Not Knowing–yet Knowing–the Incomprehensible God (part 2)

St Gregory enters the holy cloud and meets the ineffable Deity. He does not find a God whose essence can be clearly defined. He finds rather the God beyond human comprehension, the absolute mystery who transcends our philosophical categories and surpasses our linguistic constructions. Gregory’s statements on the divine incomprehensibility are explicit and definite:
Vision of Isaiah

So we must begin again with this in mind. To know God is hard, to describe him impossible, as a pagan philosopher taught—subtly suggesting, I think, by the word “difficult” his own apprehension, yet avoiding our test of it by claiming it was impossible to describe. No—to tell of God is not possible, so my argument runs, but to know him is even less possible. For language may show the known if not adequately, at least faintly, to a person not totally deaf and dull of mind. But mentally to grasp a matter is utterly beyond real possibility even so far as the very elevated and devout are concerned, never mind slack and sinking souls. This truth applies to every creature born, to all beings whose view of reality is blocked by this gloom, this gross portion of flesh. Whether higher, incorporeal natures can grasp it, I do not know. They may, perhaps, through their proximity to God and their illumination by light in its fullness know God if not with total clarity, at least more completely, more distinctly than we do, their degree of clarity varying proportionately with their rank. (28.4)

No one has yet discovered or ever shall discover what God is in nature and essence. As for a discovery some time in the future, let those who have a mind to it research and speculate. The discovery will take place, so my reason tells me, when this God-like, divine thing, I mean our mind and reason, mingles with its kind, when the copy returns to the pattern it now longs after. This seems to me to be the meaning of the great dictum that we shall, in time to come, “know even as we are known.” But for the present what reaches us is a scant emanation, as it were a small beam from a great light—which means that anyone who “knew” God or whose “knowledge of him has been attested in the Bible, had a manifestly more brilliant knowledge than others not equally illuminated. This superiority was reckoned knowledge in the full sense, not because it really was so, but by the contrast of relative strengths. (28.17)

St Gregory appears to leave open the possibility that the blessed in heaven will come to possess a definitive knowledge of the divine essence—but my sense is that this is not what he truly expects. If even the angelic beings, who are closer to God as spiritual beings, do not apprehend the Deity with “total clarity,” how can embodied creatures hope to acquire perfect knowledge? But the promise of the eschatological vision of God remains: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor 13:12).

The living God is the transcendent creator who has freely brought all of creation from out of nothing. He is the “creative and sustaining cause” of the cosmos, not an object within it (28.6). Human reason may be able to determine that God exists, based on the order and harmony of creation; but it can never on its own, whether by investigation of the world or by interior self-reflection, directly apprehend the one whose “incomprehensible and boundless nature” surpasses all creaturely existence (28.5). God is radically different from the finite beings he has made. “For the divine is without limits,” Gregory explains, “and difficult to contemplate, and this alone is entirely graspable in it, namely that it is without limits” (38.7). “He is like a kind of boundless and limitless sea of being, surpassing all thought and time and nature” (38.7). For this reason, “God cannot be named” (30.17).

That the divine ousia is beyond human conceiving flows from its infinitude. Christopher Beeley elaborates:

To imagine that God can be comprehended reflects a serious misunderstanding of the relationship between the nature of God and created existence. For Gregory the incomprehensibility of God is the necessary result of the infinitude of God’s being and the finitude of creaturely existence, including human thought. In his discussion of divine incomprehensibility, he is making a very specific point about the greatness, or magnitude, of God compared to the theologian’s ability to know him. As the Creator and source of all, God surpasses all things in magnitude and greatness. He is the “supreme nature,” the one who is so great that all other things are small and weak by comparison, unable to approach him. Yet God is not merely greater than all things by degree, he is infinitely great, entirely transcending creation. Gregory makes the point in his early First Oration on Peace: “God is the most beautiful and exalted of the things that exist–unless one prefers to think of him as transcending being, or to place the sum total of existence in him, from whom it also flows to others” (6.12). On the one hand, God is known to be supremely great, beautiful, and lofty, yet on the other hand his greatness exceeds even the category of greatness. Hence God is beyond time and space, the universe as a whole, and even all purity and goodness. (Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, pp. 94-95)

Though the Theologian does not expound on the infinity of the divine essence, as does his fellow Cappadocian, St Gregory Nyssen, it informs his intellectual reflection on deity and shapes his mystical experience. Greek philosophy judged that God could not be infinite, as it would be an imperfection. How can infinite being be known? How can it be defined or conceptualized? Thus Robert W. Jenson:

Infinite being is an odd sort of being. It cannot be anything other than its infinity, cannot be an infinite something, for there can be no infinite some-thing: A substance without clear boundaries could be only a wavery, insubstantial substance, and a substance with no boundaries must instantly dissipate. Just this observation was the starting point of Hellenic philosophy’s analysis of the notion of infinity. An infinite something would always generate new characteristics beyond those that make its given self at any moment. Thus Aristotle: “That is infinite … which has always something beyond itself.” Therefore an infinite something would have no “nature” at all, for a “nature” is precisely what defines, that is, limits, the possibilities of an entity. Just so, an entity’s nature subjects it to knowledge. The syllogistic proof “All humans are mortal. Socrates is a human. Therefore Socrates is mortal” transforms the true guess that Socrates is mortal into actual knowledge, but it can do so only because humanity names a fixed and finite set of characteristics. Did it not, the minor premise would instantly transform itself into a whole new syllogism, with its own minor premise, which would do the same and so on; and the security of knowledge, as over against guessing, would never be achieved. On both these counts, God–in the judgment of Hellenic philosophy–cannot be infinite; this is the one negative predicate that cannot fit deity, for it is deity’s function to be the final object of knowledge, the middle term of the proof of the world’s existence. And the very difference of God and world, of timelessness and time, presumes that God is not the world and is not temporal, that is, that there are limits to what deity is and can be.

The Christian attribution of infinity to God is thus in itself a radical reversal of metaphysical values. And more in the direct line of our present argument, if God’s being is infinite, then divine being is nothing other than infinity as such. What the three divine hypostases variously derive from each other, so as to be distinguishably three and so that their joint act can be called “God,” is sheer unboundedness. (The Triune Identity, pp. 163-164)

I do not know how either of the two Gregorys would respond to Jenson’s analysis of infinite being; but it does provide a way for us to understand the Christian claim of divine incomprehensibility: if divinity is infinity, if the divine nature is boundless, immeasurable, and uncircumscribable, then it cannot be expressed, defined, conceived, or grasped by finite beings. As Nazianzen notes, comprehension is a form of delimitation; but God is beyond delimitation (28.10).

In Oration 28 St Gregory analyzes the infinity of God principally under the category of human corporeality, the conspicuous sign of our finitude. Whatever may be the case in the eschaton, human embodiment in this world, “this corporeal gloom,” poses a barrier to the apprehension and subsequent articulation of the prime nature. We necessarily and inescapably experience reality through our bodies. Even the highest levels of intellectual abstraction are influenced and limited by our physicality. “Some corporeal factor of ours,” states Gregory, “will always intrude itself, even if the mind be most fully detached from the visible world and at its most recollected when it attempts to engage with its invisible kin” (28.12). God is pure spirit. How can he be perfectly apprehended by a materially based consciousness? (see John McGuckin, “Perceiving Light from Light in Light,” Greek Orthodox Review 39 [1994], p. 13). “Consider the various titles that we use to speak of the divine nature—”spirit,” “fire,” “light, “love,” “wisdom, “righteousness,” “mind,” “reason.” “Can you think of wind without movement and dispersal?” Gregory asks. “Of fire without matter, with no rising motion, no color and shape of its own? Or light unmixed with atmosphere, detached from what shines to give it birth?” (28.13). Because of these inescapable limitations, our reflection on the nature of God will always be open to correction and further elaboration. We may construct for ourselves multiple images of God and attempt to juggle them around to make a single picture; but “how can the simple, unpicturable reality be all these images and each in its entirety?” (28.13). The infinite being of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is always greater than our words can say.

Gregory does not propose a specific theory of the analogical or metaphorical nature of our language for God. He is content to simply note its stubborn inadequacy. “No man has yet breathed all the air,” the Theologian declares; “no mind yet contained or language embraced God’s substance in its fullness” (30.17).

(Go to part 3)

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