Pseudo-Dionysus: Appropriate Knowledge

I’ve started on The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, which is the last of the four works extant by Pseudo-Dionysus. Well, we’ve got a bunch of letters (ten?), and we’ll get to those, but in terms of formal works, this is the last one. The Celestial Hierarchy was all about the hierarchy of angels – powers and principalities and cherubim etc – and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy is a similar sort of thing, but focused on human institutes like baptism. Today, I want to talk about ‘appropriate knowledge’, which is something that comes up quite a bit in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy

Basically the idea is that, because people are in a hierarchy (whether because they’re at a different stage of perfection or because they’re inherently just not as meritorious as somebody else), different sorts of knowledge are appropriate for different types of people. Yes, it’s a bit ick, we’ll get to that. Let’s go through the motions first. There’s a couple of ways this quote-unquote appropriate knowledge gets described – firstly, you get a few instances where Pseudy tells the reader not to talk about sacred things to the uninitiated. If you’re not a Christian, people shouldn’t be talking to you about special Christian things. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the reason for that was (probably something cultural), but you get similar sorts of things throughout the Bible – especially the New Testament (pearls before swine etc).

They were pretty serious about the whole secrecy thing for the uninitiated though. In Chapter 2 of EH, Pseudy talks about how converts have to have a sponsor, and have to promise to adhere to the teachings of Christ (before they actually know anything about them, it seems, because the teachings and rituals are all secret). That said, even when you’re in, there’s still levels of knowledge: Pseudy talks about how “there is risk for us when we handle what is above us”. Note that it’s ‘us’, not ‘you’ – Pseudo-Dionysus includes himself in this hierarchy, which implies that there are things that he’s not allowed to know too.

So we’ll talk about some of the problems in a minute, but first I want to touch on some of the ways in which this idea of ‘appropriate knowledge’ might be useful. Let’s imagine Teddy. Teddy is twenty-seven, and likes playing with guns. Because Teddy’s an idiot, one day he shoots himself. Now, it is a 100% true fact that Teddy is a fucking idiot, but also you shouldn’t say that to his grieving mother. It might be a fact, but that doesn’t make it a fact that’s going to help things right now. In the same way, people are at certain levels within the faith. It’s not being condescending, it’s just a reality of how the faith works.

For example, there’s a general understanding that the heart of the faith involves laying down your own life and living in accord with God’s will. This is the point of the baptism imagery: putting yourself to death and being raised into life in Christ. Going under; coming up. Now, the idea is all very well and good, but not everybody’s willing to commit to the idea of total self-sacrifice. What’s required is absolute. Not everybody’s at that stage. It’s not condescending – it’s just a reality of the demands made by the faith. This is why martyrdom is often represented as the highest expression of the faith, right – because when you’re talking about total self-sacrifice, you mean everything up to and including the willingness to literally be put to death. Now, if you approached certain Christians and told them they had to be willing to die for their beliefs, they’d freak out and take off. They’re not bad people, or even bad Christians – it’s just a bit too full on for them. In that sense, there absolutely is such a thing as appropriate and inappropriate knowledge.

Similarly we might use the idea of appropriate knowledge to describe basically the tact with which we ought to be talking to non-Christians. You might believe that if people don’t convert they gonna go to hell – but if you lead with that in a conversation, you’re probably just gonna drive people away. In that sense, as with the previous situation, it’s not so much about appropriate and inappropriate knowledge as it is about appropriate and inappropriate timing. We’re kinda bastardising the original idea here – we don’t really consider much to be quote-unquote off limits these days. We’d see ‘inappropriate knowledge’ as simply unhelpful, rather than actively objectively immoral or unholy.

So the problems that people have with appropriate knowledge, if we take it in the original Pseudo-Dionysian way, are mainly rooted in the idea of hierarchy. The idea of someone being above you and judging whether or not you’re ready for a given piece of knowledge -that’s not something that gels very well with us today. We like to think that things should be more democratic – and in many regards they should be. The Protestants are obviously strong on the idea that we don’t need an intercessor between ourselves and God – or rather, if we do, it’s Jesus, not some manky priest. It’s all to do with the abuses of authority committed by the clergy, although there’s also an earnest belief that the relationship with God should be personal, internal, and fluid, rather than rooted in fixed rituals and rules.

In that sense, appropriate knowledge also implies this linear procession through different levels that everybody has to go through in the same way, and that’s also not something we’re big on. We tend to emphasise our differences – different learning paces, different styles, different levels of maturity and faith in different areas. One linear procession of knowledge just doesn’t cut the mustard. In many ways, the idea of appropriate knowledge seems like a relic – or at least, if we retain it, it’s so far shifted from what Pseudo-Dionysus was originally thinking to be a completely different process.

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