Knowing Just Enough to Be Dangerous

When I reviewed William Riordan’s Divine Light yesterday, I spoke in general terms about how I felt the book did a good job at offering a positive view of the ancient theologian Denys (or Pseudo-Dionysius) the Areopagite, who has been dismissed by many Christians because he is clearly not a New Testament author, as he claims to be.

I didn’t get into the nuances of Riordan’s treatment of Neo-Platonism, because, frankly, that’s not my area of expertise.

Last night a commenter pointed out a rather scathing review of the book on Amazon.com by someone who only calls himself (or herself, but I bet it’s a he) “Scholar.” “Scholar” attacks Riordan for relying on older scholarship to build his assessment of Neo-Platonism, with the result being that his argument is grounded in what the reviewer calls Gilsonian Thomism — in other words, the theological mainstream of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, anchored in Thomas Aquinas and his twentieth century interpreters like Etienne Gilson. “Scholar” offers several examples of how Riordan’s use of older scholarship leads to misunderstandings in his discussion of Pseudo-Dionysius’ theology.

Anyway, I got plenty triggered by this, mainly because I am a bear of little brain and I cannot really argue with the big philosophical boys. I have no Greek to speak of, and my education is in English literature, of all things. So what this means is that I tend to read everything, even theology and philosophy, more from an aesthetic than an academic perspective. I respond to a work’s beauty (or witness to beauty) more than I get involved in assessing the precision of its “truth” (slippery topic that is, especially here in postmodernland). Does that mean I miss a lot of stuff? You bet. But it also is pretty much who I am, and since I’m more interested in understanding the broad sweep of the entire history of contemplative spirituality rather than the intricate details of one particular school of thought (in this case, Neo-Platonism), I suspect I will remain more of a mystical aesthete than a true scholar.

Ever since I heard the saying, “he knows just enough to be dangerous,” I’ve been haunted by it. That describes me in so many ways. I know just enough about the history of Christian mysticism and theology and Neo-Platonism to be able to appreciate what an author like William Riordan is doing, but I certainly lack the knowledge to compare his work to that of other scholars in the field. Maybe if I had that degree of knowledge I could handily refute the reviewer who calls himself “Scholar.” Or maybe I’d agree with him.

But it occurs to me that, in our world where the human knowledge base is expanding so very rapidly, this is true of all of us: we all, every one of us, have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. No one has it all figured out. I missed the subtle errors in Riordan’s scholarship; but maybe “Scholar” has missed the beauty in Riordan’s attempt to rehabilitate Pseudo-Dionysius for readers like me, generalists who believe that mysticism still matters, that an author needs to be judged on the merit of his argument rather than on his identity, and that positive fruit can emerge from Christianity’s encounter with non-Christian wisdom traditions (what Pseudo-Dionysius did 1500 years ago with Neo-Platonism, others are doing today with Buddhism or Vedanta).

In short, we all need each other. Those who have an eye for beauty need those with a discriminating mind, capable of discerning truth from horse manure. And we all need truly holy people who are capable of helping us to orient our lives to what is truly good. It takes humility to recognize that we all have just enough knowledge to be dangerous: and the way to avoid being dangerous is to listen, truly listen, to one another.

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  • James

    Thanks Carl for your honesty. Let us move forward together as you say, like the first communities, accompanied by the unconditional love of God. Have you seen this book about compassion shown to gang members recently published? The author, greg boyle sj, was interviewed on npr Really moving. And in an extract from the book on the npr link:

    “Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century female English mystic, saw the life struggle as coming to discover that we are “clothed in God’s goodness.” Think you’ll like that.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Oh, yes, Tattoos on the Heart. You’re the fourth person to have recommended it to me. Looks wonderful. And the tip of the hat to Julian is, indeed, sweet.

  • Mike Dorough

    Carl,
    Just want to say “Beautiful” and so very refreshing. Your insight into yourself, and Us speaks to truth & integrity – Thank You for this post.

  • brazenbird

    Yes. I agree.

  • http://www.songsofpeace.net Stefan Andre Waligur

    Thanks for your perspective , Carl. I remember the words from a rabbi who once said ” We would do our tongues well to say – I do not know.”
    Feel free to drop by the upcoming Pilgrimage of Peace this summer. I’d love to meet you. http://www.wellspringministry.org/Pilgrimageofpeace2010.htm
    Peace to you,
    Stefan

  • Lynne

    Hi Carl,
    Thanks for your reply to my post. I absolutely agree that recent scholarship isn’t necessarily better. I’ve attempted to research online the authors that “Scholar” cites (this is heavy stuff!) in addition to some much-needed looking into Neo-Platonism. Your suggestions on other scholarly works are appreciated.
    However, I’m very interested in your present comments on knowledge–”a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” While the description of yourself as an aesthetic undoubtedly extends to many, especially those who are interested in an esoteric subject like mysticism, I believe that the “truth” may lie in places that we are unwilling to look at. One of today’s problems is an unfortunate reliance on empirical thinking and our unwillingness to even broach the idea of a consciousness beyond what we call our “mind.” To close I would like to offer this little gem from the Ch’an Master Han Shan Te’-Ch’ing (1546-1623):

    Great accomplishments are composed of minute details.
    Those who succeed in attaining the Whole
    have attended carefully to each tiny part.
    Those who fail have ignored or taken too lightly
    what they deemed to be insignificant.
    The enlightened person overlooks nothing.

    All the best,
    Lynne

  • http://celticscribblings.wordpress.com celticscribblings

    “I respond to a work’s beauty (or witness to beauty) more than I get involved in assessing the precision of its ‘truth’ (slippery topic that is, especially here in postmodernland). ”

    Oh, so do I. Beauty is the hallmark of modern science, the indication for particle physicists that their equations are correct. I think aesthetics are a far greater indicator of truth than is rationality. Because we can rationalize anything. But truth–well, it rings true.

  • Joe

    Don’t fret, Carl. “Scholar” takes a self-important tone that should not be confused with the real deal, scholar-wise.

    It is no crime to read a book as a Thomist, or as anything else. Texts are not self-interpreting; and the pretense that they are is one of the things that shows the puerility of “Scholar” at work. (The petulant dismissiveness of the review is another.) If there is some problem with Thomism (Gilsonian or otherwise), the burden of proof is with the plaintiff to show us why. It’s really only among middle-schoolers that a disparaging predication stands as sufficient proof of a speaker’s defectiveness.

    The reviewer’s argument appears to hinge on the claim that there are discrete traditions in neo-platonism, two in particular, that are both identifiable and all-determining. And that’s just weird. It turns out that a few other people have had exposure to the texts and thinkers whose names “Scholar” bats about in this argumentum ad verecundiam that is supposed to silence and chasten the rest of us. (That is the informal fallacy of “appeal to authority”, a classic bait-and-switch tactic that has left poor, dear Carl out of kilter.) And I doubt that any of the serious ones among that lot would ever accept the claim that neo-platonism in late antiquity is anything close to neat and tidy in the way “Scholar” proposes.

    So I’d say we need to have courage here. “Scholar” is being a bit of a bully, and not the kind who might present nearly the substance to which he (it’s got to be a guy…) pretends.

    Besides, I am hard-pressed to see what the point of savaging the book might be, even if we could take “Scholar” seriously on the merits of his arguments. Re-read the last paragraph of Carl’s review, and of his response to it. Aside from the merit of real sincerity, it also shows a way in which we might wish to be grounded if we choose to muck about in this kind of literature. Disparaging others for being insufficiently Iamblichean-Proclean or whatever to take seriously really won’t take us very far – let alone as far as we need to go to free us from our prejudices and root ourselves in the light of God.


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