Pseudo-Dionysus: Hierarchy and Perfection

One of the things about negative theology is that it encourages people to reject the systematic. Words and symbols become games, and we bob in and out of meaning without ever quite nailing down the thing we’re trying to talk about. It’s potentially a surprise, then, to realise that Pseudo-Dionysus was also the dude who invented the word ‘hierarchy’. Well, he might not have invented it, but to my knowledge he’s the first record we have of the word being used. He even sets out a definition, which is thoughtful. Today we’re going to talk about his conception of hierarchy, and how it relates to the broader project of becoming more like God.

Even if the word ‘hierarchy’ starts with Pseudy, the idea is much older. It’s a Neoplatonic idea that goes back to Plotinus (not a Christian), and arguably to Plato before him. Basically, if God exists on a higher plane of being, then we exist on a lower plane – so there’s a strict hierarchy of existence. Plants and rocks and shit are even lower, because they don’t have consciousness (nobody bring up the science on that one), and animals are somewhere in between, because they have consciousness, but no souls (shh). Then you’ve got angels etc, demons, all on different planes of existence. At the top of it all, you’ve got God, the Creator, our Lord and Saviour.

We already talked last week about how prayer lifts us up towards God, restoring us to our full potential from our fallen state. You can see the strength of the vertical metaphor at play here: God is up, good is up, bad is down, Hell is down. You can trace the idea of physical existence being a bad thing here – we talked about it a bit with Augustine, all the way back at the start of the year. Anyway: so the journey that we’re all on, or at least that Christians are on (at least according to the Christians), is a journey of being uplifted. That’s the point of the ultralight-prayer-beam idea, right: it’s us growing closer to God, which means moving up the existential chain and away from our fallen nature. From that perspective, it also makes sense to say that God isn’t moved by our prayers – He doesn’t come down to us, because that would require Him to become less than perfect. Don’t mention Jesus, you’ll throw a spanner in the works.

So as we move up the chain of existence, growing closer to our ‘true’ God-given selves, the idea is that we also become more like God. We’re moving towards God, right, and we’re growing more into our true God-given nature, which is underpinned and sustained by God anyway, so it’s reasonable to say that we’re becoming more like God. Remember also that sin is considered to be a degradation of our natural state – so the less degraded and dissolved we are, the more fully we partake in life (or God, who is the source of life). This also falls in with a bunch of Biblical quotes – there’s a quote in John 3:30, “He [God] must increase, but I must decrease.” If you read ‘I’ as being the sinful imperfect I, then we’re back at the metaphor of being uplifted. The old sinful self is bled out, and all that remains is God. Well, that is, all that remains is our proper place in the hierarchy of things, where we reflect God but aren’t actually God ourselves, because that would be silly. Right?

This is basically Pseudy’s take on hierarchy: it’s “a certain perfect arrangement, an image of the beauty of God”. Everybody’s different, and doing their own thing, but there’s a certain harmony to the arrangement. I’ve always liked to think of it as an ecology. Insofar as it works and allows everybody to co-exist, it’s perfect, and that perfection is an image of the beauty of God. It also works because everybody looks to God as the source of their actions. God is the source of life, and actions motivated by God keep life (which is an image of the beauty of God) going. Basically, you do good stuff, and that good stuff keeps the ecosystem functioning like it’s supposed to. I think the definition of ‘good stuff’ is up for debate, mind you, and it’s almost certainly not what the Church thinks it is, but the integrity of the idea doesn’t rely on our current situation. It’s utopian, in that sense.

So there’s a hierarchy, and everybody’s part of it, and we’re all happy and gay. There’s a couple of implicit problems though: a hierarchy sort of implies that some people are inherently better than others. If you’ve got a position in the hierarchy that’s nearer to the top, it’s because you’re capable of being enlightened to a greater level – you’re closer to God, and less like a cabbage than me. That kinda suggests that God created people inequally, which is a bit shit. The idea is contained in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysus: for example, he argues that God “reaches out to grant every being, according to merit, a share of light”. 

There’s two solutions here. Either we can just suck it up and accept that some people are better than others, which seems shitty, elitist, and a justification for oppressive behaviour, or we can shift more towards the ecology idea. Paul runs a similar metaphor when he talks about the church as a body in 1 Corinthians. It emphasises the individual difference between people, while still unifying them as being part of a greater entity. That said, Paul’s still thinking in hierarchy at some points: “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (12:24-5).

So I’m less fond of the hierarchy idea, because of these issues around People Being Shits. If you’re committed to the idea that some people are inherently smarter and more capable than others, as Paul is, it clearly needs to be buttressed with a major emphasis on servitude as the role of the Christian. This is arguably one of the most significant points in the Gospels: Jesus is repeatedly very clear on the point that “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (Luke 22:26). The first shall be last, etc. For the Christian, pride is the cardinal sin – and those fuckers who’re proud about their humility and servile attitude will be the first in the firing line when the revolution comes.


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