The God Who May Be – Pt 2

ego eimi ho on / I am the one who is misses too much of the original dynamism of the Hebrew expression, and concedes too much to Hellenistic ontology. (28)

Kearney wagers that the Exodus 3.14 revelation of God’s ‘name’ is not so much about the revelation of God as “an ontological substance.” Rather, the revelation of God’s ‘name’ is one that emphasizes an utterly novel mode of relation” that places the ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ in dialogue with one another; Moses (and thus the Hebrews) in dialogue and co-operation with God. The name of God is also a relation of the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou:’ the ‘I’ of the past is present with the ‘Thou’ of the future. “This is why the Name is both theophanic and performative.” (28) God’s name is a promise of presence in the future of the Hebrews. God’s ‘name’ is a “promissory note” (“You have made your promised word well above your name,” Ps 138; 28) that accompanies Moses’ mission to the Hebrews, and the subsequent liberation of the people from Egyptian bondage.

The importance of understanding God’s ‘name’ as a promise for the future also lends to us an understanding that God and Moses are engaged in a mutual relationship that “carries a dual responsibility not to be come too distant or too familiar with God.” (28) God’s presence is immanent, here, now, but this presence is also transcendent, requiring Moses to bare his feet in reverence as he stands at a distant. Kearney even poetically considers God’s words to Moses, come! but not too near! as a two-part affirmation of the future. Come God, make your justice present! But it is not too near, it still needs to be brought forth. Already. Not-yet.

Here God commits Himself to a kingdom of justice if his faithful commit themselves to it too; the promise of Sinai calls forth a corresponding decision on behalf of the people. To phrase this otherwise: the I puts it to the Thou that the promise can be realized only if those who receive it do not betray its potential for the future. (29)

Both God and Moses, and the Hebrews by extension, bear responsibility for the outcome in the future. What happens will be the responsibility of both parties. The mission of Moses is a co-mission by and with God to bring about liberation of the Hebrews. Without Moses, no Exodus. Without God, no Exodus. This is not to say, Kearney posits, that God’s promise of liberation is some how conditional: “…the promise is granted unconditionally, as pure gift. But God is reminding his people that they are free to accept or refuse this gift. A gift cannot be imposed; it can only be offered. A gift neither is nor is not; it gives.” (29)

The God Who Comes – Historical Mandate

With the relation of his Name, God says of himself something like ‘with you Moses–and with Israel throughout history–I stand or fall!’ Exodus 3 is the proclamation that God has invested the whole of Himself in his emissary’s history.

The “utterly novel mode of relation” that God reveals to Moses in Exodus 3 is one “of fraternity, responsibility, and commitment to a shared history of ‘becoming.'” (29) God is not simply a static Being who has constructed the whole history of the world and is now simply watching it play out like a pre-programmed movie at a cosmic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. God is becoming. God is not nor is, but may be. For Kearney, the Exodus promise is not a static covenant, but a dynamic pledge from God to the Hebrews that puts forth the challenge of acceptance and participation. God is a dynamic actor in Israel’s history:

YHWH is now revealed as affected and vulnerable , showing himself henceforth as one who wrestles with himself (Hosea), laments (Jeremiah), regrets (Samuel), seduces and forgives (Psalms). Here we witness a God who persuades rather than coerces, invites rather than imposes, asks rather than impels. This God of Mosaic manifestation cannot be God without relating to his other–humanity. And seldom has this wager been so dramatically expressed as in the following midrash [Rabbinic commentary] on Isaiah 43:12: “If you are not my witnesses, I am, as it were, not God. (30)

Likewise, the Hebrews are called by God to accept or reject this promise that Moses delivers to them. (And it is quite apparent through the history of the OT, of the Israelites rejection and then acceptance of this promise.) God’s promise “solicits action from the addressee.” (30) God is not so much a “being who is” but a “God who does.” (Kearney paraphrasing Moses Maimonides; 31)

Critical Considerations

At the heart of God’s revelation in Exodus is “an ingenious wordplay which heralds an eschatological transcendence: a transcendence with the wherewithal to resist the lures of logocentric immanence.” (31) By this Kearney means that “I shall be what I shall be” proposes God’s promise to be present in the future of his people while at the same time remaining unnameable, unseen, unknowable and ungraspable. God’s essence is not the issue for the Hebrews; God’s action, his energies are. Thus, God remains transcendent, yet accessible. Unknowable but recognizable. This is the paradox of the persona: appear-disappear; the Bush burns without being consumed; God is in the bush as-if he is really there. God is not reducible to a name that can be co-opted for magical purposes (thus, logocentric immanence).

Kearney is keenly aware of the problems that come with the extremes of transcendence and immanence and of thinking of God as Being or Non-Being.

I removed entirely form historical being, God can become so unknowable and invisible as to escape all identification whatsoever. (31)

Jean Luc-Marion is cited as a key contemporary negative theologian. While there is a long history of negative theology in the Christian tradition (and in other religious traditions), I think Kearney chooses to focus on Marion because Kearney still sees important value in the negative theologian’s understanding of God as utterly unnameable and unknowable. Yet Marion argues that ‘naming’ God is a distraction from the reality of God as “pure giving“: “to subordinate the God of love to speculative distinctions of being and no-being is to resort to principles of reason which God radically transcends.” (31) Getting caught up in the technicalities of metaphysics and philosophical debates about Being causes us to miss the whole purpose of God: love. Again, the concern is not so much what God is, but that God is present and alive int he world, deeply concerned with the subtleties and particularities of everyday human existence.

Moreover, Kearney highlights Marion’s belief that “conceptual atheism” (a la Nietzsche and Heidegger) is essential to any talk about God: it is the “best weapons against the ‘conceptual idolatry’ of onto-theology.” (31) Critiques and pronouncements of God’s death, the death of the God of the philosophers, the death of the God of metaphysics, can open new space for a return to the God o Exodus.

While these are two points that Kearney appears to latch on to, and appreciate, he also finds problems with Marion’s understanding of “unspeakable Word” that was present in the Burning Bush. This Word, a pseudonym for the name of God, is “already given, gained, available,” Marion argues, and as a result, Kearney observes that “the transfiguring Word…does not depend on us in any way. It does not really need our response in order to be more full fulfilled.” (32) If the Word becomes present to us in phenomenon like the Burning Bush, or in other signs, “there is nothing further for us to think, say, or do, to make the Word more fully alive in this world.” (32) This obviously is a problem for Kearney who has argued that the Word is not a fully actualized reality in the world. The Word has already figured everything out for us, it is already actualized, all that we must do is sit back and wait: “We have little or no part to play in the transfiguring mission of the Word–e.g. the quest for historical justice.” (32)

For Marion, negative theology is a “theology of absence.” The absence of the Word is reversed in the “saturated phenomenon” whereby the Word becomes “flesh” as it were. The primacy of the revelation of the Word in everyday life is in a mystical communion with the Word in the Eucharist. It is necessary to encounter the “Word nonverbally” in the Sacrament of Holy Communion; then and only then can one know, or interpret the unknown God. This limited area for encounter with the Divine does not appeal to Kearney who prefers to be radically open to the Stranger (the Divine) in places least expected.

The Eucharistic encounter with the Divine is made possible by a “superabundance” of the God beyond all being. There is a “hyper-excess” of transcendence that overflows into the “saturated phenomenon” of sacraments. Kearney questions whether or not this superabundance that is present in saturated phenomenon is really a good thing. How can we determine that what we are encountering is the Divine and not something more sinister? “Who is it that speaks when God speaks from the burning bush?” (33) Rather than adhereing to a blind, mystical super-communion that Marion advocates because of the unknowability of the Word outside the context of the Eucharist, Kearney advocates for a “Pauline sobriety” that remains “awake” and “sober” to the reality that there does exist darkness which can invade the world.

Okay, English please. In summary, I am thinking that Kearney is asking a very important question that has probably perplexed apophatic theologians, not to mention people who read theology. That question is: If God is unknowable in his essence, but is somehow accessible in energies, how do we know that the energies we are encountering are of God and not of evil?

(Recall essence is what God is. Energies are what God does.)

How do we know that the God that we know is God? How do we know we are not mystically unifying ourselves with something that is not of God?

All pertinent questions I think Kearney is right to ask.

Marion is but one of the thinkers Kearney interacts with in this last section of his chapter entitled “I am Who May Be”

More later.

I am Who May Be – Pt 1

My aim is to identify and address the hidden crux of this enigma: the extraordinary phenomenon of a deity which appears and disappears in a fire that burns without burning out, that ignites without consuming, that names itself, paradoxically, as that which cannot be named, and that presents itself in the moment as that which is still to come. (20)

Kearney invites us to creatively re-imagine the familiar story of Moses at the Burning Bush in light of his understanding of persona and eschatology.

In Exodus 3.14 Moses meets his maker. Leading his flock to the desert mountain of Horeb, he happens upon a voice speaking from the midst of a flaming thornbush. From this transfiguring fire which flares up without being extinguished, the voice of an angel calls and Moses answers ‘Here I am.’ The voice bids him to stand back and remove his sandals. And revealing himself as the Lord of his ancestors–of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–God says he has heard the cry of his people and has come to deliver them from bondage.

But it’s not enough for Moses. Standing there under the midday sun, he wonders if this is not some mirage, some hoax. Perhaps the voice is an inner demon prompting him to a fit of madness. After all, wasn’t it just such a strange angel who appeared to Jacob late one night and shattered his hip, before disclosing the name of Israel? And wasn’t it another elusive voice which summoned Abraham to Mount Moriah to murder his own son? That was a cruel command. A trick of course. Only a test of faith. He must tread carefully. Moses wasn’t quite sure he wanted to do business with such a mercurial God: one who sent visitors to maim you in the middle of the night and command blood sacrifice (even if he wasn’t really serious). Every angel was terrible in a way wasn’t it? (20-21)

Moses approaches the Burning Bush and asks two questions. First, likely afraid of angering this unknown divine presence in the bush, Moses asks “Who am I…that I should go unto Pharaoh and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God responds: “I will be with Thee.” Take note of the word ‘will’ which in general usage, expresses a strong intention or assertion about the future (Dictionary). Kearney imagines Moses thinking that this Other he is encountering in the bush is unlike any Other he has encountered, unlike any of the Egyptian deities or tribal deities. Perhaps this is a “God of advent: a promise for the future.” (21)

Moses then asks a second question: “When I come unto the children of Israel and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? What shall I say to them?”

“I am he who is…I am has sent me to you”

God names himself by not naming himself. God names himself by, Kearney remarks, a riddle. This ‘name’ of God is rooted in the Hebrew word for ‘to be.’ However, Kearney seeks a mi-lieu between ontological and  eschatological interpretations. The ontological interpretation, the traditional rendering of the words of God as “I am who I am” or “I am he who is,” is strongly influenced by Greek concepts of the One being the fullness of being. The eschatological interpretation is a postmodern interpretation, “I am he who is not,” pushes God beyond being, to the point of no-being. Kearney asserts that both interpretations are extreme and as such, he desires to render God’s words as “I am who may be.” (22)

Ontological Interpretation of God’s response

Traditionally, Christian theologians have held to an ontological interpretation of God’s response to Moses which would render his words “I am he who is.” This has led many to conflate the God of the Exodus with the God of Greek metaphysics which argues for Being-itself as the Ultimate Reality, a “timeless, immutable, incorporeal” self-subsisting ground of all being. Augustine writes, “…he is Is, that is to say God is Being itself, ipsum esse, in its most absolute and full sense…” (23) Augustine easily unites the God of Abraham and Isaac with the ousia (substance) of Platonism, a substance that is not bound by time or space, a substance that is unchangeable. For Aquinas, the ‘name’ of God in Exodus “is the principal name of GOd and the highest formulation fo being.” (23) Being (with a capital B), for Aquinas, “is being that is eternal, immutable, simple self-sufficient, and the cause and principle of everything.” (23) Being is God’s essence. God is “without movement, change, desire, or possibility” Kearney writes. (23)

The significance of the ontological interpretation is its heavy reliance on Greek thought. “Without the encounter of Greek metaphysics with biblical religious thought, philosophers ‘would have never reached the idea that Being is the proper name of God and that this name designates God’s very essence.'” (Kearney quoting Ricouer; 24) Kearney and others have called this conflation onto-theology. Others might call it the analogy of being. The difficulty faced, however, is to associate God with some vague, unknown, and universal Being who never changes and at the same time, affirm the personal God of the biblical narrative. A close companion of onto-theology is mystical ontologism, which Kearney believes collapses the universal Being into human consciousness.

Eschatological Interpretation of God’s response

Onto-theology, though it is the dominant interpretative tradition, is critiqued by eschatological interpretation (‘E’ for short). The E-interpretation posits a different interpretation of God’s response to Moses with a specific focus on the “ethical and dynamic character of God.” (25) One of the initial differences between the O-interpretation and the E-interpretation is that the second interpretation renders God’s words as “I shall be what I shall be.” (Kearney quoting the Jewish commentator Rashi; 25) And when God repeats himself again, he says “I will be has sent you [ Moses].” Kearney argues that “Rashi interprets the ‘name’ in terms of mandate and mission.” (25) Rashi writes, creatively imagining the words of God

…the vision that you have seen at the thornbush is the sign for you that I have sent you–and that you will succeed in My mission, and that I have the wherewithal to save you. Just as you saw the thornbush performing My mission without being consumed, so too, you will go on My mission and you will not be harmed…(25)

The significance of Rashi’s interpretation is that God is offering himself as a promise of constant co-operation with Moses and ultimately with the children of Israel. The future is of as much concern to God as the present. But this future is “wide open–nothing is predetermined. It is up to us to remain as faithful to God as God promises to remain faithful to us.” (26) The reason for this openness can be seen, according to Rashi, in God’s instruction to Moses to tell Pharoah that God “happened upon us” (Ex 3.18) in the desert. Us, being the children of Israel represented in the person of Moses. Rashi notices that this phrase connotes a “chance occurrence.” (26)

The eschatological interpretation of God’s self-revelation, Kearney writes, “means reading the formula [of God’s ‘name’] in terms of function rather than substance, in terms of narrative rather than syllogism, in terms of relation rather than abstraction.” (26) God’s ‘name’ is less about being known as Being-itself, and more about the promise of co-operating with Moses in the liberation of Israel and the hope of the Promised Land. Kearney believes that there is a  problem that apophatic theology faces in reacting to the O-interpretation. Apophatic theology tries to affirm the unknowability of God to the point that God becomes beyond Being, a no-Being. The difficulty faced by apophatic theology is that “if God is devoid of all historical being, is He not then also deprived of the power to act and call and love–a God o distant as to be defunct?” Does apophatic theology result in such a negation of being that God is so distant from the world that he cannot live and act within it in any meaningful way?

In the ‘name’ of God

Kearney offers a really interesting insight into the Near Eastern religious context of Moses’ era and the effect of such a context on our interpretation of God’s ‘name.’ Near Eastern religions were grounded in the significant power of the name of particular deities. These gods had names that humans could use, but there was a final, ultimate, and hidden name that was believed to possess “enormous power.” (27) Relying on Andre LaCocque’s analysis of the Burning Bush story, Kearney sees Moses trying to obtain this secret name of God, probably because he knew that in order to free the people of Israel, he would have to duel with the Egyptian magicians who would summon their deities’ powers. God had other ideas:

Moses’ request, on this reading, is for such a name of power; and God’s response to his request may be read accordingly as a refusal of this request. The very circularity [think of a circle when you hear the words, ‘I shall be what I shall be’] and indeterminacy [ambiguity] of the nameless name…confounds the attempt to glean magical profit from it…[God] resists…being reduced to the status of an idol. (27)

God is thus seeking to not be co-opted into some religious scheme that sees the Divine as a means to an end.

Others have translated the ‘name’ of God in similar ways:

  • Martin Buber – “As the one who will always be there, so shall I be present in every time.” (27)
  • Rosenzweig – “I will be there as I will be there.”

Kearney comments:

These commentators share the view that what the suffering Hebrews needed from Moses was not some metaphysical proof about the existence of GOd as ipsum esse [Being-itself] but an assurance that He would remain close to them. The promise of the speaking GOd which begins with the word ‘ehyeh, ‘I shall be,’ means a pledge to his people that he will not abandon them. It is not, Buber observes, the self-exposure of some occult magical power but a clarification of the kind of GOd he is, an indication of the eschatological ‘meaning and character of a name (YHVH).’

The Israelites were not looking for some ‘five-proofs’ for the existence of God. In some way, God’s existence of was no concern to them. Whether God was Being-itself or some other metaphysical reality was of no concern to them. What was of concern was knowing that God cared about them, and that God had a special intention for their liberation from injustice. The Israelites were looking for assurance, promise, presence, justice, love, and hope. God’s promise is also a promise of return. For it is likely that the Israelites believed they had been abandoned. God’s initial promise to Abraham and their forefathers seemed to have been broken. But Moses’ encounter signaled a reaffirmation, a renewal, of that promise.

I do notice two glaring issues with the E-interpretation. Kearney argues that

the God revealed in Exodus is more, however, than a demystification of pagan tendencies to invoke divine names as mythical powers. It also marks a step beyond the capricious deity inherited by the Hebrews themselves from certain ancestral narratives recorded in Genesis–in particular the ‘sacrificial’ account of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah in Genesis 22 or the burnt sacrifices performed by Abraham in Genesis 15. Exodus 3.14 may be read accordingly not only as a biblical critique of other mystery-rite religions but as a self-critique of such traces in biblical religion itself! (27)

The first problem is Kearney’s argument that God’s ‘name’ is an attempt to co-opt any use of his ‘name’ as a means to an end. Moses repeatedly invokes the name of God, Yahweh, in he and Aaron’s battles against Pharoah and the Egyptian sorcerers. The second problem I see is that Moses’ encounter with the ‘nameless’ God is some how a critique of the “capricious” deity that commanded sacrifice. What do we see in Exodus? Plagues. The sacrifice of the Egyptian first-born for the Israelites’ freedom. Moreover, the ‘nameless’ God of the Burning Bush, which Kearney believes to be different from the God who called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, is also the same God who returns to make a covenant with Israel giving law after law after law with clear-cut definitions of what sort of punishment will happen if someone breaks a law. And this is later the God who, upon entering with the Hebrews into the Promised Land finds it necessary to purify the land of all who oppose the Israelites.

In other words, Kearney seems to be applying his E-interpretation to this one narrative event and I see a lack of interest in what extends beyond the meeting of God and Moses at the bush.

More on this later.

Purification of Heart

From Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes, sermon 6

Here again we see Gregory relying heavily on the difference between divine essence and divine energy. Essence “transcends every act of comprehensive knowledge, and it cannot be approached or attained by our speculation.” (98) Despite all human attempts to grasp the uncontainable, unknowable God, God remains unsearchable. How then shall we speak of God, if at all? “Yet He can be seen and apprehended in another way,” Gregory suggests. Gregory likens this way to looking at a piece of art. The artwork is left behind by the artist as an energy of him/herself. Suppose we walk into the Louvre and view the Mona Lisa. This painting is an energy of Leonardo Da Vinci. But simply viewing the piece of art will not give us access to the essence of Da Vinci. We cannot grasp who Da Vinci is (or was). But in the Mona Lisa, or any other work of art, “we see here…not the substance of the craftsman, but merely the artistic skill that he has impressed in his work. So too, when we consider the order of creation, we form an image not of the substance but of the wisdom of Him Who has done all things wisely.” (99) Thus, one would be able to call Da Vinci, by virtue of the quality of his work, a great master, a skilled artist, an astute observer and creator of human beauty. Likewise, we can speak of God by seeing God’s actions in the world and inferring appropriate language from them.

But here I find a problem. Are not descriptions of energies essentially descriptions of essence? When we speak about people like Mother Theresa or other people who engaged in benevolent acts of love and kindness, we might find ourselves saying “She is a very loving person,” or “She knows how to love,” or “She exhibits a loving spirit,” or some other statement. But aren’t we really saying that their essence is in some way ‘love’? I don’t know if that is the best example, so maybe I’ll go right to the example of God. If we call God’s actions loving, doesn’t that naturally assume that God’s essence is love; God’s essence exudes, emanates energies of love. If energies originate from essence, just like our human actions emanate from our essence as human beings, then in someway we are able to gain some sort of glimpse of essence. Thus the apophatic way, in order to be truly apophatic, must remain silent even in the face of actions. It appears Gregory wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Moreover, if God is incomprehensible and inconceivable, how are we able to comprehend and conceive of its actions. Why and how do energies emanate from the Divine in such a way that they become comprehensible? And what is the criterion for identifying which energies are of divine origin and which are from more sinister sources?

The Beatitudes that Gregory is commenting on, do promise a vision of God to those who are “pure of heart.” This sight is not a visible sight; the senses cannot sense the supra-sensible. Instead, Gregory notes, “He becomes visible only in his Operations, and only when He is contemplated in the things that are external to Him” (100) God’s operations are his energies. Gregory does believe, however, that the Beatitudes “does not merely indicate that we can infer the nature of the cause from its operations…” (100) which would seem to suggest an answer to my previous questions above. Instead, Gregory believes that the Beatitude affirming the goodness of the pure of heart who will see God counsels one to purify the heart so that they “will see the image of the divine nature in [their] own beauty.” (101) It is not that “it is blessed to know something about God, but rather to possess God in oneself…”(100)

But again it appears to me that Gregory is being a bit inconsistent here. For all the talk about incomprehensibility and the ‘wholly-other’ nature of God, it is almost as if lip service is paid to the utter transcendence of God because of Gregory’s belief that one can look at themselves for an imprint of divine nature. Created in the imago dei (image of God), humans were “imprinted [with] an imitation of the perfections of His own nature, just as one would impress upon wax the outline of the emblem.” But sin ruined this impression (the extent to which is hotly debated in Christian circles of course). Thus, “your perfection [is] useless…You must then wash away, by a life of virtue, the dirt…and then your divine beauty will once again shine forth.” (101) Here Gregory argues for an analogy which points to the “archetype” that humans are modeled after. Some knowledge of the archetype is then possible. But it appears Gregory is not saying that this makes God known in and of itself, in God’s fullness.

It is just like men who look at the sun in a mirror. Even though they do not look up directly at the heavens, they do see the sun in the mirror’s reflection just as much as those who look directly at the sun. So is it, says our Lord, with you. Even though you are not strong enough to see the light itself, yet you will find within yourselves what you are seeking, if you would but return to the grace of that image which was established within you from the beginning…Tghen because you have been purified you will perceive things that are invisible to the unpurified. The dark cloud of matter will be removed from the eye of your soul, and then you will see clearly that blessed vision within the pure brilliance of your own heart. And what is this vision? It is purity, holiness, simplicity, and other such brilliant reflections of the nature of God… (102)

The Abyss of Knowledge

From Gregory of Nyssa’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, Sermon 7

And yet, how can we find a name for that which the divine voice of the Apostle tells us is beyond every name (Phil 2.9)? The only name you could find to express that ineffable nature and power is that of the Good. (122)

The unnameability of God is a key feature of radical apophatic theology. So it is interesting that Gregory, whom Carrabine says exercises apophatic theology “in a most thorough and radical fashion,” writes that the only name which can express God’s nature is “the Good.” However, even the Good is a limited name for the Good is “beyond all good.” (123) Commenting on Eccl 3.7, there is a “time to keep silence…[and]…a time to speak,” Gregory asks the question “When, an on what matters, is it better to keep silent?” (125) First, Gregory notes from the Pauline epistles, the time for silence and the time for speech are determined by the goodness of what is being said or done. If the speech that one says is evil, or a lie, then Paul of courses calls for silence: “Let no evil speech proceed from your mouth” (Eph 4.29; 125) But if the words one might speak are good and full of grace, then speak!

The issue of the morality of speech is but one aspect of the issue of speech and silence; Gregory wants to explore silence and speech and God’s name and nature. Previously, Gregory had talked about a time to rend and a time to sew. When it comes to God’s name and nature, one must tear, by reason, the soul “away from its contrary [that is, from evil], [and unite] it to that true reality which is beyond all reason.” (126) Coupled with the affirmation of the elevation of one’s soul to that which is beyond all reality, beyond our grasp, Ecclesiastes’ mention of silence and speech is significant, especially the fact that silence is the first thing mentioned:

…human speech finds it impossible to express that reality which transcends all thought and every concept, which the soul that has been torn from evil constantly seeks, and to which it yearns to be united once it has been found. And he who obstinately tries to express it [the reality] in words, unconsciously offends God. For He Who is believed to transcend the universe must surely transcend speech. (126)

The reason why speech cannot “express that reality which transcends all thought and every concept” is that speech and reason are limited to their realm of “natural operation.” (126) The five senses have their own boundaries which they must abide by: “hearing cannot taste; touch cannot speak; and the tongue cannot function on what is visible or audible.” (126-127) (Now, what happens when you bring something like synesthesia, a neurological irregularity which causes one to taste what they see, or taste what they feel?)

Reason must abide by its limited capabilities as well. If reason assumes that it is conceiving something which is beyond reason, reason is really just conceiving of an illusion. Space is one thing that reason has a hard time getting away from, Gregory says. The mind tries very hard to get away from its reliance on the concept of space. Space is created. The Good, which is uncreated, is not contained by space. It is no-where. How can we then rationally speak and think about this Good? We must acknowledge that the nature of the Good is non-dimensional, uncontainable, in no-place. This is only one argument for the incomprehensibility of God. It is a terrifying and frustrating experience. Frustrating because we strive to push our reason to the limits until it can go no further. Terrifying because we realize that we are on the precipice of the mysterium tremendum; a reality so vastly different and unknown that we cannot help but remove our sandals, like Moses at the burning bush, in reverence.

And though the mind in its restlessness rangers through all that is knowable, it has never yet discovered a way of comprehending eternity in such wise that it might place itself outside of it, and god beyond the idea eternity itself and that Being which is above all being. It is like someone who finds himself on a mountain ridge. Imagine a sheer, steep crag, of reddish appearance below, extending into eternity; on top there is this ridge which looks down over a projecting rim into a bottomless chasm. Now imagine what a person would probably experience if he put his foot on the edge of this ridge which overlooks the chasm and found no solid footing nor anything to hold on to. This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. From here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; it does not allow our minds to approach. And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is connatural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows. (127-128)

It is on this ridge, when one is feeling the dizziness of looking into the abyss “that [it] it is the time to keep silence.” (128) Silence on the edge.

But silence, according to Gregory, is only necessary when speaking of God’s nature. Here Gregory makes the distinction between God’s essence and energies. We must be “fully aware that great men have spoken not of God but rather of his works, saying: Who shall declare the powers of the Lord (Ps 105.2) and I will relate all the wonders (Ps 9.2), and Generation and generation shall praise they works (Ps 144.4)” (128) Here, and elsewhere, it appears to Gregory that the authors of these statements were less concerned about what God is, but rather that God is active in the world.

In conclusion, Gregory sates “Thus, in speaking of God, when there is question of His essence, then is the time to keep silence. When however, it is a question of His operation, a knowledge of which can come down even to us, that is the time to speak of.” (129)





The Divine Nature Surpasses the Compass of Man’s Thoughts

“The Symbol of Abraham’s Migration” from Against Eunomius

Gregory’s exegesis (interpretation) of the Scriptures is often reliant upon different levels of meaning. Besides the literal meaning of the text, there is the allegorical meaning that can move beneath the text to locate a spiritual truth that is applicable for the pursuit of perfection. Life of Moses, by Gregory, is probably the best example of this (I will be reading this again in a bit).

The journey of Abraham out of his home country of Ur is one text that Gregory seeks to interpret on the spiritual level, to hermeneutically retrieve a deeper meaning that can assist us in the goal of perfect union with God. The story of Abraham is “sacred history” which suggests to us that it is not just relevant for historical purposes, but surely for spiritual purposes as well. The literal meaning of the text is still useful, however, the allegorical meaning can provide deeper spiritual insights.

For example, Abraham was called out of Ur by God to begin a new life in a new land. This migration is symbolic for the journey of oneself out of one’s mere earthly, mundane existence, “out of the realm of base and earthly thoughts…” (119). For what reason? Contemplation and ultimately union with God. But this journey can only begin when one elevates and amplifies their human nature by departing the “common limits of…human nature” and “[abandon] the association which the soul has with the senses.” Because God is not sensible, nor visible, contemplation is distracted by the senses which keeps us grounded on a lower level of knowledge of God. Leaving our Ur, opens up our “apprehension of the invisible;” Abraham journeyed “by faith and not by sight.” (119)

Abraham was so raised in grandeur of his knowledge that he understood the limitation of human perfection; he knew Go insofar as it was possible for his weak and mortal faculties to attain Him when strained to their capacity. (119)

Contemplation of the incomprehensible God is no easy task, as Abraham’s journey must have been no walk in the park. The human intellect must be pushed beyond its capacity to a new level that was we may have not thought possible. But, as we see in the journey of Abraham, contemplation is not just thinking about God, or “doing” theology. The ascent towards God is reliant on action: on walking. Abraham did not simply think about going for a trip, he packed up his whole life.

More interestingly is Gregory’s attention to Abraham’s unknowing: “he went out, not knowing whither he went” (Heb 11.8; 120) Not only was Abraham not told God’s name, but Abraham also had no clue where he was headed. Gregory’s interpretation of this points to a learned ignorance. “He was not guided in his knowledge of God by anything merely on the surface; nor was his mind ever overwhelmed by what he had already learned so as to stop in its progress towards that which transcends all knowledge.” (120) This ignorance was not a lazy decision to be non-decisive, nor an ignorance that is exemplified by a willingness to ignore the pursuit of knowledge. This ignorance is only made possible by learning. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.

Returning to the senses, Gregory believes that the “philosophy of Chaldaea,” Abraham’s home country, was based on the senses alone–on appearances. The journey out of Ur was an act of transcending those senses, going “far beyond that which can be perceived by the senses.” (120) Rather than settling for mere physical beauty, Abraham was on a journey where he would one day “gaze upon the archetypal Beauty.” (120) Like Abraham, one’s journey towards heaven requires learning about the Divine, but it is learning that one goes from lower levels of knowledge (based on senses alone) to higher levels of knowledge (based on contemplation of the Divine attributes like invisibility, incomprehensibility, etc.). Of course, somewhere along this way, reason breaks down, the mind is cleansed of concepts and language about God. One has no use for those at higher levels of knowing God.

[Abraham] took hold of a faith that was unmixed and pure of any concept, and he fashioned for himself this token of knowledge of God that is completely clear and free of error, namely the belief that God completely transcends any knowable symbol. (120-121)

Faith picks up where reason stops. Pure contemplation of the Divine as transcendent and unknowable replaces theological speculation and talk about God. Language breaks down. Our mind breaks down. Symbols, metaphors, names, narratives break down in the face (or should I say, no-face) of God. It is in the suspension of all these things that our humanity is shown to be what it really is: incapable of grasping, controlling, thinking or speaking about, God.

Hence foolish is the man who claims that it is possible to know the divine nature by a knowledge that is vain and futile. (121)