Review – Passion and Paradise by J. Warren Smith

J. Warren Smith
Passion and Paradise: Human and Divine Emotion in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa
New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2004

 Gregory of Nyssa, long recognized as one of the most intellectually original of the church fathers, is perhaps most remarkable for his distinct theological anthropology (study of humankind). This work, based on Smith’s 1999 Yale dissertation, explores how the passions function in Gregory’s teachings on God, human creation, and salvation.

The majority of the early church asserted that God, being an utterly transcendent and simple spirit, is without passions. That is, he is not subject to the sorts of reactive states  (anger, desire) that creatures in the realm of change and becoming undergo. Despite the subtitle, very little space is given to establishing and extrapolating divine impassibility in the text. It functions mainly as an underpinning assumption.

As created in the image of God, humanity shares a certain likeness but not identity to its divine exemplar. Two considerations color Gregory’s vision of the image. The first is that unlike Aristotle’s way of defining things, which emphasizes both difference (species) and commonality (genus), Gregory explains the image of God in man wholly in terms of man’s uniqueness from the rest of creation. This leads him to emphasize man’s higher rational functions and downplay (but not entirely discount) his embodied nature. Already the passions occupy an ambiguous role. Second, Gregory constructs his vision of the original humanity by looking ahead to the final humanity after the return of Christ and the consummation of history. He reads in Paul that there is neither male nor female in Christ and concludes that essential humanity is in fact genderless, but that gender was added in view of the coming fall to provide a means of procreation. Also, since the Christian’s goal is divinization, and God is without passions, the status of passions in human existence appears yet more tenuous.

Passions, however, are not so easily uncoupled from humanity. Scripture portrays certain passions, such as desire and anger, as potentially virtuous. Also, the passions are a part of navigating bodily existence, and Gregory accepts as certain a future bodily resurrection. The goal, then, must be to sublimate the soul’s impulses under the intellect’s control and eliminate errant belief claims that would rouse the passions improperly.

The passions may help solve another problem. Origen had developed a theory of the fall, in which the pre-existent souls who contemplated the divine essence became satiated with God and grew cold, turning away from him and falling into bodily existence. Gregory rejects this account of the fall but nevertheless tackles the question of how the soul could not become satiated with God once vision of him has been attained. Gregory’s answer involves both the nature of man and the nature of God. God is infinite, but not only that, he is infinitely novel, fresh, exciting. How can man avoid being overwhelmed by this infinitude? Man’s soul has an infinite capacity for growth. The very beauty of God revealed to it moves it by an erotic impulse to move ever deeper into the mystery of God’s energies.

The way toward God is through perpetual cycles of moral purification, kataphatic illumination, and mystagogy. Gregory employs the allegory of Moses’ ascent of Sinai to explicate the soul’s ascent. The allegory, which I will not reproduce here, is fascinating, absolutely worth reading either in Smith’s account or the original. The point is that only after an ascetic life through which the passions have been completely mastered is one able to enter into the highest contemplation of God. We can participate, in a limited way, in the incredible transformation that the end of history and the restoration of all things will usher in. Gregory’s doctrine of epektasis, the “stretching forth” of the soul after God, portrays the soul as a ship sailing toward an eternal horizon, exploring innumerable islands, each more magnificent than the last. In this state, our yearning for God will no longer be, like hunger and thirst, desire springing from lack; it will be a contented and receptive fullness based on past enjoyment and continued anticipation. The passions, it seems, are never completely eliminated, but are transfigured into something that appropriately reflects the divine apatheia.

The preceding has merely been some highlights gleaned from Passion and Paradise, rather than a full summary of the argument. One of the outstanding strengths of the book is its accessibility. It is quite surprising that it is so readable. Gregory of Nyssa is not a simple figure. The issues of the image of God, the constitution of the soul, the purgation of the passions, and eschatological hope are thorny topics. The Greek philosophers and Christian theologians lying behind Gregory’s thought are themselves quite complex. Yet, without sacrificing precision or scope, Smith has managed to fashion an investigation that should engross both specialist and relative neophyte. A clear thread of argument runs through the book. Questions of source and relation to other figures illuminate rather than distract. Extensive endnotes keep the main text clean while allowing the interested reader significant additional insight. Smith’s controversial synthesis of Gregory’s divergent eschatological strains is enticing and logical, but not dogmatic.

This is one of the best historical studies—one of the best books—I’ve read in a while. It is a rare treat to find a book that delivers much more than is promised in the title and on the back cover. Of obvious interest to any student of the church fathers, I believe this work would also prove stimulating for contemporary theologians who wrestle to relate creation and redemption within a theological anthropology.

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Published in: on March 15, 2012 at 11:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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Gregory of Nyssa and a Genderless Humanity

Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of human nature and gender is a provocative departure from commonly accepted ideas in the late ancient world. To recognize the ingenuity of his approach, it is fitting to consider two common alternative paradigms.

One comes to us as the myth of Aristophanes, told through Plato’s Symposium. Originally there were three human races – male, female, and hermaphrodite. Each individual was spherical and actually a doubled self, both sides anatomically complete. In a bout of hubris, they assailed heaven. As punishment, Zeus sliced them in half, and the resulting half-beings now must seek each other out for completion. (The originally male and female beings explain homosexuality, and the original hermaphroditic beings explain heterosexuality.) Each of us is fundamentally incomplete, looking for another to supply our lack.

The other alternative, adopted by many Christians, viewed gender (as we know it now) as an integral part of our nature. However, the masculine was identified with nous or the rational faculties whereas the feminine was identified with sense perception and with sexuality (contra contemporary Americans, who tend to regard males as the more sexual gender). This identification creates a clear spiritual hierarchy, since early Christians associated the image of God with the higher rational faculties. A common theme found with variations in the Gospel of Thomas, Philo, Jerome, and others, is that a woman who devotes herself to God spiritually transcends her gender and becomes male. Under this paradigm, males and the masculine are unequivocally superior to females and the feminine. Augustine, an heir of this tradition, modifies it somewhat toward equality.

Gregory of Nyssa’s view of gender diverges widely from the two paradigms above. His theology of creation indicates that gender is not a dissociation from previous wholeness nor an essential aspect of human nature. Instead, Gregory’s creation theology is informed by his eschatology. Finding in Paul that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Gregory reasons that there will be no gender in the final state, and thus that gender was not part of the original created intention. He takes as a matter of course that the original blueprint for humanity corresponds to the final product.

Human nature, then, is essentially and primitively genderless. God intended for them to procreate spiritually after the manner of angels (whatever that means). However, God foresaw that they would fall into sin, and in his provenance created humans with gender so that they would be able to procreate after the manner of beasts. The logic seems to be that since the Fall was a result of the first parents falling prey to the sensual side of their natures, they became enslaved to sensuality and would not have the spiritual state required for spiritual procreation.

The foundational insight of Gregory’s theology of creation, then, is that gender is accidental to human nature. Several significant consequences follow from this premise. First, each individual is spiritual whole in himself or herself. Humans do not need to find completion in another person, but only in God. Vows of virginity do not make a woman spiritually male, as per Jerome, but prepare the person for the deified state.   Further, both genders are spiritually equal, since the image of God is itself genderless. One wonders what this theology would have accomplished in the church if it had been widely embraced and if it were not held in check by hierarchical cultures.

Gregory’s creation theology is a welcome departure from theories that make men and women spiritually dependent on each other for completion or that subordinate women to men. Yet, there are still concerns. Most contemporary people identify more strongly with their gender than seeing it merely as a way to procreate. Most see their gender as an integral part of their personality; even transgender behavior points to a more than biological need to identify with gender. Gregory’s theology does not seem to leave room for gender to play any important role in constructing human personality, including spirituality.

[Note: this post is a reflection on Gregory of Nyssa’s views on gender as presented in J. Warren Smith’s Passion and Paradise. The informal nature of a blog exempts me, I believe, from precise footnoting.]

Published in: on March 3, 2012 at 11:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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