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  • Denying Divinity: Apophasis in the Patristic Christian and Soto Zen Buddhist Traditions
  • Joseph S. O'Leary
Denying Divinity: Apophasis in the Patristic Christian and Soto Zen Buddhist Traditions. By J. P. Williams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. 249. $65.00.

Janet Williams studied patristic theology at Oxford and Soto Zen in Tokyo, in the circle of Nishijima Zenji. In Denying Divinity: Apophasis in the Patristic Christian and Soto Zen Buddhist Traditions, her excellent account of negation and silence in Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor (pp. 64-126) and in Dogen (pp. 126-179) is preceded by surveys of apophasis in earlier Christianity and Buddhism and followed by an eloquent defense of the importance of the twofold apophatic tradition for contemporary theology (pp. 180-228).

The initial surveys show a sure-footed scholarly competence that may owe something to the author's experience as an investment banker. Her writing often exhibits a concentrated justesse, as in the two paragraphs on Origen (pp. 26-27). The temptation to forced comparisons between the two traditions is avoided until the concluding chapter, apart from a few unconvincing touches such as this remark: "How similar all this sounds to the 'unsupported thought' and the 'absence of thought-coverings' in the Prajñaparamita literature!"—in reference to Gregory of Nyssa on Abraham's faith, which was "unmixed and pure of any concept" (p. 29). Similarly, to speak of Plotinus' "recoil from—or transcendence of—ontological views" (p. 18) is inappropriately Nāgārjunian; Plotinus held firm, dogmatic views and entertained a host of speculative ones. (Incidentally, it is probably wrong to identify the experience recounted in Enneads IV.8—the relatively frequent ascent of the soul to contemplate the intelligible realm—with the union with the One, evoked in Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 23, a much rarer event [p. 21].)

Gregory of Nyssa is nudged in the direction of Buddhism when Williams talks of "the inchoate undermining of the realist ontology he inherited from Plato and Aristotle" (pp. 32-33) and suggests that "the hesitation between ontology and 'disontology,' if it were a little more developed, would become the kind of recoil from [End Page 370] ontological views which we see as characteristic of apophasis" (p. 36). As a very kataphatic theologian in dogmatic debate, Gregory has no aversion to views; his apophasis applies only to certain views of the divine, especially heretical ones that he sees as hubristic. In Mādhyamaka Buddhism, one transcends "views" about anything, but in the Greek Fathers it is only views concerning God that are problematized. The Buddhist transcending of views is oriented to a nondual experience of everyday reality, but in the Fathers it concerns only the divine simplicity, infinity, and transcendence and the mysteries of the eternal generation of the Son and the Incarnation. It is untrue that "there is no explicit apophasis in Gregory" (p. 35): there is plenty of it in Contra Eunomium II, albeit of a simple kind. Nonetheless, Gregory's ontology remains realistic even at the level of divine being. One might query the view expressed by Rowan Williams that, for Gregory, the divine essence becomes "an abstraction and, in a sense, a fantasy" (p. 34).

Dionysius is presented as a mobile and open-ended thinker who has been underestimated. He "negates both affirmation and negation, but by offering no third alternative, in a sense affirms them too as the only usable theological resources" (p. 121). Maximus accords with this, although attaining "a finer balance of incarnational christo-centrism over Neoplatonism" (p. 124). The claim that Dionysius "is at pains to distance himself from the Neoplatonist tradition of making transcendence prior or superior to immanence" (p. 216) is overstated, and it misses the degree to which Proclus had already seen the cosmos as pervaded by divine eros (as pointed out long ago by Anders Nygren).

The emphasis on a nonduality of transcendence and immanence brings Dionysius into a rapprochement with more of the this-worldly Zen vision. Similarly, the stress on a "shocking activity of emptiness" (p. 141) in Dogen hints at a parallel with the divine ekstasis in Dionysius. But the latter is merely a variant of the Neoplatonic...