In the last post, in our consideration of liberation theology and its “striving to be a bottom-up movement in practice, with Biblical interpretation and liturgical observance designed by lay practitioners themselves, rather than by the orthodox Church hierarchy”, we ended by asking how the antinomy of the traditional authority of hierarchy – the rights of the poor (“the people”) might come into synthesis within the forum of individual consciousness.
“What is Hierarchy, and what is the use of Hierarchy?” asks Dionysius the Areopagite in the third chapter of his treatise The Celestial Hierarchy, and he answers: “Hierarchy is, in my opinion, a holy order and knowledge and activity which, so far as is attainable, participates in the Divine.” In subsequent chapters, dividing the nine ranks into the first, second, third hierarchies, he proceeds to name and to characterize them: the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones in the first hierarchy; the Dominions, Virtues and Powers in the middle hierarchy; and the Principalities, Archangels and Angels in the last Hierarchy. Here we have described a threefold holy order made threefold again as nine separate ranks altogether.
The ancient holy order of the church hierarchy also is threefold: deacon, priest, and bishop. As this order evolved, it quite early on became three-folded again into nine offices as follows: doorkeeper (verger), lector (reader), exorcist, acolyte (server), subdeacon, deacon, priest, bishop, and archbishop.
Regarding this ecclesial order, we have these words from Steiner from his lecture “The History and Actuality of Imperialism” (Southern Cross Review, internet, trans. Frank Thomas Smith, Dornach, Feb. 20, 1920):
The concept of a really existing godly empire, which at the same time was a physical empire, is no longer taken into consideration. That a king has real divine power and dignity is considered absurd today, but was a reality in oriental imperialism.
As I mentioned, a subspecies was found in Egypt, for there we find a true transition to a later form. If we go back to the oldest form of imperialism, we find it based on the king being God who really physically appeared on earth, the son of heaven who physically appeared on earth, who was even the father of heaven. This is so paradoxical for the contemporary mind that it seems unbelievable, but it is so. We can learn from Assyrian documents how conquests were justified. They were simply carried out. The justification was that they had to expand more and more the god’s empire. When a territory was conquered and the inhabitants became subjects, then they had to worship the conqueror as their god. During those times no one thought of spreading a certain worldview. Why would it have been necessary? When the conquered people openly recognized the conqueror, followed him, then all was in order, they could believe whatever they wanted. Belief – personal opinion – wasn’t touched in ancient times, nobody cared about it.
That was the first form in which imperialism appeared. The second form was when the ruler, the one who was to play a leading role, wasn’t the god himself, but the god’s envoy, or inspired by the god, interpenetrated with divinity.
The first imperialism is characterized by realities. When an oriental ruler of ancient times appeared before his people, it was in all his splendor, because as a god he was entitled to wear such clothes. It was the clothing of a god. That’s what a god looked like. It meant nothing more than what the ruler wore was the fashion of the gods. And his paladins were not mere bureaucrats, but higher beings who accompanied him and did what they did with the power of higher beings.
Then came the time, as already mentioned, when the ruler and his paladins appeared as God’s envoys, as interpenetrated with divinity, as representatives. That is very clear in Dionysus the Areopagite. Read his writings, where he describes the complete hierarchy, from the deacons, archdeacons, bishops, archbishops, up to the church’s whole hierarchy. How does he do this? Dionysus the Areopagite presents it as though in this earthly churchly hierarchy is mirrored what God is with his archangels and angels, super-sensibly of course. So above we have the heavenly hierarchy and below its mirror image, the worldly hierarchy. The people of the worldly hierarchy, the deacons, archdeacons, wear certain clothes, and they perform their rituals; they are symbols. The first phase was characterized by realities, the second phase was characterized by signs, by symbols. But this has been more or less forgotten. Even Catholics understand little of the fact that the deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops are the representatives of the heavenly hierarchies. This has been mostly forgotten.
. . . [T]he story of Cain and Abel is a myth, i.e., it expresses, in a form narrated for a particular case, an “eternal” idea. Consequently, it refers to time, to history, and not to space and its structure. It shows us how brothers can become mortal enemies through the very fact that they worship the same God in the same way. The source of religious wars is revealed here; and it is not the difference in dogma nor that of cult or ritual which is the cause, but uniquely the pretention to equality or, if one prefers, the negation of hierarchy. Here also is the world’s first revolution – the archetype . . . of all revolutions which have taken place and which will take place in the future of humanity. For the cause of all wars and all revolutions – in a word, all violence – is always the same: the negation of hierarchy. This cause is found already, germinally, at such a lofty level as that of the communal act of worship of the same God by two brothers – this is the staggering revelation of the story of Cain and Abel. And as murders, wars and revolutions continue, the story of Cain and Abel remains ever valid and relevant. Being always valid and relevant throughout the passage of centuries, this is a myth and, moreover, a myth of the first order.
No matter how democratic the society, as long as moral values are acknowledged, hierarchy is inherent within it, for the simple reason that moral authority itself, based as it is on moral values, is inherently hierarchical. “All sciences,” declared Friedrich Nietzsche, “are now under the obligation to prepare the ground for the future task of the philosopher, which is to solve the problem of value, to determine the true hierarchy of values.” The which task was taken up in the next generation by Max Scheler, who, in his Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values (trans. Frigs and Funk, Northwestern University Press, 1973), spoke of value modalities that are constant and unchanging throughout history, these forming a basis for an objective non-formal ethics. From lowest to highest these modalities (with their respective positive and corresponding negative “disvalue” forms) are as follows:
- sensual values of the agreeable and the disagreeable;
- vital values of the noble and vulgar;
- mental (psychic) values of the beautiful and ugly, of right and wrong, and of truth and falsehood;
- and finally spiritual values of the holy and unholy, of the divine and of idols.
It is self-evident that moral authority in no way undermines democracy and can only guard it and strengthen it with its hierarchical presence in moral persons. Moral authority obviously has not at all to do with politics and general elections; rather it has very much to do with wisdom, which is not subject to any democratic principle or to any political process whatsoever. “Moral authority,” as Gandhi avers, “is never retained by any attempt to hold on to it. It comes without seeking and is retained without effort.”
The heavenly hierarchy represents an ascending scale of authority, moral authority inherent in beings, beings increasingly more evolved, whose relation to the Godhead becomes ever less mediated and evermore intimate. They are the milestones of mysticism’s journey, the revelatory powers of Christian gnosis. The Church – One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic – has from the beginning symbolically mirrored this moral authority with its offices of deacons, priests, bishops, and so on. What would it mean then were liberation theology, as a “bottom-up” movement, to achieve its aim of subjecting Biblical interpretation and liturgical observance to the democratic principle, i.e., of biblical interpretation being led and liturgy being designed by lay practitioners themselves, rather than by “the orthodox Church hierarchy”?
Clearly it would mean an actual denial of hierarchy, “the cause of all wars and all revolutions”, which is to say all violence. Symbolic as it is of the heavenly hierarchy, the hierarchy of the Church has its mirrored, divinely-sanctioned authority that is not to be denied: to be denied neither by faithful believers nor by Christian mystics and esotericists, however imperfect the mirroring. Deny that mirroring of authority and see what takes its place. Who seriously thinks that, ridding himself of the moon, he shall bathe henceforth and evermore in the golden light of day? Saint Francis knew better. Morally superior in many significant ways to the Pope who blessed him and sanctioned his order of mendicants, Francis remained to the end of his days obedient to church authority, e.g., always obtaining permission to preach first of the bishop whose the diocese he and his friars entered before venturing to do so.
“Authority is not a quality one person ‘has,’ in the sense that he has property or physical qualities,” says the psychologist Erich Fromm. “Authority refers to an interpersonal relation in which one person looks upon another as somebody superior to him.” In the case of Saint Francis, he continuously recognized the divinely-sanctioned authority of priest and bishop over himself in his interpersonal relation with them as layman and later as deacon, no matter what their moral stature may have been to the appraising eye. On the other hand, as time went on, the superior moral stature of Francis (i.e., his sanctity) was increasingly recognized by bishops, priests and lay-folk alike in their interpersonal relation with him as one human being to another.
“The desire to rule,” warned St. John Chrysostom, “is the mother of all heresy.” And as this would be true of any heresiarch, so would it be true of any heresy. What is heresy after all if not the over-emphasis of an essential truth so that it rules over related essential truths that would otherwise keep the emphasized truth in balance within the full body of truth. Liberation theology brings to the fore an essential truth that must increasingly find its way into the Church. This truth Leonardo Boff characterizes very well in the following words: “In evangelizing the poor, liberation theology aims to allow the poor themselves to become the church and help the whole church to become truly a poor church and a church of the poor.” The Church cannot afford to ignore this truth. On the other hand, liberation theology, in its recognition and affirmation of the poor and in its quest for justice for the poor, cannot afford to deny the hierarchical authority of the Church. Let Saint Francis of Assisi serve as the exemplar here, him who said: “Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty: permit the distinctive sign of our order to be that it does not possess anything of its own beneath the sun, for the glory of your name, and that it have no other patrimony than begging.”
Precisely because he remained at all times obedient to the hierarchical authority of the Church, he was able to work creatively in Christ with the help of Lady Poverty to transform it into a more faithful likeness of the heavenly hierarchies. Like the Pelican feeding its young with its own blood, just so was Francis able to feed the Church with the riches of his inner poverty – a poverty that was able to declare with the Apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Surely, far from complete is the work of the Poverello – this Seraph-man – begun several centuries ago, which is the work “to help the whole church to become truly a poor church and a church of the poor”. It is perfectly clear that liberation theology, hearing so acutely the “cry of the earth, the cry of the poor”, is called to help bring this work to another stage along the journey – a journey whose goal will be more deeply looked into the next post, which will be the third and final part of “Like the Pelican”.
Pax et Bonum,