The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb–the majority of people scarcely reach its base. (78)
The ‘meat and potatoes’ of Gregory’s apophaticism
The LIfe of Moses is a really good read if you are interested in getting to know Gregory’s theology a bit better. Additionally, it is also a good read for understanding an aspect of early Christian biblical interpretation. However, I’ve read this text before for the purposes of just that. So I’m actually going to jump right to the part of the text where we get into the real core of Gregory’s apophatic theology. The section in this translation is entitled ‘The Mountain of Divine Knowledge.’
The entire life of Moses has something to say to us about the spiritual life which culminates in the knowledge of the ineffable God. Moses’ calling, the release of Israel, the Crossing of the Red Sea, and the entrance into the Desert all have important theological truths that convey to us a journey of progressive purification from sin and the development of virtue–both are prerequisites for coming to the knowledge of God.
The Israelites had been released from captivity and the Egyptians, a symbol of sin in the spiritual life, had been drowned, also an allegory for what happens at baptism: the purification and remission of sins. Now the Israelites had entered the desert and were fed with Manna, the Heavenly Bread (also indicative of the Eucharist) . This bread had sustained them, just like the Eucharist sustains the Christian in their own deserts in which they encounter more sin (the Amalekites to the Israelites). The Israelites had only been victorious because Moses, the Lawgiver, had stretched out his hands just as Christ, the fulfillment of the Law, did the same.
Now, after all this walking, the Israelites come to the foot of Mount Sinai just as the one walking the spiritual road comes to the mountain of Divine Knowledge, perhaps the greatest challenge yet. Everything leading up to the arrival at the mountain was all preparation for coming ‘face to face’ with God (though not actually ‘face to face’).
Gregory’s exposition of the life of Moses and the journey of the Israelites is rich with meaning for the spiritual life, but I’m going to focus on the objective of the spiritual life: knowledge of the Divine.
Knowledge of God is only found through purity of heart, soul, mind, and body. Purity is the only way to approach the Pure One. Moses must wash himself and his garments before approaching the Divine. Now, Moses pushes aside the “irrational animals” near the mountain, which Gregory sees as representative of the senses, and begins to the ascent to the supra-sensible summit of contemplation.
He must wash from his understanding every opinion derived from some preconception and withdraw himself from his customary intercourse with his own companion, that is, with his sense perceptions, which are, as it were, wedded to our nature as it companion. (78)
Here Gregory instructs the reader to suspend what we think we know. Our notions of God (of Being) must be given up. One must become agnostic, and perhaps even to the point of being atheistic. (“God rid me of God” to paraphrase Meister Eckhart)
One cannot come to true comprehension of the Divine unless there is a suspension of one’s preconceived notions of God which they have received from various sources. Perhaps I am radicalizing Gregory’s call for suspension of our ideas, but I think that embedded within his idea is a latent assertion for the purification of our God-conception–our ideas about God. This requires us to enter into a moment (or moments) of not-knowing and perhaps even to the point of questioning the very existence of God.
Now I think Gregory would disagree with me because he would likely say “Isn’t it irrational to question Being-itself?” That is to say, using the oft-used Christian metaphor, am I not sort of being the pot questioning the presence of the potter? Yeah, probably I am. But it is still an assumption that is necessarily challenged. For example, what if the pot is now made by a machine, casting clay or some other substance into a mould? What if there is no human potter? It’s a bit of a weak analogy, but I’m hoping my thoughts are a bit clearer.
But I still would argue for the complete suspension of all our presuppositions when we reach the base of the mountain of Divine Knowledge. This would even require us to suspend our belief that there even is a mountain of Divine Knowledge, or that some knowledge will be found when one summits the mountain. Total epistemological nakedness is required. The sandals must come off the feet of our whole human nature, our soul, our body, our mind.
Back to Gregory.
Gregory likens our sense perception to our “companion;” our sense perception is a part of who we are, our human nature. But our “companion” must be suspended as well for Being-itself is not sensible. It is invisible, inaudible, unspeakable, untouchable. Moreover, rational faculties can only carry us so far up the mountain of Divine Knowledge. I think this will be explained a little more by Gregory in the next chapter.
When he is so purified, then he assaults the mountain (78)