Have you ever heard of St. Dennis? If you have traveled in Europe, you may well have noticed a number of churches named after St. Dennis. But who was he?
Dennis is a westernization of the Greek name Dionysius. St. Dennis is Dionysius the Areopagite who was converted to Christianity when he heard Paul preach in Athens (Acts 17:34). But since only one verse of the Bible mentions Dionysius, why are so many churches named for him?
Around the year 500, several writings appeared that bore the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. Today we know that they were not written in fact by the biblical Dionysius. But for more than 1000 years after they appeared, almost all Christians believed that these writings were the genuine work of Dionysius. These writings gained great authority among Christians because of their supposed author. After all if Dionysius was taught by Paul himself, then surely his writings must have nearly apostolic wisdom.
The writings of this pseudo-Dionysius are of interest to us because they are mystical in character. They are strongly influenced by neo-Platonism and tend in a pantheistic direction. Such mystical thought encourages us to think of God as so transcendent that He is above all human, rational categories of thought. The ultimate religious experience is to lose ourselves in the divine.
This "Dionysian" type of thought is alive and well in contemporary New Age thinking. We should recognize then that New Age is not simply an invasion into western thought of some totally foreign eastern approach to reality. In the mystical tradition of western thought there is already preparation for the modern popularity of the Hindu thinking implicit in New Age.
There are four great works attributed to Dionysius. Celestial Hierarchy discusses nine orders of angels that mediate between God and man. Speculation about angels from Thomas Aquinas to Billy Graham is indebted to Dionysius. Ecclesiastical Hierarchy discusses the clergy and sacraments of the church. The link in this work between the ministry of the church and mystical theology helped make Dionysius appear orthodox.
Divine Names represents Dionysius' positive theology. The approach of positive theology is to talk about the attributes - or names - of God. In this approach, the names of God are concepts that we attribute to God, but are actually derived from our experience of the created world. For example, we say that God is good. Dionysius would explain that goodness is something that we understand from our created experience and then magnify in various ways to apply to God. The same would be true of any characteristic of God such as wisdom or righteousness. Dionysius would say that such attributions are true as far as they go, but are only approximate. Ultimately God is far beyond human categories. In reality, positive theology can only give us approximate truth about God.
Dionysius argues that we get further in understanding God through negative theology and that is the subject of his Mystical Theology. Negative theology progressively denies attributes to God. For example, God's purity is so far beyond "goodness" that we understand God's goodness better by saying that He is not good and He is not evil. He is beyond these categories.
Initially negative theology may seem attractive. God certainly is infinite and His character is beyond what our minds can grasp. But as this approach is examined, we find how dangerous this theology can be. For example, is the idea that God is Trinity only a name of positive theology that is not really or fully true? Is God's existence to be transcended? Do we understand God more fully if we say that He is not a Trinity and does not exist? Ultimately negative theology undermines and stands against biblical revelation. Negative theology encourages us to enter the "Darkness of Unknowing" as the highest knowledge. But the Scriptures lead us to know God through minds and hearts that cling in faith to Jesus.
The concept of salvation is inevitably very different in Dionysius' theology in comparison with biblical Christianity. Dionysius takes the Eastern Orthodox idea of salvation as deification (becoming like God) and extends it to a notion of union with God that seems to dissolve the individual into the being of God. The believer makes progress in spiritual life by entering the mystical threefold path of purgation, illumination and union. In purgation, the sinful and creaturely is progressively stripped away. In illumination, a greater understanding of God is gained. In union, the believer becomes one with God. Some later western mystics in this tradition would talk of the individual being a drop falling into the ocean of God. Indeed on this approach all is God and God is all and all becomes God.
In the extreme Dionysian mysticism, the concepts of God, theology and salvation are fundamentally very close to aspects of Hinduism and the New Age movement. Certainly such mysticism was never widely popular in western Christianity. And yet in various ways some of its characteristics do appear in popular religion. In the West Christianity has always had competition from mystical religions like the New Age. There is really nothing new - even in the West - about the New Age. Today as always we must be discerning to distinguish the real St. Dennis - a believer in the Gospel as preached by Paul - from the pseudo-Dionysius.