Can “Neutral” Historical Scholarship Successfully Grasp a Theologian Who Deconstructed his Own Self?

Gorazd Kocijančič on Charles M. Stang’s Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite

Charles M. Stang, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite, Oxford University Press, 2012, 272 pp., $110.
Charles M. Stang, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite, Oxford University Press, 2012, 272 pp., $110.

At the end of the 1980s Jacques Derrida gave a lecture in Jerusalem on negative theology. The intertwining of logical thinking and its intrinsic negation was reflected in the title of the book in which his lecture appeared: Comment ne pas parler: Dénégations (translated into English as How to avoid speaking: Denials; printed in Languages of the Unsayable). In this book Derrida tried to show that the how—the logic hidden in apophatic thought—is nevertheless caught in the fundamental axioms of “metaphysical” thought, as understood by Martin Heidegger—in particular in the axiom that God is supreme Being. Derrida argued that this logic can be found in apophatic thought despite the fact that it tries to distance itself from the discourse of Western thought, i.e. kataphatic discourse.  Through the intertwining of affirmations and positive logic, kataphatic discourse attempts to understand the mystery of a human being, the world, and God. Derrida’s lecture was in large part also a reaction to another important French philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion. In contrast to Derrida, Marion asserted that negative theology in essence transcends the audacity of western metaphysics—the audacity that was shattered after the time of Hegel through the critical thoughts of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, and more recently through those of post-modern and deconstructive thinkers.

Derrida’s lecture was therefore an expression of a contemporary controversy, an expression of contemporary conflicting understandings of a particular historical way of thinking, which is viewed either as obsolete or as eternally relevant. Since every re-thinking of a historical event should look at its source, Derrida’s analysis and criticism of negative theology focuses on the writings by St. Dionysius the Areopagite, Paul’s disciple, i.e. on the Corpus Dionysiacum (hereafter CD).  This approach resembles that of Marion, whose L’Idole et la distance (The Idol and the Distance) also approached the meaning of apophatic theology through a re-interpretation of the CD.

Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite— felicitously subtitled “No longer I,” an expression from Paul’s letter to the Galatians 2:20—clearly pertains to this contemporary, post-modern controversy, even though its topic at first sight seems exclusively historical. The reader notices immediately that the author credits his interest in the CD to Marion’s lectures: the French philosopher turned the ancient text into a work able to withstand the contemporary criticism of metaphysics. Marion showed that Dionysius is in a mysterious way “post-modern.” Indeed, Stang admits that Dionysius made “Christianity credible” to him.

Although we can feel between the lines Stang’s particularly reverent attitude to the CD, his background is almost invisible in the book. The attitude of the author is a neutral position of a historian of ancient Christian literature, of an erudite hermeneus who follows the logical threads regardless of his existential commitment. His central theme is—not coincidentally—one of the main issues of the contemporary re-appropriations of Dionysius’s thought, which historical and philological criticism made difficult for us. This critical scholarship that reached its peak in the 19th century showed—at least this is widely accepted today—that the works by Dionysius are pseudepigraphic. According to many interpreters of his work, the pseudonym was just a “convenient and mercenary means of securing a wider readership and avoiding persecution in an age of anxious orthodoxies.” How scandalous that one of the most fundamental works of Christian thought, which has figured as a magna carta of Christian mystical theology for so many centuries, is now considered a mere literary forgery.

Brilliant, learned, and rich, Stang’s book salvages the Areopagite from the reproach of being remembered as Dionysius the Forger. Stang recuperates the ancient writer by applying post-modern categories—in particular those of de-centralized “subject” and of the criticism of the modern concept of identity—to the field of the history of Christian literature and spirituality. What does it mean that the author of the CD places himself in the time of apostolic community? Stang’s answer is: “[T]he very practice of pseudonymous writing itself serves as an ecstatic devotional exercise whereby the writer becomes split in two and thereby open to the indwelling of the divine.” Here the author links himself to some of the most influential interpreters of Dionysius’s work. As H. U. von Balthasar pointed out, modern criticism has failed to take into account this self-understanding of the author of the CD.

Stang considers the “peculiar notions of time and writing from the period and place that might inform the author’s practice of pseudonymous writing” against three relevant late antique historical backdrops: pseudepigrapha, understanding of writing as a devotional practice, and concepts of the porous or collapsible nature of time. Stang draws on theories of pseudonymity that were formulated in order to explain this phenomenon within Christian and Jewish theological tradition.  Many pseudonymous authors believed the dis­tance between past and present can be cancelled or “collapsed.” A kind of “time travel” is possible. The witnesses of the apostolic and sub-apostolic past could penetrate into the present. The saints of the apostolic and sub-apostolic ages were widely believed to exist in a “timeless communion with the present age.” For late antique authors, therefore, writing itself was a practice that would enable the vanishing of time. In support of his argument, Stang presents two case studies: the anonymous Life and Miracles of Thekla and John Chrysostom’s homilies on Paul.

The second part of Stang’s study may be understood as an effort to demonstrate the fundamentally Christian character of the CD. It does so through a detour: an attempt to show how Paul (Dionysius’s teacher) determines the semantics of the whole of Dionysius’ works.  “Paul is in fact the linchpin for understanding Dionysian Christology and its relationship to the hierarchies.” Stang’s argument—perhaps a little far-fetched—is that Dionysius’ own definition of hierarchy derives from Paul’s understanding of the “body of Christ.” To those who find Dionysius’s Christology to be underdeveloped, he responds that “there is a robust Dionysian Christology and that Christology is deeply Pauline.”  Dionysius’ Christology is said to derive from Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. His appropriation of Iamblichean theurgy—understood as the cooperation with the work of God that deifies the co-worker—is also found to be in essential harmony with Pauline letters.

Dionysius’ negative theology has a Pauline background, Stang claims. His understanding of unknowing (agnosia) draws on an ingenious interpretation of Paul’s famous line from Acts 17.  If Stang is correct, Dionysius understood ho agnoountes eusebeite (Acts 17:23) to mean “what you worship through unknowing.” Paul’s speech at Athens, in fact, defines the entire program of Dionysius’ works. The pseudonym reflects the author’s fundamental concern to understand the relationship between pagan wisdom and Christian revela­tion—or rather to bring philosophy back to its pristine status of reflection on divine Wisdom. This hypothesis enables Stang to fuse two opposing contemporary interpretations of Dionysius’ writings. Contrary to those who view Dionysius as mainly a neo-Platonic thinker, and to those who regard him as essentially Christian, Stang (following Andrew Louth and Christian Schäfer) claims that Dionysius was both a neo-Platonic and Christian thinker: “we need not choose between a safely Christian and a dangerously pagan Dionysius.”

One of the most important chapters of this book treats the CD’s “apophatic anthropology,” defined as “the notion that the self who suffers union with the unknown God must also become unknown.” The main witness to this “apophasis of the self” is once again Paul. For in Pauline eroticism, according to Stang’s understanding of Dionysius, there is a double displacement: Paul loves God with an eros that he ecstatically places outside himself, and thereby opens himself to the erotic indwelling of Christ. The models for Dionysius’s views of madness and ecstasy are therefore found in Plato and Philo of Alexandria, but they are ultimately transformed under Pauline influence.

Stang finally returns to the sense and significance of the Dionysius’ pseudonym. The time travel to the apostolic age that we witness in the CD is no different from the late antique practice, discussed in the first part of the book. Pseudonymic writing as a devotional practice becomes the means of achieving intimacy with the apostle, and ultimately with Christ.  Writing thus enacts the apophasis of the self.  It aims to negate the self by splitting it open so that it might become “neither [it]self nor other.”

Stang’s understanding of the CD will undoubtedly inform future work on this enigmatic work.  He betrays a tension between the apologetic desire to clear the (pre-modern) Dionysius of the reproach that he is a forger, on the one hand, and the (modern and postmodern) methods that are used in this process, on the other. What if Dionysius is indeed someone who cannot be caught—and that means also someone who cannot be hermeneutically defended—in an objective, historical manner? Can “neutral” historical scholarship successfully grasp an apophatic theologian who spiritually and textually deconstructed his own self? Is the “time travel” of Dionysius possible? If so, what does that mean for modern discourse about him? Doesn’t our approach to the CD presuppose a different ontology of time? The split self may not be, after all, only the split self of Dionysius, but also the division between the apophatic Christian commitment and an ontology—a kataphatic “metaphysical” ontology—that undergirds the modern historiographical project and its imagination of the past.[1] These questions remain with us.


[1] See G. Kocijančič, “The Name of God and the Name of the Author,” in L. Karfikova and M. Havrda (eds.), Nomina divina: Colloquium Dionysiacum Pragense (Prag, den 30.-31. Oktober 2009) (Fribourg: Academic Press, 2011), pp. 107-117.

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