St. Dionysius

15 05 2008

 

The Holy Father’s catechetical discourse yesterday was on the role of St. Dionysius the Areopagite in Catholic theology. I think it was a much needed reflection on Dionysius’ thinking as a helpful remedy to the spiritual malaise of the Christian West.

I found that some people have said that the Holy Father was beginning to sound “Orthodox”. Many think that speaking of hierarchies, Divine Light, and apophaticism is something that has become foreign and exotic to the Western Christian mind, more suited to Easterners. That has not always been the case as many things I have posted on this blog suggest. The divines of fifteenth century Florence were perfectly at home in the texts of Dionysius, as was Meister Eckhart and various Rhine mystics. Fray Luis de Leon also was very Dionysian, as were all the other Spanish mystics as the Holy Father points out. It is arguable from my perspective that the glories of Christendom are due to the élan that Dionyisian Neoplatonism bestowed on Christian consciousness, and our decline is due to the belittling of the figure of Dionysius the Areopagite. (It was Martin Luther himself who dismissed Dionysius as being “more Platonic than Christian”).

Two thoughts that I had:

1. A quote that the Holy Father cites from Dionysius’ Seventh Epistle: “I would not like to cause polemics; I simply speak of the truth; I seek the truth”. That best reflects the ethos of the late Neoplatonic approach to philosophy: since the truth is beyond all human thought and words, there is very little point in arguing or quibbling over its details. Many Neoplatonists were profound reconcilers: both Proclus and Pico della Mirandola, for example, sought to unite the thought of Aristotle and Plato, saying that both were true when applied to their legitimate realms. The role of human discourse is to silence the mind so that it can adequately approach Divine Truth. It does this in a sense of surrender and awe, not of polemic and control.

2. In this way, I have always wondered how people could argue so much about the meaning of Patristic texts in particular. I guess when I read them, I didn’t read them to prove a point or win an arguement. I read them in a seminary or monastery in order to help me pray and meditate. So I could really care less about the gnomic will in St. Maximus Confessor unless it leads me to peace and contemplation. That doesn’t make me holier than anyone else. I guess I just feel that maybe people who argue these things are missing the point of these texts. They are means to a higher end. Heck, I even read St. Thomas Aquinas this way. I prefer a cultic rather than a dogmatic reading.

Maybe that is what the Holy Father is saying the world needs.


Actions

Information

14 responses

3 09 2012
Rhine mystics | Edebat

[…] St. Dionysius « ReditusNevertheless, medieval mysticism in Germany, particularly in important centers along the Rhine (Cologne, Strasbourg, Basel, and Constance) developed into a … […]

2 06 2008
Jonathan Prejean

By the way, did you used to be a Protestant?

I thought you were done. Why are you asking me questions?

The answer, in my inimitable Southern style is “hell, no!”

I’ll bet you haven’t read Chemnitz’s Loci, Prejean.

You’d win. I’ve read other Chemnitz works. This isn’t rocket science, and it isn’t that complicated.

It doesn’t really sound like you’ve read Calvin, either, because that’s not really how the Institutes start.

Well, I have, so you lose that one.

Furthermore, absurdity is in the eye of the beholder, is it not? Every conceivable claim is absurd to at least somebody. Foundationalism is dead. The 18th century is over.

Silly postmodern gobbledygook.

Asserting something is authoritative without defining it is silly.

Sort of like a vacuous insult against the authority of the Fathers.

Finally, this discussion is going nowhere because you’re making universal statements about things like “Protestant theology.”

I make universal statements because all species share the genus. Again, basic logic is not up for negotiation. Sola scriptura has certain essential elements no matter which version is being espoused.

It makes more sense to talk about the theology of actual theologians than to try to make abstract statements and lump everyone you can find together with sweeping (and insulting) generalities.

You mean like you did with the Orthodox concept of patristic authority? Or with the medieval use of Dionysius? Oh, wait, it’s only permissible when you do it (inaccurately) and not when someone else does it accurately. In the latter case, you’re all nuance and “eye of the beholder.” Whatever. You don’t know much, but you are good at opening your mouth to remove all doubt about your ignorance. Nothing like someone who knows just enough to think he knows somethign.

You can’t even really make universal statements about “Catholic theology.” Aquinas, Biel, Scotus, Rahner, simply don’t all go about things the same way.

No, they don’t. Neither did Newton and Einstein. You think they weren’t both physicists?

Saying “Protestants begin nowhere and end up nowhere” isn’t a justifiable or even sensible claim. It’s an insult more suitable to a sixth grade debate than an adult discussion, and since you’ve chosen to stoop to that level, I’m done.

Promises, promises. But I didn’t have to stoop, because you were already there with your “pretty circular” garbage. I’m just pointing out that it’s stupid for someone to throw insults to which your own position is equally vulnerable. Leave it to you to behave like an infant and then blame someone when the consequences come home to roost.

25 05 2008
Josh S

By the way, did you used to be a Protestant?

25 05 2008
Josh S

I’ll bet you haven’t read Chemnitz’s Loci, Prejean. It doesn’t really sound like you’ve read Calvin, either, because that’s not really how the Institutes start. Furthermore, absurdity is in the eye of the beholder, is it not? Every conceivable claim is absurd to at least somebody. Foundationalism is dead. The 18th century is over.

Asserting something is authoritative without defining it is silly. That’s usually where your amateur apologists shout at Baptists and whatnot, “Oh yeah? Where did you get the Bible?”

Finally, this discussion is going nowhere because you’re making universal statements about things like “Protestant theology.” There is no such thing as a single “Protestant theology,” because “Protestantism” as a belief system, as an ecclesiastical community, and as a historical tradition is a rational construct existing only in the mind of Catholics. You may as well try to make universal statements about “Christian theology.” You can’t even really make universal statements about “Catholic theology.” Aquinas, Biel, Scotus, Rahner, simply don’t all go about things the same way. It makes more sense to talk about the theology of actual theologians than to try to make abstract statements and lump everyone you can find together with sweeping (and insulting) generalities.

Saying “Protestants begin nowhere and end up nowhere” isn’t a justifiable or even sensible claim. It’s an insult more suitable to a sixth grade debate than an adult discussion, and since you’ve chosen to stoop to that level, I’m done. Arguing like the Catholic version of Richard Dawkins won’t win you any friends outside of the choir. If you find yourself interested in discussing things in some sort of reasonable manner, let me know.

Read Summa Contra Gentiles. It should give you some tips on how a Catholic can talk to people who disagree with him without resorting to sticking out his tongue and calling them poo-poo heads.

24 05 2008
Jonathan Prejean

Lutherans, Reformed, and Catholics (at least the scholastic tradition) start with premises and argue in a linear manner.

The question is the nature of the premises with which they start. If you start from a contradiction in a “linear manner,” you can prove anything. Chemnitz and Calvin both start with absurd claims regarding the authority of Scripture and end in absurd claims about theology.

By contrast, I see nothing intrinsically wrong with simply pointing out that the culture itself is authoritative without defining what exactly that culture is. Circularity in an authoritative culture is inevitable, and while I wouldn’t take it to the extreme that Orthodoxy does, their approach makes a great deal more sense than trying to abstract starting principles of authority without a normative culture.

St. Thomas has the virtue of assembling a great deal of knowledge from metaphysical first principles before he reaches questions of revelation and authority. But when he does need to rely on authority, he isn’t ashamed to do it, and he even justifies from first principles why he needs to do it. Consequently, he cites Pseudo-Dionysius an extraordinary number of times, and he distinguishes those areas where he can be critical (e.g., metaphysics) from those matters of revelation where he must necessarily agree with Ps.-D. It’s still starting from some coherent notion of theological authority, and while it isn’t the extreme of Orthodoxy, it is far from the position of Protestants, who start nowhere and end nowhere when it comes to authority.

Again, it just seems crazy to me that a Protestant would complain about someone else being circular about authority when your premises regarding authority are grabbed out of thin air.

22 05 2008
Josh S

That’s not true at all. Lutherans, Reformed, and Catholics (at least the scholastic tradition) start with premises and argue in a linear manner. I would refer you to Chemnitz’s Loci Theologici, Calvin’s Institutes, and Aquinas’ Summa for examples of “linear” logic. The Orthodox simply use their premises to re-deduce their premises, i.e. they don’t really have a starting point. Their “normative community” is themselves, but that’s not really a starting point, because the reason I know they are the normative community rather than some other (for example, the Roman Catholic Church) is that they agree with everything the Fathers say, but should I suggest that the Fathers don’t actually all agree with each other or their normative community, the answer is that I can really only know (a) who the Fathers are and (b) how to interpret them by being Orthodox. That’s “circular” logic. Lines and circles are quite different, at least assuming we’re working in Euclidean rather than Riemannian space. Most of us in the Western tradition tend to be quite clear about where we’re starting and where we’re going. The Orthodox don’t have a clear articulation of either–of course, you guys got awfully mushy after Newman and Vatican II mucked everything up, but you’ll probably be more clear about what you believe and why in a century or two.

20 05 2008
Jonathan Prejean

That said, I’ve always thought the Orthodox approach to the Fathers was pretty circular

But putting authority in a normative text without giving authority to the normative culture is viciously so. The Orthodox are open about their use of a normative culture, unlike Protestants, who seem to think they can conjure authority for a text out of thin air. For someone who believes in sola scriptura to accuse someone else of circular authority claims is like a vegetarian critizing the guy at the grill for not cooking his steaks correctly. You have no idea what a coherent authority claim looks like, so why do we care what you think?

18 05 2008
Josh S

A lot of us on the Lutheran side of things thing Pseudo-Dionysius is the source of most of what went wrong in medieval Christianity. So how you appraise the medievals is largely dependent on what you think of PD.

That said, I’ve always thought the Orthodox approach to the Fathers was pretty circular–it’s like I have to accept what they say because they were Holy Fathers, and they were Holy Fathers because the Orthodox Church says so, and of course I know the Orthodox Church is right because it accepts the teachings of the Holy Fathers.

16 05 2008
procopius

“There is no reason to cut the Fathers off from the rest of humainity as if they were being dictated to by the Holy Ghost.”

But that’s exactly what some Orthodox believe. After all, the Fathers are Fathers because they been “divinized” so what they write is of divine origin in a way.
There’s real resistance to examining them as poets, philosopher, etc; precisely because of this.

16 05 2008
Arturo Vasquez

To be fair, the Orthodox have been more consistent in opposing the “errors” of the Greeks. Having had to stand through many an hour long canon at Orthros, they often give Hellenic thought a good rhetorical pelting. The same is done, if memory serves, at the commemoration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy the first Sunday of Lent. This is not to say that they don’t steal from Neoplatonism. They are just better at denying it.

I was thinking recently on one of my favorite Patristic texts. It comes at the end of one of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s homilies on the Song of Songs. In it, he exhorts the reader not to be in awe of the heights of the mountains, the depths of the oceans, or even the stars, since we bear within ourselves a glory and dignity that far surpasses all of them, and they are at our command. You could read the same text in Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus, Synesius, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, etc. And what’s wrong with that? Why not rejoice in the beauty of all of them, and not be paranoid that you are dishonoring the Fathers by saying that they were human beings who liked beauty and poetic language? We are all human beings here: we get some things right, and others wrong. There is no reason to cut the Fathers off from the rest of humainity as if they were being dictated to by the Holy Ghost.

16 05 2008
procopius

There’s a similar trend in Orthodox theology. Of course, it has gone on since at least the anti-Origenists of the fourth century but it has come back with a certain vigor recently. It’s fascinating to read the diatribes against Origen or Greek philosophy etc; by people who claim to defend a tradition that is, ironically, so much in debt to the people they berate. Dionysius escaped censure, magically as it were, because of the efforts of people like Maximus.

I too love the read the Fathers and even scholastic theology in the way you describe. I think theology is more akin to poetry, perhaps even, in a peculiar way, to science fiction. That is, getting bogged down in the logic chopping makes one not see the entire vision being proposed and remaining stuck looking downwards, as it were, rather than around one and seeing the glory being pointed to.
I certainly sensed this when reading Eriugena. Not to see the sheer poetic, melodic balladry and color, ( when reading him I really became sensitive to green), of his Peryphyseon is to miss the entire point of his work.

16 05 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Footnote:

Who’s Afraid of Neoplatonism?

One thing that really irks me is how some scholars try to deny any real kinship between Neoplatonic philosophy and Patristics. While I will gladly admit that there are some plain and irreconcilable differences in Christianity (a personal monotheistic God, the goodness of matter, etc.) this hardly does justice for either school of thought. I will not dwell on doctrinal issues since we can split hairs until the cows come home on them. What I will say is that if many contemporary Christian scholars would have had their way, they would have turned the Magi away from our Lord’s crib. The paranoia against any outside, “pagan” thought is plainly Protestant and it infects even many Catholic thinkers.

Let us consider the history: before the Reformation, the Christian sense of history went beyond the Letter of the Old Testament. How else would the Sibyl be mentioned in the Dies Irae, or the “Núntius celso véniens Olýmpo ” in the hymn for St. John the Baptist? How else would the Green Man make his appearances in the cathedrals of Europe, or pagan festivals be lightly baptized while keeping their bawdy character? How could Virgil be read as prophesizing a savior just as much as Isaiah? Even before the “neo-pagan” Renaissance, it was no sin to have been pagan, especially if you didn’t yet know Christ. People looked for the Logos throughout creation and history because the Word fills all things. The mark of the Protestant modern imagination is that it begins to fill up less and less.

Is it any wonder, then, that pagans and Christians sounded the same, if they lived in that universe, and what makes us think that we can lay claim to more kinship to ancient Christian thought than the last pagans? Why would it not be useful to do as Ficino did and study even the last people who, perhaps through their ignorance, refused to accept Christ? Are there not ancient nuggets of philosophy that we can mine from them as well, ones that we perhaps cannot see in the Fathers because, perhaps, we think we know them too well?

The only really thread that binds the Neoplatonic ethos is one of procession and return from the One, the fleetingness of matter and the material, and the ascent, more often than not through the same matter, back up to the Beauty that is eternal and unfathomable. I don’t think there is anything unchristian in that.

Besides, St. Dionysius could take Proclus Diadochus, put him through the Christian meat grinder, and create a system that gave us the choirs of angels, the cathedrals of Europe, and the poetry of St. John of the Cross. Could one do the same with Heidegger, Scheler, or Husserl? If so, what has this latter marriage produced?

I’ll take my pagan Neoplatonists any day of the week, thank you very much.

16 05 2008
David Alexander

Amén, ¡viva Fray Luis de León! For me the Spanish mystics are the only ones earthy enough to have made Neo-Platonic theology credible at the practical level. At least after the Patristic era, that is.

15 05 2008
jacobus

“I have always wondered how people could argue so much about the meaning of Patristic texts in particular.”

That’s easy. People need to get PhDs and DDs and those with PhDs and DDs need to get tenure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: