Divine Light: The Theology of Denys the Areopagite
By William Riordan
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008
Review by Carl McColman
To fully grasp the beauty and complexity (and some would say, the challenge) of Christian mysticism, sooner or later you will contend with the elusive sixth-century figure known variously as Denys, Dionysius, or Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite. We don’t know his real name. In his own writings, he passes himself off as a figure briefly mentioned in the New Testament — a Greek from Athens, who became a follower of Christ after Paul’s sermon in that city (recounted in Acts 17). For many centuries, these writings were generally accepted to be by Dionysius, and therefore of New Testament-era provenance. But scholars in the fifteenth century began to question this when it became obvious that so-called Dionysius relied on heavily the ideas of Neoplatonic philosophers such as Proclus, who lived in the fifth century. Today, Pseudo-Dionysius is now generally thought to have been a Syrian priest or monk who lived and wrote sometime around the year 500 CE. But if for a thousand years his works were highly influential because of his alleged ties to the Apostle Paul, once his identity was questioned, his reputation plummeted, and through the modern era he was dismissed as, at worst, a forger and a fraud; at best, a crafty Neoplatonist attempting to import pagan ideas into Christianity by the clever use of a pseudonym.
William Riordan’s accessible introduction to the theology of this figure, whom he prefers to identify using the traditional name “Denys,” seeks to find an orthodox middle ground, seeing the Areopagite neither as a fraud nor as an opportunist, but simply as a theologian seeking to affirm a grand and glorious synthesis between the philosophy of Neoplatonism and the teaching of the church. Riordan carefully delineates the distinctions between Denys’ thought and pagan philosophy, showing how Denys consistently submits his Neoplatonic ideas to Christian doctrine.
After an introductory look at Denys’ historical background, his theological method, and his influence both in the east and the west, Riordan explains both the similarities and differences between Denys and Neoplatonism, and then concentrates on Denys as a teacher of divinization, both in terms of cosmology and individual spirituality. “Divinization is an initiation, and often an arduous one, into Divine Being,” notes Riordan, and he teases out how Deny’s understanding of what we now call “the great chain of being” (Denys himself speaks of heirarchies, a concept he himself developed and which has become contested in our time because of its association with the abuse of power) all serves the larger question of how human beings are initiated into the unfathomable mystery of God, in order to become partakers of the Divine Nature.
Denys’ influence on the course of Christian mystical theology cannot be overstated. And while ours is an age in which many people of faith seek to regain an authentically Jewish celebration of the goodness of creation — which implies moving away from an understanding of metaphysics or spirit as “higher” than matter — the insights of Denys, acknowledging God as transcendent other who both loves the creation but also challenges it to be transformed in him — remain relevant to anyone who finds value in contemplative practice or who seeks to integrate the visionary thought of even non-Christian thinkers like Ken Wilber into the quest for holiness in our time.
I particularly loved the appendix of this book, where Riordan examines Denys’ teachings in the light of Mircea Eliade’s studies of shamans and shamanic initiation. Needless to say, there are some real points of correlation and convergence, and Riordan’s explanation of the three-fold process of purgation, illumination and union in terms of shamanic initiation is, to my mind, alone worth the price of the book.
This is a book heavy on theory rather than practice; in other words, reading it won’t provide you with tips on how to improve your discipline of contemplative prayer. But it might give you some insight into a way of approaching Christian thought that embraces, rather than dismisses, other wisdom traditions, and that underscores the many points of commonality between Christian mysticism and other transformational spiritualities.