Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Areopagite in 20th Century Orthodoxy, IV

Continued from part 3.

Several of Fr John Romanides' criticisms of Fr John Meyendorff were taken up and developed, albeit in dramatically less polemical fashion, by Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin) in many of his works, beginning with his doctoral dissertation. (42) I will consider only two from Fr Alexander's many works of St Dionysius: first, echoing the passage cited above by Romanides, how Dionysius fits into the fabric of the Orthodox spiritual life; and, second, what would have led Fr John Meyendorff who, besides being one of the leading representatives of Orthodox scholarship in the twentieth century – and was also a teacher and mentor of Fr Alexander – to such a negative appreciation of the Dionysian writings.

Fr Alexander, in the introduction to the published version of his thesis, writes that, when beginning his study of the Dionysian corpus in Oxford (following his studies at St Vladimir's Seminary under Fr Meyendorff), he "came to it quite convinced that its critics were correct" and "looked forward to joining the process of unmasking the fraud in order to expose the dangers that it still posed to, in particular, the Orthodox Church, and also the harm that it had wrought over the centuries." (43) Two thoughts, however, nagged at him. First, when read from the reigning academic perspective, the Dionysian corpus simply did not make sense, did not have any internal coherence. Second, following on this, how could someone the stature of St Maximus the Confessor have accepted these works as authoritative? Fr Alexander found the answer to his difficulty not through further academic work or through the guidance of an adviser, but rather through spending two years in Greece and in particular a year at the Simonas Petras monastery on Mt Athos.

Two features of Fr Alexander's experience figured in the resolution of his crisis and the discovery of what he believes to be at the core of the Dionysian corpus and the reason for its swift reception: first, the "as it were 'architecture' of the monastic life of personal and corporate prayer" and, second, "the phenomenon the ascetic holy man." (44) The first feature of his experience, the "architecture" of the monastic life, refers both to the "round of monastic prayer in the public worship of the katholikon and the private liturgy of the cell" and to the physical architecture of the monastery, in which everything is focused on the altar, where "the icon of the heavenly liturgy is daily enacted, and the same icon serves simultaneously as the image of the hallowed human being." (45) That is, the second aspect, the ascetic holy man or Elder, is the intended goal of the monastic life and "has been at the center of Eastern Christian piety and popular devotion since at least the fourth century." (46) Taken together, Fr Alexander arrived at what he believes to be "the proper reading of the Corpus Dionysiacum and certainly the way in which it was read and received by the tradition." (47) It is this reading, which he argues is grounded in the practice of Eastern monastic life, that informs his subsequent studies of Dionysius.

Fr Alexander responds to the question of "Christological correctives" most directly in his article "Dionysius the Areopagite in the Works of Gregory Palamas: On the Question of a 'Christological Corrective' and Related Matters." Posing the questions "First, was Gregory a faithful and accurate interpreter of Dionysius; and, second, what does this answer to that question say about either Dionysius, or Gregory, or both?" (48), Fr Golitzin finds three general responses to these questions: the first sees St Gregory Palamas as a faithful disciple of Dionysius, and therefore guilty of neo-Platonism; the second sees St Gregory clumsily distorting Dionysius; and the third sees Dionysius as the "anomaly, the lonely meteorite in the night of the patristic thought, yet whose authority, based on the apostolic pseudonym and specifically invoked by Barlaam, compelled Gregory to assault and alter the Areopagite's system under the guise of interpreting it." (49) It is this last current that is of interest, inasmuch as Fr Alexander's "own beloved teacher and patron, Fr John Meyendorff of blessed memory, was the origin of this third current." (50)

Fr Alexander argues that this "corrective" is an academic invention. The origins of this theological phantom lie in the "practically universal misapprehension of the meaning and function of the Dionysian hierarchies as the unfortunate result of dependence of late pagan Neoplatonism" (51) on the part of the scholarly mainstream, going as far back as Martin Luther and the nineteenth century scholars Joseph Stiglmayr and Hugo Koch. St Gregory Palamas, however, was not part of this mainstream and was instead "one (and not the only) fourteenth-century instance of a continuous, primarily monastic reading of the Areopagite which correctly understood the latter as himself drawing on prior currents is the ascetico-mystical, liturgical literature of the Christian East." (52) It is only within the Eastern Church, more specifically withing Eastern monasticism, that Dionysius should be read: "Dionysius, in short, is properly understood as bracketed by the tradition out of which he came and within which he continued to be read. The Eastern monks have always known this." (53)

In Fr Alexander's view, the genesis of the Dionysian "problem" arose in the West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the Dionysian corpus was rediscovered. What occurred was the "recasting or re-shaping of Dionysius to conform to the already established lines of Latin theology, spiritually and ecclesiologically." (54) In this process of recasting "the unitary quality of Dionysian thought is broken up, fractured in fact, with different pieces of it then incorporated into whatever subject the particular medieval thinker is considering – e.g., the speculative theology of the Summa, the mysticism of Eckhart, the architectural plans of Abbot Sugar of Denys, or the ecclesiology of the papal apologists and canonists" (55). Only against this larger and strictly Western debate does the question of Christological corrective arise: it is an artificial problem, one projected onto both Dionysius and Palamas. The fundamental problem, writes Golitizin, is not so much the scholars who view Dionysius in this way, but the lens through which they read him. Yet the "problematization" of Dionysius should be a non-issue: "Given that patristic scholarship in its modern form is a Western invention, and that it is the West which set its agenda, it is all too easy for Orthodox scholars taking part in the conversation – and take part in it I believe they must – to be fooled by the non-issues. This is clearly what happened both to my own dear Fr John Meyendorff and, to a less degree, even to Fr Georges Florovsky, as well as to many of our contemporaries." (56)

To be continued...

(42) Et introibo ad altare dei: The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagita, with Special Reference to its Predecessors in the Eastern Christian Tradition (Thessalonica, 1994); "'On the Other Hand': A Response to Father Paul Wesche's Recent Article on Dionysius...." St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Quarterly 34 (1990): 305-323; "'A Contemplative and a Liturgist': Father Georges Florovsky on the Corpus Dionysiacum," St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Quarterly, 43.2 (1999); "Dionysius the Areopagite in the Works of Gregory Palamas: On the Question of a 'Christological Corrective' and Related Matters," St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Quarterly, 46.2 (2002): 163-190; "'Suddenly,' Christ: The Place of Negative Theology in the Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagites," ; "The Body of Christ: Saint Symeon the New Theologian on Spiritual Life and the Hierarchical Church," .
(43) Golitzin, Et introibo, 8.
(44) Ibid., 9.
(45) Ibid., 9.
(46) Ibid., 9.
(47) Ibid., 8.
(48) Golitizin, "Dionysius," 166.
(49) Ibid., 166.
(50) Ibid., 166.
(51) Ibid., 167.
(52) Ibid., 167.
(53) Ibid., 167-168
(54) Ibid., 185.
(55) Ibid., 185.
(56) Ibid., 187.

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