Natural Law in St. Dionysius?
by Andrea Elizabeth
From Celestial Hierarchies, Chapter XIII:
The reason why the prophet Isaiah is said to have been purified by the Seraphim.
Moreover, It is revealed to all Intellectual Natures in due proportion, and bestows the radiance of Its Light upon the most exalted beings through whom, as leaders, It is imparted to the lower choirs in order according to their power of divine contemplation; or to speak in more simple terms, by way of illustration (for although natural things do not truly resemble God,who transcends all, yet they are more easily seen by us), the light of the sun passes readily through the first matter, for this is more transparent, and by means of this it displays more brightly its own brilliance; but when it falls upon some denser material it is shed forth again less brightly because the material which is illuminated is not adapted for the transmission of light, and after this it is little by little diminished until it hardly passes through at all. Similarly, the heat of fire imparts itself more readily to that which is more adapted to receive it, being yielding and conductive to its likeness; but upon substances of opposite nature which are resistant to it, either no effect at all or only a slight trace of the action of the fire appears; and what is more, when fire is applied to materials of opposite nature through the use of other substances receptive to it the fire first heats the material which is easily made hot, and through it, heats proportionately the water or other substance which does not so easily become hot.
Thus, according to the same law of the material order, the Fount of all order, visible and invisible, supernaturally shows forth the glory of Its own radiance in all-blessed outpourings of first manifestation to the highest beings, and through them those below them participate in the Divine Ray. For since these have the highest knowledge of God, and desire pre-eminently the Divine Goodness, they are thought worthy to become first workers, as far as can be attained, of the imitation of the Divine Power and Energy, and beneficently uplift those below them, as far as is in their power, to the same imitation by shedding abundantly upon them the splendour which has come upon themselves; while these, in turn, impart their light to lower choirs. And thus, throughout the whole Hierarchy, the higher impart that which they receive to the lower, and through the Divine Providence all are granted participation in the Divine Light in the measure of their receptivity.
It strikes me how much the Fathers use reason in their discourse. Modern Orthodox de-emphasize reason citing it as the culprit in modern humanism and the enlightenment, and how the Catholics got off course post-schism. Apophatic theology is said to be the surer route since God is above knowing, and we can only know through revelation. I’m considering that it’s both. St. Dionysius in the above relies on revelation as revealed in the Bible. What the Bible says about Isaiah’s testimony in the above chapter is a given. What conclusions can be drawn out of this given? We trust that the Orthodox Fathers were able to come to proper conclusions. To say that modern man doesn’t is full of implications.
Contra humanism, are we devolving? Was the immediate post Christian era the culmination of human evolution? The Greeks mastered philosophy, and the first millennium Christians used their method in their milieu to come to Christian conclusions? One can say that the west started to veer off with Augustine (and maybe Tertullian), but at the same time, perhaps even their veering is more impressive than modern cogitations?
Yet, in the next millenium, western evolution became dominant. Impressive things in the east that occurred since then can be said to be influenced, if not tainted, by the west. The eastern Church has spent most of its energy since then trying to maintain Orthodoxy despite the western influence, with the challenge of applying it in an eastern way, fighting context. It’s just the way it is. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen, nor that it had no effect.
Whether the west’s veering caused the worldwide devolution, or whether people lost the ability to purely, which is required to find Truth, apply themselves for some other degenerative reason, we still have to ground ourselves in the ancient Church. We can’t reinvent it according to our modern reason, but somehow some are still able to recognize it in them.
If you doubt that the west has lost the ability to discern truth because of respect for some modern great thinkers, then I will paradoxically say that moderns like Lewis, Derrida, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens are right in admitting the modern condition of ignorance in understanding the things of God. They are more pessimistic than Dionysius and Nyssa about men’s abilities.