The spirit of democracy runs deep in the modern world. I describe this as a “spirit” in that it is clearly a passion, a delusional state of mind in which we imagine something to be true when it is not. One simple example of this delusion is the level of expertise imagined across the culture on pretty much every topic. The vast majority of such expertise is nothing more than opinion, often based in faulty assumptions with little to no experience behind them. The delusion rises to something of a dangerous level when we consider how certain people are of the rightness of their opinions.
St. Dionysius the Areopagite is said to have invented the word “hierarchy.” For him, the word described the “holy order” (the actual meaning of “hierarchy”) of the universe. The universe, he observed, does not only exist – it exists with an order and a structure. That order and structure serve to reveal God and His good will at work in all things. St. Dionysius famously described the structure, or hierarchy of the angels, with a detailed exposition of the nine ranks. Equally, he saw in the Divine Liturgy a structured revelation of our relationship with God, exemplified in the roles of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon, as well as the patterns within the Liturgy itself. His vision of creation could not be less democratic.
Certain aspects of St. Dionysius’ writings have deeply disturbed modern readers. He is sometimes accused of being a “Gnostic,” in that he intimates a knowledge being handed down through ranks of hierarchy until reaching the faithful. It appears to suggest that we can only approach God through these mediating levels. This is, in fact, not true. He nowhere suggests that the knowledge of God is restricted to such mediation. Indeed, true union with God, in a classical Orthodox manner, is the single goal of his writing.
What is true, however, is St. Dionysius’ recognition of the hierarchical structure of reality itself, and his peace with it. Our democratic worldview encourages suspicion of every mediating structure in our lives. We have to hear things “from the horse’s mouth,” even though most of the information that lays claim to such authority is bogus.
Orthodox Christianity is replete with hierarchical structures, the very ones described by St. Dionysius. At the same time, our hearts have been shaped in a decidedly anti-hierarchical culture. Just as the printing press gave universal access to the Scriptures (and to an explosion in new interpretative schemes) so the internet has given universal access to Patristic and theological writings providing cut-and-paste wisdom for the masses. Orthodoxy often widens the scope of authority for its converts, but, by and large, the same modernist spirit of omni-competency remains unattended.
Strangely, this gives rise to a paradox. In order to become wise, we must first become fools. The most valuable knowledge of all is the knowledge of what we don’t know. The Fathers followed a path of apophatic theology (theology that cannot be spoken). It is a path towards knowing the Unknowable. However, we cannot know the Unknowable without first acknowledging that we do not know what we do not know.
A simple place to begin is to recognize the passions that accompany our opinions. We not only imagine ourselves to know things, but we feel deeply and strongly about these imaginations. Often, such “opinionism” is a mask for shame. In a world where everyone is an expert, we experience shame at our own ignorance. We mask our ignorance with authority (such as the Scriptures or the Fathers). Just because you read it doesn’t mean you know it. Failing to understand this inevitably means that we have not yet learned how to read. The greatest benefit to be found in reading is not in finding answers; the benefit is in finding questions.
Christ describes the fundamental attitude of the righteous heart when He says:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7–8)
Such words fall on deaf ears. We live in a culture that demands rather than asks, that has already “found” it, and that is self-appointed as the keeper of all doors.
There is, of course, a form of “weaponized” ignorance, where “not knowing” is used as a means of denying all answers and refusing to knock at any door. It is often the case that such weaponized ignorance is quickly followed by an assertion of an alternative knowledge. Those who claim that our ignorance of God justifies every attempt to “re-imagine” Him are simply disingenuous.
There is a shame in not-knowing. The willingness to bear that shame is the root of humility. The path of true humility is a means of grace, without which it is impossible to know anything.
God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. James 4:6