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  • The Body and Desire: Gregory of Nyssa's Ascetical Theology by Raphael A. Cadenhead
  • Natalie Carnes
Raphael A. Cadenhead The Body and Desire: Gregory of Nyssa's Ascetical Theology Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018. Pp. xii + 267. $95.00.

Cadenhead explains the need for his book on Gregory of Nyssa and desire by tracing a disciplinary lacuna. On one side are late ancient studies scholars. Over the years such scholars have developed sophisticated analyses of asceticism that yet remain mired in "often unchallenged Freudian and Foucauldian interpretations" of it, imposing on writers like Gregory anachronistic categories that overdetermine their accounts (1). Fixed on terms like fluidity, power, and normalcy, such scholars miss the theological convictions motivating the ascetics, Cadenhead claims. On the other side of the lacuna are patristic scholars, who are much more attentive to the theology of early Christians, but are much less interested in their asceticism. Cadenhead positions The Body and Desire as spanning this gap through a diachronic method of interpretation that takes seriously the developmental shifts in Gregory's theology. Such a hermeneutic strategy of charting thematic movement across time neatly mirrors his argument that Gregory understands asceticism itself to be structured by ascending stages.

The Body and Desire is organized by an Introduction and three parts corresponding to three phases in Gregory's writing career, each of which is identified not only by a time period but also by a central theme. A helpful appendix lays out Cadenhead's dating and the chronology of Gregory's texts, so the reader can reference which texts each part encompasses. Part One, on the early phase of Gregory's writing (371–378), describes what Cadenhead calls Gregory's "integrationist ethic" over the course of three chapters. As he elaborates an account of the reciprocity of the virtues in Gregory that requires treating sexual desire as a species of desire as such, Cadenhead proposes to understand Gregory's theology of sexual desire, virginity, and marriage together with his theology of food, fasting, and gluttony. In this stage, sexual desire, like desire for food, is properly understood within Gregory's vision of moral transformation in which the appetite is oriented toward human need through the exercise of free will.

The second part of the book, on the middle phase of Gregory's career (378–387), addresses gender, its overcoming, and its mixing, both ascetically and [End Page 665] eschatologically. Cadenhead focuses on two contexts for this period of Gregory's writing: the death of his siblings Basil and Macrina, and the Trinitarian and christological debates over Apollinarianism and Eunomianism. Through the three chapters of Part Two, Cadenhead tracks the development of the Part One themes of desire, celibacy, and pleasure through this middle phase of his writing; considers the conflicting lines of interpretation in Gregory's writings that lead him to an unresolved question about the permanence of sexual differentiation; and reflects on the development of his theology of desire through his engagement with the Apollinarian controversy as well as the transformation of activity and passivity, male and female through the Eunomian one. What emerges is a complex picture of sex and gender that is neither entirely assimilable to late ancient views nor wholly separable from them. Cadenhead shows, for example, that womanishness is associated with weakness and susceptibility to the passions that must (and as Macrina exemplifies, can) be overcome, but manly virility, too, poses an obstacle to moral advancement and must also be renounced. In a similarly ambivalent point, marital relations remain alloyed to sexual hierarchy for Gregory, and yet the divine life ascetics imitate and hope for is nonsubordinationist. Where many retrievals of Gregory gloss over the aspects of his thought less appealing to contemporary readers, Cadenhead shows in this part that such aspects remain important to understanding the movements and tensions of his theology.

In the final, third part of the book, Cadenhead treats the late phase of Gregory's life (387–394) and the theme of spiritual maturation and erotic union with Christ. The shortest of the three parts, this two-chapter section returns to some of the themes of Part One. It traces the later iterations of Gregory's...


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