Thursday, May 20, 2010

ECM, Day 8: Gregory of Nyssa on God's AWESOMEness

Gregory of Nyssa, 335-294

"For Gregory the God-man [Jesus the Christ being both man and God] is the source of all real knowledge of God" (13).

He doesn't use the word "prototype," but he does seem to draw some parallels between Moses and Jesus. At the very least, Gregory clearly talks about three theophanies, or "divine manifestations," that we maybe realize from the story of Moses in Exodus. These are lessons we can learn from the Old Testament and apply to a deeper understanding of the Gospel. The theophanies:
  1. God is infinite, as we see through the burning bush, and God is inexhaustible to us.
  2. There is a "negative aspect" of God shown at Sinai when God is talked about in terms of clouds and darkness.
  3. We are encouraged to engage in epektasis, "the constant pursuit of God that is also paradoxically the enjoyment of his presence (see Phil 3:13)" (14).
The first theophany (like a theological epiphany?) as Gregory describes it requires that individuals first prepare themselves for the infinite by removing their shoes and, analogously, all of their/our worldly desires. The translation of Gregory that McGinn offers then reads, "In my opinion the definition of truth is 'being free from error about the nature of reality'" (14). I'm not sure how I feel about the binary aspect of this. Or maybe it's just the negative spin on it that I'm not so keen on. Truth is instead realizing the nature of reality? After this point Gregory takes an interesting, and very mystical, turn. He writes that "neither those things grasped by sense, nor those that the mind can understand, have a real existence" (15). Here I believe he is speaking to the ineffability of God - God's infinite inexhaustibility, for starters. This way of thinking is very freeing in some ways, and it reminds me very much of Buddhism and especially Taoism. It's not wrong to try to understand God and the truth. On the contrary, one should always pursue the truth using one's heart and mind. But to grasp too tightly to any thing or perception is to miss the wonder and mystery of the bigger picture. Thoughts?

The second theophany is also interesting. The closer an individual gets to contemplation, "so much the more [...] aware of the unavailability of the divine nature to human knowledge" the individual gets (16). It's sort of along the lines of the adage, "You don't know what you don't know." Except semi-actualized people (I made that up) realize that they are a lot less aware of things than they would perhaps like to be. Gregory gets even deeper: "What the divine word above all inhibits is human assimilation of the divine to anything that we know. Every thought and every defining conception which aims to encompass and grasp the divine nature is only forming an idol of God, without declaring him as he truly is" (17). So, uh, know your limits and don't buy completely into any religious system that claims to know exactly what God is. This theophany is really very closely tied to the first one, as I understand them. The "negative aspect" is, basically, the unknown, or hidden aspect of God. It's not hidden from us becasue God doesn't love us; it is hidden because we're not even capable of understanding God completely in our present form.

The third theophany is super cool as well. There's so much to quote here!
  • "When the soul is moved towards what is naturally lovely, it seems to me that this is the sort of passionate desire with which it is moved." This is what I believe Einstein was talking about when he said he didn't buy into a theory unless it was beautiful. Maybe my definition of 'beautiful' is different than others' definitions, but I think that the aesthetic and the holy can (but are not always) related. That's a sticky subject. "Beginning with the loveliness it [the soul] sees, it is drawn upwards to what is transcendent. The soul is forever inflaming its desire for what is hidden, by means of what it has already grasped. For this reason, the ardent lover of beauty understands what is seen as an image of what he desires, and yearns to be filled with the actual substance of the archetype. This is what underlies the bold and excessive desire of him who desires to see no longer 'through mirrors and reflections, but instead to enjoy beauty face to face' (1 Cor 13:12)" (17). 
  • Also "We ought always to look through the things that we can see and still be on fire with the desire to see more" (18). This is all very anti-Buddhist, as I very limitedly understand it. God is the object (though God is never an object as such. Rather, God is Infinite Subject) of our unquenchable desire. We will never be satisfied but will always be delighted. This is what I believe C.S. Lewis meant when he defined "joy" in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy - that wonderful, not fully attainable, holy thing. 
  • There was something else at the end of this passage that encouraged me to write down "'On Eagles Wings,' deconsctruction (literary criticism)" in my personal notes, but I don't think it's important anymore for the purposes of this "essay" (which comes from the French for "to try," so I don't feel quite so affectedly erudite to use the term).

To sum up what I've delighted in so far in this exploration of McGinn's edition of this collection:
  1. McGinn always has interesting ways of looking at things and teaching me things;
  2. Origen is important but not the mystic I'd recommend to people like myself; and
  3. Gregory of Nyssa is cool. He's new to me as of this reading. This was my first pass at him, and I hope it won't be my last.
  4. I hope you'll read Gregory yourself ;-)
Thank you again if you've stuck with me so far! I haven't started reading for my next post yet, but next in the book is Augustine of Hippo!

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