A Greek who personifies faith, reason and conversion

People of the Book – Dionysius

Acts 17 tells the fascinating story of St. Paul’s preaching at the Areopagus, the center of civic and legal activity in ancient Athens. In this passage we see one of the most philosophical sections of the entire New Testament. The meeting of two great streams of thought, Hebrew monotheism and Hellenic rational discourse, converge in this narrative, resulting in a profound impact on the history of Christianity through the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages and beyond.

As a philosophy professor at a Catholic university, I am well aware that this conjunction of fides (faith) and ratio (reason) arises repeatedly as a perennial theme both in the classroom and the chapel. Without ever conflating the two, it is important to realize that Christians are not called to accept that these dual realities, knowledge and belief, are in any way antithetical to one another. “Don’t ask questions — It’s a Mystery” is not the proper posture for an adult and actualized Christian faith-stance. St. Paul and Dionysius here offer us a different path.

After wandering through the city, Paul sees a temple dedicated to a nondescript and distant deity, an “Unknown God.” His speech to the Athenians following this discovery is a classic text in understanding the relationship between humanity and the divine, now seen through the radically new lens of the Incarnation. “Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with human hands. Nor is he worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things…. So that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though he is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as some of your own poets have said” (Acts 17:23-8).

Here we see the notion that the “seeds of the Word,” that revelation given in a special and irrevocable way to the Jewish people, is also contained in the speculative contemplation of the philosophers. A certain Greek, Dionysius, hears Paul’s speech and is immediately convinced of the truth of his claims, agreeing to be baptized in the name of this now-Known God, Jesus Christ. Tradition says that he became one of the first leaders of the church in Greece and a basilica is constructed near the Areopagus in his honor.

However, as is so often the case, history has more in store for this mysterious fellow only fleetingly mentioned in the Bible. He is first confused with the Parisian martyr St. Denis, a cephalophoric (“head-carrying”) figure supposedly so eloquent that in hagiographical writings he is described as picking up his head after the executioners relieved his body of it and continuing to preach. The name Denis stems from the ancient Greek Dionysius, and the burial place for many of the kings of France — the Cathédrale Royale de Saint-Denis — is named for him.

A second, and more influential, case of mistaken identity occurred in the sixth century. An anonymous Neoplatonic author usurped the identity of the famous Athenian convert to give credibility to his vision of mystical and apophatic theology. While we would today call him a duplicitous forger, in the medieval mindset the communication of tradition was more important than the subjective focus on individualism which arose in the wake of Descartes and Kant. The adoption of a famous persona was a well-accepted rhetorical device of the period. Thus, the so-called Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in no way claimed to be any kind of innovator, but unquestionably had a profound (if anonymous) influence on theological giants such as Thomas Aquinas, John Scottus Eriugena and Gregory the Great.

Dionysius, a name mentioned only once in the entire corpus of Scripture, has impacted the way every modern believer experiences the contemporary Christian life. Both Paul’s speech in Athens, and the receivers of that message (whether the ancient Dionysius himself or those utilizing him as an embodiment of the philosophical-theological tradition), teach us to dedicate our minds to better understand the human tendency to simultaneously grope for the God who is never far from us and to accept the divine initiative of the Hand held out to sinners; both to rigorously ponder God’s centrality in our lives and to abandon ourselves to unfathomable love and forgiveness. Our own pilgrimages are called to combine the dual realities of faith and reason, twin concepts expressed in the ecclesiastical motto of a prominent theologian with whom I am more than casually familiar – “I know Him in whom I have believed.”

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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