes argues, the icon is a sort of “ontological imagery” that allows the “One beyond-being [to be] imaged through the beauty of the created ontology of manifold being,”127 bringing the fecundity of the divine One into the world. Thus, the “meaning of the word” which functions in such an iconic way “cannot be detached from the event of proclamation,”128 the event which makes a demand upon all by whom it is heard, and to whom it is always present.

3.2. Devotional meditations

Due to the limitation of space, this final section will provide only a cursory look at The Cloud of Unknowing, with some application to our present context. As I have argued, the apophatic tradition can be described as responding to three terms or demands: the infinity of the divine, the ineffability of the divine, and the call to devotion to the divine. In Gregory, we see the first instance of divine infinity elaborated in Christian theology, and in Dionysius we see the implications of Gregory’s doctrine drawn out through an iconic imaging of the ineffable God. The third term, then, which is certainly present in both of these thinkers, is, however, most evident in the anonymously authored fourteenth century Middle English text, The Cloud of Unknowing.129

By the medieval period, the apophatic tradition had taken a decidedly affective turn. The work of Pseudo-Dionysius had been spread throughout Europe through such works as Hilduin’s Vita of Saint Denis (which scholars consider to be responsible for the propagation of Areopagitism, the conflation of Dionysius the Areopagite in scripture, Pseudo-Dionysius the theologian, and Saint Denis of Paris),130 Suger’s history of the abbey of Saint Denis,131 and the substantial works of translation and commentary by John Scotus Eriugena and Hugh of St. Victor, which had the greatest influence on the theological adoption of Dionysius in Europe.132 Particularly through the Victorine lineage of Hugh and Richard of St. Victor through Thomas Gallus do we see the affective shift that is so clear in The Cloud of Unknowing.133 Having seen that the divine, in its infinity and ineffability, nevertheless descends to his finite creation, making himself available for communion with human beings, the medieval tradition turns more and more to the passion of this act, the “eros” and “ecstasy” of the “multi-dimensional interaction between the soul and God.”134 The devotee is “kindled” in his desire by God, who “fasten[s] to it a leash of longing,”135 so that the devotee might “[l]ift up [his] heart to God with a humble impulse of love.”136 The Cloud author advises his reader to move beyond the intellect, to set it aside as they enter into the darkness, and so to “rest” there “as long as [they] can, always crying out after him whom [they] love.”137 Only the “loving power” can truly know God.138

Insofar as The Cloud moves entirely beyond the intellect, The Cloud, too, leaves behind the more visual or interpretive iconic forms, to the verbal icons of the cry. In The Cloud, it is the cry that takes on the responsibility of bridging the ontological gap through speculation. As another scholar, Eleanor Johnson, writes, in The Cloud, language is “a vehicle for loving will” and “nakid entente,” an imaging of the faithful’s devotion139 The very language of the text “embod[ies] the “sharp darts of longing love””140 which the author of The Cloud enjoins his reader to wield.141 The faith required in the ascension to infinite, as seen in Gregory, must be motivated by passion on the part of the faithful, which is in turn inspired by the unseeing sight of the ineffable procession of the divine mystery, as it is manifest in the world.

4. Striving Onward

This study has necessarily been breathless in its pursuit of the strands of tradition that connect the apophasis of Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, and The Cloud of Unknowing, and the application of such to philosophical hermeneutics. There is much more to be said, here, much more to be unearthed. With regard to Gregory and the early fusion of horizons that occurred in the formation of the apophatic tradition, much more could be explored of the Presocratic, Platonic/Neoplatonic, and Philonic influences that lead to his conclusion as to the infinite nature of the One. Similarly, looking forward from Pseudo-Dionysius, and specifically his medieval European adoption, would prove fruitful for a deeper understanding of certain apophatic trends in contemporary philosophy, with an eye to further fusions that have occurred and that are still occurring. To this end, William Franke has undertaken a study142 exploring the “not fully acknowledged apophaticism” in some contemporary theologies, which argues for an “acknowledgment of the mutual implication” of certain terms of the apophatic tradition that would open these theologies to a better understanding of the questions that rest implicitly within their own studies.143 Vital to further study along these lines is the recognition that, as the theologian and philosopher Denys Turner has written, “One understands a tradition when one understands how that past lives in the present.” 144 We can say, with Gadamer, that we are always claimed by our tradition, even one we deign merely to study and not to call our own. We are always responding to the questions that it poses, and to the questions which it sought to answer.

Lastly, a more comprehensive inquiry into the “iconic hermeneutic” essayed above, grounded in Gadamer’s understanding of the picture in its speculative relation to the world, would afford a deeper understanding of Dionysius’ Divine Names and the (often polarizing) Hierarchies. Furthermore, a Dionysian reading of the iconicity in Gadamer’s thought would yield a richer understanding of the “fluid multiplicity of possibilities”145 contained within the “fore-structures”146 that comprise our traditions, insofar as they relate to the infinity of negation, theologically or a-theologically interpreted, which, Gadamer argues, is necessary for all understanding. An encounter with the infinite of the apophatic tradition, in its simultaneously ineffable alterity and affective relation to us, can open us to new domains of understanding in our inquiries into human being-with-one-another and being-in-the-world, domains that would remain inaccessible otherwise.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. “The Definition of Man.” The Hudson Review 16, no. 4 (Winter 1963): 491-514.

Caputo, John D. The Weakness of God. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Carnes, Natalie. “Possession and Dispossession: Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Gregory of Nyssa on Life Amidst Skepticism.” Modern Theology 29, no. 1 (2013): 104-23.

Cirelli, Anthony. “Re-assessing the Meaning of Thought: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Retrieval of Gregory of Nyssa.” Heythrop Journal 50 (2009): 416-24.

Coolman, Boyd Taylor. “The Medieval Affective Dionysian Tradition.” Modern Theology 24, no. 4 (2008): 615-32.

Decock, Paul B. “Philo of Alexandria: A Model for Early Christian ‘Spiritual Readings’ of the Scriptures.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 71, no. 1 (2015).

Delaporte, Marianne M. “He Darkens Me With Brightness: The Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius in Hilduin’s Vita of Saint Denis.” Religion and Theology 13, no. 3-4 (2006): 219-46.

Derrida, Jacques. “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials.” Translated by Ken Frieden, in Derrida and Negative Theology, 73-142. Edited by Harold Coward and Toby Foshay. New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Fisher, Jeffrey. “The Theology of Dis/similarity: Negation in Pseudo-Dionysius.” The Journal of Religion 81, no. 4 (2001): 529-48.

Franke, William. “Apophasis as the Common Root of Radically Secular and Radically Orthodox Theologies.” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion 73 (2013): 57-76.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Translation revised by Joel Weisenheimer and Donald G. Marshall. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

—. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated and edited by David E. Linge. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Geljon, Albert-Kees. “Divine Infinity in Gregory of Nyssa and Philo of Alexandria.” Vigiliae Christianae 59, no. 2 (2005): 152-77.

Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Moses. Translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1978.

Grondin, Jean. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by Joel Weisenheimer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

—. Sources of Hermeneutics. New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Jenson, Robert W. “Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses.Theology Today 62 (2006): 533-37.

Johnson, Eleanor. “Feeling Time, Will, and Words: Vernacular Devotion in the Cloud of Unknowing.Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 41, no. 2 (2011): 345-68.

Kearney, Richard. Anatheism: Returning to God After God. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Laird, Martin. Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge, and Divine Presence. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Laird, Martin. “Gregory of Nyssa and the Mysticism of Darkness: A Reconsideration.” The Journal of Religion 79, no. 4 (1999): 592-616.

Marion, Jean-Luc. God Without Being. Translated by Thomas A. Carlson. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

McCann, Daniel. “Words of Fire and Fruit: The Psychology of Prayer Words in the Cloud of Unknowing.Medium Ævum 84, no. 2 (2015): 213-30.

Nichols, Stephen G. “Senses of the Imagination: Pseudo-Dionysius, Suger, and St.-Denis.” Romanistiches Jahrbuch 61 (2011): 223-39.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1968.

Pokorn, Nike Kocijanèiè. “The Language and Discourse of The Cloud of Unknowing.Literature & Theology 11, no. 4 (1997): 408-21.

Pseudo-Dionysius. The Complete Works. Translated by Colm Luibheid. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1987.

Ramelli, Ilaria L. E. “Christian Soteriology and Christian Platonism: Origin, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Biblical and Philosophical Basis of the Doctrine of Apokatastasis.” Vigiliae Christianae 61, no. 3 (2007): 313-56.

Rhodes, Michael Craig. “The Sense of the Beautiful and Apophatic Thought: Empirical Being as Ikon.” Zygon 42, no. 2 (2007): 535-52.

Runia, David T. Philo in Early Christian Literature: A Survey. Minneapolis, MN: Van Gorcum & Company B.V., 1993.

Samellas, Antigone. “Experience, Freedom, and Canon in the Work of Gregory of Nyssa.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 21, no. 4 (2013): 569-95.

Solovieva, Olga. “Spiritual Exegesis as an Ascetic Performance in Gregory of Nyssa.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 23, no. 4 (2015): 529-58.

Taylor, Charles. The Language Animal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Taylor, Mark C. Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Turner, Denys. “How to Read the pseudo-Denys Today?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 7, no. 4 (2005): 428-40.

Wolfson, Elliot R. Giving Beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2014.


  1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. revised Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). 

  2. See also Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. David E. Linge (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008). For an overview of the discipline, see Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. Joel Weinsheimer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994). For an inquiry into the roots of the discipline, see also Grondin, Sources of Hermeneutics (New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995). 

  3. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 3. “Geisteswissenschaften” in the German. 

  4. Ibid., 502. 

  5. Ibid., 460. Gadamer’s emphasis. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. For similar articulations of this idea, see Charles Taylor, The Language Animal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), and Kenneth Burke, “The Definition of Man,” The Hudson Review 16, no. 4 (Winter 1963): 491-514 

  10. Ibid. Gadamer’s emphasis. 

  11. Ibid. Gadamer’s emphasis. 

  12. Ibid. Here Gadamer cites the “recent philosophical anthropology” of Scheler, Plessner, and Gehlen, “in its confrontation with Nietzsche,” who wrote of the “constraint” (or otherwise translated ‘prison-house’) of language in The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1968), 283. 

  13. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 460. 

  14. Ibid. 

  15. Ibid., 460-61. 

  16. Ibid., 461, 463. 

  17. Ibid., 141. Gadamer’s emphasis. 

  18. Ibid., 481. 

  19. Ibid 

  20. Ibid., 483. 

  21. Ibid., 484. 

  22. Ibid., 380. 

  23. Ibid., 416. Gadamer’s emphasis 

  24. Ibid., 485. 

  25. Ibid., 481. 

  26. “apophasis, n.Oxford English Dictionary, 

  27. See Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011); Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012); John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006); Elliot R. Wolfson, Giving Beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2014); Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987); 

  28. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 366. Gadamer’s emphasis. 

  29. Ibid., 294. 

  30. Ibid., 489. 

  31. Ibid., 459. 

  32. Ibid., 481 

  33. Ibid., 487. 

  34. Ibid., 365. 

  35. Ibid., 164. My emphasis. 

  36. Ibid., 279, 282. 

  37. Ibid. 

  38. Ibid., 350. 

  39. Ibid., 483. 

  40. Ibid., 315. 

  41. Ibid., 482. Here Gadamer is applying Hegel’s terminology to clarify his conception of speculation: “a thought is speculative if the relationship it asserts is not conceived as a quality unambiguously assigned to a subject, a property to a given thing, but must be thought of as a mirroring, in which the reflection is nothing but the pure appearance of what is reflected, just as the one is the one of the other, and the other is the other of the one.” 

  42. Ibid., 366. 

  43. Ibid., 379. 

  44. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1978). 

  45. Ibid., 31. 

  46. Ibid. 

  47. Ibid., 115. 

  48. Ibid., 30, 31. 

  49. Ibid., 31. 

  50. Martin Laird, Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge, and Divine Presence (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004); Albert-Kees Geljon, “Divine Infinity in Gregory of Nyssa and Philo of Alexandria,” Vigiliae Christianae 59, no. 2 (2005): 152-77. 

  51. Geljon, ibid., 152. 

  52. Ibid., 155. 

  53. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 483. 

  54. Laird, Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith, 23. 

  55. Ibid. 

  56. Ibid. 

  57. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 485. 

  58. Laird, Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith, 23. 

  59. Martin Laird, “Gregory of Nyssa and the Mysticism of Darkness: A Reconsideration,” The Journal of Religion 79, no. 4 (1999): 592-616. 612. 

  60. Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, “Christian Soteriology and Christian Platonism: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Biblical and Philosophical Basis of the Doctrine of Apokatastasis,” Vigiliae Christianae 61, no. 3 (2007): 313-56. 339. 

  61. Laird, “Gregory of Nyssa and the Mysticism of Darkness,” 592. 

  62. Ibid., 594. 

  63. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 369. 

  64. Laird, “Gregory of Nyssa and the Mysticism of Darkness,” 598. 

  65. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 94. 

  66. Ibid., 94-95. 

  67. Ibid., 95. 

  68. Ibid. 

  69. Ibid. 

  70. Ibid. Gregory’s emphasis. 

  71. Ibid., 29. Gregory’s emphasis. 

  72. Ibid. 

  73. Paul B. Decock, “Philo of Alexandria: A Model for Early Christian ‘Spiritual Readings’ of the Scriptures,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 71, no. 1 (2015): 1-8. 1. In Gadamerian terms, this is the contemporaneity of the occasion of the text, which is its claim upon the present: “In the form of writing, all tradition is contemporaneous with each present time,” Truth and Method, 408. 

  74. Decock, “Philo of Alexandria,” 2. 

  75. Ibid. 

  76. Ibid., note 3. 

  77. For further discussion of Philo’s influence on the Christian Fathers, see David T. Runia, Philo in Early Christian Literature: A Survey (Minneapolis, MN: Van Gorcum & Company B.V., 1993.) 

  78. Robert W. Jenson, “Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses,Theology Today 62 (2006): 533-37. 533. 

  79. Ibid., 535. 

  80. Antigone Samellas, “Experience, Freedom, and Canon in the Work of Gregory of Nyssa,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 21, no. 4 (2013): 569-95. 573. 

  81. Olgo Solovieva, “Spiritual Exegesis as an Ascetic Performance in Gregory of Nyssa,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 23, no. 4 (2015): 529-58. 

  82. Ibid., 529. 

  83. Ibid., 530. 

  84. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 483. 

  85. Laird, Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith, 23. 

  86. Solovieva, “Spiritual Exegesis as an Ascetic Performance,” 545. 

  87. Ibid. 

  88. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 483. 

  89. Solovieva, “Spiritual Exegesis as an Ascetic Performance,” 538 

  90. Ibid., 553. 

  91. Anthony Cirelli. “Re-assessing the Meaning of Thought. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Retrieval of Gregory of Nyssa,” Heythrop Journal 50 (2009): 416-24. 421. 

  92. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 460. 

  93. Natalie Carnes, “Possession and Dispossession: Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Gregory of Nyssa on Life Amidst Skepticism,” Modern Theology 29, no. 1 (2013): pp. 104-23. 105. 

  94. Ibid., 123. 

  95. Ibid., 121. 

  96. Ibid. 

  97. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 481 

  98. Ibid., 141 

  99. Cirelli, “Re-assessing the Meaning of Thought,” 417. 

  100. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 116 

  101. Ibid., 133. My emphasis. 

  102. Cirelli, “Re-assessing the Meaning of Thought,” 421. 

  103. Carnes, “Possession and Dispossession,” 105, 123. 

  104. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 380. 

  105. Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1987). 135. 

  106. Ibid. 

  107. Ibid. 

  108. Ibid., 137. 

  109. Ibid., 139-41. 

  110. Ibid., 138. 

  111. Ibid. 

  112. Jacques Derrida, “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” trans. Ken Frieden, in Derrida and Negative Theology, eds. Harold Coward and Toby Foshay (New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992): 73-142. 

  113. Jeffrey Fisher, “The Theology of Dis/similarity: Negation in Pseudo-Dionysius,” The Journal of Religion 81, no. 4 (2001): 529-48. 535-36. 

  114. Ibid., 536. 

  115. Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, 51. 

  116. Ibid., 51. 

  117. Ibid. 

  118. Ibid., 67. 

  119. Ibid., 66. 

  120. Ibid. 

  121. Fisher, “The Theology of Dis/similarity,” 537. My emphasis. 

  122. Ibid., 538. 

  123. Ibid., 538-39. 

  124. Ibid., 539. 

  125. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 115. 

  126. Ibid., 143. My emphasis. 

  127. Michael Craig Rhodes, “The Sense of the Beautiful and Apophatic Thought: Empirical Being as Ikon,” Zygon 42, no. 2 (2007): 535-52. 548. 

  128. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 444. 

  129. The Cloud of Unknowing. Ed. James Walsh (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1981). 

  130. Marianne M. Delaporte, “He Darkens Me With Brightness: The Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius in Hilduin’s Vita of Saint Denis,” Religion and Theology 13, no. 3-4 (2006): 219-46. 

  131. Stephen G. Nichols, “Senses of the Imagination: Pseudo-Dionysius, Suger, and St.-Denis,” Romanistiches Jahrbuch 61 (2011): 223-39. 

  132. Paul Rorem, “The Early Latin Dionysius: Eriugena and Hugh of St. Victor,” Modern Theology 24, no. 4 (2008): 601-14. 

  133. Boyd Taylor Coolman, “The Medieval Affective Dionysian Tradition,” Modern Theology 24, no. 4 (2008): 615-32; Daniel McCann, “Words of Fire and Fruit: The Psychology of Prayer Words in the Cloud of Unknowing,Medium Ævum 84, no. 2 (2015): 213-30; Nike Kocihanèiè Pokorn, “The Language and Discourse of The Cloud of Unknowing,Literature & Theology 11, no. 4 (1997): 408-21. 

  134. Coolman, “The Medieval Affective Dionysian Tradition,” 628. 

  135. The Cloud of Unknowing, 116. 

  136. Ibid., 119. 

  137. Ibid., 121. 

  138. Ibid., 123. 

  139. Eleanor Johnson, “Feeling Time, Will, and Words: Vernacular Devotion in the Cloud of Unknowing,Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 41, no. 2 (2011): 345-68. 346. 

  140. Ibid. 

  141. The Cloud of Unknowing, 131. 

  142. William Franke, “Apophasis as the Common Root of Radically Secular and Radically Orthodox Theologies,” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion, 73 (2013): 57-76. 

  143. Ibid., 60. 

  144. Denys Turner, “How to Read the pseudo-Denys Today?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 7, no. 4 (2005): 428-40. 435. 

  145. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 281. 

  146. Ibid., 279. 

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