Gregory of Nazianzus: An Unhappy Faith

In the Western church, there’s a prevailing sense that a right faith is a happy one. A lot of today’s bestselling Christian pastors/authors have founded their churches on the idea that God wants you to be happy. But is that the faith that has been handed down to us by Christian tradition? Or is it something else? In an age in which the average person is a functional materialist (only believes in what they can see), have we ceased to believe that we can find fulfillment by following the plans of a transcendent being? Is the shallow feeling of happiness so enviable in our age because it’s the closest thing our culture can get to a sense of spiritual fulfillment?

I don’t know. Clearly those pointed questions say how I feel, but rather than circle back around to conversations about secularism, I want to investigate a bigger problem with the Cult of Happiness: it’s built on straw. Life stinks sometimes. People get sick. Your friends die. You step in a puddle and get wet socks. Life just ain’t always great. Rather than try to pretend we can get through it without being sad, why not just acknowledge unhappy feelings and grow in spite of them? Not only do we see that repeatedly in Scripture (see the Psalms and Jesus for some prime examples), but we see that in the writings of one of the greatest saints of all times: Gregory of Nazianzus.

Those of you that have followed me for a while may remember my previous entries on Gregory of Nazianzus. His poetry is just magnetic to me. Beyond it’s beauty and theological content, he’s not afraid to express himself. Gregory is downright miserable at times. Translator Peter Gilbert goes so far as to suggest he might be diagnosed as clinically depressed if he were alive today (On God and Man, 2). This is the faith of one of the saints that helped us understand the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and it wasn’t a particularly happy one.

Just look at this heartrending selection from On Human Nature:

…I keep an unchanging bent, while we rush
upon the sword in suicidal madness, like the swine.
What’s in fact the good of life? God’s light? But then
hateful and jealous darkness keeps me from it.
Nothing’s of any use to me. And what is there of no use to the wicked?
If only they were equally endowed,with troubles especially!
I lie helpless. Divine terror has bowed me…

93-99

YIKES!

The full poem is long, so I’ll give a little context to that excerpt: the poem opens with Gregory racked with anxiety, asking himself the big question: who am I (line 25). On one hand, Christ died to mingle his essence with the divine and lead him on towards holiness. He knows that! But on the other hand, he doesn’t feel particularly blessed. He describes himself as “a nothing… pommeled down by ills like a thing compacted” (line 43). In old age, his body is betraying him. It’s an “enemy that never lets up warring” (59-60), and he feels like he’s “carrying a corpse… locked in the hateful chains of life”(65). Where is this joy that was promised? Will it come? Was there a point to any of this?

Those of us hoping for a happy ending don’t exactly get one. He concludes his quest: “now’s a fog, but afterwards the Word, and you’ll know all, whether by seeing God or eaten up by fire… I headed home, laughing at my self-estrangement… heart in anguish smoldering,” (127-128, 130-133). This is not a happy man, but it’s still a faithful man. He ends this poem specifically because he knows he needs to trust God, even in his misery:

Stop. Everything is secondary to God. Give in to reason.
He did not create me in vain. I am turning
my back upon this song.

123-126

God didn’t create him for nothing. He moves forward in hope, even if he doesn’t feel particularly happy in the given moment.

This poetry is grim, and yet, I find it strangely compelling. It’s honest. I’ve felt these feelings. I’d go so far as to say that existential crises, self doubt, and unfathomable pain are near-universal experiences in this life. When I think about the preachers that are chasing happiness, I can’t even fathom them validating these kinds of emotions as legitimate. “God doesn’t want that for you! Seek joy!” But that advice denies the pain that we all know is real. Anyone who has lived knows that it’s painful sometimes. A saintly faith isn’t one that ignores the deep pains of the world. It’s one that sees the pain and weeps without giving up faith in God. Gregory knew pain. The psalmists felt pain. Jesus felt pain. The faith that’s been passed down all these thousands of years is a hard one sometimes. That’s ok. It’s part of the journey. To quote Rainer Rilke,

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

We seek fulfillment in our eternal God, not a dopamine rush that might get us through another work week. When things are bad, it’s okay to be sad. It’s not a lack of faith; it’s honesty. We have to remember that God didn’t create us in vain and keep trudging on our way, trusting that in the end, God knows what he’s doing.

Becoming God: Gregory Of Nazianzus and Theosis

Gregory’s poetry is inseparable from theosis.  If you can’t quite remember what that is, or don’t know, theosis is the Eastern Christian doctrine that the ultimate goal of humanity is to become God.  If your heresy alarm is going off, don’t worry.  Nobody is becoming a lightning-bolt flinging god in and of themselves.  It’s more nuanced than that.

A lot of the nuance comes down to understanding essence and energy.  Humanity is supposed to become a part of God’s energy (his action in the world), but is incapable of becoming a part of his essence (his core being). Consider the classic example of the sun.  Can you see the sun?  No, actually.  You can’t see it at all. You can see the sun’s rays.  The sun is that burning ball of gas that sends off the rays of light that we see.  All the same, when we look up at the sky, we don’t say that we see the sun’s rays of light.  We say that we see the sun!  The essence of the sun would be that burning ball of gas, while the rays would be the energy of the sun.  Both are considered “the sun,” but one is the sun proper, while the other is actually the product of the sun’s action that is tied to it’s identity.

Consider God to be like the sun.  God’s essence is that is so holy and beyond our understanding that we can’t look at him directly (Exodus 33:20).  We can’t be this all-powerful, all-holy, pure being! That is for God and God alone. But sometimes we might say, “I saw God today in that person’s actions!”  We didn’t see the burning, mind-blowing essence of God; we saw his energy, or the action of God throughout the world.  Through theosis we become God, but we don’t become his essence.  As creations, we participate in God’s energy, and thus become him since his action in the world is a part of who he is.

As cheesy as it is, we are not the Son.  We are the Son’s rays of light (which are a part of the Son).

It’s a very participatory understanding of God, and one that’s thoroughly ancient.  For example, Athanasius (the guy who usually gets credit for establishing that Jesus is actually God) coined the popular phrase: “God became man so that man might become God.” (54:3, On the Incarnation). 

Gregory’s writing is absolutely soaked in the same logic.  For example, who could read this line from On the Son without hearing the logic of Athanasius?

through Christ’s sufferings, you may become God hereafter (48-49, On the Son)

Similarly, his poetry on the Father and the Holy Spirit both include references to humanity’s ultimate theosis:

Oh Spirit of God, may you waken my mind and tongue
As a loud-shouting clarion of truth, so that all
may rejoice who are united to the entire Godhead. (23-25, On the Father)

God’s gift [is] his own divinity. (On the Holy Spirit, 54)

To properly understand the Triune God, he expects people to understand how they’re being asked to become a part of it. You can’t know God without knowing how he’s inviting you to join the divine life.

The theme of theosis isn’t limited to those God-centric poems either. In considering the world and humanity’s ultimate journey towards heaven, he writes:

Of these worlds, the first-born was that other heaven,
The region of those who bear the divine, perceptible to minds only,
All-luminous; To it the man of God wends his way from here
Later, once he’s perfected as god, purified in mind and flesh. (95-96, Concerning the World)

Again and again, waves of theosis crash over the reader.  We are expected to become one with God. 

Why is it so hard to imagine someone saying this in a Western church today?

I’ve seen a few writers attempt to answer that question by blaming the way Westerners think about knowledge.  Western knowledge is often understood to be knowledge about something.  This type of knowledge is a dispassionate, supposedly objective, factual sort of understanding. Science textbooks are full of this kind of knowledge.  For example, if I look up knowledge about an apple, I might learn where it best grows, what it’s Latin name is, and how many of them were sold commercially last year.  All of this is technically true, but removed from the more intimate knowledge that comes from a genuine, firsthand experience with an apple. People who have knowledge of an apple know what it tastes like, they know the tension of an apple’s skin beneath their teeth, and they remember the shine that reflects off an apple as it’s held up to a light.  You can’t find that on Wikipedia!  That’s a different kind of knowledge; knowledge that is usually relegated to poets and artists. It might even sound more like feelings than art, but both are valid ways of gaining knowledge about something. Westerners just favor knowledge about over knowledge of.

If the apple feels to far removed from relational knowledge that you need to consider in Christianity for a being such as God, just think about how you could know a friend in the same ways: “my friend has brown hair,” (knowledge about) or “my friend is delightful,” (knowledge of).

In any case, the claim that has been made that Westerners are so concerned with knowledge about (represented by scholastic theology) that they have little interest in direct knowledge of God (as reflected by mystics and monks). Since theosis is an experiential, intimate knowledge of God, it wouldn’t really appeal to the Western mind as a worthwhile, valid source of theology.

I think that claim is completely wrong. I would even go a step further and claim that it’s biased enough that it was probably written by an Easterner that was explaining the importance of their traditions without full knowledge of vibrant Western Christian traditions.  We have no shortage of influential mystics (Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of the Cross, etc.) and I’ve met people that passionately seek God without any scholastic bent.  There are whole traditions that (sadly) actively deride an academic approach to faith!  And even if there were some hint of truth to the claim, I do believe that knowledge about God in the scholastic sense is important.  We need both types of knowledge to really thrive as Christians. Pitting one against the other isn’t helpful. To use the example of an apple again, if I only had personal knowledge about apples, I probably wouldn’t be able to grow apple trees.  I wouldn’t know the proper climate, anything about how they’re fertilized, or the best variety to grow for my region.  If I’m really desperately passionate about apples, both kinds of knowledge are crucially important.  The same is true with knowledge about people.  I know what it’s like to spend an evening with my wife.  If, however, I forget her birthday because I don’t value knowledge about her, then I’m going to guess our relationship will suffer for it.

No, the “Westerners don’t appreciate personal knowledge” explanation both derides some very good sources of knowledge and doesn’t speak to the vibrant Western sources of spirituality that actively exist.

My guess is that a large amount of it comes down to language and culture.  The essence/energy distinction sounds very platonic (something derived from the works of the Greek philosopher Plato) and understandings about theosis flourished in places that had close contact and influence from Greek culture and writings (Russia, Greece, etc.). Could it be that an idea with roots in Greek thought made more sense to places influenced accordingly?

The West wrote and spoke in Latin.  The essence/energy distinction was not only unexplored; mindsets shaped by Greek words and philosophies were less common.  Things simply were what they were!  God was God, and not-God was not-God.  Essence defined identity; energy translated as something like “action,” and it was not linked with identity.  The creature-creator distinction ended up being considerably sharper as a result.

Of course, the energy-essence distinction wasn’t officially given as a teaching until the 12th century, but words usually bubble up out of pre-existing logics that require definitive explanations.  And here we see Gregory talking about theosis readily, and he’s all the way back in the fourth century! The Greek language and mindset made theosis reasonable.  The Latin language and mindset made it sound heretical.

In any case, it’s a teaching that inspires me.  It’s intimate.  It’s close beyond close.  To imagine that I might not just achieve a certain level of goodness, but might reflect the actions of God so well that he and I are inseparable?  It captures the idea of being transformed by the Holy Spirit so perfectly. The fact that the guy who helped establish Jesus’s divinity (Athanasius) and one of the fighters for the Godhood of the Holy Spirit (our dear Gregory) are both onboard makes it seem like a crucial truth that we’ve forgotten. Were we made to become divine?

What would it take to make full use of the doctrine of theosis in Western churches?  And is that something we should be aiming for?  It’s a doctrine that is complicated for the Western mind, but one that illustrates the closeness of God and the importance of our transformation so well.  At minimum, I love that Gregory’s forcing me to consider a divine destiny for humanity, and, even with my little explanation, I keep pondering why it’s so hard for us to imagine.

The Patristic Poet: Gregory of Nazianzus

It feels a little odd to kick things off with Gregory of Nazianzus.  He doesn’t have the star power of Augustine, Calvin, Luther, or the other big-name denominational theologians.  My theology nerd friends haven’t really read him, and truth be told, I only ended up reading his poetry by mistake.  I confused him with Gregory of Nyssa when I was ordering books (strangely enough, the two Gregory of N’s were dear friends in life, so I wasn’t far off).  I’m glad I made that mistake!  Gregory is the poet theologian that I didn’t know I needed.  Here’s why:

1. He’s succinct.

There are plenty of massive theology tomes out there that will take you months to properly understand (if not years).  And most people don’t read them for a simple reason: who has the time for all that? Gregory’s poems are something you do have time for. In his explanatory poem On His Own Verses, he writes”

By working for others, I wished
to subdue my own unmeasuredness;
indeed, though I write, I don’t write much
when toiling on meter. (35-37)

“Measuredness” was something of a theme in Gregory’s life.  As the archbishop of Constantinople, Gregory was used to talking a lot.  He railed against heresies! He pontificated about good theology!  He led the Church where it needed to be! But after he retired, his life took a different, quieter tone.  Starting in 375, he spent 3 years among monks.  During Lent of the year 382, he took a vow of silence, only communicating through sign language.  His poetry is one more post-retirement attempt to tame his tongue. Consequently, you don’t need years to get read them them.  You can knock out a couple during your lunch break.

2. He has a ridiculous amount of personality.

Gregory’s poetry is just fun. Even though he’s this serious, saintly theologian, his writing is always delightfully human. For example, when he addressed people that thought his poetry was bad, I assumed he would tell them something generically saintly.  Something like, “If you don’t like these poems, then I beg your forgiveness.  My words are a poor tool to represent a being as great as God.  You may doubt my eloquence, but don’t doubt him.”  Nope:

If these things are petty, do grander ones yourself
You revile meter?  No wonder, when you’re meterless,
An iamb-manufacturer, scribbling abortions.  (On His Own Verses
, 67-70)

Or how about when he’s addressing Christians that refuse to acknowledge the equality of the Father and the Son:

if, rendering offerings to the great Father’s Godhead
worthlessly, and gravening in your heart a hollow fear
you’d deny this thing, and would hurl Christ out amongst creatures,
you insult, O nitwit, the divinity of them both!
(On the Son, 40-44)

Not a dull moment here!

It’s not all hotheadedness either.  For a significant portion of his poetry, Gregory is wrestling with a profound sadness.  There’s no better example than the poem that he wrote when his best friend died: Epitaph to St. Basil:

I had thought that a body could as well
Live without a soul
As me without you.
Basil, beloved servant of Christ;
But you’re gone and I remain.
What’ll become of us?
Will you not set me, when I arise,
There with you in the choir of the blessed?
No, don’t leave me: I swear by my grave

I won’t leave yours, not willingly.
You have Gregory’s word.

It brings tears to my eyes each time.  I’m not saying every poem is going to do that, but I can promise that Gregory never holds back.  This isn’t dry, dusty theological poetry. It’s vibrant and human! Which leads to a third reason I love his poetry:

3. His beliefs are beautiful.

They really are. Not everyone sees that at first. There aren’t exactly a ton of Amazon reviews on Gregory’s poetry (the copy I’m using, anyway), but a handful of those few complain that Gregory’s poems are too didactic.  They say that they’re tools to express his theology, not genuine pieces of art.  I think they’re dead wrong.

Admittedly, they don’t rhyme, and their meter isn’t consistent, but these are ancient translated poems.  Can we hold them to the same standards as Shakespeare?  Besides, there’s plenty of poems out there that don’t rhyme or have consistent meter.  If anything, those tend to be seen as more avant garde.  We have to look for the beauty of these ancient poems on their own terms.  If anything, his poetry beautifies and elevates the disciple of doctrine.  Take a snippet of his description of God:

There is one God, without beginning or cause, not limited
By anything existing before, or afterwards to be,
Encompassing the aeons, and infinite. (On the Father, 25-27)

Or the description of his own humanity:

I am soul and body: the one, an efflux of divinity,
Of infinite light: the other was formed for you
From a murky root.  (Concerning the World, 32-34)

Sure, it’s directed, doctrinal theology, but the way he spins beautiful words around ideas is beautiful. It’s not just doctrine; it’s art.

With his brevity, his raw humanity, and his beautiful articulation, Gregory has crafted something for the ages. It all makes me wonder, why is so much of modern doctrine dull? We hammer out what we believe in terms that are definitely precise, but if doctrine is the truth of God, shouldn’t it be the culmination of every discipline? Not only philosophy and science, but poetry, art, and music? Why shouldn’t the truth of the most high God be worthy of an art museum? And by no means do I mean that it ought to always please us, as so many inspirational Christian wall hangings strive to do. A lot of art isn’t easy for humanity to swallow, but it’s beautiful all the same. Dostoyevsky famously wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” If God is true beauty (and a fervent Christian like Dostoyevsky knew that he was), I have to imagine that he’s right. We need more theological poets like Gregory in the world. We need people to help articulate beautiful beliefs, not only for evangelization and inspiration, but to write things worthy of God.