Category Archives: Negative Theology

August 2016 1: Ancient Theological Fraud and Contemporary Theologians in the Towery City


Last month yours truly spent at week in Oxford doing interesting academic stuff. Himself came along for moral support and we loved every bit of it. We attended a workshop about a philosopher / theologian called Dionysius the Areopagite and his commentators throughout the centuries, a guy who perpetrated one of the greatest identity fraud “crimes” (with the widest-ranging theological consequences) of all time. This Dionysius was a sixth-century monk / theologian, most likely from Syria, and in his writings pretended to be a convert of St Paul who had, sometime around the year 50 AD, preached a sermon on the Areopagus in Athens (“Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus ….” Acts 17:34). Why this sixth-century scholar decided to take on a first-century identity has been the subject of much diligent scholarly detective work but we are no nearer to an answer – not surprising given the intervening millennia! But Dionysius, despite his assumed identity, was to prove one of the most significant influences on medieval philosophy and theology. Even today, his work has sparked huge debates among the luminaries of contemporary thought, spearheaded by French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

But on the first day of that conference at Pusey Hall, St Cross College, Syria was often on my mind. The images on our TV screens of Aleppo and other besieged Syrian cities and towns make for harrowing viewing, and provided a seriously stark contrast with the sunny, humid setting of the small, intimate Oxford library in which we were gathered.


Scholars from four continents were present for the workshop, and the discussions were truly participatory. Not surprisingly, there was a sizeable contingent of Orthodox scholars present, including Emeritus Professor Andrew Louth (Durham) who made the opening presentation and a further presentation on the last day. My slot was on day two, and of course I spoke about my Irish friend the ninth-century philosopher / theologian John Scottus Eriugena. Here he is on the old Irish punt note in the days before the euro.


I was happy with the presentation, and in the chair, Dr Wayne Hankey from Dalhousie University handled the ensuing discussion with his usual aplomb. I am writing a review of the conference for the journal Sobornost and look forward eagerly to the publication of the proceedings. My friend from the Lesbos conference on Love in May 2015, Dimitrios Pallis, did a great job organizing the workshop, and my sincere thanks go to him for securing the sponsorship that enabled me to attend.

Academic work aside, I hadn’t been in Oxford since Christmas 1995, and while the place in general hadn’t changed that much, the streets most certainly had. Walking up to Cross College in the morning and back in the evening cost me a fortune! These days, the homeless and their (often frighteningly large) canine companions are a prominent feature on benches, in doorways, and anywhere really where they can sit, relax, and get their containers jangling. I simply couldn’t pass the street people with dogs. How did they manage to get enough to eat for two? Where did they get water? What about the doggy worming tablets and rabies vaccinations? How did they get their yearly bath (both humans and canines)? All these and other questions filled my mind as I struggled to gather my thoughts for the scholarly discussions to follow. And so my hand was constantly rooting around in my bag for cash as I asked the names of canines and their humans. In return I received many, many “God bless yous”, and for these I was, and am, most grateful.

To my great excitement we had been allocated accommodation in Christ Church. Wow! Just going through the massive portal that is called Tom Tower is a step back in time. As residents we could enter at any time, unlike the tourists who were were allocated a few hours in late afternoons. To my shame I must admit to a degree of smugness as we were whisked past the crowds waiting to explore this mighty institution. The college is built around a central quod (the original cloister), and as we walked around, I could hear centuries of music echoing in my head way back to the days of John Taverner the director of the first choir. The present-day church has its roots in the twelfth-century, and has the distinction of being both college chapel and cathedral.


Interestingly, the first church on the present site dates back to the time of St Frideswide, founder of a church on the site; he was born around the time Eriugena was dying. In the twelfth century, Augustinian monks built a monastery church there, but this suffered the fate of all monasteries in the time of the Reformation: it was suppressed in 1524 and partially destroyed. But only one year later, the famous Cardinal Wolsey founded the college, and the church became the college chapel. Henry VIII also had a part in its history when he “re-founded” the college and made the church a cathedral in 1546. We spent a good three hours inside the church and emerged with very sore necks!


Other interesting facts about are that Charles I lived at Christ Church between 1642 and 1646, while the brothers Wesley studied and were ordained there in the 1720s.

The more modern connections may be more interesting; my favourite is Lewis Carroll. Charles Dodgeson went up to Oxford in 1851 to study mathematics, and became rather fond of the Liddell sisters, especially Alice, daughters of the then Dean. He told stories about a girl named Alice to the girls who begged him to write them down. And so history was made. Here is the little door that was Carroll’s inspiration.


Edward Burne-Jones (who worked closely with William Morris) crafted a wonderful stained-glass window in the church where the representation of St Catherine of Alexandria is actually a portrait of Edith Liddell, Alice’s sister. Alice herself can be seen in a window in the magnificent Great Hall – the whole of which was actually reproduced at the University of Chicago – where parts of Harry Potter were filmed. We had breakfast there every day!

great-hall     hall2





My favourite place was the Jabberwocky Tree called after that wonderful nonsense poem of Carroll “Jabberwocky”. This is the actual tree at Christ Church where Carroll got his inspiration.


My favourite (and most weird) fact about Oxford is that there once was “Oxford Time”. Yep, you read that right! Even today, Church services follow Oxford time which is GMT+1+5 minutes! How wonderful is that? We did not get to hear the Cathedral Choir sing because term was out, but if you want to have an idea of their sound just listen to the theme music for the Vicar of Dibley (The Lord is my Shepherd ) and — wait for it — Mr Bean (Ecce homo qui est faba).

All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I want to go back to visit all the nooks and crannies we did not reach. It was with a heavy heart that we jumped back on the bus outside Tom Gate that would take us back to Heathrow and on to the town of my birth. Coming up next: Belfast, Beards, and the Bucket List Trip.


In conversation with Andrew Louth

On 26 May 2015, the relaunch of my 1995 book The Unknown God took place at the Metochi Study Centre of the University of Agder. Thanks to Prof. Louth, Kari and Ivar for this lovely occasion. If you are interested, you can watch the conversation here.

Love and Negative Theology

Perhaps a strange title for a conference paper, but this is what I spoke about recently in Metochi on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Since I couldn’t speak in the abstract, I chose Marguerite Porete (burned at the stake in 310 on 1 June in Paris for perceived heresy) to illustrate the relationship between the two concepts.

For those interested, this is the abstract:

Negative Theology and Love:  Love and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls

In this paper I examine Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (I also make frequent reference to some of the vernacular sermons of Meister Eckhart) as an illustration of how the two concepts: love and negative theology – which at first sight appear to have little in common – can be brought together in one, most unusual spiritual journey.

The fundamental thesis I attempt to develop is that both love and negative theology have the same impetus if we understand negative theology as praxis, not simply as a word game or an exercise of mental abstraction. Both (if we take negative theology to its ultimate goal of unity with the Divine) entail a going out of oneself. Love is extasis, because it is the going out into the heart of an other; extasis is the central moment in a negative theology when the soul no longer knows either the self or God but is in the same place as, or is united to God.

I begin with a brief exposition of negative theology. I then turn to a discussion of how Porete begins from the perspective of negative theology in The Mirror of Simple Souls and tells a love story with a most unusual ending. Put simply, Porete’s Mirror is the story of the soul becoming what she truly is by falling out of herself, by annihilating herself under the impetus of love. When the soul is liberated from will and reason, when the soul “… has all and has nothing, knows all and knows nothing, wills all and wills nothing …”, she is emptied so that her divine lover has space to be and to love in her. She becomes the river that no longer exists when it flows into the sea. In Porete’s falling into the ocean of the Divine, she is made no thing so that her divine lover can be all. Her self-annihilation, however, is the portal to her deification when she is finally changed into God. The continuous hominification of God and divinization of humanity is the eternal process of Love loving Love’s self.

In the final part of the paper I argue that Porete’s spiritual journey is a departure from the usual way of negation. Negative theology usually practises an aphairesis that begins by taking away from God all that is considered creaturely or it embarks on a purification of one’s God concepts. In the Mirror, Porete’s method focuses on the self rather than on God, and is a relentless stripping the self of all that is creaturely to the extent of self-annihilation. This procedure leaves God to be God and concentrates instead on making the soul an empty dwelling place for Love to take up residence. I close the paper by showing how Porete’s is a radical negative theology taken to the extreme: the soul never knows God even when she becomes God’s residence.

And for those of you who want to listen to the conference presentation, well, here it is:

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