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The Pagans Named God in Various Ways in Relation to Created Things


On Learned IgnoranceBook. I, Ch. XXV-XXVI

XXV. The pagans likewise named God from His various relationships to created things. [They named Him] Jupiter because of marvelous kindness (for Julius Firmicus says that Jupiter is a star so auspicious that had he reigned alone in the heavens, men would be immortal); similarly, [they named Him] Saturn because of a profundity of thoughts and inventions regarding the necessities of life; Mars because of military victories; Mercury because of good judgment in counseling; Venus because of love which conserves nature; Sun because of the force of natural movements; Moon because of conservation of the fluids upon which life depends; Cupid because of the unity of the two sexes (for which reason they also called Him Nature, since through the two sexes He conserves the species of things). Hermes said that not only all [species of] animals but also all [species of] non-animals have two sexes; wherefore, he maintained that the Cause of all things, God, enfolds within Himself both the masculine and the feminine sex, of which he believed Cupid and Venus to be the unfolding. Valerius, too, the Roman, making the same affirmation, professed that Jupiter is the omnipotent Divine Father and Mother. Hence, in accordance with one thing's desiring (cupit) another, they gave to the daughter of Venus, i.e., of natural beauty, the name “Cupid.” But they said that Venus is the daughter of omnipotent Jupiter, from whom Nature and all its accompaniments derive.

Even the temples, the Temple of Peace, the Temple of Eternity, the Temple of Harmony, and the Pantheon (in which there was in the middle, under the open air, the altar of the Infinite Limit, of which there is no limit) and other such [edifices] inform us that the pagans named God in various ways in accordance with His relationship to created things. All these names are unfoldings of the enfolding of the one ineffable name. And as accords with [this] proper name's being infinite, it enfolds an infinite number of such names of particular perfections. Therefore, the unfolded [names] could be many without being so many and so great that there could not be more of them. Each of them is related to the proper and ineffable name [i.e., to the tetragrammaton] as what is finite is related to what is infinite. The ancient pagans derided the Jews, who worshiped one infinite God of whom they were ignorant. Nevertheless, these pagans themselves worshiped Him in unfolded things i.e., worshiped Him where they beheld His divine works. In those days there was the following difference among all men: [although] all believed that God is the one Maximum, than which there cannot be a greater, some of them (e.g., the Jews and the Sissennii) worshiped Him in His most simple oneness (as the Enfolding of all things is); but others worshiped Him in the things in which they found the unfolding of His divinity, construing what was perceptually observed as guidance toward the Cause and Beginning. In this last-mentioned way the simple populace was deceived; for they construed the unfolded things not as images but as the reality itself. As a result thereof, idolatry was introduced to the people, though, for the most part, the wise continued rightly to believe in the oneness of God. These points can be known to anyone who will carefully examine Cicero On the Nature of the Gods, as well as the ancient philosophers.

I do not deny, however, that certain of the pagans did not understand that since God is the being of things, He exists independently of things in a way other than through abstraction. (By comparison, prime matter exists independently of things only through the abstracting intellect). Such men worshiped God in created things; they also provided idolatry with supporting reasons. Certain men even thought that God can be summoned forth. For example, the Sissennii summoned Him in angels. But the pagans summoned Him in trees, as we read regarding the Tree of the Sun and the Moon. Others summoned Him, with fixed incantations, in air, water, or temples. My earlier remarks show how deceived all these men were and how far they were from the truth.

XXVI. The worshipping of God, who is to be worshiped in spirit and in truth, must be based upon affirmations about Him. Accordingly, every religion, in its worshipping, must mount upward by means of affirmative theology. [Through affirmative theology] it worships God as one and three, as most wise and most gracious, as Inaccessible Light, as Life, Truth, and so on. And it always directs its worship by faith, which it attains more truly through learned ignorance. It believes that He whom it worships as one is All-in-one, and that He whom. it worships as Inaccessible Light is not light as is corporeal light, to which darkness is opposed, but is infinite and most simple Light, in which darkness is Infinite Light; and [it believes] that Infinite Light always shines within the darkness of our ignorance but [that] the darkness cannot comprehend it. And so, the theology of negation is so necessary for the theology of affirmation that without it God would not be worshiped as the Infinite God but, rather, as a creature. And such worship is idolatry; it ascribes to the image that which befits only the reality itself. Hence, it will be useful to set down a few more things about negative theology.

Sacred ignorance has taught us that God is ineffable. He is so because He is infinitely greater than all nameable things. And by virtue of the fact that [this] is most true, we speak of God more truly through removal and negation as [teaches] the greatest Dionysius, who did not believe that God is either Truth or Understanding or Light or anything which can be spoken of (Rabbi Solomon and all the wise follow Dionysius.) Hence, in accordance with this negative theology, according to which [God] is only infinite, He is neither Father nor Son nor Holy Spirit. Now, the Infinite qua Infinite is neither Begetting, Begotten, nor Proceeding. Therefore, when Hilary of Poitiers distinguished the persons, he most astutely used the expressions “ Infinity in the Eternal,” “Beauty in the Image,” and “Value  in the Gift.” He means that although in eternity we can see only infinity, nevertheless since the infinity which is eternity is negative infinity, it cannot beunderstood as Begetter but [can] rightly [be understood as] eternity, since “eternity” is affirmative of oneness, or maximum presence. Hence, [Infinity in the Eternal is] the Beginning without beginning. 

“Beauty in the Image” indicates the Beginning from the Beginning. “Value in the Gift” indicates the Procession from these two. All these things are very well known through the preceding [discussion]. For although eternity is infinity, so that eternity is not a greater cause of the Father than is infinity: nevertheless, in a manner of considering, eternity is attributed to the Father and not to the Son or to the Holy Spirit; but infinity is not [attributed] to one person more than to another. For according to the consideration of oneness infinity is the Father; according to the consideration of equality of oneness it is the Son; according to the consideration of the union [of the two it is] the Holy Spirit. And according to the simple consideration of itself infinity is neither the Father nor the Son nor the Holy Spirit. Yet, infinity (as also eternity) is each of the three persons, and, conversely, each person is infinity (and eternity) not, however, according to [the simple] consideration [of itself], as I said. For according to the consideration of infinity God is neither one nor many. Now, according to the theology of negation, there is not found in God anything other than infinity. Therefore, according to this theology [God] is not knowable either in this world or in the world to come (for in this respect every created thing is darkness, which cannot comprehend Infinite Light), but is known only to Himself.

From these [observations] it is clear  that in theological matters negations are true and affirmations are inadequate, and that, nonetheless, the negations which remove the more imperfect things from the most Perfect are truer than the others. For example, it is truer that God is not stone than that He, is not life or intelligence; and [it is truer that He] is not drunkenness than that He is not virtue. The contrary [holds] for affirmations; for the affirmation which states that God is intelligence and life is truer than [the affirmation that He is] earth  or stone or body. All these [points] are very clear from the foregoing. There from we conclude that the precise truth shines incomprehensibly within the darkness of our ignorance. This is the learned ignorance we have been seeking and through which alone, as I explained, [we] can approach the maximum, triune God of infinite goodness [approach Him] according to the degree of our instruction in ignorance, so that with all our might we may ever praise Him, who is forever blessed above all things, for manifesting to us His incomprehensible self.

On Learned Ignorance, engl. tr. Paul Wilpert (Minneapolis: The Arthur J. Banning Press, 1981), pp. 43-46.