Onwards or Upwards? – By William Junker

William Junker on Hans Boersma’s Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa

Hans Boersma, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach, Oxford University Press, 2013, 304pp., $40
Hans Boersma, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach, Oxford University Press, 2013, 304pp., $40
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Hans Boersma’s latest book describes itself as “a rather traditional historical theological investigation into Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of embodiment.” For the most part, the description is an accurate one. The book’s seven chapters explore distinct though overlapping sites of embodiment in the work of the fourth-century Cappadocian bishop and theologian. In discussions that range from the “Ecclesial Body” to the “Oppressed Body,” from the “Virtuous Body” to the “Gendered Body,” from the “Textual Body” to the “Dead Body,” Boersma provides a helpful (and helpfully corrective) account of the significance of embodiment in Gregory’s theology. Boersma’s characteristic clarity of style, breadth of scholarship, and critical charity are on full display throughout the book, which has much to offer the specialist and general reader alike.

But there is more going on in this book than meets the eye. As Boersma relates in his preface, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa is really the record of a theological experiment which has been refashioned into a “traditional” work in historical theology. As such, it represents a more personal, daring, and fraught argument than Boersma lets on, one that bears directly on the challenges facing Christian theology in the early twenty-first century. Indeed, Boersma selected the historical focus of his book with a view toward the practice of theology in the present moment. “I wanted,” he explains, “to test my hunch that the premodern Platonist-Christian synthesis does not require us to abandon the goodness of matter and of history, but that instead such an affirmation of this-worldly realities is dependent on the participatory or sacramental ontology of premodernity.” Boersma’s study of Gregory, in other words, was envisioned as an oblique attack upon some of the more influential strands in contemporary theology from the vantage point of “sacramental ontology” — the latter phrase alluding to the group of twentieth-century Catholic scholars, including Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, who sought to retrieve and rehabilitate the “premodern” insights of Greek and Latin patristic thought. In two books written prior to this one, Boersma had sympathetically described the nouvelle theologie’s historical reconstruction of Christianity’s “sacramental ontology,” which he argued was of pressing importance for Catholic and Protestant churches today.

In sacramental or participatory ontology, the goodness of the created order is held to be a function of that order’s participation in divine goodness. The world itself, in other words, is understood as a sacrament — as a sign that both points to and already shares in the goodness of God. In Roman Catholic theology, the resuscitation of sacramental ontology was intended to counter the so-called “extrinsicism” of the neoscholastic manuals, which presented the natural order of creation as complete in itself, and figured supernatural goodness — or grace — as an external addition to this order. In Reformed theology — which informs Boersma’s own ecclesial tradition — often the created order is similarly set off from grace though with a different twist. Here, supernatural goodness is sometimes thought to cover over or stand in place of the goodness proper to creation, which is less supplemented by than incommensurate with such grace. In opposition to both pictures, sacramental ontology depicts a created order whose own goodness already partakes of the supernatural goodness towards whose greater perfections it is intrinsically oriented, as a sign is to the thing it signifies. For this reason, sacramental ontology bridges the divide between standard accounts of Roman Catholic and Reformed theology, thereby forwarding the kind of ecumenical dialogue that Boersma has admirably defended — and exemplarily modeled — throughout his scholarly career.

In undertaking his study of Gregory of Nyssa then, Boersma set for himself a task related to but somewhat different from his prior work in this area. He wanted to show that the “Platonist-Christian synthesis” — which is the conceptual foundation for every premodern “sacramental ontology” of which I am aware — not only does not entail the rejection of “matter” and “history,” but alone gives a coherent account of their goodness. In pursuing this project, Boersma wanted to engage three currents in the discipline of theology that pose special difficulties for any scholarly revival of sacramental ontology. The first and most recalcitrant of these may be broadly identified as the quasi-positivist historicism that began to emerge in the later eighteenth century and continues to inform, albeit unreflectively, a great deal of mainstream scholarship in biblical and historical theology. The second — and for Boersma, I think, more weighty — current originates in the early twentieth-century German Protestant scholarship of Albert Schweitzer and Oscar Cullman among others, which emphasized the Jewish apocalyptic roots of early Christianity in isolation from (and often in opposition to) the surrounding intellectual culture of late Hellenism. On this view, the extent to which sacramental or participatory ontology depends upon a Platonist-Christian synthesis is the extent to which it deviates from the linear eschatology of the New Testament. The dialectical, anti-analogical thrust of the later theology of Karl Barth represents, in some ways at least, the culmination of this tradition and the most sophisticated live alternative to sacramental ontology within conciliar or orthodox Christian theology. The third current, finally, issues from what Boersma calls “postmodern” or “anti-essentialist” theology. Heavily influenced by French structuralism and poststructuralism, postmodern theology is generally hostile to the metaphysical categories of Christian Platonism, and has tended to focus its attention on traditionally marginalized topics in historical theology, such as sex, gender, and the body. Much of the most interesting recent scholarship on early Christian thought is indebted to this school of thought, including (I suspect) Boersma’s own decision to demonstrate the world-affirming strength of Gregory’s sacramental ontology precisely where it would seem most difficult to do so, in his account of material “embodiment” itself.

Gregory of Nyssa, Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece
Gregory of Nyssa, Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This was the ambitious scope of Boersma’s original plan — which was never, alas, to be realized. The primary impediment proved to be Gregory of Nyssa himself, who did not turn out to be the kind of sacramental ontologist Boersma hoped he was. “It has become clear to me,” he writes, “that Gregory is really quite reticent in affirming that the entire created order — including embodied existence — participates sacramentally in eternal realities.” This realization marks the transformation of what had begun as Boersma’s endeavor to demonstrate the superiority of “Platonist-Christian synthesis” in accounting for the goodness of matter and history into the “rather traditional historical theological investigation” the book finally became.

The genesis of Boersma’s book, which I have speculatively reconstructed from its preface and epilogue, helps explain a recurrent and otherwise baffling rhetorical tic in Boersma’s prose — the appearance of sentences, usually concessionary in tone and antithetical in construction, in which we seem to hear Boersma arguing with himself in real time about the current value of Gregory’s theology, as though he were still searching out a satisfactory characterization of its strengths and weaknesses. For the most part, these sentences do not affect Boersma’s exposition of the texts of Gregory, but instead function as a kind of meta-commentary running alongside the argument of each chapter. I would suggest, moreover, that they underscore a certain ambivalence or oscillation in Boersma’s own understanding of sacramental ontology in relation to the “Platonist-Christian synthesis” on which it has historically depended.

The ambivalence first appears in the book’s preface. In the sentence immediately following his deflationary appraisal of Gregory’s “quite reticent” willingness to affirm the sacramental goodness of the “entire created order,” Boersma qualifies — in fact, almost retracts — his prior claim: “This is not to say [Gregory] denies it; occasionally he explicitly affirms it.” So if Gregory of Nyssa’s ontology is “less robustly sacramental” than Boersma would prefer it to be, this is not because Gregory ever rejects the entire created order, nor even because he refuses to “explicitly affirm” its full participation in “eternal realities.” What more does Boersma want?, the reader may find herself asking. Is his dissatisfaction with Gregory’s sacramental ontology simply because Gregory does not affirm the goodness of material creation often and loudly enough? Are his reservations grounded in nothing more than a scrupulous nitpicking of Gregory’s tone? We might be tempted to conclude as much, but we would be wrong to do so. For although Boersma’s distancing himself from Gregory’s theology often seems largely rhetorical — as when he reminds us (again and again) that even though Nyssa affirms the goodness of the human body, he does not want us to “linger” there; or that the created order is good, but not, for Nyssa, “ultimately” so — they reflect deeper concerns about the “anagogic” thrust of Gregory’s thought, the emphasis it places on an “upward transposition that leaves behind the objects of earthly, embodied existence” in pursuit of spiritual realities.

The word “anagogy” derives from the Greek verb anagō, which in antiquity could mean either “to lead or carry up” or “to bring back.” In the philosophical tradition of Platonism, the two meanings of the word are often the same one. In the Republic, for example, to lead somebody up from the cave into the sunlight is also to bring that person back to the origins of being and intelligibility — the movement upwards in space being a metaphor for the mind’s rediscovery of first principles. Much later on, in the medieval period, anagogy named the last and highest level of meaning in scriptural exegesis, as is related by the famous distich quoted by Boersma at the beginning of the present study:

Littera gesta docet,
quid credas allegoria,
moralis quid agas,
quo tendas anagogia.

The letter tells what was done,
The allegory what you should believe,
The moral what you should do,
The anagogy where you should strive.

Gregory of Nyssa’s own sense of anagogia (Boersma reminds us) is much broader than this later framework allows, encompassing the meanings of allegory and moral from which it would subsequently be distinguished. For Gregory — who is no terminological precisian — anagogia is a blanket term for what he calls “thoughts that edify.” None of this proves especially problematic. The real difficulties arise from what is perceived to be a tension or ambiguity in the directional metaphorics of Gregory’s use of the word. Do anagogical thoughts edify because they lead us “onwards” toward God or “upwards” to him, or both, and how?

These questions are prompted by Gregory’s reliance upon both scripture and Platonism in developing his concept of anagogy. In the scriptural tradition, anagogy is oriented along a temporal axis in anticipation of the New Creation foretold by Isaiah, Acts, and the Pauline letters. (I leave aside the Book of Revelation on account of its controverted authority throughout the patristic period.) The resurrection of Jesus Christ represents the “first fruits” of this promised future — the mysterious irruption of the end of time into the midst of time. Scriptural anagogy is figured as spiritual prolepsis, a leaping ahead of time (rather than a movement upward in space) that comes to rest in the resurrection of the body on the last day. By contrast, anagogy in the Platonic tradition retains the essentially spatial imagery at the word’s root and describes the ascent of the soul away from the body toward the “higher” (which is to say, immaterial) realities. Moreover, the movement “upwards” in Platonism is also, as we saw, often a movement “backwards” — a bringing back, or recollection, of the first principles. To the extent that Platonic anagogy is temporally oriented at all, then, it moves in the reverse direction of scriptural anticipation, backwards before time instead of forwards beyond it.

It is not hard to see that any conception of anagogy informed by both of these traditions runs the risk of failing to do justice to either of them. At least, it is not hard for us see this. But we are not Christian theologians of the third and fourth centuries, the majority of whom did not recognize much of a tension between these two anagogical models. (They had their reasons, as we have ours.) To his credit, Boersma initially strives simply to accept Gregory’s employment of both, explaining that “[w]e are meant to go ‘upward’ and ‘forward,’ both at the same time, so as to participate ever more thoroughly in the life of God.” But the further the book progresses, the more it raises doubts about the feasibility of this upwards-and-forwards at once business. Boersma is particularly discomfited by the Platonic, or “upward” aspects of anagogy, preferring, it would seem, a more emphatically scriptural model of transposition.

There is something to be said for this. Gregory’s account of sexual differentiation, for instance, attributes the origins of human genitalia to God’s merciful anticipation of the Fall. Once expelled from Eden, Adam and Eve would have to reproduce as other animals do, and God, foreseeing as much, gave them the tools for copulation they (ideally) would never have needed to use. As a result, the pursuit of anagogical virtue always involves, for Gregory, the gradual erasure of human sexuality and gender as such. Here especially, it becomes difficult (but not perhaps impossible) to maintain that Gregory of Nyssa’s sacramental ontology really does affirm every aspect of the created order — postlapsarian sex organs included. At other moments of the book, however, Boersma’s representations of anagogical ascent are not entirely adequate to their object. In his chapter on Gregory’s interpretation of the bible —“Textual Body” — Boersma conflates the actual words of scripture with their “obvious” or literal meaning, and uses the phrase “bodily text” to refer to them both. This creates the impression that Gregory’s “anagogical transposition away from the bodily text” is somehow a transposition away from the words of scripture instead of a transposition of them. (You cannot, in any case, transpose something by moving “away” from it.) Likewise, the contrast Boersma draws between “bodily text” and “spiritual transposition” too quickly reduces the complexity of Gregory’s biblical hermeneutics to the single interpretive movement from letter (and word) to spirit. But Gregory does not hypothesize only one such movement but, in fact, an infinite number of them. His doctrine of “epektatic” or continual and never-ending anagogic ascent entails, among other things, that no reader can ever be said to have grasped the spiritual meaning of scripture — for there is always another deeper one to be found.

These are more quibbles than criticisms, of course — included more to fulfil the expectations of the genre than to impugn the scholarly worth of the book, of which there can be no doubt. Yet Boersma’s relative dissatisfaction with the “upwards” or Platonic trajectory of Gregory’s sacramental ontology does lead to one final issue, which I raise not as a critique of Boersma but as a genuine puzzlement occasioned by the book’s closing pages. Offering his final summation of Gregory of Nyssa’s theology, Boersma begins by distancing himself (one last time) from what he takes to be Gregory’s excessive devaluation of the material world; but he then pivots around (again) to the admission that some kind of anagogical ascent is necessary for any sacramental ontology that hopes to get off the ground, so to speak. The “sacramental affirmation of material reality,” Boersma writes, needs to be “chastened” by — yea, even “renounced” in light of — the “heavenly realities of the eschaton” if it is not to collapse into the “purely Epicurean affirmation of the pleasures of this worldly realities.” What puzzles me about the claim is Boersma’s implication that a “sacramental” affirmation of material reality — as opposed to some other kind of affirmation — requires any “chastening” at all. I would have thought — and so, I gather, would Gregory — that a properly sacramental affirmation of creation is an affirmation that is already grounded in, and directed towards, these eschatological realities. This after all is what makes the affirmation sacramental in the first place. Yet Boersma seems in this passage to imagine the future eschaton as placing a constraint upon the sacrament of creation instead of fulfilling the promise betokened by it. He suggests in other words that there could be such a thing as a sacramental affirmation of the world that does not already envision the transposition of the world into that which it images. Only if this were true could a sacramental ontology ever become an Epicurean one. But what Boersma suggests is impossible — or, it is impossible from the point of view of Gregory’s sacramental ontology, if not perhaps from Boersma’s own.