Longing for Heaven (Gregory of Nyssa)

Gregory of Nyssa sees the human condition as one of separation, alienation, and return in relationship with the Good. This ‘Good’ that Gregory speaks of is “far beyond the limits of knowledge” and as such we are inevitably stuck in a state of depression and despair at our alienation from this Ultimate Reality and our inability to “encompass it with our own minds.”

In the beginning, humanity was perfectly united with the Good. Humans shared in the Divine Life and were incorruptible, experienced perfect happiness, complete freedom, felt no pain or sadness, and could ‘see’ the Good “with a mind unclouded and pure of any interference.” (88) Gregory derives all of this from the Genesis narratives paying special attention to the idea that humanity was created in the image of God.

Seeing as humans once lived in a state of eternal bliss, called Paradise, Gregory wonders how anyone could not despair at our horrific loss of this union. In our disunity with the Good, we lost our freedom, our immortality, our joy, our freedom from toil and disease and in turn we became governed by our desires, enslaved to evil. Our human desires become a slave driver, pushing us further and further along a way of death and despair, further and further from our heavenly origins.

…anger, fear, cowardice, arrogance, pleasure, grief, hatred, spite, heartless cruelty, jealousy, flattery, bearing grudges and resentment, and all the other hostile drives within us–there is your array of the masters and tyrants that try to enslave the soul, their prisoner of war…(89)

Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes called the mournful blessed. To be blessed in light of mourning is to “fix [one’s] eye on its true good and not be immersed in the illusion of the present life.” (90)

Advertisements

Toward a Phenomenology of the Persona

Chapter 1 of The God Who May Be addresses the concept of persona primarily in light of the act of transfiguration.

Figure of the Other – Persona

Kearney begins by defining persona as “that eschatological aura of ‘possibility’ which eludes but informs a person’s actual presence here and now.” (10) Okay, time to break this definition down. First, what might be helpful is to consider what Kearney says after this: “I use it here as another word for the otherness of the other…” (10). Kearney appears to be using eschatological as another word term for transcendence. Next, Kearney describes persona as “all that in others exceeds my searching gaze, safeguarding their inimitable and unique singularity.” (8) Persona transcends our consciousness and refuses to be limited by our consciousness “here and now” and also by our imagination. Language cannot speak of the persona literally, so figurative speech must be employed, using imagination (metaphor) and interpretation (narrative).

Levinas also uses the term persona and calls it la trace d’autrui (literally, the trace of others); Derrida uses alterity or otherness.

Kearney writes that when we meet the Other, e.g. a Stranger, we “configure” them in our minds; we “shape or put together” the Other into something or some idea. In other words, when we meet someone we are seeing them, paradoxically, as transcendent and immanent; “both incarnate in flesh and transcendent in time” (10). This is the idea of persona. The human person is flesh, body, while at the same time being soul, having an identity.

What happens when we meet someone is that we are faced with the reality of them being before us, but at the same time being elsewhere (in the sense that they are not literally, 100% right in front of us. There is a part of the person that is still not present in some fashion). Humans are not just bodies. Persona it would seem flies in the face of any sort of naturalism that sees the human body as full contained in and of itself. Human beings are animated by something more, something transcendent.

When we meet the Other, we may be tempted, Kearney suggests, to reduce them to being understandable. We assume that we can fully comprehend this person that stands before us: “What you see is what you get” and nothing more and nothing less (10).

For if it is true to say that we do somehow ‘see’ the persona in the face of the person, we never get it. It always exceeds the limits of our capturing gaze. It transcends us. (11)

The flip side of all of this is to make the Other so vastly different from us that we “mistake the other’s persona for an idol” (11). I suppose here Kearney is cautioning us against divinizing the human being as a god of some sort. Then the Other becomes no longer present, but just a shadow of some other reality. Kearney uses the example of the pop culture cult in which “Madonna replaces the Madonna [the Virgin Mary].”

In short, we disregard others not just by ignoring their transcendence but equally by ignoring their flesh-and-blood thereness. (11)

The middle ground between the two extremes of encounter the Other allows us to acknowledge that this person stands before me as a physical being who has veins, a heart, a brain, eyes, hands, feet, ears, etc. but that the whole reality of this person cannot be captured in just acknowledging these natural faculties. There is something more.  

Persona as Eschaton

For Kearney, eschaton does not mean a determinable end, a clear goal to be achieved at some predetermined time, or the ‘End Times.’ Eschaton, instead, is “an end without end.” So the an eschatological persona is one that acknowledges the “irreducible finality of the other as eschaton.” That is, the Other is an end in and of themself, but they are not the end. Paradox. The Other cannot be made less than an end. Perhaps then, an Other cannot be a means to an end, for they are endless ends in themselves.

What happens when we encounter the eschatological persona is that we are made powerless in their presence because we cannot grasp them fully, we cannot hold them in the palm of our hand, we cannot figure them all out, we cannot comprehend them. Nous ne pouvons plus pouvoir: “we can no longer be able”  (Levinas). But we are not left without the possibility of being able to do something. It is precisely the Other who “re-enables” us who says “Even though you are powerless, I believe you can do this.” (12) The Other has so many possibilities in its future, but we cannot know these or have power over these. The Other’s possibility, their “may-be” cannot be made into “my set of possibilities or powers: my ‘can-be.'” (12) We cannot make the Other’s possibilities our actualities.

Otherness is not our possession. If we posses and hang onto an Other’s persona, that is, their essence, then they are just illusions that we have created because we cannot grasp their reality, their essence, their what-ness.

The Persona and Place

Persona takes the place of no-place; but it does not itself take place. Yet it does give place to the person and without it the person could not take its place. It is the non-presence that allows presence to happen in the here and now as a human person appearing to me in flesh and blood. (13)

Persona is uncontainable yet it still makes possible the bodily presence of a person. Persona is abstract but at the same time concretely realized in the skin and bones of human beings. The Other in the here and now, concrete, fleshly, physical, before our eyes, is inseparable from the transcendent reality of persona and vice versa.

The persona is there to remind us that there is always something more to flesh and blood than flesh and blood. (13)

Kearney exemplifies all of these points in the context of a romantic human relationship:

Time and again, lovers seek to appropriate each other’s persona as if it could be magically conjured in its present-at-hand thereness…; they fall for the lure of fusion, that is, for the illusion that some ecstasy or addiction might make us one with the other. But it cannot. The other will never be me, nor even like me. Whence the shock, for example, of a spouse reading his partner’s private diary and discovering he never really knew the person (i.e., persona) he lived with for so many years. Whence also the post-coital tristesse [sadness] that derives from the awareness that no amount of intimacy can ever grasp the other. We do grasp something of course–the other person, in their delectable giveness–but not the other’s persona. (13-14)

One’s persona is their own unique, singular, reality that differentiates themselves from every other human being in the world. While we may all share common characteristics, on biological, psychological, and other levels, our persona is unrepeatable. The human body is the place in which the persona is made flesh. Incarnated.

 

 

Introduction to Apophatic Theology – Vladimir Lossky – Pt 2

The Way of Not Knowing and Purification

The apophatic way, according to Dionysius and Lossky is the, begins with an acknowledgement of God’s incomprehensibility. It is “the one definition proper to God–if we make speak here of definitions.” (31) It is God’s incomprehensibility that is the ground on which every other apophatic contemplation rests. It is at once the beginning and the ending of the apophatic way. From there one must begin to purify their intellect and words of conceptions of God which in order to reach a more perfect knowledge of God’s unknowableness. This perfect knowledge, or rather, this perfect ignorance, is only possible by grace. To even take the first step, a step of awareness of God’s utter incomprehensibility, is a step requiring the intervention of the divine gift. “This awareness of the incomprehensibility of the divine nature thus corresponds to an experience: to a meeting with the personal God of revelation.” (34) Coming to the un-knowledge of God, the ignorance of God’s true nature, is again, not the privilege and prerogative of the highly trained theologian with bundles of letters after their name. Beginning the ascent to union with the God of love is an act solely brought on by the initiative of God itself. Without grace, knowledge, no-knowledge, is not even possible. Grace is not reserved for the few, but poured out for the many. And in this gift of grace, one encounters God.

This ascent to the un-knowledge of God is again, the ascent to union.

Our spiritual ascent does but reveal to us, ever more and more clearly, the absolute incomprehensibility of the divine nature. Filled with an ever-increasing desire the soul grows without ceasing, goes forth from itself, reaches out beyond itself, and, in so doing, is filled with yet greater longing. Thus the ascent becomes infinite and the desire insatiable. This is the love of the bride in the Song of Songs: she stretches out her hands towards the lock, she seeks Him who cannot be grasped, she calls Him to whom she cannot attain…she attains to Him in the perception that the union is endless, the ascent without limit. (35)

The apophatic way is above all, Lossky says, an attitude which rejects the temptation to create ideas, language, and concepts about God. The pursuit of theology, for intellectual enjoyment or mere knowledge is the opposite of this attitude. Moreover, the apophatic way is not a theology that remains in the head, but it is deeply rooted in the heart, in the encounter with God, an encounter which calls for metanoia, a changing of the whole human person into a new human being. Thus, theology is also experiential, not in a shallow pursuit of ‘spiritual experiences’ or ‘getting high on God’ (the apophatic way does not exclude the possibility of experiencing the deep absence of the spiritual desert, the dark night of the soul). These experiences are not always joyful consolations, the feel-good moments.   After all, the whole purpose of the apophatic way is purification, and purification often comes only in the intensity of fire.

Thus the apophatic way appears to walk a careful charted course between the intellectual pursuit of theology for its own sake and the shallow unreflective experientialism of an unreflective faith. Intellectual speculation, using concepts and language to try to talk about God, is abstract and sails much too close to the shoals of idolatry. Experientialism is equally problematic in that it rarely identifies itself with an acknowledgement of the utter transcendence of God, settling instead for an immanence that is all too often co-opted for the sake of personal benefit.

Apophaticism is above all contemplative: “raising the mind to those realities which pass all understanding.” (43).

Now Lossky would like disagree with my description of apophaticism as a type of theology or method or even a way of thinking about God. Apophatic theology is not meant to turn Christianity into a philosophy about the Abstract. Lossky returns to the heart of the Church’s proclamation: “communion with the living God” is made possible by the apophatic.

That is why, despite all their philosophical learning and natural bent towards speculation, the Fathers of the eastern tradition in remaining faithful to the apophatic principle of theology, never allowed their thought to cross the threshold of mystery, or to substitute idols of God for God Himself. (42)

Union with God is impossible if one is speaking and thinking of God with concepts and words that are not appropriate for God or ideas that reflect more of us than of God: the danger is to create God in our own image. Apophaticism is the guard against idolatry, the preserver of Divine Other-ness, the road of communion with the Unknowable.

Essence and Energies: Incarnation and Incomprehsibility

If God’s essence is unknowable, what then can we say about God? Anything? Nothing? How is it that the apophatic theologians of the early Christian communities were able to still say things about God rather than simply sitting in an eternal muck of indifference? Moreover, how can one remain apophatic and at the same time affirm the essential mystery of the Christian faith: the Incarnation?

Lossky, strangely enough, doesn’t go into much detail on this issue in this chapter. But he does mention that Dionysius contends that in Jesus’ humanity, God manifested itself while maintaining its hiddenness and incomprehensibility.

Suffice it to say, that so far, I understand that there is a distinction made between essence and energies. God’s essence is God’s nature, which is unknowable. God’s energies are God’s actions in the world. Energies are what come after God has passed by. Thus we can speak, to a limited degree I think, about God’s energies, however those energies do not reveal God’s essence, God’s inner nature. Thus, Jesus would be seen as an Incarnation of God’s energy, but, an energy which participates in the essence of God.

More on this at a later date.

Introduction to Apophatic Theology – Vladimir Lossky – Pt 1

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

How can we speak of God, in its essence (its what-ness) and energies (its actions)? Is it even possible? Can we say anything meaningful about God? Or, are our human languages so inadequate at speaking about transcendence that we must remain silent in the face of the abyss between God and humanity? If this be the case, what then is the point in doing theology or of even participating in a religious way of life?

Vladimir Lossky, author of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church wrote a short chapter on these very questions that can provide us with an introduction to the basic contours of two ways of speaking about God: the kataphatic (literally, “towards speech”) and apophatic (literally, “away from speech”). It will be manifest to readers that Lossky doesn’t think that these two ways of speaking about God are the territory of the academic theologian, a territory that anyone without a theology degree cannot enter. While there is a no doubt a learning curve and one will have to be initiated into these sorts of theological ways, the purpose of these ways is not so that academics can talk abstractly about God in the safety of their offices. No. These ways of speaking about God have very relevant, personal, and daily ramifications on the way we speak about God. After all, if one is religious (in a theistic tradition), speaking about God is nearly unavoidable: from the pious statements of encouragement to other believers to even how one ‘speaks’ of God in their mind (how one thinks about God).

Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite

The body of works attributed to an unknown author, referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius, contains an essential study of how we might speak and think about God. As mentioned, there are two ‘ways’ that are said to be possible: the kataphatic and the apophatic. The kataphatic way “proceeds by affirmations” (25). That is, we can say positive things about God, like ‘God is our Father.’ The second way, the apophatic, “proceeds…by negations” (25). That is, we can only say negative things about God, like ‘God is incomprehensible’ (God is not understandable). Lossky, an Eastern Orthodox theologian is not shy in saying which way he believes is the best way: “The first [way] leads us to some knowledge of God, but is an imperfect way. The perfect way, the only way which is fitting in regard to God, who is of His very nature unknowable, is the second–which leads us to total ignorance” (25).

God Beyond Being and Divine Ignorance

WHen we seek to know something, we are seeking to know something that exists. Lossky is referring here to being: “I am” is a present tense affirmation of one’s existence. A future tense affirmation would look like “I will be at the bank.” Lossky states emphatically “Now God is beyond all that exists” (25). Thus, God is beyond being. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. It simply means that God does not exist in the same way we think of existence. God is not a Supreme Being that lives above us in some sort of heavenly attic looking down upon the earth. Things that exist are intelligible and sensible: “If in seeing God one can know what one sees, the one has not seen God in Himself but something intelligible, something which is inferior to [God]” (25). God is superior to all that exists. Mere human beings are inferior to God and as such, if a human being speaks about God with language that one might use to describe another human being, e.g. God is Father, then they are speaking about God with language that is inferior and inadequate and thus problematic. How then can we speak about God?

It is by unknowing (agnosia) that one may know Him who is above every possible object of knowledge. Proceeding by negations one ascends from the inferior degrees of being to the highest, by progressively setting aside all that can be known, in order to draw near to the Unknown in the darkness of absolute ignorance. (25)

Knowledge of God requires acknowledging no-knowledge of God. Agnostic is often used, pejoratively, to refer to those who are taking a position of indifference to matters like God. But the theological agnostic is not indifferent, but rather active, move away towards a great contemplation of God through a posture of unknowing. (Lossky would probably not like the use of the word agnostic here, but oh well.) Ignorance, “is the only way by which one can attain to God in Himself.” (25). Ignorance is necessary to be united with God in perfect love, “for it is no more a question fo knowledge but of union.” (28) This journey from knowing to unknowing is a process of purification of the mind, riding oneself of concepts and language about God which pretends to grasp the very essence of God:

“One must abandon all that is impure and even all that is pure. One must then scale the most sublime heights of sanctity leaving behind one all the divine luminaries, all the heavenly sounds and words. It is only thus that one may penetrate to the darkness wherein He who is beyond all created things makes his dwelling.” (27)

Thinking about the God who may be.

Kearney’s work The God Who May Be proposes a uniquely interdisciplinary approach to speaking about God. How might one describe his philosophical vision?

Kearney explains a few different pseudonyms for his philosophy of religion:

Metaxology

One of the terms Kearney suggests as a descripive term for his philosophical undertaking is metaxology. He defines metaxology as a “determination to choose a middle way (Greek, metaxy) between the extremes of absolutism and relativism.” (6)

Mi-lieu

Mi-lieu can be translated from the French as literally meaning middle place. For Kearney, his position is precisely in this middle place between the two absolutist positions in speaking of God. He philosophical work is an attempt to work out an alternative to “(a) the hyper-ascendant deity of mystical or negative theology; and (b) the consigning of the sacred to the domain of abyssal abjection.” (7) These two positions both result in being unable to think, speak, or imagine God.

Characteristics of “the hyper-ascendant deity of mystical or negative theology.”
  • God is extremely above everything.
  • God is beyond being.
  • No interpretation of God is possible, whether it is by symbols, imagination, narrative, metaphor, or allegory.
  • God is unnameable, incomprehensible, unrepresentable.
  • If human language is used to talk about God, it will fall short, and will in the end be idolatorous.
  • Rejects “any mediating role for narrative imagination.” (7)
Characteristisc of the deity of “abyssal abjection.”
  • God is beneath the use of language and symbolism.
  • God is unnameable, incomprehensible, unrepresentable.
  • Rejects “any mediating role for narrative imagination.” (7)

Both positions reject mediation between God (in name and essence) and the human person (mind, experience, etc.). The alternative that Kearney is seeking is the ability to speak about God again, to “engage just such a mediating function.”

Metaphorology

Metaphorology is defined by Kearney as the use of religious language “to say something (however hestitant and provisional) about the unsayable.” In is interesting to note that Kearney still sails near the shoals of the apophatic contention of the inadequacy of language to speak about God. However, what differentiates Kearney’s metaphorology from apophaticism is that he is suggesting we can say something rather than nothing.

Metaphorology suggests the possibility of reading texts in new ways that create a “surplus of meaning.” As an example, Kearney explains how Paul Ricoeur suggested that reading the Song of Songs in conversation (interanimation) with other religious texts can help us to, even slightly, have some understanding of the desirous God. In other words, retrieving the literal translation of the word meta-phor, Kearney suggests that the art of reading religious texts in such a way becomes a process of transferring, transitting, or carrying across meaning across different texts so as to gain a more robust vision of God.

Metaphor, in Platonic thought, suggests a “vertical transfer from the sensible to the intelligble and from the human to the divine.” That is, metaphoric meanings are gained through an ascent to the pure thoughts about the Divine, the abstract, the spiritual. Kearney, on the other hand, seeks to create meaning on a two-way street: reading the Song of Songs in conversation with the broader Old Testament suggests a metaphor of God’s love for his people Israel. Traversing the boundary of the Old Testament (and the Old Covenant) into the New Testament (and New Covenant), one comes to recognize Christ and the Church in the Song of Songs. Or, if one converses with their own (or others’) day-to-day experience, they will see the meaning of intense nuptial love that is so powerful, the author of the Song of Songs must explain the erotic in terms of landscapes.

Quoting Ricoeur, it is “the mark of the ‘power of love to be able to move in both senses along the ascending and descending spiral of metaphor, allowing in this way for every level of the emotional investment of love to signify, to intersignify every other level.” (Ricouer, Nuptial Metaphor)

To simplify, Kearney appears to be contending, with Ricoeur’s help, that it is not that texts are always metaphors for the Divine and that it is the Divine that gives meaning to those texts. Rather, those texts can be given meaning by their human interpreters, by other texts, by human experience, and by the Divine. The Divine can also be given deeper meaning from all of these dimensions as well. There is a great deal of interplay, of the transfer of meanings from one level to another, occuring in the hermeneutical activity then. This doesn’t result in a heirarchy of meanings, but a mutual ‘fleshing’ out of the meaning–cooperation, participation in each dimension’s possible meaning.

Metaphorology, then, when speaking about God, must balance itself between the kataphatic and apophatic ways. The danger for the apophatic way is that it transcends God so far beyond all being that “there is no way back to the flesh of the face;” God is but a floating no-thing out there, in there, somewhere, no-where. Kearney, as will be discussed later, is deeply sacramental and reliant on the idea of incarnation of the Divine in the everyday ‘epiphanies’ of each moment, each relationship, each interaction.

However, the kataphatic way, which says that we can say something about God all too often reduces talk about God to “foundationalist propositions.” Mystery is jettisoned. God becomes held in our hand. It often appears in theology as God becoming some sort of supreme Being. The reef of idolatry quitely lurks beneath the kataphatic, and if one is not careful, they could find themselves in a wreck sinking to the bottom of making God in one’s own image.

Onto-eschatology

“God neither is nor is not but may be,” writes Kearney. This is the basic thesis of his mi-lieu, his middle way. God is not Being. God is not Non-Being. God is “the possibility-to-be.” (8) This possibility-to-be Kearney calls onto-eschatology meaning that the eschaton (the fullness of time, the coming together of all things, the ultimate destiny of the human race, the world to come) meets the “finite order of being” (what you see before you, what you experience inside of you as a human being, what you experience between yourself and other beings).

It is here that we encounter the nuptial nexus where divine and human desires overlap. (8)

Within this intersection between the infinite and the finite, “narratives flourish and abound. It is a place where stories, songs, parables, and prophecies resound as human imaginations try to sy the unsayble and think the unthinkable.” (8)

Onto-eschatology, then, is the experience of recognizing the incomprehensibility of God, but that it is remains possible to say tenative and preliminary things about the Divine through the narrative imagination. Onto-eschatology is not simply dry, theological and philosophical drivel, but the creative application of human art, literature, poetry, conversation, discussion, argument, drama to attempt, ever so slightly, to speak the unspeakable.