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Darkness and Light in the Knowledge of God

Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God , ed. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, New York 1974, p. 31- 43.


In dealing with the knowledge of God, it is impossible to talk about darkness without talking about light simul­taneously. But in most religions, and also in all philosophical systems animated by a religious spirit, the place attributed to light is so important that it is almost possible to identify knowledge of God with light, though "light" sometimes is to be taken in the sense of a metaphor and sometimes is understood in a real sense as a datum of religious experience. Thus as we consider the question of darkness in relation to knowledge of God in the thought of the patristic age, we shall be dealing with darkness in connection with light; we shall be raising the question as to the sense in which the two contradictory terms, darkness and light, could refer to God in the works of some of the theologians and spiritual writers of the first centuries of Christianity.

First of all, how could a Christian thinker ascribe to God anything that might be "darkness" when all the writers of Holy Scripture agree in opposing all that is "darkness" to God, who is "light"? St. John announces as a revelation received from Christ Himself that "God is Light and in Him is no Darkness at all" (I John 1:5). The world which refuses to receive the divine revelation and is enclosed in its own self-sufficiency is opposed to the light and is seen as "dark­ness"; and all that will be definitively separated from God is destined for "the outer darkness" (σκότος τό ἐξώτερον) where no communion with God is possible any longer. If God is known as light, the loss of this knowledge is dark­ness; and, since eternal life consists in "knowing the Father and His Son Jesus Christ," absence of knowledge of God ends in the darkness of Hell. Light, whether interpreted in an allegorical or in a real sense, will then always accompany communion with God, whereas the dark reality can overrun human consciousness only when human consciousness dwells on the borders of eternal death and final separation from God. Thus the obvious sense of darkness seems to be, above all, pejorative. It is the absence of God (1) in the order of knowledge (ignorance of divine things and atheism), (2) in the moral order (hostility to all that comes from God), and (3) in the ontological order, where darkness is no longer to be taken metaphorically (the condition of all beings in a state of definitive separation from God).

However this may be, it is possible for darkness to be taken in a different sense which, in relation to knowledge of God, is not always pejorative or privative. The word can signify the presence of God as well as His absence. The meaning of darkness as an accompanying condition of the divine presence has its source in the Bible. It is enough here to remember Psalm 17 (18), "He made darkness His cover­ing around Him," and, above all, the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Exodus, where Moses meets God in the dark­ness which covered the summit of Mount Sinai. The dark­ness of Sinai may be variously interpreted, but it is always connected with the knowledge of God, whose allegorical expression, for many Christian exegetes, is the ascent of Moses. But even before specifically Christian exegesis, Philo of Alexandria interpreted the darkness of Exodus in the same sense, as a condition of the knowledge of God.

There is an ambiguity in the idea of darkness in the works of Philo. It seems possible to distinguish two meanings of the term: one is objective, and makes darkness (γνόφος) a sensible symbol for expressing the unknowability of the divine essence, which transcends every creature; the other is subjective, where darkness signifies the "formless and blind search" of the knowing subject, incapable of grasping God.

Both these Philonistic meanings of darkness appear again in the works of Clement of Alexandria, who makes use of the very expressions employed by Philo in order to emphasize the absolute transcendence of God, inaccessible to all intellectual searching. However in the works of Clement, the image of the darkness of Sinai seems to stand less for the unknowability of the transcendent God than for the ignorance about God proper to human reason when left to its own natural resources. Clement ' s negative way (which corresponds to the ascent of Moses) does not end in the sort of unknowing which would have the value of knowing in relation to the Unknowable. The "way of analysis," as Clement calls it, leads only to the summit of things intelligible, of things which can be understood. This summit is the "region" (χῶρα) of God, which Plato calls "the region of the Ideas"-for, in Clement ' s mind, there is no doubt that Plato has read the Bible; thus he must have learned from Moses that God is a "region," in that He contains all (1). It is beyond the summit of Sinai, beyond the summit of intelligible things, that ignorance begins, for Moses enters into the darkness to stand face to face with God. This darkness has a subjective and pejorative meaning: it signifies "the unbelief and ignorance of the multitude that cannot know God." "Among men one cannot learn things concerning God." That is why Moses speaks to God in the darkness of human ignorance, "formless and blind," demanding of God that He should show Himself to him. This is a confession of faith in a personal God, transcending all human knowledge and unable to be known unless He reveals Himself by the power which comes from Him, "by the grace and the word which is with God." All γνώσις comes from God through His Son (Strom. V, 11); it is a erace which He gives. But to attain it, by going beyond the summit of intelligible things, we must make the leap of faith, for, as Clement puts it, "we fling ourselves (ἀπορρίψωμεν) upon the majesty of Christ" (ibid ) . For indeed, St. John teaches us (John 1:18) that "no one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known." It is through the Son that we are liberated from the dark shadows of human ignorance, to receive the light of gnosis and "to apprehend the unknowable" (τό ἄγνωστο νοεῖν - Strom. V, 12). But here it appears that the Christian " gnostic," when once liberated from the darkness of his subjective ignorance, comes to a different kind of ignorance, which is not to be taken in a pejorative sense. For it Clement uses another term than "darkness" (γνόφος or σκότος). He calls it the "abyss" (βάθος ), a term borrowed from the Valentinian gnostics, which he uses to signify the transcendence of the Father. Clement indeed tells us that, starting from "the majesty of Christ" one proceeds "through holiness" towards the abyss of God-who-contains-all (παντοκράτωρ), "knowing God not in what He is but in what He is not" (Strom. V, 11). It is "the bosom of the Father" that contains the Logos, the Father Himself being the unengendered God, all-containing without being contained or circumscribed by any other. Thus even in His revelation by grace and by the Son, God remains unknowable, the abyss that we contemplate face to face, knowing Him in what He is not. Apophasis here appears anew, this time in relation to an abyss which is the Father, in order to make us aware of His radical transcendence.

Here we are dealing with an economic aspect of the Trinity: the Father who reveals Himself through the Son and the Holy Spirit (or rather, to be faithful to Clement's terminology, through the Logos and Grace), remaining throughout transcendent to him who contemplates the in­visible. The line of demarcation passes between the abyss of the Father and the Son who reveals Him. Objective ignorance of God (which other writers call "darkness") is indicated in the writings of Clement through the character of "abyss" which he attributes to the essence of the Father. This implies in gnosis itself-which is the perfection of the Christian, according to Clement-a negative element, cor­responding to a comprehension of God's transcendence. How­ever this aspect of the matter is insufficiently developed by Clement of Alexandria, and we have to wait until Gregory of Nyssa to find a notion of ignorance and darkness as a means of knowing the transcendent God.

In the works of Origen the terminology of night in relation to the knowledge of God is entirely absent. The darkness of Sinai plays no vital role: it is mainly a symbol of the weakness of human intelligence, fettered by the limiting conditions of bodily life (Contra Celsum VI, 17); it is an imperfection, a natural obstacle that ought to be overcome in intellectual contemplation. Fr. Danielou has rightly said in his book on Origen that the mysticism of Origen is "a mysticism of light" and that this "is perhaps his limitation.... Origen stops in the realm of gnosis which Gregory will pass beyond (2).

The limitations of this mysticism of light are most evident in Evagrius Ponticus, the monk of Skete, who represents the Origenist tradition in spirituality. In the writings of this Post-Nicene author (end of the fourth century) we are no longer dealing with knowledge of the transcendent Father through the intermediary of the Logos, as in Clement and Origen. Evagrius talks about an "essential gnosis" due to an enlightening act of the Holy Trinity. At the summit of con­templation, in what Evagrius calls "pure prayer," the human νοῦς sees the light of the Trinity which deifies it. In the act of contemplating God, the human intelligence compre­hends itself, it sees itself in seeing Him. This perception is simultaneous: in knowing God, the νοῦς knows itself as the place of God's presence, as a receptacle for the light of the Trinity; it then sees itself as transparent as the sapphire and the sky. This is the "naked intellect" (νοῦς γυμνός), the intellect which is "fulfilled in the vision of itself and which has merited participation in the contempla­tion of the Holy Trinity" (Cent. Ill, 6).

This doctrine, which is not found in the same form in the works of Origen, may be compared to the idea of θεωρία in the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa, where God is con­templated in the mirror of the soul. But in Evagrius this vision of the light of God in the deified νοῦς , is the summit, the final end which knows nothing transcending it. As in Origen, there is no going out of oneself "beyond the νοῦς," nor is there any divine darkness or knowing through un­knowing. We know only one passage where Evagrius says "Blessed is he that has descended into infinite ignorance" (M ακάριος ὁ φθάσας εἰς τήν ἀπέραντον ἀγνωσίαν - Cent. Ill, 88). The word "descended" (φθάσας) would be astonishing if the matter in hand were really an ecstatic state superior to that of the contemplation of the light of the Trinity in the soul. In fact, as Fr. Hausherr has shown (3), Evagrius means by ἀπέραντος ἀγνωσία -"infinite igno­rance"-the exclusion from the mind of all knowledge except knowledge of God. In the act of contemplating the Trinity, the "naked intellect" becomes infinitely ignorant of all that is inferior to this divine gnosis. We may recall St. Gregory of Nazianzus, whom Evagrius often calls his teacher. For him also the darkness of Sinai into which Moses went to meet God does not mean a mode of communion with God superior to θεωρία a: γνόφος, for St. Gregory of Nazianzus, is the ignorance of the multitude about God (Or. 28, 15); light is superior to darkness. For Evagrius, the νοῦς need not go out of itself, beyond itself, because by its very nature the νοῦς is a receiver of divine light. When once it has reached its pure state, the νοῦς in seeing itself sees God, who fills it with His light. The receptivity of the νοῦς in the contemplation of the Trinity is part of its nature: the νοῦς is perfectly νοῦς only in the measure in which it contemplates God. Here we find again the basic idea of Origen ' s thought, his Platonistic intellectualism, the close relationship between the intelligible and the divine, between the human νοῦς, in God ' s image, and the Trinity. The contemplation of the Holy Trinity is uniform: it has no degrees. Here also the thought of Evagrius differs from that of St. Gregory of Nyssa, for whom union with God is an infinite progress of the soul.

In the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, darkness is an allegorization of the darkness of Exodus in combination with the image of night in the Song of Songs. It signifies that "the closer the spirit comes to contemplation, the more it sees that the divine nature is invisible. The true knowledge of Him whom it seeks lies in understanding that seeing consists in not seeing" (Vita Moys.). If in Origen and Evagrius darkness is a hindrance which separates us from the light of the Trinity, it seems that for Gregory of Nyssa, the cloud of Sinai represents, on the contrary, a mode of communion with God which is more perfect and more advanced than the luminous vision in which God manifested Himself to Moses at the beginning of his way, in the burning bush. If God appears first as light and then as darkness, this means for Gregory that of the divine essence there is no vision, and that union with God is a way surpassing vision or θεωρία, going beyond intelligence to where knowl­edge vanishes and only love remains-or, rather, to where gnosis becomes ἀγάπη. Desiring God more and more, the soul grows without ceasing, going beyond herself and out­side herself; and in the measure in which she unites herself more and more to God, her love becomes more ardent and insatiable. Thus the Bride of the Song of Songs awaits her Bridegroom in the awareness that the union will never have an end, that ascent in God has no limit, that beatitude is an infinite progress.

Despite the impression that an experience of life is being described, which we like H.-Ch. Puech have in reading the passages in Gregory of Nyssa which describe the infinite nocturnal course through which created being attains con-seriousness of the infinity of union with God (4), the question may be raised whether in these passages the notion of dark­ness represents a concrete religious experience beyond the realm of light, or whether it is not better to see in darkness the metaphorical expression of a dogmatic fact-the fact of the absolute transcendence of the divine nature. In any case the resemblances sometimes traced between the darkness of the patristic tradition and the dark night of the mysticism of John of the Cross seem to be rather artificial, in spite of the references to "Dionysius" in the works of the great Spanish contemplative. In John of the Cross, the mystic night stands for a passive state, in which the soul finds itself without any luminous communication. In Gregory of Nyssa, on the contrary, the darkness signifying the radical unknowability of the divine essence seems to act as a stimulus to an unchecked passage towards union, in which created being seeks to pass beyond itself, opening itself infinitely to deifying participation without ever being satiated.

Here the object of vision is the divine light contemplated "in the pure atmosphere of the heart"-the kingdom of heaven within us. But in Gregory of Nyssa, contrary to Evagrius, it is not the vision of God in the νοῦς which pro­cures beatitude by showing the " connaturality " of the human spirit with God. It is precisely consciousness of the radical lack of correspondence between the creature and God which makes union preferable to knowledge. "Beatitude consists not in knowing something about God but in having Him within us," says Gregory (On the Beatitudes Horn. 6). It is union with God that conditions knowledge of God, and not vice versa. The infinite and never completed character of this union with the transcendent God is signified by darkness, which seems to be, for St. Gregory of Nyssa, a metaphor whose purpose is to remind us of a dogmatic fact.

This is even clearer in Pseudo-Dionysius, as H.-Ch. Puech has well shown (5). It is enough to read the first Letter of Dionysius, an appendix to his treatise on Mystical Theology, in order to have to recognize that here we are concerned less with mystical experience of ecstasy than with dogmatic speculation about the conditions in which the knowledge of God is possible-speculation presented in the form of a dialectic of light and darkness, knowledge and ignorance, affirmation and negation.

"Darkness," says Dionysius, "becomes invisible in light and above all in abundant light. Knowledge purges ignorance, and above all abundant knowledge. If thou shalt think of this not in the sense of something being taken away, but in the sense of something being lifted up, thou shalt be able to affirm this, which is more true than very truth: ignorance concerning God remains hidden from those who have positive light and knowledge of things which are. Indeed, the transcendent darkness of God allows itself to be concealed by all that is light, but it also throws into the shadow all that is knowledge. If it happened that, in seeing God, one were to understand what he saw, that would mean that he was not seeing God in Himself, but only some­thing that is knowable that belongs to Him. For in Himself, He surpasses all understanding and all essence; He exists in a manner above essence and is known beyond all understanding only inasmuch as He is totally unknown and does not exist at all. And it is this perfect lack of knowledge, taken in the best sense of the word, which is the knowledge of Him who surpasses all that can be known."

This dialectical movement in which contrasted light and darkness are mutually exclusive can be expressed in an inverse manner, as it is, for example, in one passage from Divine Names (4, 5), where light and knowledge are placed above darkness. Here God appears as the light which frees us from all darkness and ignorance-these understood in this passage in a subjective and privative sense. In that He manifests Himself and can be contemplated, God is light; and if divine darkness enters into Dionysius' line of thought concerning the conditions in which knowledge of God is possible, this is not in order to indicate a new mode of ecstatic experience which would necessitate the suppression of all mysticism of light, but rather to supply this mysticism of light with a necessary dogmatic corrective.

The fifth Letter begins by saying: "The divine darkness is the inaccessible light (ἀπρόσιτον τό φῶς) where God dwells." If God is light, this light has neither kinship nor connaturality with the νοῦς, with the human spirit. God by His very nature remains transcendent, even in the im­manence of His manifestation. Hence the necessity that created being should continually pass beyond itself-the necessity of "union beyond the νοῦς," which is not depersonalization but an opening of the human person to com­munion with uncreated reality. Basically this is the same idea of infinite progress that one finds in the thought of Gregory of Nyssa, except that the author of the Areopagitic writings puts it in different terms. If infinite passage through the night does not appear here, that is because Dionysius made no use of the imagery of the Song of Songs and the theme of mystical marriage remained foreign to him. He confined himself to the allegorization of Moses ' ascent of Sinai, which could best be adapted to his purpose: that of transforming the apophasis of the Platonists into an expres­sion of the absolute transcendence of the divine essence- something that Clement did not know how to do. God is not light, says Dionysius at the end of Mystical Theology, but neither is He darkness. He transcends both affirmation and negation. Christian transcendence is beyond all opposition. And in the last analysis, it goes beyond the opposition be­tween transcendence and immanence.

Here, however, we are in the presence not of the im­personal One of Plotinus, but of the superessence of the Trinity, which is "union and distinction in Union and inef­fable Substance" (De div. nom. 2, 5). God is transcendent in His essence-in the darkness which is "His covering around Him" (or, if you will, in His "inaccessible light")- but God proceeds outside His essence. He continually bursts forth from this hiding-place, and this bursting forth, these "processions" or δυνάμεις, are a mode of existing in which the Divinity can communicate itself to created beings: they are an immanent aspect of God, His manifesting descent, "the superessential ray of the divine darkness" (De myst. theol. 1, 3). This image gives simultaneous expression to the two distinct but inseparable aspects of God: immanence, in that the Divinity proceeds in the δυνάμεις like light ("ray") and transcendence ("darkness"), in that it remains inacces­sible in its essence.

Here we recognize the distinction between the unknow­able οὐσία and the manifesting energies, according to which the divine names are formed-a distinction suggested in the works of St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa. With Pseudo-Dionysius it is the pivotal point of all his theological thought. If this doctrine, developed above all in the second chapter of Divine Names, is neglected (and this too often happens), the central nerve of Dionysius ' thought will not be perceived and, inevitably, he will be interpreted in the sense of the Neo-Platonism to which he is clearly opposed. The δυνάμεις (or energies) of Dionysius are not diminished emanations of the divine nature, which become weaker as they descend from their starting point in the unity of this nature until they reach the lowest degrees of created being. Dionysius insists on the integrity of the divine processions on each level of participation. That is why he often speaks of the processions in the singular, calling them "the ray." The Divinity is fully manifested and entirely present in the 5uva^£iq, but created beings participate therein according to the proportion or analogy proper to each; whence arises the hierarchical arrangement of the universe, which unfolds according to the decreasing degrees of participation in, and analogy to the Divinity among created beings (6). The hierarchy of Dionysius does not in any way limit the fulness of union. At each step of the ladder, union with God is fully realized, but this fulness is not uniform: it is personal. In the analogy of each created nature, there is an encounter and a synergy of two wills: the liberty of the creature and predetermination (προορισμός)-the idea (παράδειγμα) or divine will addressed to each being. A double movement pervades this hierarchically arranged universe: God reveals Himself by His δυνάμεις in all beings ("multiplying Himself without abandoning His unity"), and creatures rise towards deifica­tion, by transcending the manifestations of God in creation. Here there is an impetus towards the " superessential ray," towards a communication which transcends the created order, being connatural with God and, in this sense, "a ray of darkness." If we want to translate this image into the terms of a more precise theology, we should call it "deifying grace."

In the age to come, the vision of the face of God will not exclude this impetus towards the Unknowable, which Dionysius this time describes in terms of light: "Then, when we shall become incorruptible and immortal, having reached the state of blessedness and having become like Christ (χριστοειδεῖς), we shall be forever with the Lord, as Scripture says, enjoying His visible theophany in most pure contemplations, illumined by His bright rays just as the disciples were at the time of His divine Transfiguration; then, with intelligence which is without passion and without matter, we shall share in His intelligible participation, and also in a union beyond all intelligence, in the unknowable yet blessed shining of rays which are more than bright, in a state which is like that of the heavenly spirits. For as the word of the Truth says, we shall be like the angels and sons of God, being sons of the resurrection" (De div. nom. 1,4).

This text contains a synthesis of all that we have seen up to now in other authors. There is no trace of the intellectualism of Origen; it is the whole man, not only the spirit or the intelligence (the νοῦς), that enters into communion with God. As in St. John Chrysostom and the Antiochenes, the vision is of the incarnate Son. But in Dionysius the doctrine of the spiritual senses (which was absent from the writings of the Antiochene theologians) finds all its value in the "visible theophany "-the vision of the light of the transfigured Christ. At the same time, the intelligence (νοῦς) receives intelligible illumination, and man knows God in this same light; here Dionysius agrees with St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Cyril of Alexandria. But in union with God, which is a movement towards the unknow­able nature of God, the human person goes beyond all knowledge and transcends the νοῦς ; and here we find again St. Gregory of Nyssa's idea of "infinite progress." Thus simultaneously Christ is seen face to face, God is fully manifested, He is known in His revealing διακρίσεις and yet, in the union, He surpasses all vision and all knowledge, for His superessential nature always remains inaccessible.

With Dionysius we enter the world of Byzantine theology in the proper sense of the term. For the Dionysian doctrine of the dynamic manifestation of God, implying a distinction between the unknowable essence of God and His natural processions or energies (as they will be termed, since the term "energy" used by the Cappadocians will receive prefer­ence to the term δυνάμεις used by Pseudo-Dionysius), will serve as a dogmatic basis for teaching concerning the vision of God in later theology, above all in the fourteenth century.

In that period, as dogmatic teaching about grace is clearly defined by the councils of the Orthodox Church, the image of the divine darkness, as we have met it in St. Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius, no longer will have the same im­portance. The theology of darkness-which was but a metaphor of a dogmatic truth-will give way to a theology of the uncreated light, a real element in mystical experience. The darkness of Mount Sinai will be changed into the light of Mount Tabor, in which Moses at last was able to see the glorious face of God incarnate.


(1) Cf. p. 20 above.

(2) Origène (Paris, 1948) pp. 291, 296.

(3) "Ignorance infinie," Orientalia Christiana Periodica 2 (1936) pp. 351-62.

(4) La ténèbre mystique chez le Ps. Denys l'Aréopagite et dans la tradition patristique," Eludes Carmélitaines 23.2 (1938) pp. 33-53.

(5) Ibid.

(6) See our article "La notion des 'Analogies' chez Denys le pseudo-Aréopagite," Archives d'histoire doctrinale et litteraire du Moyen-Age 5 (1930) pp. 279-309. See also the more recent work of R. Roques, "La notion de hiérarchie selon le Pseudo-Denys," Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen-Age 17 (1949) pp. 183-222, and especially his L'univers dionysien (Paris, 1954).

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