Friday, June 13, 2014

Gregory Nazianzen on theological language

ὁ ἅγιος Γριγόριος ὁ θεολόγος
Lately I have been reading through Gregory Nazianzen's fifth theological oration on the Holy Spirit in Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. Edward R. Hardy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). I've especially enjoyed his brief comments here and there on the nature and inadequacy of theological language to describe the being of God. It's very similar, I would think, to my own stance on the issue.

Gregory emphasizes at various points that language doesn't stand up to the true nature of God; for this reason seeking to understand the Trinity by appeal to natural examples is an endeavor destined for failure:

But since God is one and the supreme nature is one, how can I present to you the likeness? Or will you seek it again in lower regions and in your own surroundings? It is very shameful, and not only shameful but very foolish, to take from things below a guess at things above, and from a fluctuating nature at the things that are unchanging, and, as Isaiah says to seek the living among the dead (10, p. 199).

Because God's nature is unique, because the supreme nature is one, therefore it is impossible to come up with adequate analogies and examples for it from the created order. In theologizing, in discussing God's very being, we are approaching a subject which is totally unlike anything in the realm of the familiar. This automatically puts us at a disadvantage in terms of describing the deity: how are we to describe that which we've never known in the way we know other things, which act as the material for our language to use?

It is important to note, at this juncture, that Gregory's stance about the inadequacy of theological language is motivated by a certain philosophical conception of deity. That is to say, a particular metaphysical vision is what motivates Gregory's skepticism about theological language. Because philosophy teaches us that God is a certain way, therefore we reject literal interpretation even of some of scripture's language:

According to scripture, God sleeps and is awake, is angry, walks, has the cherubim for his throne. And yet when did he become liable to passion, and have you ever heard that God has a body? This, then, is, though not really a fact, a figure of speech. For we have given names according to our own comprehension from our own attributes to those of God. His remaining silent apart from us, and as it were not caring for us, for reasons known to himself, is what we call his sleeping; for our own sleep is such a state of inactivity. And again, his sudden turning to do us good is the waking up; or waking is the dissolution of sleep, as visitation is of turning away. And when he punishes, we say he is angry; for so it is with us -- punishment is the result of anger (22, p. 207).

Here he posits a particular vision of the way theological language is devised: it is born from our experiences of God as a kind of agent. We familiarize God and describe him in anthropomorphic terms, ascribing sleep and rousing and anger (!) to him when in fact there is none. We talk in this way about God because we form analogies between what we understand God to be doing relative to us, on the one hand, and our own similar ways of being and acting, on the other. Theological language is metaphorical description of God's causal effects on the world and on us at various points.

We don't take this kind of language literally, however, because we know by philosophy that God does not actually have a body, is not actually subject to its limitations, does not actually respond emotionally to things that take place in the world (i.e., he is impassible), and so on. It is certainly philosophy that acts as a limit and guide on theological language for Gregory, because otherwise he would have no reason to decide ahead of time that this kind of language can't be literal.

Obviously this kind of approach to theological language leaves a lot of room for mystery. The vision of Christian worship that it inspires is a less literal one: we come into contact with this God, whom we cannot describe or comprehend, in this mysterious way through the means passed down to us by the tradition and ultimately by Jesus Christ himself.

Interestingly, too, for Gregory heresy and error creep up precisely when we try to make sense of the mystery. He speaks at one point of the subversion of faith and emptying of the mystery (23, p. 208). The parallelism here is significant. It is precisely an attempt to empty the mystery of the Holy Trinity, for instance, that leads us into various forms of heresy, whether Sabellianism or Arianism or whatever. The Orthodox route is to affirm the three in one and to revel in its mystery, to accept that we are speaking of a reality far beyond what we can comprehend.

This invites a particular understanding of the metaphysics of Christian life. It appears to me, and I think Gregory would agree, that the Christian is approaching a reality which is far beyond him, and yet it transforms him and saves him if he approaches it correctly. It is as if we are approaching some great tremendous darkness, or to use a better analogy, some extremely powerful light: it is far too bright for us to see, and we have to squint and barely get a glimpse of it with our eyes hardly opened, but if we don't turn away we find ourselves healed and strengthened and transformed by it. The Church, its tradition, and the scriptures give us language and a way of thinking about this light that has the authorization of the light itself, though we recognize that at the end of the day, the language is accommodated to us and may at times better describe ourselves than it.

This may not satisfy the philosopher, who wants to understand everything and to bring within the gaze of his mind the universe and all of space and time -- however that line from the Republic goes. But then again, the Christian is not necessarily a philosopher.