Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Beauty Will Save the World

Continued from here.

According to Gregory of Nyssa, virginity is a sign to us of spiritual detachment, which is itself the restoration of the human creature to a state of order, purity, and peace. The goal of detachment is contemplation of the perfect and infinite beauty of God and participation in it.

Evangelicals are not known for their attention to beauty. The other transcendentals, truth and goodness, have a clear place, but at least on a popular level, beauty rarely seems to make an appearance. The reason for this lies to a certain extent in our Protestant heritage. The Reformers were eager to strip away the aura of mystery that seemed to give so much power to the priests. Beauty was regarded by many as suspicious and deceptive, and so it was divided from truth. Today we waver between iconoclasm and spectacle.

Gregory is one of the first and greatest theologians of divine beauty, and perhaps we may look to him to begin to recover a robust doctrine. To discuss the beauty of God is to enter into another theological conversation too vast for me, so I will content myself for the most part with describing Gregory’s use of the language of beauty, as Gregory invokes the very archetype words can never truly capture.

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Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Be Ye Detached

Continued from here.

Detachment. When was the last time your pastor urged you to be “detached”? Despite its present obscurity, the word has a rich history within Christianity. To understand it, one must first understand a whole complex of doctrines about the natures of God and man. Discussing this concept is actually far more daunting than my previous article on virginity.

It is also far more important, as it is to detachment that Gregory of Nyssa primarily refers by his use of the term “virginity.” So let us start with a definition.

Detachment (apatheia) is complete liberty. Detachment is the ability to think, act, and function apart from the demands of our desires and appetites. Detachment is perfect, undivided attention, and total receptivity to divine influence. Therefore, detachment is an integral part of being worked to the image of God and participating in his life. Detachment is not indifference or “otherworldliness” or self-absorption. Detachment is death to self. Detachment is spiritual peace.

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Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Marriage, Sexuality, and Evangelical Purity Culture

Continued from here.

At eleven months married, I am hardly an expert on the subject of marriage in general. I think, moreover, that an assessment of my own married experience as compared with Gregory’s terrifying description would miss the point. On the other hand, for me as much as for Gregory, it would seem that virginity is forever beyond my grasp. I am contentedly attached to a wife, and at this point I am considering no career option that would allow me to withdraw wholly from worldly affairs, as desirable as that sounds.

If On Virginity is to apply to me, I must take into account both the distinctions Gregory draws between marriage and virginity and the continuity between them. Though it would be unjust to water down the force of his hard teaching, the “virginity” metaphor is fluid enough that I am not totally excluded. Gregory’s secondary affirmation of a chaste marriage includes both warnings and implicit praise.

But I will return to the subject of marriage. Having admitted that sexual purity is only a part of “virginity,” it nevertheless seems a natural place to start to apply (or dispute) his teaching. And here it seems fair enough to point out, as many others have, the unfortunate status of virginity in evangelical culture.

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Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Introduction

St. Gregory of Nyssa was until recently the least recognized of the three Great Cappadocian theologians. He was not a man of exceptional worldly learning and political acumen like his older brother Basil, nor was his theology as rigorously explored and influential as that of his friend Gregory of Nazianzus. Lately he has received more attention for his influence on the Christian mystical tradition, his total opposition to slavery, and his ambiguous leanings on apokatastasis. But Gregory was much more than these peculiarities.

Gregory came from a distinguished Cappadocian Christian family whose members included not only great scholars and rhetoricians, but saints and martyrs and proto-monks. He was a quiet man but a brilliant thinker, well-versed in Greek philosophy, staunch in his defense of the Nicene formulation of the Trinity. He was deeply influenced by Origen, but rejected heretical Origenism wherever its doctrines contradicted those of the church. His prose is simple and beautiful, typically shunning ornate formulas but showing great literary craft and a gift for analogy. During his lifetime he was widely honored by the orthodox as a champion of the faith; the Second Council of Nicaea (787) later called him “father of fathers.”

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The Doors of the Sea: A Review

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

In the long history of Christianity, theodicy is comparatively young. Different generations find different doctrines more troublesome. Once, pagan philosophers looked askance at Christianity’s affirmation of the body and material creation; the idea that base physical matter could be brought into union with the Absolute was repugnant to them. Today, Christianity must contend with a different set of assumptions. The Enlightenment taught us to think of the cosmos as a vast machine; if it is so, and if it is designed and maintained by God, why doesn’t it always bring about goodness and justice, but often chaos and evil? The problem of human suffering tends to provoke a negative response to the theist’s portrait of reality. Its prominence as an object is probably due to the fact that it provokes a moral and visceral rather than merely intellectual reaction. It is a problem that cannot go unaddressed.

The Doors of the Sea is a short book (just over a hundred pages) expanded from an article written by David Bentley Hart in 2004 for the Wall Street Journal. Hart was prompted, as usual, by observations about the ongoing debate between Christians and atheists and serious deficiencies in the understanding of both sides. In The Doors of the Sea, he starts by reviewing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and the impression it made in the press. Some nontheist journalists, he noted, insensitively used this tragedy as an opportunity to bash the Christian belief in a good God; simultaneously, some Christians offered untimely (and, Hart believes, misguided) remarks about all suffering being permitted as a part of God’s perfect plan.

Hart finds neither position satisfactory. The prominent nontheist critiques he quotes do not begin to understand either philosophical theism or Christian theology, he remarks, but they cannot be simply dismissed. Beneath the false dilemmas they pose, between divine goodness and divine omnipotence, they point to a real moral horror at evil and desire for justice that Christianity itself inculcated into western civilization. These feelings are legitimate and deserve a better and more coherent response from Christians than they normally receive.

Hence, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005)

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Life of Anthony

Lessons from Athanasius’s Life of Anthony

The Desert Fathers, among students of Christian spiritual literature, have a name for both wisdom and alienness. They were among the earliest Christian monastics, leaving the increasingly secure and prosperous life of Roman Christians for poverty, celibacy, and spiritual warfare in the wildernesses of Egypt. Their most enduring legacy has been a large body of concise but often difficult quotations concerning the spiritual life and the trials of the soul seeking perfection. Today these collected sayings, odd and profound, have received several translations into English.

St. Anthony was among the earliest and greatest of the Desert Fathers, and his biographer was St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius contra mundum, the irascible fourth-century champion of orthodoxy. As the Christian world was troubled by the rise of heresies among the bishops and the often clumsy involvement of the state in doctrinal disputes, Athanasius, possibly during one of his several exiles, wrote eagerly of the holiness and deeds of Anthony as an example of perfect piety not only to the growing monastic movement, but to the whole Church. The Life of Anthony was completed around 360 and was translated into Latin soon after. Athanasius makes good reading; he is concise, engaging, and easy to understand. The Life was a much-read classic throughout late antiquity and the middle ages, inspiring thousands to seek the monastic life. Continue reading

Embracing the Leper: On Cosmic Evil

I know very little about evil. I have lived comfortably the past twenty-three years; I am sound in mind and body; I have never been persecuted or slandered; no one has ever beaten or robbed me or threatened anyone I love.

So I am never quite sure how to react to the evil I read about in the world. Lately, four ongoing crises have been often in my mind:

  • The Ebola outbreak in West Africa (~1000 dead)
  • Fighting in east Ukraine (~2500 dead)
  • The latest conflict in Gaza (~1800 dead)
  • The persecution of Christians and Yezidis in ISIS-occupied territories (casualties unknown)


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