Reflections on St. Gregory’s Dialogue IV

[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

XX. . . . . [Orthodox] A little while ago we introduced the great Dionysius and the divine Gregory of Nyssa, saying that the essence of God is without a name because it is above all names and transcends all manner of signification by words. They also say that everything that is said about God denotes something that surrounds the essence and that the word “divinity” does not signify genuinely [kurios] its nature but the power of God to see. That also the essence of God which is above all names is called divinity but not with the genuine name [kurionumos]. That which is above all names stands in fact above all that which is named, and the essence is higher than all the things around it. Therefore the great Athanasius says: “Being God is second to His nature.” [Dialogue with a Macedonian I,14] . . . Would, then, the essence of God—which is above all names, unutterable, around which are the powers and activities which are before all ages, which has its name “divinity” from its proper activity–(would that) not be above the divinity, namely the power of seeing which is before all ages and the activity of God who knows everything before its birth of which the great Basil has said that it is below the Spirit while the great Athanasius (called it) second to the nature, the divinity which rightly has that name, being around the divine nature, as Gregory of Nyssa has revealed?
St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XX (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

There is a frequent failure in much popular discourse on God, a mistaken understanding and application of apophatic theology. It is a nominalism about God, a mistaken leap from the principle that who and what God is cannot be fully expressed in human tongue and therefore we can refashion what we say about God as cultural tastes and sociopolitical convictions dictate. So, since the human (and English) “Father” does not adequately capture who and what God is, we may just as well also refer to the first Person of the Trinity as “Mother” or even more androgynously as “Parent.”

This text of St. Gregory’s, however, is a robust challenge to that notion, even if St. Gregory didn’t quite have modern theist linguistical revision in mind. The saint is not indicating that since our understanding of God is always already incomplete and none of our words do more than circle around God, approximating, at best, an accurate understanding, that we may say whatever suits us, or whatever finds purchase in our cultural landscape. Rather he is indicating that the reality of God’s being may indeed be spoken about, but must always be graced with humility, in that there is that about God which cannot even be named, which is above naming, and even that which is inaccessible to us, a divinity that is “above” divinity. When St. Gregory is citing St. Athanasios that “being is second to God’s nature,” he is, as I understand it, indicating that even the activity that is that reality which is God, is, still, not that which God most truly and really is. God’s nature or essence is eternally hidden from us, and nothing we say about God can ever, in any way, full contain or delimit all that God is. God is indefinable, ineffable.

As I said, this text functions, in our present-day context to burst the swelling balloon of our hubris. What we know about God is infinitesimally small. God is always receding beyond the horizon of our knowledge. Our reason can give us little of any value in understanding God, because that capacity by which we modern people comprehend our world is sorely limited and lacking in coming to know God. We do, indeed, have touchstones, boundary markers if you will, which help us to speak about God rightly. God is a Trinity of Persons, Jesus is God incarnate, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. We reject Arius, Sabellius, Nestorius et al, not because they violated theological linguistical formulae. We reject them not because their doctrines were wholly irrational (though, it is true in a sense to affirm that their doctrines were not wholly rational). Rather, we reject them because the God they spoke of was not the God the Church knew from its experience of God. “That which we have seen with our eyes, that which our hands have touched . . . we declare unto you.”

That is to say, for our purposes, what St. Gregory is guarding is the God, not of definitions, but the God who is Person. And personal knowledge is not susceptible of comprehension by the mind. One knows persons from the heart. This is, in part, why the theology St. Gregory contests, and so much of modernist academic theology, fails. It is a theology of the mind, and not one of the heart.

By heart, of course, I do not mean the bare and empty emotivism of much of popular religion, but, rather, that center of our being coterminus but not identical with that physical organ we call the heart. That place in us that aches when away from the persons we love, or that is full of joy, deep, deep joy, at the birth of our child. It is the place from which we pray, from which we will to do good or evil, in which we know God. It is the seat of the Lordship of Christ, and that place “down” to which the mind must descend in obedience. Because only from the heart can the mind, our reason, speak adequately about the God whose being God is second to his nature.

As I say above, these reflections are not an attempt at sophisticated theological reflection but an attempt at an ascetical appraisal of the Saint’s writings. This is what I attempted to express above: academic theology cannot speak about a theology from apophasis because modernist academic theology has no heart. It lacks that integration so necessary to theology. Arius’ first principles were philosophical, not ascetical. He was bound by the chains of his rational definitions. St. Athanasios, on the other hand, was freed from such rationalistic bonds, because his first principle was to start from the worship of the Son. That is to say, he started from the heart bowed in adoration. And because he started there, he was in so less danger of going wrong–and his reason, properly ordered to and by his heart at worship, could then properly get at, though never fully comprehend, this divine mystery of the Incarnation.

It would be just as wrong to turn from a nominalism of the mind to a nominalism of the emotions. If it is wrong to subject God and “God speak” to the whims of our rationalism, it is just as wrong to subject God the passing fancies of our emotions, to excuse false speech about God by excesses of emotion. By emotion, I’m thinking here not merely of the bare feelings of sadness, sorrow and so forth, but something more full, that part of the person labeled the thumos, that part of the soul, in Plato’s well-known metaphor of the chariot, that is spirited, and often manifested in anger. That is to say, that sort of activity one finds expressed in our present day world in “activist causes.” And there is no doubt that much of modern academic theology is fueled by just this sort of thing: the re-imaging of God to suit “peace and justice” issues or to further social causes. This sort of nominalism is founded upon the bare rational sort, but is given impetus by a different sort of hubris.

In all this, it must be remembered that our speech about God is founded on, delimited by, and ordered to the personal revelation of God in Christ. Apart from Christ, and generally of God’s self-disclosure, we would have no way to know God or to speak about him. But because the Son of God became man, we do know God. But we know him as Person. And that sort of knowledge is only facilitated in, by and through the heart.

“Lift up your hearts.” “We lift them up unto the Lord.”

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