Monday, March 31, 2008

The Areopagite in 20th Century Orthodoxy, II

Continued from part one.

My reading of Fr John Meyendorff's treatment of St Dionysius is based primarily on two works: his Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (7), which contains his most prolonged engagement with Dionysius, and A Study of Gregory Palamas (8), in which we first find his theory of "Christological correctives" allegedly applied to Dionysius by subsequent authors. (9)

In his chapter on Pseudo-Dionysius in Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, Fr Meyendorff views Dionysius as essentially an apologist, his preoccupation being "to integrate within a Christian system the hierarchical world of neo-Platonism," believing (mistakenly) that he had "safeguarded the essentials of Christian revelation in brining the neo-Platonic system which he had adopted the correctives of the doctrine of God's absolute transcendence." (10) Fr Meyendorff's interest in this work is to place Dionysius "in the context of the Byzantine doctrine of salvation," giving special attention to two aspects of Dionysius' thought: "the Dionysian conception of God, 'theology' properly so-called" on the one hand and "the doctrine of the hierarchies," which has to do with ecclesiology and liturgical piety, on the other. (11) Fr Meyendorff considers Dionysius to be within the Greek Patristic tradition in the former aspect (theology) while being largely neo-Platonic in the latter (the hierarchies). "On the level of theology in the strict sense," writes Fr Meyendorff, "Pseudo-Dionysius continues and develops this patristic thought. While he adopts the language and the conceptual system of the neo-Platonists, he separates himself from them very clearly when he speaks of transcendence as belonging properly to the divine essence." (12) If, however, he was "successful" in theology proper, "his success was much more questionable in the realms of cosmology and ecclesiology, in which the absence of common Christological references makes illusory his efforts to bridge completely the gap between the Gospel and neo-Platonsim." (13)

Meyendorff considers it impossible within the realm of ecclesiology "to maintain rigorously, in the order prescribed by Dionysius, the relationship of initiator to initiated between the various degrees of the ecclesiastical hierarchy." (14) This is the case particularly when the original role of each ranks within the hierarchy is "isolated from their original context and serve merely as an artificial form for a pre-conceived hierarchical system." (15) The episcopate within such a hierarchy, Meyendorff argues, "is defined not as an element of the inner structure of the church-community, a function of the Body of Christ, but as a personal state." (16). Indeed, the very conception of a church-community with the bishop at its head "is absent from the Dionysian perspective." (17) Within this rigid hierarchy the role of the sacraments is reduced "to the transmission from one individual to another of special illumination" and even the Eucharist, in Fr Meyendorff's reading, "has only a symbolic and moral significance." (18)

Meyendorff argues that the hierarchies in two ways: dynamically and concretely. Concretely they function as a "scale of intermediaries, destined above all to incorporate into the system the Neo-Platonist triads." (19) This concrete conception of hierarchies presents salvation and the sacraments in "complete separation from the central mystery of Christianity, the incarnation." (20) Fr Meyendorff asserts that: "Undoubtedly Dionysius, who probably belonged to the Severian Monophysite party (hence the mono-energetic formula he used once), mentions the name of Jesus Christ and professes his belief in the incarnation, but the structure of his system is perfectly independent of his profession of faith." (21) That is, Fr Meyendorff sees the idea of the Head of the hierarchy descending to become man and unite Himself to us as being irreconcilable with the idea of the concrete and immovable nature of the hierarchies. While on the dynamic level of the hierarchies, related to God, there is room for personal encounter and personal holiness, on the level of the concrete or individual level, the sacraments are "reduced to the role of initiating symbols." (22) The result, on an ecclesiological level, can lead to a "sort of magical clericalism." (23)

Granted the problems Fr Meyendorff sees in the Dionysian texts, it is his burden to explain why and how it was that subsequent Fathers considered them authoritative and quoted them positively. Fr Meyendorff's solution is to argue that, although Saints Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, and Gregory Palamas obviously drew heavily from Dionysius, they did so by "integrating him into a system of thoughts fundamentally independent of him." (24) These later Fathers, chief among them St Gregory Palamas, applied "correctives" to Dionysius in the realm of pure theology. In the realm of liturgical piety, however, Meyendorff claims that Dionysius' influence was entirely negative, and stood uncorrected:
Only by ascending the steps of the hierarchy by way of initiation does one reach the mystery that remains always essentially hidden. In the absence of an initiation, one possesses only an indirect knowledge through hierarchical intermediaries and symbols. For Dionysius, this was essentially the role of the liturgy and of the sacraments, whose corporate, Christological, and eschatological sense was left obscure. The necessary correctives to Dionysius were fairly rapidly incorporated in the realm of pure theology, but his symbolic and hierarchical conception of the liturgy marked forever Byzantine piety: hence the conception of a symbolic drama that the assembly attend as spectators, the mystery of which can only be penetrated by initiated individuals.
With these sweeping words, Fr Meyendorff makes essentially the same claim as Fr Schmemann in the diary entry with which this essay began: Dionysius is responsible for the reduction of the Church to a mysterious piety; the liturgical crises that both men saw is laid largely at the feet of St Dionysius.

Fr Meyendorff's theory of Christological correctives added to the Dionysian corpus by subsequent Fathers was developed at much greater length in his first major work, A Study of Gregory Palamas. He contends that "the problem of the exegesis of Dionysius was at the centre of the argument in the Byzantine controversies of the fourteenth century," (26) and presents Barlaam and Palamas as dueling exegetes of Dionysius, both trying to redeem his work by correcting properly. Palamas' opponents, according to Fr Meyendorff, employed Dionysius' negative theology to "justify their negation of real deification; it allowed them to give a nominal or symbolical meaning to Scriptural or Patristic passages – especially those of Dionysius himself – which speak of the participation of men in the 'divine nature.'" (27) The result of Barlaam's use of Dionysius was that "the system of the Areopagite neutralized itself, and at the same time neutralized Revelation." (28)

St Gregory Palamas, on the other hand, following St Maximus' lead, salvaged Dionysius' authority by applying Christological correctives to the Dionysian hierarchies. St Gregory "himself made constant use of the Areopagite, applying, as St Maximus had done, a Christocentric corrective to his thought; nonetheless he came into such clear opposition to Dionysius that he had to resort to a forced and artificial exegesis of his thought, in order to avoid a direct attack on so venerable an authority: actually Palamas' Christological corrective completely changes the structure of Dionysius' thought." (29) This complete change can be seen in Palamas' relegation of Dionysius' hierarchical universe to the "field of 'natural' cosmology' anterior to the Incarnation." (30) St Gregory, significantly, did this "without being fully conscious of the Neo-Platonic character of Dionysius' system." (31) In St Gregory's revision of Dionysius' system, the hierarchies belong to the domain of nature, a domain which "was utterly overthrown by the intervention of a historical and essentially new fact, the Incarnation of the Word." (32) As such, although in the natural order angels are superior to men, following the Incarnation man is higher than the angels.

Thus we see, in summary, that Barlaam, according to Meyendorff, used Dionysius to insist on God's imparticipability, the impossibility of real deification, and to ascribe a nominal or symbolic meaning to Scriptural and Patristic passages, all the while neutralizing both the Dionysian corpus itself and even Divine Revelation. St Gregory Palamas, on the other hand, applied Christological correctives to Dionysius, making the hierarchies part of the fallen order overcome by the Incarnation.

To be continued...

(7) John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1975).
(8) John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, tr. George Lawrence, (London: The Faith Press, 1964).
(9) A succinct example of Fr Meyendorff's view of Dionysius can also be found in Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1979), esp. pp. 27-29.
(10) Meyendorff, Christ, 92.
(11) Ibid., 92-93.
(12) Ibid., 93.
(13) Ibid., 100.
(14) Ibid., 104.
(15) Ibid., 104.
(16) Ibid., 104.
(17) Ibid., 105.
(18) Ibid., 105.
(19) Ibid., 107.
(20) Ibid., 108.
(21) Ibid., 108.
(22) Ibid., 109.
(23) Ibid., 109.
(24) Ibid., 110.
(25) Ibid., 111.
(26) Meyendorff, Study, 204.
(27) Ibid., 205.
(28) Ibid., 205.
(29) Ibid., 189.
(30) Ibid., 191.
(31) Ibid., 191.
(32) Ibid., 191.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Orthodox church has much apology to make in Western World: protocommunist massacres by Palamite Zealotes under Hesychast hyperventilatory halucinations, Cantacuzene taxation driving farmers to embrace Turks, Komyakoviac Obshchina giving birth to soviet communism as reactionary casuistry opposing Napoleon's defeudalization, Cosmus Aitalius being patron originator of of modern genocide as seen by the massacre of Turks in Crete by Venizelos. And their hypnotic brainwashing incantations are designed to make theirf locks into terrorists. Is all masochistic because reject Original Sin.