An Interview with Deirdre Carabine

Holos: Forum for a New Worldview
Vol. 5, No. 1 (2009)


Deirdre Carabine is the author of The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena (Louvain: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995) and John Scottus Eriugena (Oxford University Press, 2000). She is currently Vice Chancellor of the International Health Sciences University in Kampala, Uganda.

The text below is a record of written correspondence between Thomas McFarlane and Deirdre Carabine during 2008 and 2009. This document is copyright © 2009 by Deirdre Carabine and is published here with her kind permission.

[Note: As a convenience to readers, some names and technical terms in this document are linked to external web resources. These links, however, do not constitute an implicit or explicit endorsement of any information found on those external pages.]


Introduction

Tom: Hello Dee. Thank you for the opportunity to interview you for Holos. I was prompted to request this interview partly because you appear to have an intimate understanding of some very profound mystical teachings, as exhibited in your books on John Scottus Eriugena and negative theology. In addition, you have extensive experience working on contemporary social issues, as displayed by your work in ethics, development, and educational initiatives. In this interview I hope to learn more about these two apparently different areas of your work and how they relate to each other in your life.

First, though, I'm wondering if you would share some biographical background to help provide a larger context for this discussion and to introduce you to our readers. Perhaps you could start with a bit about your childhood. Where were you born and raised? Did you have a religious upbringing?

Dee: Hello Tom, and thank you for inviting me to be your interviewee. I am honored.

I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1956. I went to the local suburban primary school and have to say that I didn't really excel in anything there except perhaps drama. I didn't have a particularly strict religious upbringing at home (although my mother would no doubt contest that!) but was sent to a rural Roman Catholic convent boarding school at the age of twelve. It was there that I started to learn classical music and I spent most of my time at the 'cello and piano — much to the disappointment of some of the other teachers who taught me. One of my fondest memories of my early years at boarding school is the lingering smell of incense and I used to slip back into the chapel at night just to inhale those exotic scents. That period of my life was indeed religious and has left an indelible mark on me.

Tom: At Queen's University Belfast you initially studied both philosophy and music. What drew you to focus on these subjects?

The deeper world that lies beyond the mental form, the world of music, philosophy, and poetry was the start of a lifelong journey for me — a journey to the Transcendent.

Dee: My father was perhaps the strongest musical and philosophical influence in my life. Before I was eight, he had taught me to play a mean tin whistle and a large number of traditional Irish songs that I still remember well. As an accomplished Judo player (4th Dan) Jack Carabine was (in the tradition of many martial arts experts) an enigmatic poet/philosopher. His all-time favorites were Omar Khayyam and William Butler Yeats, both of them full of mystery and the mysterious. I had learned huge chunks of their works by heart by the time I was twelve and I remember them still. That introduction to the deeper world that lies beyond the mental form, the world of music, philosophy, and poetry was the start of a lifelong journey for me — a journey to the Transcendent — that is, of course, still ongoing.

Tom: You continued your studies at Queen's University and in 1988 earned a doctorate in philosophy. Then, at University College Dublin, in 1991 you earned a second doctorate in classics. You must have been quite passionately immersed in your academic studies during this period of your life. What personally motivated you to enroll in a graduate program and pursue a career in academia?

Dee: When I graduated with my primary degree in philosophy (with a music minor), I didn't really think about a career in academia. All I knew at the time was that I wanted to read more about Meister Eckhart, the Pseudo-Dionysius, Plotinus, and John Scottus Eriugena. Looking back now, I moved from an MA to a PhD program as a kind of "living in the now", simply enjoying quenching the thirst for more mystery. It is almost as if I woke up and found myself with my first PhD and teaching at Queen's in 1988.

Tom: What was the focus of your research in your graduate studies, and what drew you to that area of specialization?

I read Eckhart's sermons so thoroughly in those years that my paperback edition eventually fell apart. I was simply fascinated by the idea of "living without a why".

Dee: I always had a yearning for the mystical tradition in the Christian Church. During the time of my postgraduate studies I specialized in the area of negative theology partly because in my own spiritual life at the time I found myself challenging certain patterns of prayer and worship. I came to negative (or apophatic) theology through reading for my undergraduate dissertation on St. Augustine, and was struck by his thoughts on divine ineffability in De doctrina christiana. The knotty problem of saying even "ineffable" about the Ineffable brought me back to the Pseudo-Dionysius, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Plotinus, and forward to Meister Eckhart. From the problem of speaking about God, I then found myself confronting an ever bigger issue: the problem of knowing God. I read Eckhart's sermons so thoroughly in those years that my paperback edition eventually fell apart. I was simply fascinated by the idea of "living without a why", by the idea ofabgeschiedenheit [i.e., detachment]. Thus, while most early-twenty-somethings find their thing in friends, discos, and enjoying student life, I found mine in a most strange quest: for the unknown God, as it were.

Tom: Was it also during this period that you composed the liturgical music pieces that were included in the 1992 album "To You I Pray" by Belfast-based liturgical music group Solas? How did your activities in music and philosophy influence each other during this time of your life? How are they related for you personally?

Music has always been for me a path to the Transcendent, a way of moving beyond the world of mental and physical forms to stand in the presence of or become aware of the mysterious sacred realm of Transcendent Beauty.

Dee: I did indeed publish a few pieces in the 1992 album, but I wrote my first liturgical piece way back in 1972 — a most turgid effort if the truth be told! In 1979 I started a "folk choir" in the Catholic Chaplaincy at Queen's. Being a new choir without huge resources, I often composed short pieces for particular liturgies if nothing else was at hand. I had some wonderful sopranos, tenors, and baritones in my choir over the years until 1986, and some pieces were composed especially for them. In fact, the emerging musical phenomenon The Priests were all members of my choir at the same time so you can imagine the richness of our music! One of the pieces on the To You I Pray album was composed for the tonal range of Fr Martin O'Hagan who rendered it beautifully. Music has always been for me a path to the Transcendent, a way of moving beyond the world of mental and physical forms to stand in the presence of or become aware of the mysterious sacred realm of Transcendent Beauty.

Tom: In 1993, a couple years after your second doctorate, you accepted a post at Uganda Martyrs University in Kampala, Uganda. What prompted you to leave Ireland and take a position at a university in East Africa?

Dee: I was teaching and researching at University College Dublin as a pioneer Newman Scholar and when my contract was about to end, a friend of a friend mentioned vacancies for philosophers with a different take on things to teach at a yet-to-be-established university situated right on the Uganda Equator. Never having had road maps for my life, I thought this a great opportunity to get to know part of Africa, yet another important part of my childhood psyche. The stories told by my mother's sister when she came home from her missionary work in South Africa had always riveted me and here I was about to experience Africa for the first time!

Tom: I understand that during the move to Uganda you lost most of your worldly possessions in a Kenyan container heist. I would imagine that, without any of your books and notes with you in Uganda, your research in classical philosophy was quite limited. How did that loss impact you and your work?

I lost two out of the three pallets containing most of my worldly goods — an absolute disaster for someone who never really owned much up to then. ...But it also enabled me to take a new direction in teaching philosophy, a direction that gradually became more and more open to different ways of thinking.

Dee: I was devastated! I lost two out of the three pallets containing most of my worldly goods — an absolute disaster for someone who never really owned much up to then. Strangely enough, at the time I was more worried about my guitar, family photographs, and newly-purchased cotton underwear, but the loss of the books did finally dawn on me. I was forced to make an unscheduled trip back to Ireland a few weeks before classes began in order to replace the text books that would enable me to teach Philosophy 101 and the History of Ideas. But the implications of that loss were significant. As you say, it did impact on my reading and research in classical philosophy, but it also enabled me to take a new direction in teaching philosophy, a direction that gradually became more and more open to different ways of thinking (moving away from the strictly classical, and western, approach to the "thoughts of dead white men"!).

Tom: Relocating to Uganda seems to have significantly changed the course of your academic career. Your research interests expanded to include ethics and social issues, and for ten years you held the post of Director of the Institute of Ethics and Development. What are some of the factors in your life and work that contributed to the shift of your research focus from classical philosophy to ethics, social issues, and education?

Dee: The loss of my meager but lovingly chosen library was one factor. The students in my classes were perhaps the most compelling factor for a change in direction. As I began to apply classical western philosophy to areas of development and social issues I found Martha Nussbaum a very strong influence. Using classical philosophy as the basis for the capabilities approach she developed with Amartya Sen inspired me to look for ways to make my philosophical heritage more meaningful and relevant to young Ugandan students hoping to make careers as development workers.

Tom: What were some of the specific topics of your research during this period?

Dee: Initially I focused most on ethics in the practical rather than the strictly normative sense, and thereafter, following a brief but extremely rewarding flirtation with environmental ethics and philosophy, I finally settled on gender and women's empowerment. On my desk I have a half-finished book on gender, most improperly entitled Putting on Trousers that are Empty! sitting alongside copious notes and almost finished drafts of chapters that could eventually make up a volume on Negative Theology and Spirituality. I also have a selection of articles on development awaiting my editorial pen. Finally, I have almost finished a first draft of a more bedtime-reading-kind-of-book called Jacana Days about living and working in Uganda. It's a sort of a cross between Bridget Jones and the Bill Bryson travel books, but since my life has become more Jones-like and hectic in recent years, I may well have to get up at 4.00 a.m. for a number of months to see it complete!

Tom: At Uganda Martyrs University you were promoted to Director of the School of Postgraduate Studies and then to Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Continuing this transition from research and teaching to administration, in 2006 you left Uganda Martyrs University and then became involved with starting the new International Health Sciences University in Kampala. What brought about this shift from research and teaching to administration and university building?

The move into administration was almost inevitable as I progressed further up the academic ladder. ...Having been instrumental in setting up Uganda Martyrs University...how could I refuse the challenge of starting a university once more from scratch?

Dee: The move into administration was almost inevitable as I progressed further up the academic ladder. I actually didn't know I had management capabilities until I was on the job as it were. This latest venture could be described as a kind of accident. Having been instrumental in setting up Uganda Martyrs University, I had some experience in do-it-yourself university building on a different continent, and it was a matter of simply being in the right place at the right time. A fellow Irishman in Uganda who runs a successful private medical business approached me to start a university for health-related programs as I was literally about to leave the country in search of a comfortable teaching post back in Europe. How could I refuse the challenge of starting a university once more from scratch? I've been working on the project since January 2007 and was installed as Vice-Chancellor in June 2008. Currently we have 265 students registered for various health-related courses. It's been tough going at times, but as we reach the end of our first academic year at International Health Sciences University, I'm glad I accepted the challenge. I'm sad about the lack of time to read and write, but I still teach a course per semester to postgraduate students. I also keep my hand on the academic tiller by supervising a number of PhD theses for Ugandan students studying both in Uganda and abroad. That is seriously challenging.

Tom: Back when you moved from Ireland to Uganda, did you imagine that, sixteen years later, you would still be in Uganda, or that you would be engaged in starting a new university?

Dee: Never! I came to Uganda in 1993 for one year; that stretched into three, and thereafter I simply fell in love with the country. I have apparently been bitten by the Africa bug (as well as numerous mosquitoes!), and the years have slipped past almost without me noticing. Although I do get homesick for daily newspapers and the odd pint of Guinness in my local Donegal pub, there's more than enough in Uganda to keep me happy and interested hopefully until way past the normal year for retirement.

Tom: What possibilities do you see for your future, after this current phase of work? Are you drawn to returning again to more research and teaching? If so, what areas of research are you drawn to?

Part of me yearns for the time to get back to the apophatic tradition and read and write again. University administration is a challenge but it is nothing compared to reading the Fathers of the Church.

Dee: Actually I still have no road map — I'm still living in the Now. As I said, part of me yearns for the time to get back to the apophatic tradition and read and write again. University administration is a challenge but it is nothing compared to reading the Fathers of the Church. My first mature philosophical love was Plotinus, and from time to time I dream of having the leisure to re-read the Enneads from the perspective of a fifty-year-old instead of an eager doctoral student. You could say I am homesick for the mystical tradition! But one of these days I might well set my internal clock for 4.00 a.m. and immerse myself, once again, in the tradition that has made me who I am and has determined how I have made my journey thus far through life.

Negative Theology and Eriugena

Apophasis and Kataphasis

Tom: The dissertation for your doctoral degree in philosophy, "The Ineffable God: Apophasis from Parmenides to Plotinus," appears to have provided the basis for your book, The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena, published in 1995. Because apophasis is a key concept in these works, perhaps you could briefly explain the meaning of the term apophasis, as well as its counterpart, kataphasis.

At the same time as God is immanent, God is also transcendent. At the same time as God is knowable, God is also unknowable. God cannot be thought of as one or the other only.

Dee: The terms apophasis and kataphasis belong to what the Pseudo-Dionysius called the "sacred science of theology". In his work the Mystical Theology, Dionysius describes the kataphatic or affirmative way to the divine as the "way of speech": that we can come to some understanding of the Transcendent by attributing all the perfections of the created order to God as its source. In this sense, we can say "God is Love", "God is Beauty", "God is Good". The apophatic or negative way stresses God's absolute transcendence and unknowability in such a way that we cannot say anything about the divine essence because God is so totally beyond being. The dual concept of the immanence and transcendence of God can help us to understand the simultaneous truth of both "ways" to God: at the same time as God is immanent, God is also transcendent. At the same time as God is knowable, God is also unknowable. God cannot be thought of as one or the other only.

Tom: You mention in your book that apophasis and kataphasis, in addition to being different ways of speaking and thinking about God, are also cosmological principles, signifying the emanation from God and return to God. Could you elaborate on this idea?

Thus, the whole of creation can be seen as an outgoing from God — a manifestation from God — and, conversely, since all things ultimately return to their source, move away from manifestation and speech to silence, all things return to God the source of all things.

Dee: This idea goes back to Plotinus and became part of the Christian tradition through the Dionysian reading of the neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus. Because God is the source of all creation, the "word" of God that made the cosmos and all that is in it, is affirmative in a sense. Since God created all things ex nihilo, as Eriugena would say: ex Deo, "out of God's self", all things have an innate relationship with their creator. Creation is, in a very real sense, a manifestation of God. God created goodness out of God's self, therefore God is good, and so on. The act of speech which created all things enables us to say something about the Creator. On the other hand, since God is above being, God remains outside of or other than creation. According to Eriugena, the nothingness from which all things are created is actually God's self because there can be nothing co-eternal and co-existing with God. This nothing becomes something (becomes other than God) through the creative process. The unknowable reveals itself through creation and in so doing becomes something which both itself and created effects can know. The paradox of creation is that the original darkness of God, which is "no thing", becomes something, becomes light, becomes other. And it is only when God becomes other than God that God can be known. Thus, the whole of creation can be seen as an outgoing from God — a manifestation from God — and, conversely, since all things ultimately return to their source, move away from manifestation and speech to silence, all things return to God the source of all things.

Tom: Apophasis and kataphasis can appear to be opposing or even contradictory ideas. Could you explain how they are, perhaps more fundamentally, two sides of the same coin, expressing two aspects of the one divine truth, i.e., God is both hidden and present, known and unknown, transcendent and immanent?

In contemplating the simultaneous truth of the immanence and transcendence of God, we can grasp that the Divine Reality cannot readily be understood as one thing or the other.

Dee: As I said, neither path or way to speaking about God is complete in itself. In contemplating the simultaneous truth of the immanence and transcendence of God, we can grasp that the Divine Reality cannot readily be understood as one thing or the other. At the same time that we can say "God is good", we can also say "God is not good" because goodness is a human concept that cannot be attributed to the most Transcendent Reality. To hold this "coincidence of opposites" in mind means that we can both "say" and "unsay" (things about) God. Neither the saying nor the unsaying can be true: both have to be understood together. The mystics of the Christian Church formulated some wonderful oxymorons to describe this mystery: "bright darkness", "unknowing knowing", "silent word".

Mystical Theology

Tom: It seems common today to regard philosophy and theology as speculative activities of thought. But you write in your book that in antiquity the ultimate goal of negative theology, at least for some, was to take one into the realm of the mystical:

It has often been the experience of those who have followed the negative way to its utmost limits that they pass beyond the traditional boundaries of theology, understood as an intellectual discipline, to the realm of ‘mystical union'. ...The final outcome of the apophatic way easily merges into the mystical.

What was the predominant understanding of negative theology in antiquity? To what extent was it mystical? How did this view of negative theology change through the medieval and modern periods?

When the soul is lifted out of itself (the moment of exstasis) only then can the soul become the "eye which sees the great beauty".

Dee: Tom, this is a difficult question, but if we take "antiquity" as encompassing also the age of the later Greek philosophers, then perhaps I can attempt an answer. I am thinking here mostly of Plotinus. While Plotinus was adamant that the One was beyond being in all senses, Plotinus's ardent love of the One, the Good, and his accounts of the warmth of the Good that strengthens the soul, leave no doubt in my mind that apophasis is not simply an intellectual exercise. When Plotinus talks of the soul as "lifted by the Giver to its love", this surely tells us that the simple unknowability of the Transcendent, the way that takes us beyond knowing (because all knowing and knowable must be left aside), is not the final step in the quest for the Transcendent. When the soul is lifted out of itself (the moment of exstasis) only then can the soul become the "eye which sees the great beauty". The Pseudo-Dionysius perhaps expresses this most eloquently when he writes: "by an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be lifted up to the ray of divine shadow which is above everything that is". The unapproachable light that is God becomes a unity in divine darkness because the soul can never see the reality of God.

Tom: What is the key that distinguishes or transforms a mere intellectual discipline into mystical experience and transformation? To what extent is this path to mystical union being practiced today?

This divine darkness will never become light or knowledge, but it might, just might, become an unknowing union with the Transcendent, a powerful unknowing that passes all understanding and knows of no words.

Dee: Again Tom, this is a tricky question. To be an advocate of the apophatic way, the way of unknowing, can indeed be an intellectual exercise whereby one simply excludes all "positive" affirmations of God and is left bereft. For the soul to truly enter into union with the Divine, the soul must abandon itself, must go out of itself and travel by the dark way of unknowing, as Dionysius says "throw itself against the ray of divine darkness". This divine darkness will never become light or knowledge, but it might, just might, become an unknowing union with the Transcendent, a powerful unknowing that passes all understanding and knows of no words. It does not even know itself to be mystical union. I believe there are more mystics in the world today than ever before, more people who simply "be" in the presence of God and are content to let themselves become nothing in order to simply live without a why by being truly part of the mundane reality of everyday life without expectation, without the reward of "divine ecstasy".

Tom: In your book you write,

The kind of negative theology which is found in Plotinus, Proclus, Gregory of Nyssa and the Pseudo-Dionysius, is a negative theology which forces negation to its most radical conclusions, into a cognitional crisis, which is resolved when the negative theologian once again enters into the area of experimental knowledge. This ‘knowledge' is achieved when the mind is brought beyond the normal limits of human understanding to reach knowledge of the divine which is the result of its former state of ignorance.

Can you say a bit more about this process of negation that leads to a cognitional crisis and breakthrough beyond the normal limits of human understanding? Are there specific disciplines or practices that are involved? How would you describe the experience of engaging in this process?

The techniques and disciplines involved can be many and varied but they all have as foundation a letting go of the self and, eventually, even a letting go of "God".

Dee: The "cognitional crisis" I spoke of in my book and breaking through the so-called "normal" limits of human understanding cannot really be described. The techniques and disciplines involved can be many and varied but they all have as foundation a letting go of the self and, eventually, even a letting go of "God". As Meister Eckhart most famously put it: "I pray to God to make me free of God". For myself, I would say that engaging in the process of letting go of both self and God is something that cannot be described. Over the years I have tried to practice letting go: it becomes both easier and more difficult as time passes. Whether "mystical union" ensues is something I cannot say. However, I am more and more convinced that "going back to the world" is part of the process of letting go of the self and the journey towards God. Thus, ascent becomes descent, becomes, in a sense "incarnation". Does this make sense?

Tom: Yes — even though it sounds paradoxical! This reminds me of something else Meister Eckhart said, something to the effect that when the soul empties itself of all images, then God is incarnates in the soul. So, the more there is an ascent where we go out of ourselves, the more there is a descent and God pours into us. Am I following your meaning?

Dee: Yes, that's one great way of putting it. But in another sense we could say that the lonely soul ascending the dark mountain of divine knowledge could eventually journey back down the mountain to the mundane reality of everyday life wherein the self has disappeared and the soul literally becomes the mirror of the Divine.

Tom: The dissertation for your doctoral degree in classics appears to have been the basis for your second book, "John Scottus Eriugena," published in 2000. What are some of the unique features of Eriugena's philosophy as presented in his major work Periphyseon?

Eriugena's innovative account of creation is as wonderful and stimulating an account of reality as is found in the Enneads of Plotinus. ...I find his attempt, which is based on a number of key presuppositions, fresh and appealing even in this modern age of technological advances.

Dee: Overall, Eriugena's innovative account of creation is as wonderful and stimulating an account of reality as is found in the Enneads of Plotinus. While some people might say that Eriugena bit off more than he could chew in his aim of mapping out the entire process of reality, I find his attempt, which is based on a number of key presuppositions, fresh and appealing even in this modern age of technological advances.

He begins by grappling with the fundamental categories of being and non-being, both of which Eriugena discusses under the genus natura. Natura is "all things that are and are not". He then divides natura into four: 1) that which creates but is not created; 2) that which creates and is created; 3) that which does not create and is created; 4) that which neither creates nor is created.

Uncreated Created
Creates 1. God as beginning 2. Primordial Causes
Does not create 4. God as end 3. Created Effects

The first three divisions are readily comprehensible to those reading the Periphyseon today; the fourth division, that which is not created and does not create, which is an important logical component in the jigsaw of natura (1 and 3 are opposites and 2 and 4 are opposites) has been the focus of some debate: if it neither creates nor is created, then logically it cannot be. However, Eriugena's way of thinking about and expressing the mystery at the heart of all reality is not confined to the logic of language, although it is constrained by the limits of rationality! The fourth division corresponds to God as the ultimate end of all things and into which all things return.

Then, because Eriugena conceived of all things flowing out from God and returning to God, he resolves the four divisions of nature into two: created and uncreated. Then, in a final most audacious step, Eriugena reduces these two divisions to one. However, he always retains a basic distinction between the self-manifestation of God (theophany in creation) and God (in God's self). Even in final theophany, when all things will have returned to God, and God shall be "all in all", Eriugena never "conflates" God and creature: they remain other, and this is an often misunderstood aspect of Eriugena's thought. Even the fact that God is the beginning, middle, and end of the created universe because God is that from which all things originate, that in which all things participate, and that to which all things will eventually return, does not take away from the fact that creation is other than God, that creation is not God.

Tom: This appears to be a paradox: Eriugena resolves all the divisions into one, and yet does not. Is this because God can not be grasped by the concept of unity, but is an ineffable One that even goes beyond the distinction between the one and the many?

In an age where technological advances continually push back the frontiers of human knowledge ... Eriugena consistently points up the shadowy and yet exciting mystery that lies at the heart of all reality: that creation is the manifestation of God: that in the deepest, most secret folds of nature, lies the divine.

Dee: That's precisely it! The philosophical discourse on the One and the Many necessarily grasps reality only from the perspective of created being. And created reality can never comprehend reality from the divine viewing point. It is this wonderful account of creation that I find particularly relevant some 1000 and more years after Eriugena disappeared from history. In an age where technological advances continually push back the frontiers of human knowledge to the point where humans are beginning to embark on the process of creation themselves (the human genome project, animal and human cloning), Eriugena consistently points up the shadowy and yet exciting mystery that lies at the heart of all reality: that creation is the manifestation of God: that in the deepest, most secret folds of nature, lies the divine. And he does so in a way that is likely to appeal to those who are not particularly interested in the Christian account of creation — in a way that post-moderns and perhaps even new agers generally find stimulating and thought provoking. The universe may well be better understood by human beings this side of the twentieth century, but the universe does not give up its secrets easily.

Ethics and Education

Tom: Now that we've discussed some details of the ideas in your books on Eriugena and negative theology, I'd like to ask how you personally view the connections between those ideas and your later research interests in ethics and social issues. How does mystical theology inform or influence your work in ethics and social issues?

Dee: The honest answer to that question is: I don't really know. I would say that being less dogmatic is part of it. The other part of it is a subscription to the (now almost discredited) ideas of post-modernism. For me, post-modernity and negative theology are closely connected in the sense that both question the "given". For example, social reality in the so-called "developing" countries hinges on a pre-conceived idea of development. If we can deconstruct the concept of development that has been inherited from the West, and come to an understanding of development as endogenous and ever changing, then perhaps we can "negate" what we have been taught to believe is development and re-formulate a concept that is less dogmatic and more open to the realities of those to whom development is being done.

Tom: Similarly, how do you personally connect your current activities in administration and university building with the ideas from your early research on Eriugena and negative theology?

Dee: Again, a difficult question: university building and negative theology? Perhaps the link comes with the person who is engaged with both and her approach to the tasks at hand. But I do keep my mantra ever present: question the given.

Tom: How would you say that you are applying or implementing negative theology in your current life, both personally and professionally?

My practice of negative theology has meant that I have become more open to more than one point of view. I can (mostly) always see another view or viewing point in many administrative situations and can sometimes agree to a coincidence of opposing opinions.

Dee: I think I hinted at the answer to this question in a previous response. Professionally, I suppose that my practice of negative theology has meant that I have become more open to more than one point of view. I can (mostly) always see another view or viewing point in many administrative situations and can sometimes agree to a coincidence of opposing opinions. Managerially, I suppose that would mean that I look at all options and try to reconcile both viewing points. Personally, that is perhaps a more difficult question to answer. Having immersed myself in the negative theology for the past thirty years or so, both as an area of academic study and as part of my spiritual life, I would have to say that I cannot answer your question fully. Given that I am still not living with a fully-operational road map, I would say that I try to live without a why in the sense that I attempt holding onto neither past nor future. Whether I implement negative theology in my life, I cannot really say. I do try to rid myself of the false gods of material and spiritual possessions.

Tom: More generally, how do you think that the teachings of Eriugena and negative theology have relevance to people today and to contemporary society?

Eriugena reminds us that all of creation is an ineffable harmony that is ever journeying towards its mysterious source. The environmental implications here are obvious.

Dee: I think you might have to wait for the book on Negative Theology and Spirituality to come out for a comprehensive answer to that question but I can say that there are many themes in Eriugena's writings that could have particular appeal today, the most striking of which is his evocation of the mystery that lies at the heart of creation. In an age where the secrets of the cosmos appear to be fast unraveling at the hands of scientists, Eriugena reminds us that all of creation is an ineffable harmony that is ever journeying towards its mysterious source. The environmental implications here are obvious. The apophatic emphasis on the ascent of the individual soul to God is, in Eriugena's writings, replaced by a more communitarian approach: the whole of nature is hastening towards its end. Eriugena does not look for a special alternative way to God through mystical union because for him, the Unknowable remains forever unknowable. This too, is a theme that has appeal for many today. Take the works of the best-selling author and retreat giver Eckhart Tolle (author of The Power of Now). Millions have been captivated by his deeply apophatic understanding of created reality. His latest book, A New Earth, is the Oprah Book of the Month! I think that when we read the works of Eriugena and the other medieval philosophers with a discerning eye, we realize very quickly that there is little new in thinking about God save emphases.

Thank you, Tom, for inviting me to talk to you. It has been a pleasure for me to re-think some of my ideas on negative theology after so many years of university administration. Our talks could well be the impetus needed for me to finally re-set my internal clock and wake before the dawn chorus to get back to my academic roots.

Tom: Reading your further thoughts on these topics would certainly be of great interest to me — and I would venture to guess to many others as well. Thank you again, Dee, for generously taking the time to share part of your unique life and work with us.


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