God in a Notshall
Like all true mystics, John adopts an apophatic approach to God, but then goes even beyond that. While apophaticism might seem like an esoteric concept, if you stay with me here, I think you'll agree that it is actually quite exoteric, the reason being that we can obviously never capture or contain God with mere language. Therefore, in the ultimate sense, whatever we positively affirm about God will necessarily be inaccurate.
As McGinn explains, "while positive [i.e., cataphatic] language about God is always metaphorical, and negative [i.e., apophatic] language is true and proper, the most appropriate language is that of eminence, which is positive in form but negative in content." Thus, Eriugena tries to transcend the duality of positive and negative speech with recourse to a transcendent third, i.e., "eminence." You might even call this approach dialectical immaterialism.
This is sounding rather pinheady, isn't it? Let's provide a straightforward example of John's dialectical immaterialism that fully accords with orthodoxy -- not just Christian orthodoxy, but any orthodoxy, since he is speaking of the very "nature of things." Positive statement: God is within the world, as its deepest reality, i.e., immanent. Negative statement: God is not in the world, but infinitely above and beyond it, i.e., transcendent.
How do we resolve such a paradox? We don't. All things are simultaneously "within" God, and yet, are not God. You might say that the world is God, but God is not the world. The world is a theophany of God, meaning that it is a veil that simultaneously hides and discloses. In fact, it discloses in its very hiding. Thus, the "hidden God" is manifest in his creation. Or, only in hiding can he manifest.
As you can see, John is very much a forerunner of Eckhart, what with his playful (childlike!) use of language and his understanding that paradox is the threshold of truth. Here are some examples of statements about the world that are simultaneously paradoxical and yet quite literal -- as literal as you can get. It is
--the manifestation of the hidden.
--the comprehension of the incomprehensible.
--the understanding of the unintelligible.
--the body of the bodiless.
--the form of the formless.
--the measure of the measureless.
--the materialization of the spiritual.
--the visibility of the invisible.
--the temporality of the timeless.
Etc. As McGinn explains, "God negates himself as 'non-appearance' in producing the theophany of his appearance, while appearance as a theophany must be transcended or negated" in order to "regain its nonappearing source." You might say that with creation, God "exits" his non-appearing appearance in order to produce the theophany of his appearing non-appearance in and as the world.
I'm guessing that the few readers who have made it this far have a mild headache, but again, we are being as literal as possible. We are not trying to be annoying, just trying to put God in a notshall. This paradoxical formula is how we understand the truism that "God is everything, but every thing is only 'God manifest.'" It is also why "all finite reality is understood to require infinite reality for its full intelligibility and completion." But how does one talk about the infinite with finite language?
The answer my friends is blowing in the windy opening and closing sections of my book, Cosmogenesis and Cosmobliteration. If you only unknowculate your brain in advaiance, you will find there many examples of "supereminent" descriptions of the unKnowable Godhead, e.g., "empty plenum and inexhaustible void," "beginning and end of all impossibility," "knowing without knowledge all that can be unKnown," "a drop embraced by the sea held within the drop," "dark rays shining from a midnight sun," "benighting the way brightly," etc.
As you can blindly see, you must O-bliterate language in order to allow it to coonform to ultimate reality. Yes, some disassembly is required, but by pouring the imploded fragments of speech over the missing suspect, you end up with a kind of seven-dimensional blankit that reveils his contours. Works for me, anyway.
Does any of his have a point? Glad you asked. This foundation of dialectical immaterialism led John to "an unusual and complex understanding of the doctrine of creation and the significance of the cosmos."
That is, if creation is a manifestation, or appearance, of the non-appearing God, then "not only must God create out of himself, but it will also follow that the fundamental purpose of created being is found in its ability to illuminate and reveal the hidden divine nature." You might say that the purpose of God is God, only through the tortuous detour we call the Cosmos.
From our standpoint, God can only be the "supereminent nothing" who transcends cataphatic and apophatic language. This is why the cosmos is "creation from nothing." Or, you could say, "creation from O."
But even then you have posited a false duality between creation and O. Thus, the most accurate -- or the least misleading -- thing you can say about God is precisely O. To say O is to affirm God's present absence and his absent presence.
We are not playing word games here. Rather, we are working very hard at them: God is known in his absence -- by the traces he leaves everywhere -- and unKnown in his presence -- to know God is to approach his profound unknowability.
So creation itself is both affirmation and negation, as it must be. For one thing, it is a limitation, and God knows no limits. Which is again why he can only reveal himself in his absence, even though this absence is very much a fulsome presence.
Let's give a practical example of absent-presence. Your own true self is such an example. Obviously "you are who you are." And yet, who you are -- the potential you -- must be actualized in time. Thus, you are present in your absence. You are somewhere off in the future, calling out to yourself in the now, beckoning yourself to be.
What I believe this means is that human beings are simultaneously eternal (or partache of the eternal) and created. This is what it means for God to say that he knew you even in the womb, even though it will take you the rest of your life to scratch the surface of yourself and know a fraction of what God knows. In a very real sense, you will always be absent from yourself, and yet, being drawn toward your own fulfillment -- even in the "supernatural sunset" of the post-mortem state, when "the night shall shine like the day" and "the secret divine mysteries will in some ineffable manner be opened to blessed and enlightened intellects" (John).
To be continued... but only for eternity.
(All extended quotes taken from The Presence of God, v. 2, by Bernard McGinn.)