Your Faith is Not Enough

Last post I began to unpack Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of divine darkness in The Life of Moses. In this bite-sized work, we saw how Moses’s life opens out into an exploration of our limitless movement into God. This never-ending journey is one in which our hearts, minds, desires, and actions come to be increasingly like God.

Within this ever-expanding dance, God is experienced as darkness. Far from arising out of a lack or deficiency in God, this happens because of the utterly radiant and perfect one she is. Because God is uncreated, she is of an entirely different order from all of creation. All of the ways in which we normally process and categorize things by making inferences and connections between what is already known and what is not ultimately fail when it comes to God. God is utterly singular, so our knowledge and sight must fold in face of her beautifully bewildering reality.

It is at this point that I want to venture out from the safe harbor that Nyssa provides us with, and onto the beckoning seas of the Divine Abyss.

If God is truly the incomprehensible one, the one who outstrips us at every turn, then our life with God, our knowledge of God, our faith, our security in God, ultimately cannot be based on us.[1] They are not based on our exertion, they are not based on our willpower, they are not based on the strength or weakness of our abilities—or our faith! Our life with God does not—and cannot—depend on our ability to understand, grasp, or wrap our heads around God. It cannot, because these are all inadequate. They break down. They fail. They aren’t enough.

Always.

The reality of God’s darkness is that our relationship and our faith, our residing in God, ultimately don't depend on us, don’t depend on our abilities, don’t depend on our getting God right. This would be a doomed venture; the truth is we can’t get God “right.” We fail.

Against the false prophets and pastors who would pile a mountain of anxiety and despair on their congregants by telling them that their right-relatedness to the Divine depends on their own ability or faith or their pinpoint precision in ticking off all of the acceptable doctrinal boxes, we must declare that in the light of the true God, the God who is, the Eternal, this is an absolute lie. Getting to God, securing our standing with God, is something we cannot do, even through the strength of our own faith.

Our efforts must fail because God is God and we are not.

And. This. Is. Good. News.

Precisely where things break down; precisely where we find ourselves surrounded by the void of godforsakenness; precisely where our faith fails and we scream out “Where are you God?”; precisely where the terrorizing horror come pouring in and Nightbringer speaks our name, God grasps us, and refuses to let us plummet limitlessly into Annihilation’s totalizing horizon. God is there, in the breach.

Where our cognition and abilities fail, where our categories and faculties and faith break down, where we run aground on the limits and tragedies of our humanity, there God is, infinitely, unendingly, unfailingly, spinning forth in the face of Oblivion. She is not removed from our suffering and pain. She is not distant, she is not far off, because God is the God whose dazzling darkness is present even in the blackest of nights.

In our cognitive collapse and existential splintering, where our lives fold beneath the weight of degradation and oppression, where all that is left are the jagged shards of a once coherent, whole, and healthy life, this is where we find “the limit,” the God who saves (82).[2] Whether our conditions change or not, God is there, bearing with us, and bearing us through Devastation’s wake.

Into the breach she dances, alluringly beckoning us to give in to the music’s sway, as she laughingly skips out over the face of the abyssal deep.

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[1] I realize that those who are apophatically-inclined—or at least somewhat familiar with theological things—might suggest there’s a category error here, that there’s a difference between God’s incomprehensibility entailing a growing awareness of our inability to comprehend God and thinking that it implies our faith's inability to grasp God. One could argue, like Gregory and others seem to, that while we can’t grasp God intellectually, we only realize this fact as we inhabit and expand along our willed trajectory towards and commitment to this God who exceeds our contemplation. Within this frame, apophosis seems to demand a grounding in our own faith and commitment. I’m not convinced by this approach. My weaving together God’s incomprehensibility with our total dependence on God—and not our faith—stems from an attempt to take seriously the way that the understanding, will, and desire are all intertwined for Gregory. I think faith is best understood as something like an existential, gut-level, often un-articulateable commitment to something (be it God, the Market, booze) as the ordering reality of our lives; it involves something like a largely unconscious propulsion towards another reality. This inevitably involves willing and desiring this other, and because willing and desiring are wrapped up together with understanding, where cognition and comprehension break down in regards to God, so too must our willing and desiring. Both when we are drawn towards God and when we are not, the fact is that God simply exceeds our ability to willingly and desiringly grasp or entrust ourselves to her. God exceeds our faith in her (or lack thereof), just as God exceeds our intellectual grasp. Even though Gregory and Pseudo Dionysius (among others) don’t make this leap, I think they provide the ground from which to pole vault, even if rather awkwardly at times. A gold medal may not be in the offering, but I can live with that.

[2] Reference is from Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. By Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (HarperOne: New York, 2006).