I’ve been thinking a bit more about that whole hierarchy scenario we talked about a couple weeks back. Basically Pseudo-Dionysus has this idea where everybody exists in this hierarchy stretching all the way up towards God, who of course is at the top of the existential pyramid. We talked a bit about how people can find the whole ‘hierarchy of humanity’ idea kind of abusive and shit, especially when it’s used to justify systematic oppression, so on, so forth. I mentioned Paul’s image of community as a body, as a possibly more palatable working of a similar idea, but I wonder if there’s actually content in Pseudy’s work that gives us an extra avenue of approach. It’s that avenue which I’d like to explore today.
So basically the idea is that God is a self-giving God. He pours out knowledge and understanding, lifts us up on beams of light towards transcendence and perfection – and the basic idea is that He’s doing all this Himself. It’s not something we’re achieving of our own accord – He’s giving us an intellectual leg up so that we can transcend the limitations of our earth-bound minds or whatever. That’s the whole premise of negative theology, right, it’s going beyond (or being lifted beyond) the symbols and images and seeing the transcendent truth that they gesture towards. The key point here is that enlightenment is not something we can achieve on our own terms. It’s given to us as a gift. Partly that’s about asserting the authority and nature of God (ultimate transcendence, infinity, beyond all comprehension etc), but also it implies a certain relationship. God’s giving us a leg up.
This all kinda ties into the idea of God as generous, right. It’s that generosity of spirit that’s willing to give without thought of reward or compensation – giving in order to bless and uplift the Other. It ties into the idea that, for the Christian, the most authentic (or perhaps the most ethical?) gifts are gifts that can’t be repaid – because then you’re not doing it for yourself. There’s no thought of self-advancement going on in there. The idea is crystallised in the crucifixion of Christ, right – here’s God, who’s done nothing wrong, taking on the debt of sin for the whole world for no other reason than because He can. It’s an image that’s at the heart of the faith: an absolute sacrifice of self for those who have not earned it, and for those who don’t deserve it, and for those who can’t repay it. It’s foundational for Christianity.
So: when Pseudo-Dionysus talks about us being made perfect in that we come to reflect the Divine, this is (to me) part of what he’s talking about. Human beings mirroring the divinity of a self-giving God by giving of themselves, submerging self and pouring out love and cuddles. It all ends up as a big happy party where everybody’s giving and uplifting everybody else, and everything’s great and perfect. When you put it that way, the hierarchy thing becomes less of an issue. It gets reversed: the guy at the top is at the top because He’s the best at serving. He’s the best at sacrificing his own goals and gains in order to bless other people. It’s something you see all through the Gospels: this repeated message that those who are last will be first (Matt 19:30); that those who are humble will be exalted (Matt 18:4); that those who sell all their shit and give the money to the poor will be made perfect (Matt 19:21). It’s confrontational stuff, but I believe it’s at the heart of who God is.
Of course, as always, there’s a big pack of assholes we have to take into account. I remember talking with some Christians, and saying that if somebody’s emotionally abusive, that’s a relationship you should get yourself out of. It’s just not healthy. One guy (and he was a sweet guy, truthfully) didn’t quite understand – for him, it was all about turning the other cheek, not abandoning a relationship. The girls all understood what I was talking about though – go figure. There’s an important point here: basically, self-giving is a nice idea, but it doesn’t really seem to take into account the existence of assholes. These are people who can make it unsafe for you to give or be generous, because they take advantage and hurt you. It’s complicated: on the one hand, the whole idea is that being generous isn’t always convenient for you. If it was advantageous, that would kinda defeat the point. On the other hand, it can be difficult to distinguish between ‘This is hard and therefore authentic’ and ‘This is hard and therefore abusive’.
There’s also similar, more systematic issues around this theology being used to oppress people – mainly women, realistically. Your husband beats you? Well, you have to be self-giving and self-sacrificing and forgive him like Jesus forgave you. He sleeps around and neglects the kids? You’ve got to tough it out. The harder it is to give, the more blessed you are for giving. To be clear, I do think that God will reward the women (and men) who gave in this way (“blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”), but I also think that it’s unacceptable for the church to justify ongoing abusive behaviour with shitty theology. You can argue that it’s more about the cultural reception than it is about the theology itself, but either way there’s a clear mandate for us as Christians to recognise the bullshit and murder it violently.
So self-giving is nice, as an idea, but also it’s completely out of touch with the forces powering women’s liberation etc. It wasn’t self-giving that got women the vote, it was firebombs in letterboxes and a willingness to stand up to a bullshit status quo. I still think the idea has relevance – like I still think it’s at the heart of the faith – but I think its position in the political situation is significantly harmful, and also it’s not a healthy attitude if there’s an abuser in the room. Blessed are the meek, sure, and blessed are the persecuted – but also blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because them motherfuckers don’t put up with injustice.