Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite | "The Mystical Theology"

Discussion in 'Theology and Doctrine' started by Simon Magus, Apr 17, 2013.

  1. Simon Magus

    Simon Magus Member

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    This concise and fascinating treatise on mysticism stands as probably the finest synthesis of Neoplatonist philosophy and Christian thought, either before or since. It’s generally dated to the sixth century; the queer appellation given to the author is the result of some historical confusion. An early legend attributed the text to the same Dionysus of Acts 17:34 who was baptized by St. Paul in Athens, although much of the writer’s theology is heavily indebted to Plotinus and especially Proclus (d. 485)—thus dating the piece most likely to the sixth century or thereabouts. The author was supposedly a Syrian monk.

    The most striking aspect of the work is its negative theology, which resides somewhat uncomfortably in the Christian tradition, where attributing predicates to God is the sine qua non of the religion itself. So in the Western Church, negative theology has not always been an easy sell. Although the corpus of Pseudo-Dionysius (who, after all, wrote a litany of the names of God and a commentary on Christian ritual) has seen some influence in the West, the ideas in The Mystical Theology have usually been handed down in a declawed form (as in Aquinas et al.), and probably only Eckhart alone among Latin theologians was bold enough to take it up in its full flowering. In the East it found more fertile ground, where it informed St. Gregory Palamas, the hesychast movement, and many Byzantine monastics. I wonder, though, if The Mystical Theology is compatible with the Anglican spiritual life?—or whether the essential character of Anglicanism is so uncompromisingly Reformed as to insist upon an intransigent doctrinal program that brooks no negative theology whatsoever?

    Some of Dionysius’ themes overlap with what I’ve learned is called in Protestantism (perhaps pejoratively) “Neo-orthodoxy,” insofar as Dionysius stresses an ineffable and experiential conception of God over a purely rational comprehension. He freely admits that his approach will be lost on “those attached to the objects of human thought,” and that the whole point of contemplation is to “leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge.” Dionysius was untroubled and sanguine in his approach to doctrine; unlike Kierkegaard, he wasn’t overly concerned with whether doctrinal formulations were rational or not: he accepted them in his stride. His point was that God is “beyond all positive and negative distinctions”—God “possesses all the positive attributes of the universe (being the Universal Cause) yet, in a more strict sense, does not possess them, since God transcends them all; wherefore there is no contradiction between the affirmations and the negations, inasmuch as God infinitely precedes all conceptions of deprivation.”

    In any event, The Mystical Theology is readable online in a nice format at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, and it’s not even that long. Discuss.

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  2. Old Christendom

    Old Christendom Well-Known Member

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    “Leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge.”

    And yet God, who in Christ is to us a Father rather than a stern Judge, is to apprehended by the operations of our intellect and loved by our heart.
     
  3. Simon Magus

    Simon Magus Member

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    In the Christian mystical tradition, one's love of God is sacrificial in nature. Mystical love is characterized by self-abnegation. Says Meister Eckhart: "death separates the soul from the body, but love separates all things from the soul. She suffers nought to come near her, that is not God nor God-like. Happy is he who is thus imprisoned; the more thou art a prisoner, the more wilt thou be freed. That we may be so imprisoned, and so freed, may He help us, Who Himself is Love."

    The apprehension of God by the intellect is likened to apprehending God "as through a glass, darkly"—the finite human mind being limited. Dionysus does not touch on the matter, but probably he would've agreed with the Neoplatonists (and Eckhart) that it is the soul which attains union with God, not the mind. The operations of intellect can only gleam symbolic (or at best conceptual) understanding of God, who is beyond concepts: "the divinest and the highest of the things perceived by the eyes of the body or the mind are but the symbolic language of things subordinate to Him who Himself transcendeth them all."

    If Neoplatonism is compatible with Christianity, this is essentially it. From the Calvinist standpoint I imagine this kind of thing is viewed with suspicion. The Reformed churches seem to have more or less quelled the mystical and contemplative approach. Jakob Boehme, I suppose, is one of the rare exceptions, although I believe he was excommunicated anyway.
     
  4. Toma

    Toma Well-Known Member Anglican

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    The Celestial Hierarchy, 3.3:

    It is necessary that those who are being purified should be entirely perfected, without stain, and be freed from all dissimilar confusion; that those who are being illuminated should be filled with the Divine Light, conducted to the habit and faculty of contemplation in all purity of mind; that those who are being initiated should be separated from the imperfect, and become recipients of that perfecting science of the sacred things contemplated. Further, that those who purify should impart, from their own abundance of purity, their own proper holiness; that those who illuminate, as being more luminous intelligences, whose function it is to receive and to impart light, and who are joyfully filled with holy gladness, that these should overflow, in proportion to their own overflowing light, towards those who are worthy of enlightenment; and that those who make perfect, as being skilled in the imparting of perfection, should perfect those being perfected, through the holy instruction, in the science of the holy things contemplated. Thus each rank of the Hierarchical Order is led, in its own degree, to the Divine co-operation, by performing, through grace and God-given power, those things which are naturally and supernaturally in the Godhead, and accomplished by It super-essentially, and manifested hierarchically, for the attainable imitation of the God-loving Minds.
     
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