ἔστι τῆς θεολογίας ἡ θεουργία συγκεφαλαίωσις
‘Theurgy is the consummation of theology’ (Ps.-Dionysius, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 3.5, 432B)
In a General Audience of 14 May 2008, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an address on what he called the ‘rather mysterious figure’ who wrote as Dionysius the Areopagite. To this Dionysius, the Pope attributes a ‘new relevance’ as ‘a great mediator in the modern dialogue between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia’. Dionysius describes a negative path of speaking about God – that is, ‘theology’ in its fundamental sense. In this view, God is so far beyond the power of mortal speech and thought that one is limited to describing Him properly not by what He is, but only by what He is not. The Pope supposes a parallel here with what he reads as the extreme apophaticism of Asian thought. An apophatic and mysterious timbre can be seen even in the author of the Dionysian corpus’ refusal to give the reader his true name. He wrote some five centuries after his adopted namesake, whose conversion by S. Paul is recounted in Acts 17. This we surmise from his heavy reliance on the philosophy of Proclus, who died in AD 485.
Benedict cites two well known hypotheses for Dionysius’ adoption of the pseudonym. The first, which Benedict himself rejects, is that the author wished to give his work a ‘quasi apostolic authority’ (Benedict 2009:80). Going further along this line, Rosemary Arthur suggests that ‘Dionysius’ is in fact a cabal of monophysites hiding behind the pseudonym to protect themselves from persecution by pro-Chalcedonian authorities. To her, this pseudonymity betrays cowardice and a lack of integrity.
However, Benedict’s second and more charitable reading enjoys greater scholarly consensus to date, namely that the author of the Corpus ‘did not want to glorify his own name … but rather truly to serve the Gospel, to create an ecclesial theology, neither individual nor based on himself.’ This should not be taken just as the anodyne praise or wishful thinking of a devout Catholic. In 2007, Gorazd Kocijančič suggested that Dionysius’ very philosophical method informs his adoption of the pseudonym. Dionysius maintains both the identity of individual beings, himself included, and their unification with the divine in apotheosis. Kocijančič takes as his proof text MT 1.3, 1001A, which describes the ascent of Moses up Mount Sinai as a metaphor for the spiritual journey of deification. At the peak of unity with the divine, Moses is ‘neither oneself nor someone else,’ such that his oneness with the divine ‘does not mean the demise of the radical difference which separates all creation from its Principle.’ The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, the holy order of the Church, has as its purpose the communal achievement of this end, the ‘pulling together’ (symptyxis) of discrete beings into a divine unity which does not replace that order, but consolidates it as community, koinonia. As a participant in this deifying community, moving ever towards greater unity with the saints already in union with the divine, the author of the Corpus becomes ‘Paul’s disciple in the very experience of being deified’ and is therefore ‘ontologically entitled to take over any name: including the name ‘Denys [i.e. Dionysius], the pupil of Paul.’ Yet, crucially, he remains also anonymous: not himself and yet not someone else. Following Kocijančič’s reading, we find even in the basic fact of Dionysius’ pseudonymity a rejection of simple dualism between self and God, and yet also the insistence on their absolute difference.
Charles Stang, it seems independently, reached a similar conclusion a year later in his doctoral dissertation of 2008, published in 2009. Where Kocijančič’s frame of reference is principally philosophical, Stang draws on theories of pseudonymity within Christian and Jewish theological tradition. Nonetheless, Stang draws from the same passage of the MT as Kocijančič the complementary observation that the Dionysian author’s pseudonymity is itself a ‘path of unknowing God and the self’:
– – ‘a practice that stretches the self to the point that it splits, renders the self unsaid, that is, unseated from its knowing center, unknown to itself and so better placed, because displaced, to suffer union with “him who has made the shadows his hiding place”‘.
So, Stang emphasises the ecstastic breakdown of the individual self in openness to divine love, Kocijančič the communal gathering in of many such destabilised selves in the body of the Church. Nevertheless, both differ from Arthur’s reading of Dionysius’ pseudonymity as self-aggrandising and defensive. In common with Pope Benedict, they see it instead as integral to the author’s apophatic theological practice.
Having established good reasons for Dionysius’ practice of pseudonymity, Benedict goes on to illustrate the significance of Dionysius’ precise choice of moniker. Kocijančič indicates only that Dionysius as a result of his koinonia with the Church en route of apotheosis might have chosen ‘any name,’ without speculating on why he made the choice he did. Arthur seems to accept the thesis, rejected by Benedict, that Dionysius uses the name to aggregate pseudo-apostolic authority, and goes further still, arguing that he owes more to Philo than to S. Paul. Yet Benedict assures us that the author, identifying himself with the Greek philosopher converted at the Areopagus, intended ‘to put Greek wisdom at the service of the Gospel, to foster the encounter of Greek culture and intelligence with the proclamation of Christ.’ Stang consolidates this point, reminding us that Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Acts 17 gives a scriptural start point for the CD’s characteristic obsession with ἀγνωσία, ‘unknowing’: ‘What therefore you unknowingly worship, this I proclaim to you’ (Acts 17.23). Indeed, Stang writes, Dionysius can legitimately interpret ὃ ἀγνοοῦντες εὐσεβεῖτε to mean ‘what you worship through unknowing,’ that is, through ἀγνωσία (Stang 2009:15). Thus the choice of pseudonym is not incidental, but reflects Dionysius’ concern to baptize pagan Greek learning to Christian ends.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.