“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)