1. We treat scripture as a conversation instead of ideology
2. We realize tradition as creative instead of nostalgic
3. We hold reason as balance instead of inevitability
4. We pursue evangelism using desire instead of shame
5. We realize transcendence through affection instead of fear
4. We pursue evangelism using desire instead of shame
In the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa wrote that our infinite desire is the way humans are most like God. Gregory was the outstanding innovative thinker of his age, and the last systematic theologian until Thomas Aquinas; moreover this singular idea set him apart from most Greek philosophers and later Christian ethicists. It has endured chiefly in mystic poetry rather than discursive argument. Yet like many of Gregory’s innovative ideas it speaks freshly to people today.
Modern readers and art lovers may recall the Homeric and Periclean Greek admiration for human physical beauty and heroes’ passionate virtue. But that attitude had withered by Gregory Nyssen’s time. Hellenistic era philosophers mistrusted even noble passions as dangerous distractions from reason, and instead sought apatheia, passionlessness, as essential for the good life. Unlike classical Greeks they disparaged the human body, where passions live and corrupt pure rational souls. Our souls would rise naturally toward God if our bodies did not weigh them down and mislead them; hence our souls can unite with God only when our bodies die. This anthropological antagonism was foreign to Hebrew scripture as well as the rabbinical debates echoed by Paul. It conquered Christian ethics thanks accidentally to contemporary Persian dualism, which Gnostic and Manichean Christianity spread around the Mediterranean and across Asia, where it thrived until Tamerlane’s fourteenth century conversion to Islam.
Latin Europe inherited it chiefly from Augustine, a North African genius who could not read Gregory’s Greek writings, but instead was converted first to Manichean Christianity and then to standard Hellenistic Neo-Platonism, bringing those religions’ dualism along intact. In time both Catholics and Protestants became Augustine’s heirs. Hence western Christian ethics typically pit aspects of human nature in contest against each other: one part pure, one corrupting; one innately good, the other tripping up the whole human being. Even salvation has acquired a dualist character: we are either holy or sinful, saved or condemned.
Dualism can claim one practical ground: by definition, choice means putting one thing ahead and others behind. Apart from natural catastrophes, ethicists reckon human evil happens through evil choices. It may be hard to imagine yourself consciously choosing evil, so most western Christian explanations for sin evoke some lethal mistake in identity. Reading Genesis 2, Augustine argued darkly that even though we humans naturally seek goodness, we seek it in the wrong places because our functional equipment for choosing right won’t work right, and cannot learn to. Our human bodies inherit will and reason that were spoilt worldwide by Adam’s sin, so even our love for God can mislead us. As the Hispanic social reformer Ernesto Cardenal writes, “For this love’s sake, all crimes are committed, all wars are fought, and all people love or hate each other…. Every human action, even sin, is a search for God…. Thus St Augustine: ‘Seek what you seek but not where you seek it.’” (Vida en el Amor, 1970)
As some churches conclude, conversion requires acknowledging our helpless corrupted lives and begging God to insulate us safely from our own desires, which mislead us to choose evil over good. Conventional Christian evangelism and liturgical design begin by evoking sinners’ faults and failures, from which only God’s overwhelming grace can rescue us: in this way we practically shame hearers into a change of life for their own good. Early preachers vilified riches as an inevitable cause for error and evildoing; moderns prefer sex. Both warn us away from aspects of life that biblical writers teach are God’s blessings and gifts to humankind.
Gregory Nyssen addressed sin and conversion in a different way that merits fresh hearing today. Beginning from Genesis 1 (instead of Adam’s sin in chapter 2) Gregory argued: “all that exists is good, and created amid good.” Human beings are built to move naturally towards God, pursuing goodness, truth and beauty, the virtues Greek philosophy identified. All God’s beautiful creation helps our progress: as the German poet Goethe later wrote, “beauty is greater than goodness because it includes the good.” In turn we humans naturally reflect God’s goodness to the universe by ordering creation around us for ever-greater fruitfulness. And by contrast human sin brings chaos and ruin to all earth’s inhabitants—much as today’s ecologists lament. But Gregory here met a problem common to monist ethical systems: how does evil happen amid all that is good, and how is evil done by good people? He answered with two innovative ideas contradicting dualist thought, and re-defining conversion for Christian counseling, preaching and prayer.
First, “evil does not exist as an object to be chosen.” Here is a logical corollary of Gregory’s conviction that God alone truly exists. In fact this maverick view has modern currency in the popular saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” That saying endures precisely because rational people do keep choosing the free lunch they know perfectly well cannot be there. Their choosing and its disastrous results are real, though the free lunch is not. Indeed a nourishing lunch remains a blessing in itself, not to be avoided from fear of corruption. In the same way Gregory had a high regard for sexual reproduction—so medieval theologians sidestepped his teachings even while mystical poets expanded on them. For Gregory Nyssen, wrongdoing results not from mistaken perception, but from failure to move toward our goal, and moving off course instead. Readers may recall Francis Bacon’s famous Elizabethan essay “Of Truth,” which begins by citing John’s passion story: “What is Truth? Said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” Bad actions by good people are an ironic tragedy. Such tragic ironies fill John’s gospel, where Jesus’ unique success at staying his course provides the sole solution to the classic problem of evil.
Second, Gregory does not find human goodness in moral purity, but in endless progress. We are finite; God is infinite. Our lives grow and expand naturally and endlessly into God’s goodness and love, for that is how we are built. Therefore evildoers cannot actually move away from God, nor seek God in the wrong places as Augustine might have it, for no place away from God exists. Rather, for humans to stop our progress for a single moment is already to fall off track. And a return to progress on track is likewise available at any moment. For Gregory Nyssen, conversion does not mean leaving one doomed moral category for another saved category; instead, purgation of sin and purification of human goodness continue forever, even for the saints in heaven, as all humans move on a single saving trajectory together.
What draws us infinitely forward is our infinite desire. And in our infinite desire every human passion plays a rightful role—just as every passion can frustrate our progress when we point it tragically off course, effectively stopping us in our tracks. Gregory chooses anger for an example: he argues that anger is the passion by which lions rightly kill their prey and feed themselves, and rather than suppress anger as Gregory’s contemporary ascetics attempted to do, we would best direct it aggressively toward goodness. I once heard the eminent psychiatrist Richard Fisch tell his method for rapid intervention with teenagers arrested for dealing drugs. They typically came to him sent by the law courts and arrived unwillingly; and most met him only once, so he had a single moment to change their lives. Despite all the anger they expressed toward society or the police, he reckoned it should have been easy for drug dealers to evade discovery, so these youths must have blundered badly and they knew it. Therefore instead of persuading them, Fisch accused them bluntly of stupidity, predicting they would probably return to jail for one crime after another, so there was no point in his trying to help such “losers.” Insulted and enraged, the youths ran from their single compulsory appointment determined to prove he was wrong and they were not so stupid after all. Thus redirecting their anger, within months many abandoned their criminal connections, joined youth programs, and stepped away from a commonplace downward spiral and began degrees of social and economic growth.
For most Christians conversion is just so humble, if not so dramatic as that, and for most of us every passion thus has positive potential. (Here let me clearly except addictions, which are beyond an ethical problem.) Our moment of conversion, as for those teenagers, is the moment when we return to pursuing what we most desire, and leave behind the tragic ironies that hold back our progress. Christian political and social policy require readiness to work with everyone, from church volunteers and novice philanthropists to imprisoned criminals: neither blinding ourselves to sin nor suspending judgment of wrongs, but offering always opportunities for people to begin living at any moment by what they most desire, and so to move ever forward toward God. As Gregory Nyssen wrote, “This is true perfection: not to avoid God’s punishment like slaves, nor to do good as if hoping to cash in on some business contract. Rather, setting aside all the good things we have been promised and do hope for, we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and becoming God’s friend as the only thing truly worthwhile. This is, as I have said, the perfection of life.” (The Life of Moses, ad fin.,italics mine.)
This is part 4 of 5 in Rick Fabian's Core Values Series describing the theology behind All Saints Company, the founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.