Gregory & Job on Revelation

I cannot think of another time since we started this blog when I have been more absent. The end of the spring semester was a blur, and I typically go into hiding once grades are submitted. I want to push my kids on the swing, tend the garden, read fiction, and do little else. And I have done little else for the past couple weeks.

Now, with summer projects clambering for attention (a chapter on Radical Orthodoxy must be written by August), I hope to be more consistently present on TF. Let me wade back in by posting part of a brief presentation I made for our University’s student awards night. The student and I had worked together on a research project on Gregory of Nyssa, so I geared my comments on divine revelation in his direction:

In the book of Job, chapters 38-41, God interrogates Job with a series of questions:” “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? . . . Who marked off its dimensions? . . . Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (38:4, 5); “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it? (38:12-13); “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (38:16); “Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.” (38:18)

God shows Job that he has attempted to reach beyond the limits of his grasp, beyond what his knowledge is able to attain. How does Job respond? “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things to wonderful for me to know.”

Gregory of Nyssa tried to evoke a similar response from his readers in his book The Second Book Against Eunomius. In its first part Gregory argues that if our grasp of the natural world has significant gaps, we should be especially modest when speaking of God. “Having learnt therefore how great the different of nature is, we should quietly stay within our proper limits. It is safer and at the same time more reverent to believe that the divine majesty is more than can be thought of, than to restrain his glory by certain ideas and think there is nothing beyond that (CE II, 96)”

Why do I bring this up? Gregory reminds us of something so basic to our knowledge of God that if we are not careful we can forget it, and in forgetting it lose everything. Here it is: God gives himself to be known, and that gift eternally exceeds our grasp. That gift is called “revelation,” and although the content of that gift is delightful and transformative of the ones who receive it, it always exceeds our grasp. It is a gift that renders moot our ability to reach and strive our way to God, or to suppose we have ever totally comprehended him.

What this requires of the one in pursuit of God is a distinct posture, a certain manner of approaching the pursuit of God: joyful humility. It is joyful because the one pursuing God knows that their pursuit is in response to God’s gracious encounter that precedes them in his revelation, and it’s humble because it remains mindful of the object of its pursuit: not a rock, nor a radish, or a rabbit, but God.

This posture of joyful humility is like a child wading in the sea. As someone else has said it, “studiously cautious, not intending to get wet, but magnificently upended by the vast, joyful rolling of the tide. The tide pulling at theologians is God, trying to get us to float, even swim, or at least admit we have no business floundering along on two feet is such a current” (McIntosh, Divine Teaching).

Job learned this, and Gregory knew it, and one of my students is learning this as well.

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2 thoughts on “Gregory & Job on Revelation

  1. Mr. Eric Bugyis, doctoral candidate at Yale, attributes this related view, now espoused by many, in part to Aquinas. In the May 19 2011 entry to the First Things blog (read here). As follows:

    “Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, argued not only that our empirical inquiries are fallible, due to the fact that they treat objects that are finite and always changing, but our theological inquiry is also subject to continued scrutiny, because, though our “object of study” is unchanging, our finite minds cannot grasp the infinite reality of God. Thus, we have to constantly rethink our traditional ideas of God so as to avoid the kind of prideful idolatry that claims to have rationally exhausted knowledge of the Divine. The “conservative” who finds it necessary to preserve the constancy of tradition for fear of having to revise, complicate, or shatter “traditional ideas” is not suffering from a particular intellectual idiosyncrasy; for Aquinas, such a person is simply wrong about how ideas work, not to mention potentially heretical.”

    I’m not that familiar with Aquinas; does this seems like an accurate summary? In any case, seems like a useful argument against the religious “conservative” movement.

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