besides his obvious extreme debt to neoplatonism (which in the post-Harnackian world is always extremely suspect, along with all incursions of “hellenism”), there are two major complains about the theology of pseudo-Dionysius.
the first is the rather extraordinary extent to which his theology is bound up with the notion of “hierarchy.” indeed, not only does it saturate his writings – as near as we can tell, Dionysius invented the term. for Dionysius, hierarchy is the beneficent and indeed necessary structure of perfection; in our culture, however, it has come to assume a mostly negative connotation, becoming inextricably bound up with notions of dominance, oppression, and the systematic, ideological maintenance of the social infrastructure that enables these morally abhorrent relational patterns to persist and propagate. as such, Dionysius is imagined as the spiritual architect of all that is evil; as the initiator of a backward, medieval attitude which we as moderns are trying so frantically to resist and permanently overturn.
this objection is barely worth interacting with, rooted as it is in a poor reading of the Areopagite which simply imports contemporary ideological struggles onto ancient terminology. the logic by which such a position is established is worthy of a caveman:
- Dionysius thinks hierarchy is good.
- we know hierarchy is bad.
- therefore, Dionysius is both wrong and evil. we should not read him. and we should hit him with heavy objects.
such a perspective does not pause to consider what, precisely, Dionysius means by hierarchy, and if there may not be in fact some good communicated by the term that is worth reclaiming and recapturing, even if we must (consequent to our contingent historical experiences) be more sober about the possibility and reality of hierarchical abuses.
hierarchy is, for Dionysius, written into the fundamental order of things (being, as it were, “sacred order” from the beginning) – but moreso, it is a self-emptying order, where the role of the higher orders is to pour itself out in love on behalf of the subordinate ranks. As Denys puts it, hierarchy is “a holy order and knowledge and activity which, so far as is attainable, participates in the Divine Likeness, and is lifted up to the illuminations given it from God, and correspondingly towards the imitation of God” (CH 3) hierarchy lifts up to pour out in infinite regress, because the infinite depths of God can never be reached, and neither is universal perfection a leveling of differentiating rank.
what is cloaked as a sophisticated social critique is in the end, then, simply laziness with respect to evaluating terms. indeed, if anything, i would suggest that the weight of the critique actually swings in the other direction: demonizing hierarchy does very little in doing away with it; the anti-hierarechical attitude – if successful – usually only serves to replace one hierarchy with another that is more in tune with the fashionable idioms of egalitarianism – and accordingly, less self-conscious about its hierarchical structure, and therefore less able to comprehend its hierarchical responsibilities. in fact, then, the alternative to hierarchy is perpetual violence, as the oppressed continually rise up against the oppressors, installing in their place new oppressors, who accordingly need to be overthrown once more. and somehow, in the midst of this, history is supposed to be guided by some providential hand towards the indwelling of mutual recognition (Hegel), or an egalitarian paradise (Marx); or the heterogeneity of ends, in which the common good is somehow to be achieved by everyone seeking his own good (Smith). all of these fashionable opinions amount to nothing more than some kind of bizarre, heretical mysticism that has lost its bearings in reality.
more perceptive critiques of Dionysius’ angelology, however, draw attention to the rigidity of his structures of thought; his metaphysical idealism, his ironclad commitment to a stable cosmos that we modern people no longer believe in, and are not required to believe in by the christian faith. our awareness of such things as evolution and historical process, the dynamism of nature and natural history, has become simply instinctive, and along with it, the stable realms of Dionysius angels seem a fully incredible fantasy. (this is central to Rahner’s critique of traditional angelology, on which i have already commented.)
there are two responses we can make to this objection. first, we should consider that there is a dynamism implicit in Dionysius’ ranks and orders. certainly in the earthly hierarchy, which mirrors the heavenly, men move from one rank to another by the grace of God and according to their various places, functions and appointments within the body of the Church and the body of humanity. it is not totally inconceivable that there could be analogous motion within the ranks of angels. Dionysius’ staicism manifests itself in that it does not entertain such a possibility; “perfection,” “impassibility” and “immovability” all seem to be inter-related, although provocatively, “nothing is self-perfect nor absolutely unindigent of perfection” (CH 10), and the sight of each angelic order is described as “pure receptivity without passion” (CH 15). so there is room here for a theory of angelic promotion, although this is not something that Dionysius himself develops.
but even if we can develop some kind of theory of movements within the ranks, we are still faced with the problem of the fixity of the ranks themselves. here there is no clever workaround. Denys links his hierarchical angelology in the fundamental philosophical principle of first –intermediate– last. indeed, we have established such a fixity by opening up the possibility that a spiritual creature might pass from one rank to another, since movement between ranks would necessarily presuppose ranks to move between. but here too Dionysius demonstrates much more pliability than he is given credit for.
first, Denys readily admits that “none but the Divine Creator by whom they were ordained is able to know fully the number and the nature of the supermundane Beings and the regulation of their sacred Hierarchies; and furthermore, that they know their own powers and illuminations and their own holy supermundane ordination” (CH 4). Dionysius is thus very much self-aware of the operation of his own interpretive imagination, which he binds to what he has been taught “by God through his ministers,” and to the consideration of the “angelic visions which the venerable theologians have beheld” (Ibid). there remain “hidden Mysteries which lie beyond our view” that he honors with silence; he readily acknowledges “we do not possess the supermundane knowledge of some [of the angels], or rather that we have need of another to guile us to the light and instruct us” (CH 15). he readily invites his reader to give him some better interpretation for how angelic ranks symbolize each other in their ministering activity, as in Isaiah’s vision of the Seraphim (CH 13). moreover, this fundamental unknowable dimension of dynamism may hide within the innumerable number of angels; there vast legions of thousands upon thousands, and tens of thousands upon tends of thousands (CH 14).
interestingly enough, here is an angelology with no demonology, no strife, conflict or agonism – although he does dabble in the demons in the EH, and purification might seem to imply some necessary source of impurity. instead, it forms an interpretive matrix of ascent: it is “a sufficient account of those sacred symbols” that “falls far short of their full interpretation,” but still might “contribute to prevent us from lingering basely in the figures and forms themselves.” the hierarchies might be rethought in this key as the imaginative work of perpetual resymbolizing of one reality into the next, while maintaining fundamental faithfulness to the Vision and to the Names which the angels bear; and thus be easily resolved to the dynamism that haunts the modern mind (if more work would need to be done to adjust them to modern categories).
this is why Denys’ system climaxes in the apophaticism of the mysticial theology: if the hierarchy is necessary to begin to perceive and imagine the ineffable, dynamic center which orders it and towards which it is ordered, the infinite vitality and ineffable Life which pulsates at its center is so inexpressibly dynamic, so unspeakably beyond powerful, that it at once seems still to us, and makes our obsession with dynamism impossibly shallow. and here i think i would even be so bold as even go a step further than Lossky, who brilliantly points out the role of cataphatic “steps” of revelation which usher us up into the mystery, and note that even this is not sufficiently expressive of the life creating energies entrusted to them from the fatherly light. in addition to the angels transmitting the law (in a downward motion), the angels also coordinating the interpretation of the law with the true heavenly law of which the earthly law is an image (the upward motion) (CH 4). these corresponding motions then add an essential axis to the classical apophatic-cataphatic distinction, although not necessarily in a practical way, since it is impossible to nail down the ministrations of angels within a methodology.
for all its seeming rigidity, then, Dionysian angelology is quite amazingly dynamic and capable of dramatic (if not openly kaleidoscopic) reappropriation and reinterpretation. this is something that the ancient interpreters seemed to understand about Dionysius much better than the modern ones, as they felt entirely free to adapt and reconceive Dionysian angelology according to their imaginative integration of their reading of Scripture and experience of these realities. we see, accordingly, some substantial variation in the angelic hierarchy. (i might even venture that it was this dynamism, rather than the identity of the supposed author, that was the source of their perennial popularity through the middle ages!) by contrast, the brightness of the Dionysian system illuminates the darkness of our modern assumption that “the only constant is change” as the most violent, puerile, and disgusting heretical fantasy to pollute the eyes of men and rob them of their spiritual vision. and seven demons even more wicked have entered this swept house, as our imagination becomes captivated by the countless fantasies running unchained and unchecked through the many multiplied mediums at our disposal, all throbbing (in one way or another) with the death-dealing myth that “better” is just beyond the horizon, and is reachable by the capacities of the modern hero.
but of course, if we have demonstrated a dimension of angelic dynamism in Dionysius, we face another difficulty, as this dynamism presents its own problems. does it not then smack of Origenism? or even gnosticism, with its endless genealogies of the ages, and the doctrines of angels? here i have to shrug and say “perhaps.” i admit that my own spiritual sight is not mature enough to make this distinction with any resounding confidence. for the time being, however, trusting in Christ and knowing the precariousness of my own escape from beneath the overwhelming pressures of the powers and principalities of the world we live in, i would suggest that whatever we can spit into the eyes of men to cleanse them from the blindness of this age is a worthwhile salve. let us first restore the sight, and then be concerned that it can properly perceive objects according to their kind.