In a Fashion Beyond Words, the Simplicity of Jesus Became Something Complex

Who speaks in this manner? Why would anybody describe the movement of the incarnation as one from simplicity to complexity? Are these the words of a theologian of the late 4th or early 5th century, exhausted by study, thought and The Debate, irritated, who when throwing up his hands, complaining avers nevertheless the orthodox position? I can’t describe it, I wish it weren’t so complicated, it certainly was easier before the New Testament, but there it is.

The Dionysian explanation of the incarnation will strike anybody as unusual or meaningless, unless that person already understands two Neoplatonic concepts. The first is that in Neoplatonic thought, the source of all being is a radical simplicity so essentially unified it is called the One. It is not even conscious, because that would require it to be more than One. It does not contain the forms, because then it would have itself plus them (which equals two) and not be One; yes, even if it only thought them it would be two: a thinking subject requires an object of thought. (Remember, at this high level of being, everything lives: the Forms are Intelligences living within living Intellect.) But the One must be absolutely coherent: it is one alone, anterior to everything, the source of all whom we know as the Good. How then is there diversity? by emanation from this superabundance–which is not a radical negation but a radical affirmation: hence, the Good–lesser things come into being: a mind, Intellect or Nous, which contemplates the One and receives as object of contemplation within itself the undivided Forms. That is the first thing, the second thing to understand is how opposites are reconciled at a higher level. Neoplatonists believed that opposites such as black and white are reconciled in a prior concept, and are distinguished by virtue of descending from that higher into a lower part. What reconciles black and white? Color, would be an example, there the two are joined. For Plotinus, that was the essential way things ascended and descended through his three tiers of divine hypostases to the fourth and ephemeral tier of the physical world: simplicity and coherence above, complexity degenerating eventually to absolute incoherence below. Now, with this in mind, here is the Dionysian explanation of the incarnation: “In a fashion beyond words, the simplicity of Jesus became something complex.” Why would anybody use that terminology to describe the incarnation unless he were already thinking in Neoplatonic categories? If somebody had gone to Plotinus and asked him about the incarnation, he would have scoffed, but had he been asked to grant it for the sake for argument, what terms would he have used? Simplicity would have to descend to greater complexity: those are the polarities of Neoplatonic metaphysics.


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