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.