Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Idolatry of Sermons: Gregory of Nyssa

Audio of this probably idolatrous sermon can be heard here.

My favorite exegetical author is Robert Krulwich, the NPR science correspondent, author, and co-host of my favorite radio program and podcast, Radiolab. He uses image, story, and analogy to explain the complexities of the universe. According to his Wikipedia entry, New York Magazine called him "the man who simplifies without being simple." Despite a surprising overlap in our fields, I don't often use his work in my sermons, but I do admire the beauty of his work and his mind in a way that shapes my own thinking. I love to explain. I love to use image, story, and analogy to begin to convey the complexity of theological ideas. No, I'm not anywhere close to being in the same league as Krulwich, but I consider him a model for my approach to preaching and teaching.

And that's why I find Gregory of Nyssa and his contribution to Christian theology both exhilarating and frustrating. He lived in the fourth century--back when preachers, teachers, and theologians like him were arguing over fine theological points that ended up shaping everything we know and believe about God. Most notably, Gregory of Nyssa and his companions known as the Cappadocian Fathers contributed heavily to our understanding of the Trinity. Who are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? How are they related one to another? Where did each come from? What is their relationship to the created order? What can we know about them? What can we say about them? What can't we know?

Gregory of Nyssa added a lot to that conversation. He wrote about the consubstantiality of the three persons of the Trinity, which is to say that he believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all of the exact same substance. He wrote about the unity of divine action, which is to say that he believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all working in the same way. Otherwise, we'd end up with three gods instead of one. But my favorite, and perhaps the most important, work that Gregory of Nyssa did had to do with the infinitude of God.

Gregory wrote that God is infinite. On this point, he disagreed with many of the other theologians of his day, including Origen. He based that argument on the belief that God's goodness is limitless and, thus, because of the necessity of God's goodness, God is infinite. Let that sink in for a moment. (Ha!) God is infinite. Bigger than time. Greater than all space. There are no limits--no limits!--to God. And, Gregory wrote (and this is the tough part) that, if God is infinite, we cannot understand him.

That's disappointing to human beings of any era but especially to those of the 20th & 21st centuries--a time when the potential for exploration and discovery seems limitless. To say that God cannot be known is exceedingly frustrating. What do you mean we cannot know him? Well, if God is infinite, we cannot fit God into our finite brains. More than that, if God is infinite, any attempt to explain or describe who God is fails to do God justice. God is, at God's very essence, unknowable to human beings. As a result, Gregory argued that the only things that can be said about God are negative things--what God isn't instead of what God is. That's called apophatic theology. It means we can only define God in terms of what we know him not to be. God is not evil. God is not limited. God is not knowable. God is infinite. So, in this life and in the next, we will always be progressing closer and closer to God without ever getting there. For someone who lives to explain things in clear, simple, understandable ways, that's a total buzz-kill. Bummer, I know.

Any attempt to explain who God is is to create a false image of the unknowable God and set it up for idol worship. In his seminal work, The Life of Moses, Nyssen wrote, "Every concept that comes from some comprehensible image, by an approximate understanding and by guessing at the Divine nature, constitutes a idol of God and does not proclaim God." My favorite sermons--the ones that try to put God in an easily consumable package--therefore, are essentially idolatry. Yeah, bummer.

But what does Jesus say? In the gospel lesson appointed for Gregory's feast (John 14:23-26), Jesus says some helpfully enigmatic words: "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me." Notice that in this NRSV translation Jesus does not say, "If you want to keep my words, you must love me." Instead, he simply says, "If you love me, you will keep my words. And we--God--will come and make our home with you." We are not invited to know something. Participation in the divine life--the work of the eternal, infinite, blessed Holy Trinity--does not depend upon our apprehension. It hinges solely upon our love. Love is the relationship of the persons of the Trinity. Love is the dynamic movement of the three persons. Through Christ, the Incarnate One, we are caught up into that life of love. And God makes his home within us accordingly. We don't make a home for him. God makes his own home. And all we do is love.

Don't worry about understanding the Trinity. You never will because no one can. And don't listen to any terrible sermons with analogies for comprehending the incomprehensible. They are setting up idols for your false worship. Just love. God is love, and we love in God so God lives in us. I really can't say any more than that. No one can.


  1. Really interesting article thanks. There's a contrast between say Moses in the 'dazzling darkness' of Sinai and my church experience of 'become a Christian to know God'. You're emphasis on 'participation' is where things hinge for me. Perhaps this is what Gregory is driving at in Beatitudes? Also I suspect that part of the discussion hinges on what we mean by 'know'. Do we ever fully know a person? Or anything?

    1. Thanks for your comments and compliments. I like the thought of participation as the hinge.