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Dionysian Kenosis

(again, rambling…you’ve been warned)

 So, the subject of ‘kenosis’ came up in the first paper I heard today. When I looked it up (because I’m toggling in this conference between Catholic and Orthodox perspectives and also, I’d heard of it solely in the context of a goal of devotional practice), initially I saw it defined as Christ’s rejection of his divine nature during the Incarnation. It’s more complex than that, but that initial definition did get me thinking. Why would this ‘putting aside’ of divine nature have to be ‘rejection?’ So, thinking of our theologies, I’m immediately reminded of Euripides’ play “The Bacchae,” in which the poet has Dionysos declare that (to educate Thebes) He will “put aside His divinity” taking human form. While this is a play, Dionysos is the God of theatre and it does reflect the practices and language and ideas and mysteries related to this particular God. Could one say that what is happening when Dionysos does this is a type of kenosis? (which the theologian just described as ‘self-emptying, taking the form of the servant’).

I wouldn’t describe any of this as a rejection of divine nature. Rejection would imply a permanent disavowal, wouldn’t it? ‘Putting aside’ implies that one can then put it back on (the root of the word ‘rejection’ implies a throwing back of something). Even within the Incarnation, was it a rejection? Was not God the father ever with the son even through the intense humanity and human suffering of the Incarnation? For our purposes did not Dionysos remain divine even when He was wearing human flesh?

Kenosis is more readily Christ’s emptying out of Himself to be open to God’s will. It’s…complicated. I do think ideally, we as devout people should seek to empty ourselves out (the meaning of κενοω) so that we can be filled with our Gods, so that we can be completely receptive to Them and Their will. The lecturer now speaking keeps talking about “self-emptying obedience” and I take issue with the way in which she’s using the latter term…devotion is more active, an active annihilation of all those things that would keep us from being fully open to the Gods. There’s nothing passive in it, save for the receptivity that allows us to eventually experience our Gods. And even within that level of receptivity, whatever obedience there is becomes full alignment, a partnership not an abrogation of personal will but a uniting of that will with our Gods…do Christians mean the same when they use this term?

Back to my initial point, I can totally see kenosis as a means and goal of devotional living (regardless of one’s tradition. I think ultimately we should empty ourselves of ourselves, of all our bullshit so that we can be the most useful tools and servants possible of our Gods. THAT is exactly what devotion entails), but I struggle to see it applied to the incarnated Christ. Returning to Dionysos, which is far more relevant to our praxis than Christ (with all respect to my Christian friends), when He put aside His divinity, was He emptying Himself out so that He could better align with HIS true will?

I want to parse that out…what does it mean that a polytheist could accurately say Dionysos is putting aside His divinity…here’s the Greek:

ὧν οὕνεκ᾽ εἶδος θνητὸν ἀλλάξας ἔχω
μορφήν τ᾽ ἐμὴν μετέβαλον εἰς ἀνδρὸς φύσιν.(Bacchae, line 54)

for which purpose, having set aside my form (lit: that which is seen)
I bear a mortal shape and I have changed mine into the nature (φύσιν) of a man. (my translation)

If we look at ‘nature’ in the Aristotelian sense, it is the motivating essence, the material cause for a thing. It is the essential substance of a thing. In the Heraclitan sense, it is a thing’s natural development. Is Dionysos here lowering Himself down to the human level and allowing things to thus play out according to human rules and decisions? Its opposite is νομός, or law and custom so is this a means of giving more freedom and loopholes for events to play out? Is there a freedom in incarnation not found in the immortal sphere (a horrifying thought)? I was discussing this with Edward Butler (wanted to be sure that I was correct, that this was as intriguing a passage as it always had seemed to me, because surprisingly little’s been made of it in classics) and he noted that, “eidos often means just the visual appearance of something; but what does a mortal look like, qua mortal? Then in the next line we have andros physin, which has the same ambiguity. Physis can mean just the outward appearance of something, but it can also mean something deeper, the “nature” of something. Euripides seems to be playing a bit with the idea that Dionysos is taking on more than just the look of a human.” So, I think something is going on here and I can’t help but wonder if it’s something more than just a poet taking theological and poetic liberties.

Perhaps it makes no sense to make this comparison – Christians do what they do with their theology and kenosis is a particularly Christian theological term—but the entire conversion reminded me so strongly of that passage about Dionysos I could not help but doing playing with it here.

And…I went back to the Greek to the word εἶδος. It is the word from which we get our word ‘icon’ and I believe also ‘idol.’ It is something that can be seen, a form which can be seen. So, Dionysos is transforming His appearance. The presence of the word φύσιν complicates things for me. It has certain specific meanings philosophically, Is it all simply a change in appearance not reality here (unlike the licit view of the incarnation in which the humanity assumed by Christ is reality … unless one is a Docetist lol). I could go round and round with this for hours but I need to stop myself. Argh.

 

EDIT: So, thus am I served for writing this, while taking notes during a lecture, and discussing it all withe a friend via email. I had my etymology wrong above. “icon” comes from “eikon” and ‘idol’ from εἴδωλον. We get our word “idea” from εἶδος. What i wrote above still stands though: Dionysos is transforming into the idea of a mortal man…close enough to appearance to still ask: what does that mean? what is a God’s idea of mortal man and how would that translate to other mortals?