Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"Theological Epistemology"

Apropos of St. Gregory of Nyssa “On Virginity”

The theological epistemology of Gregory of Nyssa[1] consists in the knowledge of God by the experience of the self as image. The self, sullied by sin, does not clearly reflect the light of God. Once cleansed and burnished, it gives off dazzling light and the context or “meaning” in which everything else is understood. In this cleansed, reflective state, the Revelation of God, that is other than the self, emanates from within the self. This is not the “religious sense” espoused by the Modernists which was described in “Pascendi” as “subconsciousness.”[2] Modernism was basically on the side of cogito and pure thought in the dualism of thought-matter that has dominated modern thought from Descartes. Gregory of Nyssa is not working with a dualism. He is talking about the image of God as an ontological reality that gives off light in the action of self-giving.

Before setting it forth, I offer the “Theological Epistemology” that it is in fact in present day parlance. As such it was highlighted in the Summary of the Synod on “The Word of God” by Cardinal Marc Ouellet. He wrote on the necessity of achieving this kind of knowing in order to properly reach the spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture: “Among the urgent tasks of the study, it is important to research theological epistemology, aided by the Fathers of the Church and the saints. By their personal and methodical attitude of contemplative faith, they open themselves up to the depths of the text, that is to say to the presence of God who speaks now to this person and calls upon the listener. From this stems their witness of a ‘science of love’ in which dwells the path of access ‘par excellence’ to the knowledge of God.”[3]

That “theological epistemology” is named by Joseph Ratzinger in his “Behold the Pierced One:” “In Thesis 1 we saw that prayer was the central act of the person of Jesus and, indeed, that this person is constituted by the act of prayer, of unbroken communication with the one he calls ‘Father.’ If this is the case, it is only possible really to understand this person by entering into this act of prayer, by participating in it. This is suggested by Jesus’ saying that no one can come to him unless the Father draws him (Jn. 6, 44). Where there is no Father, there is no Son. Where there is no relationship with God, there can be no understanding of him who, in his innermost self, is nothing but relationship with God, the Father – although one can doubtless establish plenty of details about him. Therefore a participation in the mind of Jesus, i.e., in his prayer, which (as we have seen) is an act of love, of self-giving and self-expropriation to men, is not some kind of pious supplement to reading the Gospels, adding nothing to knowledge of him or even being an obstacle to the rigorous purity of critical knowing. On the contrary, it is the basic precondition if real understanding, in the senses of modern hermeneutics – i.e., the entering-in to the same time and the same meaning – is to take place.

“The New Testament continually reveals this state of affairs and thus provides the foundation for a theological epistemology. Here is simply one example: when Ananias was sent to Paul to receive him into the Church, he was reluctant and suspicious of Paul; the reason given to him was this: go to him ‘for he is praying’ (Acts 9, 11). In prayer, Paul is moving toward the moment when he will be freed from blindness and will begin to see, not only exteriorly, but interiorly as well. The person who prays begins to see; praying and seeing go together because… ‘Love is the faculty of seeing.’ Real advances in Christology, therefore, can never come merely as the result of the theology of the schools, and that includes the modern theology as we find it in critical exegesis, in the history of doctrine and in an anthropology oriented toward the human sciences, etc. All this is important, as important as schools are. But it is insufficient. It must be complemented by the theology of the saints, which is theology from experience. All real progress in theological understanding has it origin in the eye of love and in its faculty of beholding.”[4]

Offered more scientifically, consider Ratzinger’s discoveries for his habilitation thesis (which was rejected by M. Schmaus as tainted with Modernism). He finds that Revelation is precisely the Person of Christ as Action of Self-gift. Likewise, he finds that faith is the resonating action self-gift as reception whereby the “veil” of self turned back on self is removed. And because of this removing of the “veil” (re-vel-ation) in the believer, Revelation only occurs where there is faith. This is exactly what Nyssa will be talking about below in the middle of the 4th century.

Consider Ratzinger: “You can have Scripture without having revelation. For revelation always and only becomes a reality where there is faith. The nonbeliever remains under the veil of which Paul speaks in the third chapter of his Second Letter to the Corinthians. He can read Scripture and know what is in it, can even understand at a purely intellectual level, what is meant and how what is said hangs together – and yet he has not shared in the revelation. Rather, revelation has only arrived where, in addition to the material assertions witnessing to it, its inner reality has itself become effective after the manner of faith. Consequently, the person who receives it also is a part of the revelation to a certain degree, for without him it does not exist. You cannot pout revelation in your pocket like a book you carry around with you. It is a living reality that requires a living person as the locus of its presence.

“In view of the foregoing, we could say that revelation goes beyond the fact of Scripture in two directions:

a) As a reality that has it basis in God, it always extends upward into God’s action.

b) As a reality that happens to man in faith, it extends, as it were, beyond the mediating fact of Scripture, too.

“It becomes clear, from this incongruence between Scripture and revelation, that quite independently of the question of whether Scripture is the sole material source or not, there can never be an actual principle of sola scriptura in Christianity (something that, as we said, was still clear in principle to the great Reformer s and was only forgotten later, in so-called Protestant orthodoxy). Scripture is not revelation but, in any case, is only a part of this greater reality.”[5]

Gregory of Nyssa: Father of the Church of the Fourth Century

Nyssa wrote: “‘Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God’ we are to learn that blessedness does not lie in knowing something about God, but rather in possessing God within oneself.

“I do not think these words mean that God will be seen face to face by the man who purifies the eye of his soul. Their sublime import is brought out more clearly perhaps in that other saying of the Lord’s: ‘The Kingdom of God is within you.’ This teaches us that the man who cleanses his heart of every created thing and every evil desire will see the image of the divine nature in the beauty of his own soul. I believe the lesson summed up by the Word in that short sentence was this: You men have within you a desire to behold the supreme good. Now when you are told that the majesty of God is exalted above the heavens, that his glory is inexpressible, his beauty indescribable, and his nature transcendent, do not despair because you cannot behold the object of your desire. If by a diligent life of virtue you wash away the film of dirt that covers your heart, then the divine beauty will shine forth in you.

“Take a piece of iron as an illustration. Although it might have been black before, once the rust has been scraped off with t whetstone, it will begin to shine brilliantly and to reflect the rays of the sun. So it is with the interior man, which is what the Lord means by the heart. Once a man removes from his soul the coating of filth that has formed on it through his sinful neglect, he will regain his likeness to his Archetype, and be good. For what resembles the supreme Good is itself good. If he then looks into himself, he will see the vision he has longed for. This is the blessedness of the pure of heart: in seeing their own purity they see the divine Archetype mirrored in themselves.

“Those who look at the sun in a mirror, even if they do not look directly at the sky, see its radiance in the reflection just as truly as do those who look directly at the sun’s orb. It is the same, says the Lord, with you. Even though you are unable to contemplate and see the inaccessible light, you will find what you seek within yourself provided you return to the beauty and grace of that image which was originally placed in you. For God is purity; he is free from sin and a stranger to all evil. If this can be said of you, then God will surely be within you. If your mind is untainted by any evil, free from sin, and purified from all stain, then indeed are you blessed, because your sight is keen and clear. Once purified, you see things that others cannot see. When the mists of sin no longer cloud the eye of your soul, you see that blessed vision clearly in the peace and purity of your own heart. That vision is nothing else than the holiness, the purity, the simplicity and the other glorious reflections of God’s nature, through which God himself is seen.”[6]

Fr. Martin J. Miller sent me the following that is in the same vein:

Nyssa writes: “In fact this likeness to the divine is not our work at all; it is not the achievement of any faculty of man; it is the great gift of God bestowed upon our nature at the very moment of our birth; human efforts can only go so far as to clear away the filth of sin, and so cause the buried beauty of the soul to shine forth again. This truth is, I think, taught in the Gospel, when our Lord says, to those who can hear what Wisdom speaks beneath a mystery, that "the Kingdom of God is within you Luke 17:21 ." That word points out the fact that the Divine good is not something apart from our nature, and is not removed far away from those who have the will to seek it; it is in fact within each of us, ignored indeed, and unnoticed while it is stifled beneath the cares and pleasures of life, but found again whenever we can turn our power of conscious thinking towards it. If further confirmation of what we say is required, I think it will be found in what is suggested by our Lord in the searching for the Lost Drachma. The thought, there, is that the widowed soul reaps no benefit from the other virtues (called drachmas in the Parable) being all of them found safe, if that one other is not among them. The Parable therefore suggests that a candle should first be lit, signifying doubtless our reason which throws light on hidden principles; then that in one's own house, that is, within oneself, we should search for that lost coin; and by that coin the Parable doubtless hints at the image of our King, not yet hopelessly lost, but hidden beneath the dirt; and by this last we must understand the impurities of the flesh, which, being swept and purged away by carefulness of life, leave clear to the view the object of our search. Then it is meant that the soul herself who finds this rejoices over it, and with her the neighbors, whom she calls in to share with her in this delight. Verily, all those powers which are the house-mates of the soul, and which the Parable names her neighbors for this occasion, when so be that the image of the mighty King is revealed in all its brightness at last (that image which the Fashioner of each individual heart of us has stamped upon this our Drachma ), will then be converted to that divine delight and festivity, and will gaze upon the ineffable beauty of the recovered one. "Rejoice with me," she says, "because I have found the Drachma which I had lost." The neighbors, that is, the soul's familiar powers, both the reasoning and the appetitive, the affections of grief and of anger, and all the rest that are discerned in her, at that joyful feast which celebrates the finding of the heavenly Drachma are well called her friends also; and it is meet that they should all rejoice in the Lord when they all look towards the Beautiful and the Good, and do everything for the glory of God, no longer instruments of sin. Romans 6:13 If, then, such is the lesson of this Finding of the lost, viz. that we should restore the divine image from the foulness which the flesh wraps round it to its primitive state, let us become that which the First Man was at the moment when he first breathed.”[7]

[1] Gregory of Nyssa (c 335 – after 394) He was a younger brother of Basil the Great and a good friend of Gregory Nazianzus. His significance has long been recognized in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholic branches of Christianity. Gregory along with his brother Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus are known as the Cappadocian Fathers. They attempted to establish Christian philosophy as superior to Greek philosophy.

[2] “It is thus that the religious sense, which through the agency of vital immanence emerges from the lurking-places of the subconsciouosness, is the germ of all religion, and the explanation of everything that has been or ever will be in any religion. This sense, which was at first only rudimentary and almost formless, under the influence of that mysterious principle from which it originated, gradually matured with the progress of human life, of which, as has been said, it is a certain form. This, then, is the origin of all, even of supernatural religion. For religions are mere developments of this religious sense. Nor is the Catholic religion an exception; it is quite on a level with the rest; for it was engendered, by the process of vital immanence, and by no other way, in the consciousness of Christ, who was a man of the choicest nature, whose like has never been, nor will be;” Pascendi Domini Gregis 10; July 3, 1907.

[3] Cardinal Marc Ouellet, “Report before the Discussion,” #3.

[4] J. Ratzinger, “Behold the Pierced One” Ignatius (1986) 26-27.

[5] J. Ratzinger, “The Question of the Concept of Tradition – A Provisional Response,” God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office Ignatius (2008) 52-53.

[6] From a homily by Saint Gregory of Nyssa, bishop, “De Beatitudinibus, PG 44, 1270-1271, Saturday 12th Week of Ordinary Time, Office of Readings III, p. 412-414.

[7] On Virginity.

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