I’ve written before on the Christian tradition’s fear of infinite regress. Now for various reasons, I’m thinking about the ontological hierarchy so prized by our Radical Orthodox friends and wonder if that, too, is in part motivated by a fear of infinite regress, in the form of a vicious circle.
As readers of Pseudo-Dionysius will recall, in the hierarchy appointed by God, the “higher” members minister to the “lower” members, mediating God’s goodness to them and thereby bringing them to the highest level they are able to attain. To a certain extent, then, the higher beings are “for” the lower, but at the same time they can’t receive anything from those lower beings — that is to say, the lower beings’ relationship to God is determined by its mediation through the higher beings, but not vice versa, or at least not in the same way. Thus while beings in a hierarchical ontology as opposed to a monadic or individualistic ontology are determined by relation, there is no real possibility of mutual determination. Relationships are unidirectional, all stemming ultimately from God as the “master signifier” of the chain. No infinite regress occurs because everything flows from God down the chain, with no “circles” of mutual determination anywhere along the line.
It would be easy to collapse this hierarchical scheme into a monadic one where everything stands in unmediated relationship to God, and I for one can’t think of a reason why the hierarchical approach would be obviously preferable to the monadic. A relational ontology, including mutual determination, seems to me to be obviously preferable to both — from the perspective of such an ontology, both would indeed fall into the same category. Of course, a thorough-going relational ontology would ultimately have to displace God as “master signifier” as well, allowing God and creation to be mutually determined — a move that in Christian theology shouldn’t be too much of a stretch given that God’s own “internal” life is supposed to be one of mutual determination among the trinitarian persons. (Moltmann’s later work moves in this direction.)
Of course, this whole line of thinking only works if hierarchy really does exclude mutual determination. It seems to me that if hierarchy was thought in terms of mutual determination, it would fail to be hierarchy at all — it’s not like a general has to take a vote among his troops before making a decision, for instance. But maybe I’m wrong.