What does St Gregory of Nyssa mean when he so emphatically claims that human beings are incapable of comprehending the divine nature? As we have seen, it does not mean that we must remain silent before the unspeakable Deity. Christians do in fact say many positive things about God via his essential properties. These properties, or goods, are coextensive, concurrent, coincident with the divine essence. Through them we do know the divine nature—yet we cannot comprehend or define it. Why? In his book Retrieving Nicaea, Khaled Anatolios offers an interpretation of divine incomprehensibility which I find compelling.
First off, Anatolios notes that it is not just God whose nature humanity cannot comprehend. It’s all of creation! “We learn by the senses just enough about the elements of the world to be able to make use of each for our life,” writes Gregory, “but as to a definition of their being, we have not understood it, nor do we regard our ignorance as a disadvantage” (C. Eun. II. 117). I first ran into this view when I read St Gregory the Theologian’s hymn of creation in Oration 28. I remember at the time wondering why Gregory would say that we cannot comprehend creatures. Aren’t we able to sensibly apprehend things and verbally state their definitional qualities? I thought he was confusing cognitive incapacity with provisional ignorance of how the world works, an ignorance always receding as scientific knowledge advances. But now I find Gregory Nyssen saying something similar. Anatolios explains:
Gregory seems to have in mind a strict notion of what the act of ‘knowing the essence’ contains. This becomes clear from the fact that Gregory demonstrates the unknowability of the divine essence by reference to the unknowability of “the essential nature” of creaturely realities—which in turn is demonstrated by a rhapsodic description of these very realities! It is indeed startling that Gregory would seek to elucidate the incomprehensibility of the divine essence by comparison with mundane realities that are accessible to our sense experience and susceptible to lavish and detailed description. We should infer that for Gregory incomprehensibility of essence and inaccessibility are by no means equivalent categories. Creaturely realities are certainly accessible to us, and yet we can give no radical account of the fact and power of their being and of the act of self-bestowal whereby they become accessible to us. (p. 162)
Only the eternal Creator truly comprehends the essences he has made, for only he knows things from the inside-out, if you will: only he has a God’s-eye view of their inner causality. Natures manifest themselves to us in their activities and workings. These activities are indeed apprehensible; but to know the activity is not to comprehend the essence. It is not to penetrate to the mystery of its existence. Our experience of beings in their energetic self-presentation does not give us the kind of cognitive mastery that only the Creator enjoys:
Closely aligned with this notion is the understanding of essences and natures as intrinsically productive: a nature manifests itself in its active effects. Yet, for Gregory of Nyssa, encounter with the productive self-manifestation of a nature (physis/ousia) is not equivalent to knowing the nature as such. Knowing the nature, according to Gregory’s maximalist sense, would mean reaching behind its self-presentation, thereby rendering it a merely passive object of the mind’s act of comprehension. The knower would exhaustively grasp the nature’s inner intelligibility and the root power of its existence. As a rule, Gregory’s ontology precludes such an epistemology of “comprehension.” Being, both divine and creaturely, is a dynamic of active self-announcement that cannot be superseded by the knower’s grasp and announcement of it. Gregory definitively rules out that kind of knowing as a human possibility, with reference not only to God but to other creatures as well. Instead, knowing God—that is, endlessly journeying through the infinite plenitude of divine being—becomes a paradigm for knowing in general. We cannot know the essence even of creaturely realities; we cannot grasp the very origin of their causal power. The operative image here is the sun and its radiance; one cannot reach behind the productive self-manifestation of the sun in its radiance to the essence that is the radical causal source of that self-manifestation. By Gregory’s standards, then, we can register any number of true facts about a being and exhaustively analyze the connections between these facts and still be very far from “knowing the essence.” That is how Gregory is able to say that we do not even know our own essences. (p. 163; cf. Torstein Theodor Tollefsen, Activity and Participation)
Knowing the essence of something is clearly a more radical project than I ever expected. I perceive this computer sitting there before me. I know something about what it does. I know a little something about how it was made. I can make both apophatic and cataphatic statements about it. But what I will never apprehend, no matter how hard I should study it, no matter how much knowledge I should gain about it, is my computer’s inner intelligibility as a creature brought into being from out of absolute nothing. To know the essence of something is to know that something as only God can know it. No matter how deeply we plumb the mystery of existence, it remains unfathomable mystery.
Perhaps now we can better understand why comprehending the essence of the uncreated Creator is an impossible task. At least creaturely objects present themselves to our senses; but God cannot be so perceived. He is invisible to us, not just as neutrinos and angels are invisible, but invisible in his infinite and holy transcendence. Despite all our mighty efforts, we will never apprehend God as an object to be captured by our senses and intellect. Anatolios incisively suggests that for Gregory the notion of knowing the divine essence is nothing less than a “category mistake” (p. 169, n. 35). The Bishop of Nyssa states the challenge: “He therefore who claims that he comprehends the knowledge of realities should in the first place reveal to us the nature of the ant, and only then give a scientific account of the Power which transcends all thought” (C. Eun. III.4).
Hence our knowing of God is utterly dependent on his gracious self-revelation. The Creator must freely make himself known and by the Spirit draw us into his self-knowledge within the eternal life of the Father and the Son. The apperceiving of God, therefore, is never an effort of mastery but of receptive faith and worship. Anatolios describes it as doxological knowledge—a kind of comprehension that “has become utterly worship, the knowing-in-adoration of the transcendence of the glory perceived, traveled in, but not enclosed” (p. 165). And again: “Our knowing of God can never comprehend the divine essence as if it were an inert object; our knowing succeeds in being in touch with the reality of God when it reacts to the divine self-manifestation in wonder and worship” (p. 194).
“The only name that signifies the divine nature,” declares St Gregory, “is the wonder that arises ineffably in our souls concerning it” (C. Eun. III.6.4).
(2 May 2014; rev.)