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)





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