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Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge, and Divine Presence (review)
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Reviewed by
Martin Laird Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge, and Divine Presence Oxford Early Christian Studies Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004 Pp. xii + 240.

In this major new study Laird corrects some long-standing scholarly misperceptions of Gregory's epistemology and mystical theology. Through careful readings of key texts, he argues that in the context of apophatic discussions of the human mind's approach to God, "faith" becomes a technical term. What he designates as "exalted faith" names the mind's ability to reach beyond its own cognitive capacities and to grasp the infinite divine presence that surpasses its understanding. Laird carefully avoids ascribing Gregory's unique view of faith to Platonic influence but interestingly situates it in the context of late neoplatonists; in different ways they move away from Plato's denigration of faith vis-à-vis knowledge to consider it a privileged means of access to the divine. In addition, they identify supra-noetic faculties for knowing the transcendent God. Laird states that for Gregory exalted faith serves as precisely such a supra-noetic faculty.

However, most of the book is devoted to a close analysis of knowledge of God and participation in the divine in Gregory's spiritual writings, especially his Commentary on the Song of Songs. With luminous clarity Laird analyzes the conceptual content of Gregory's brilliant metaphors, especially those of water, flow, and light. Through this textual evidence he demonstrates that although [End Page 428] one dimension of Gregory's mystical theology emphasizes apophaticism, divine incomprehensibility and darkness, the Cappadocian stresses knowledge of God and union with God in divine light even more. Laird also shows how exegetical concerns contribute to dominant emphases in each context; apophatic language occurs in Gregory's commentaries on biblical texts that speak of darkness or God's inaccessibility. One caveat here is that Gregory chooses which Scriptures to cite, so exegetical constraint does not mandate discounting certain themes in his works. However, Laird clearly acknowledges the place of darkness in his mysticism although he situates it within a broader context.

The mind's flow is a major theme in Laird's analysis. He shows how for Gregory the human mind is in constant flux, and people are free to choose how to direct its flow. Our thoughts and corresponding desires are either dissipated among sensual pleasures and material things or gathered and channeled toward God. Through ascetic discipline and purification, one who focuses toward God attains discursive knowledge of divine activities and perfections. Beyond this, the mind reaches beyond its creaturely limitations to perceive God's presence and knows the divine nature itself, if only a little, through supra-noetic faith.

Significantly, Laird stresses how faith mediates between the mind and God in both directions. One who reaches this exalted stage is deified through participation in God; then the mind receives knowledge from God and instead of remaining silent is called to teach others as the bride guides her maidens. Besides touching the ineffable, the mind receives words bearing insights about God and virtue. Thus, Laird states that Gregory's mysticism is not only apophatic but "logophatic." At an earlier stage one leaves aside many human words and concepts derived from created things to turn toward the transcendent God, but later, by faith, one receives a few words laden with the weight of divine presence and wisdom.

Laird identifies several important themes in Gregory's mystical theology that others have missed. However, like other specialists he may have selectively over-systematized the Cappadocian's insights. He may have missed some essential continuities between what he regards as earlier and later stages. For example, for Laird desire and its redirection belong to the beginning stage of purification while the virtues and wisdom about them belong to the highest stage, deification. Yet for Gregory and other early Christians purification involves acquiring virtues, and deification involves intense desire for God. J. Warren Smith ably traces these continuities in another recent book on Gregory's mystical theology, Passion and Paradise (Crossroad, 2004).

A key text for Laird comes in hom. 11 in Cant., where the bride encounters the Bridegroom in the night and receives dewdrops...