Hierarchy and God’s Unsundered Creation

We think that we are separated from other creatures in God’s good creation by our religious lives (if anyone these days has any clue what such a concept is anymore), by our species (Homo sapiens versus Orycteropus afer, for example), by our material presence in the world (our situation as animal, mineral or vegetable) and many other categories (even those as utterly indistinguishable as American Democrats and Republicans). However, a much more true and meaningful starting point is actually that we are not separated at all but entirely interdependent creatures. This high-flying little meditation of mine is inspired (among many other sources) by some writings in the school of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite (a teacher who became a Christian when Paul taught the Athenians about Jesus in Acts chapter 17) as well as by a 2014 essay from the contemporary Eastern Orthodox author and religious scholar David Bentley Hart regarding how our unity in the church is true and our division is a lie.

Specifically, I’m reflecting on how Dionysius the Areopagite coined the word “hierarchy” (which gets a lot of abuse today for some understandable and legitimate reasons) and how I was reminded of this idea of hierarchy while reading “The Myth of Schism” by David Bentley Hart where he asks “how we can possibly discover the doctrinal and theological resources that could justify or indeed make certain our division” and then expounds:

This is not a moral question—how do we dare to remain disunited?—but a purely canonical one: are we sure that we are? For, if not, then our division is simply sin, a habit of desire and thought that feeds upon nothing but its own perverse passions and immanent logic, a fiction of the will, and obedience to a lie.

If our unity is what is true and real as the good creatures of a loving and all-powerful God, how dare we participate in the perpetuating of the lie that we are shattered and sundered from one another? This same truth goes beyond divisions in the church to imagined divisions between any parts of God’s creation.

This is not a message of sentimentalism or idealism. The unshakeable truth of creation-wide unity makes terrible demands of us and requires the making of creeds and even solemn declarations of heresy. In this same essay on “The Myth of Schism,” Hart describes the practice of rebaptism by some Orthodox Christians as one that “I would not call irregular but heretical, if I had the authority so to do.” It is actually a shared commitment to our unity founded upon Jesus Christ as our creator and savior that makes necessary such declarations of truth versus heresy.

However, before continuing down this important path of truth, creeds and heresy, I’d like to come back to the term “hierarchy” as coined within the school of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite because this idea of “hierarchy” is profoundly helpful in understanding the unshakeable unity that makes such terrible demands of us all within this fallen world.

First, we have the scholar Michael Motia who (in his 2021 article “Three Ways to Imitate Paul in Late Antiquity: Ekstasis, Ekphrasis, Epektasis” in the Harvard Theological Review) says that Dionysius “coins the word ‘hierarchy’” in order to describe how the imitation of himself that Paul encourages (1 Cor. 4:15–17, 1 Cor. 10:32–11:1, Phil. 3:17, Phil. 4:9, 2 Thess. 3:7–9, 2 Tim. 3:10–11) is actually a means of direct participation in the life of Jesus Christ. We think of hierarchy as a ranking that leaves some of us stuck far below others—separated from each other and from God. In modern usage, hierarchy is synonymous with oppression and alienation. Motia, however, points out that for Dionysius:

To imitate Paul required a “sacred ordering” of heaven and the church, and each of these “orders” has the goal of different “deifying unions,” different blocs where creatures can become “co-workers with God” (θεοῦ συνεργοί). When creatures successfully slot themselves into these ordered spaces, they become what Charles Stang calls circuits through which “the activity (energeia) or the work of God (theourgia) moves. …Without the hierarchy (if such a thing were possible), imitating Paul might be a human-to-saint affair; but within the hierarchy, Pauline mimesis becomes the “circuit” through which the divine flows. …Creatures are “lifted” not by moving up the hierarchy but by becoming like that which flows through them.

The word hierarchy was first created by Dionysius to describe this way in which God’s direct presence with the whole of creation (as the life-giver and creator) is actually made possible by God’s participation with all of creation through each particular place within this network. Moreover, instead of a rigid structure, hierarchy was specifically envisioned to allow for dynamic relationships and movement between multiple persons in layered points of simultaneous contact that delivers God’s presence to all parts of creation through God’s immediate presence with each particular part. Again, Dionysius was creating a web within which we could understand how our imitation of Paul (or any saint) does not actually separate us from God but brings us into direct contact with God:

This hierarchically arranged instability, as opposed to a mimetic relation that stabilizes (ἱστάναι) by clamping image to archetype, allows the imitator of Paul to become an imitator of a God who is beyond all names and stable points of identity.

Moving to a second contemporary scholar of Dionysius who explains what he meant by inventing the term hierarchy, I have these brief excerpts from an extensive treatment of the subject in Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl (2008):

There is no contradiction between the hierarchical structure of reality and the immediate constitutive presence of God to all things. …All things, at every level, participate directly in God in the manner appropriate to them. Therefore the hierarchical structure of reality, far from separating the lower orders of being from God, is itself the very ground of his immediate presence in all things. Every being participates directly in God precisely in and by occupying its proper place within the cosmic hierarchy: stones by merely existing; plants by living; animals by sensing, humans by being rational, angels by being intellectual. It is not hierarchical order, but rather an egalitarian leveling, that would violate the immediate participation of all things in God by blurring the differences and ranks of beings which constitute that very participation.

…The view that hierarchical order separates the lower ranks of creatures from God depends on the mistaken conception of God as the “first and highest being,” standing above the angels at the peak of the hierarchy of beings. If that were the case, then indeed only the highest beings would be in immediate communion with God. But since God is not any being but “all things in all things and nothing in any,” he does not stand at the top of the universal hierarchy but transcends and permeates the whole. “The goodness of the Godhead which is beyond all things extends from the highest and most venerable substances to the last, and is still above all, the higher not outstripping its excellence nor the lower going beyond its containment.” The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God, of unity and goodness, according to the different modes and degrees that constitute the different levels of being.

It is clear from these two scholars that our ideas of hierarchy today are almost perfectly backwards. Far from being a static ranking that separates the lower ranks from direct participation in the life of God, hierarchy was invented within the school of Dionysius to describe the way in which God is simultaneously present with every detail of creation and even by means of every detail of creation. God’s presence to me is in the form of each detail in the world surrounding me as each of these locations within God’s created order reveal God to me, and I, in turn, reveal God back to all of them by simultaneously receiving and transmitting my unique understanding of God through my particular location within this living web.

Although the renowned theologian Rowan Williams does not mention Dionysius, he provides a profound consideration of hierarchy within his 2021 book Looking East in Winter where he explains how the personhood of us each is constituted by everything surrounding us so that each of us is made who we are by our “natural place within the universal network of mutual gift” (54). Williams expounds this idea from the Philokalia which has its origins within the same broader school of Greek Christian thought that included the school of Dionysius. For Williams, as well, this network is not only a human network but includes all aspects of our cosmos:

We are most distinctively human when we refuse to think of ourselves in isolation from matter and animality; and thinking of ourselves in solidarity with matter and animality involves, among other things, the thinking of the world around us as shot through with the same life of logos that we live from. …We need to think of other substances or agencies in the world in similar terms: they are what they are, they have intelligibility and unity, they can be spoken of and understood, ultimately because of the word that has invited them into life. The life they live cannot be at the mercy of human desire, collective or individual; and we live out our own invited nature, our role in the complex whole, by attending to what God invites other substances to be, and by acting towards them in the light of that discernment. (133-134)

I could go on and on, but I will simply refer the interested reader to the greatest living author who I have found on this topic of an interconnected cosmos: Stephen Clark and his 2020 book Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos. To cite one more current thinker, Clark’s Can We Believe in People? has a forward by Catherine Pickstock who is also referenced enthusiastically several times by Rowan Williams with Looking East in Winter. Pickstock makes the sacramental and liturgical connections clear related to hierarchy as the means of metaphysical participation in several recent books of hers including After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (1997) and Aspects of Truth: A New Religious Metaphysics (2020).

In this sacramental and participatory understanding of our world, the entire creation of God holds together as a network of particular locations—of metaphysical places that are constituted by the relationships of mutual giving and receiving of God’s life. This divine presence is given to each of us directly from the very core of our personal being, but this personal being is itself constituted by the particularity of our own set of contacts who manifest God to us, each from their own unique place of vision and reception. Our cosmos is a dance of pure divine gift as God both transcends everything in creation and yet does so precisely by sustaining everything in creation as a unique hub of divine reception and manifestation.

This flowing and singing festival network that continually manifests the transcendent life of God is held together perfectly even in the midst of fallenness, brokenness and death by the “yes” of Mary that makes God human and that binds all of us as mothers of God to the suffering of our God in Jesus Christ and thereby also to the suffering of every divine image surrounding us. As Christ actively takes up suffering and death, His divine life restores our humanity to its natural condition as the perfect image of God so that we all become not only mothers of God but, at the same time, sons of God capable of taking up our own cross so that we enter into Christ’s death and thereby His divine life. This restores the freedom and power of God’s Spirit throughout creation so that the overflow of the love between the eternal Father and Son might attract and fill all continually with the infinite beauty and life-breath of God.

Just as David Bentley Hart claims with regard to the church, so we can also claim with regard to all of creation: its essential and unsunderable unity in God means that “our division is simply sin, a habit of desire and thought that feeds upon nothing but its own perverse passions and immanent logic, a fiction of the will, and obedience to a lie.” Given the cooperation of Mary and God in Jesus Christ at the heart of our beautiful cosmic hierarchy, this fallen world remains entirely unbroken and fully redeemed. How dare we call our home broken or live our lives as if we have not been given a perfect place to dwell in communion with God among all of God’s currently suffering and yet perfectly united children? We are called to be a mother to all who surround us and thereby also a son of God to all who surround us (taking from the theology of Mother Maria of Paris). On the one hand, we are bound inextricably to the suffering of all others as a mother to her children, and on the other hand, we take up our own suffering with the authority and courage of a child of God who knows the joy set before us and who therefore endures our cross and scorns its shame. This is a matter of learning to be present, to attend, to see and to love with hearts of gratitude for the gift of life that surrounds us now in both its current suffering and in its eternal glory.

While the earth is always a good gift of a heavenly presence to us, our own place within the great hierarchy includes real points of contact that are not limited to time and space as our physical senses alone are capable of knowing them. By means of all that they have left behind, we are invited to commune with the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and we can maintain unbroken ties to our own spiritual home despite our many wanderings and exiles within this world. It is not that we are without limits or that we have no particular location given to us in which to dwell. We must learn to discern our own unique place within God’s house and grow to dwell there fully, but our place is more than simply the physical roof overhead or the shirt on our back. We learn to discern our heavenly place by waiting with gratitude in each earthly place where God has us, not being quick to leave any earthly home without necessity or a clear calling. This earth is always the gracious offering whereby we can enjoy our heavenly home, and, in this way, heaven and earth are united by our ability to recognize heaven through the good gifts of this earth.

As I conclude, I have a confession. Today, I turn 45 years old. Perhaps I’m sentimental, but will you join me in this hope? May God help us to live our lives in recognition of our perfect union. May we find the enjoyment of unbroken communion whereby our separation from any part of God’s world is nothing but a gross distortion of reality and a despicable lie that must be called out and utterly disdained.

The “Crucifixion” of Christ and the two thieves, the good and the bad, was painted by Andreas Pavias in the latter half of the 15th century, using egg tempera on a wood panel (the methods of traditional Byzantine iconography).

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