April 26, 2023
Episode 164: Theology, Politics, and Radiant Darkness: Michæl Motia on Gregory of Nyssa
[Thanks to our angle-grinding neighbour for accompaniment in the style of the Italian futurists. Corrigendum: St. Antony of the Desert was born in 251 CE, not 281 as we casually let slide in the interview.]
We are honoured to have Michæl Motia, scholar of religion, on the podcast to discuss Gregory of Nyssa, one of the most important Christian theologians and the fountainhead of ideas of divine infinity and of divine presence-as-absence-as-presence at the heart of Christian mysticism.
Some of the topics covered in the interview:
- A very quick recap of some salient points of late-antique Roman politics and official religion, leading into some relevant biography of Gregory,
- Discussion of the ongoing controversies within the church, summarised by historians as the ‘Arian controversy’, but in fact an endlessly-complex religio-political struggle for whose metaphysics would control the destiny of Christianity, which leads to
- Eunomius’ ‘neo-Arian’ Christianity and Gregory’s refutation of it through reference to his groundbreaking understanding of god’s infinity,
- Some discussion of Gregory on the importance of saving rituals like baptism (as against Eunomius’ ‘salvation through knowledge’ model), with a discursus on the Divine Iamblichus and reflection on the ritual realities of day-to-day life among fourth-century Christians,
- Discussion of Gregory’s connection with asceticism and early monasticism,
- Gregory of Nyssa’s argument against slavery (with some salutary, sobering discussion of what he actually says and the necessary social concomitants to actually abolishing slavery), and
- Finally, a beautiful exposition on the intertwined ideas of god’s infinity, radiant divine darkness, and endless ‘stretching’ after god, as expounded in Gregory’s late works the Homilies on the Song of Songs and the Life of Moses.
Michael Motia is lecturer in religion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He holds a PhD from Harvard University and is the author of Imitations of Infinity: Gregory of Nyssa and the Transformation of Mimesis (see bibliography below; interested listeners might also check out his paper on the colour blue in late antiquity).
Works Cited in this Episode:
- ‘The Father is greater than I’: John 14:38
- Moses sees god face-to-face: Exodus 33:11
- No one has seen god: John 1:18/Exodus 33:20
The classic anecdote about Gregory walking around Constantinople and getting into debates over Christology with every shop-assistant: Gregory of Nyssa, De deitate filii et spiritus sancti, GNO 57.120–21; French trans. Matthieu Cassin. (There’s not an official English one yet. But here’s one online.
Basil of Cæsarea on the difference between exoteric kerygma and esoteric dogma: On the Holy Spirit 27.66. His Rule for ascetics online.
Gregory’s homage to Plato’s Phædo on the death of Macrina: Life of Macrina and On the Soul and Resurrection.
His arguments against slavery in the Homilies on Ecclesiastes: Homily 4.
Clement of Alexandria on Moses entering the darkness: Strom. II.6.1
Origen on same: Cels. 6.17
Philo on same: On the Posteriory of Cain 14-16 [for comparisons, see Conway-Jones, cited below, cap. 6]
Archbishop Rowan Williams on the ‘divine hinterland’ of Arius’ God the Father: Rowan Williams. Arius: Heresy and Tradition. Eerdmans, 2001.
Mark DelCogliano on ‘theology of theology’: Mark DelCogliano. Basil of Caesarea’s Anti-Eunomian Theory of Names. Brill, Leiden, 2010.
Primary Sources for Gregory, and Good Translations
The works of Gregory of Nyssa have been edited by Ekkehard Mühlenberg and Giulio Maspero for Brill in a massive edition-project, the Gregorii Nysseni Opera. If you are a member of a participating institution, you can access them online.
Also, check out these translations:
Virginia Woods Callahan, trans. St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works. Catholic University of America Press, Washington, DC, 1967.
Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, trans. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses. Paulist Press, New York, NY, 1978.
Richard A. Norris, trans. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs. Society for Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, 2015.
Ann Conway-Jones. Gregory of Nyssa’s Tabernacle Imagery in its Jewish and Christian Contexts. The University Press, Oxford, 2014.
Jean Daniélou. Platonisme et théologie mystique. Essai sur la doctrine spirituelle de Saint Grégoire de Nysse. Aubier, Paris, 1944.
Susanna Elm. Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome, volume 49 of Transformation of the Classical Heritage. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2012.
Albert-Kees Geljon. Divine Infinity in Gregory of Nyssa and Philo of Alexandria. Vigiliae Christianae, 59(2):152–77, May 2005.
Morwenna Ludlow. Gregory of Nyssa, Ancient and (Post-) Modern. The University Press, Oxford, 2007.
Anthony Meredith. Gregory of Nyssa. The Early Church Fathers. Routledge, London & New York, NY, 1999.
Michael Motia. Imitations of Infinity: Gregory of Nyssa and the Transformation of Mimesis. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2021.
Andrew Radde-Gallwitz. Gregory of Nyssa and Divine Simplicity: A Conceptualist Reading. Modern Theology, 35(3):452–66, 2019.
John Rist. On the Platonism of Gregory of Nyssa. Hermathena, (169):121–51, Winter 2000.
Anca Vasiliu. Eikôn: L’image dans le discours des trois Cappadociens. Épiméthée, Paris, 2015.
Alternative Communities, Apophatic Writing, Asceticism, Cappadocian Fathers, Christian Mysticism, Divinisation, Esoteric Christianity, Gregory of Nyssa, Iamblichus, Infinity, Julian, Macrina the Younger, Origen, Origenism
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