- Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach by Hans Boersma
Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach
Oxford Early Christian Studies
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013 Pp. xviii + 284. $130.00.
Hans Boersma writes as a theologian deeply interested in retrieving patristic sources for contemporary theology. This monograph has the merit of engaging contemporary theological concerns like embodiment and virtue, yet it unabashedly cuts against the grain of recent scholarship on Gregory of Nyssa that emphasizes the salutary role of matter, time, space, corporeality, and gender in his thinking. These are preliminaries to be transcended—for the sake of “an anagogical or upward transposition that leaves behind the objects of earthly, embodied existence” (vii). Boersma concedes that Nyssen gives “positive nods” to materiality and embodiment but then argues that his demonstrable concern for the passible body, for bodies outfitted to procreate in marital union, for the bodies of slaves needing liberation, for the abject bodies of the poor, for dead bodies awaiting resurrection, or even for the sacramental body of the church is nonetheless thoroughly relative to his overriding “anagogical” concerns.
Eschatologically, the human “progress” in virtue extending beyond mundane life totally departs from diastēma, the spatio-temporal “extension” bracketing corporeal existence. While acknowledging that diastēma also signifies for Gregory the non-negotiable ontological “gap” separating uncreated and created nature, Boersma focuses principally on its meaning as “measure” and dimensionality. Especially definitive is Gregory’s Homilies on Ecclesiastes, with the Ecclesiast’s (= Christ’s) melancholy musings on the vain motion of diastemic existence. Wisely, Boersma juxtaposes this with the fact that Christ himself, in the paschal mystery of his “three-day” burial, cheated diastemic boundaries by already beginning to enter Hades at the time of the Last Supper. “The Paschal mystery,” Boersma rightly observes, “implies a reconfiguring of time” (37), and believers’ transcendence of this world most definitely happens by participation in Christ. Unfortunately, however, Boersma grossly underplays the implications of this reconfiguration for Gregory’s larger consideration of the relation between diastemic and eschatological existence. With chapters on the “Measured Body,” the “Textual Body” (Scripture), the “Gendered Body,” the “Dead Body,” the “Oppressed Body,” the “Ecclesial [End Page 629] Body,” and the “Virtuous Body,” conspicuously absent is a chapter treatment of Christ’s “Incarnate Body” and its strategic significance.
Positively, Boersma’s monograph is a good primer in Gregory’s ascetical urgency to press human subjectivity beyond superficial infatuations—whether the letter of Scripture, the sexed body, or whatever inhibits spiritual progress while also goading it. He consistently references Gregory’s ascetical “impatience” with corporeality, paralleling what Rowan Williams has elsewhere identified as Nyssen’s concern for the “restless,” “precarious” character of human existence and the longing for perfection that began immediately at humanity’s creation. Along the way, Boersma also registers reasonable criticisms of certain postmodern readings of Nyssen that have him making bodies into rhetorical pawns. Boersma astutely insists that gender “instability” for Gregory is primarily a function of his eschatological expectation of male-female union or “confluence” in the virginal, quasi-angelic future.
More problematic is Boersma’s treatment of the instability of the passions as a postlapsarian legacy in Gregory’s anthropology. Passions, even those seemingly conducive to spiritual growth, are by definition to be transcended in the serenity of apatheia. Lacking, however, is a sustained consideration of how passions can texture, enrich, even cleanse the soul’s deep-seated desire in its spiritual ascent. Boersma, for example, much too casually dismisses Rowan Williams’s judgment that bereavement gives indispensable insight into the soul’s very nature. It goes without saying that human passibility is teleologically valorized in Gregory, and yet Gregory certainly assumes that the retraining of the passible “faculties” is more than a transitory phase of spiritual growth, since they condition the moral self for its eschatological future.
As for the eschatological status of the virtuous body, it is hard from Boersma’s analysis to see how there can be any infinite progress toward God if all diastēma is erased, if there is utterly no intervening dimensionality in the “age” to come. Boersma sees Gregory affirming mobility...