The Dazzling Darkness of God

Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses is one of the most profound works of apophatic theology we have. Within the fairly simple context of an exposition of Moses’s life, Gregory traces out the contours of what it means to live a life oriented towards and moving into God. Rather than being something which ever comes to a halt or which ever ceases, this is a movement and directedness that will continue unabated for all eternity. This means that our thoughts, desires, actions, and knowledge will perpetually be drawn towards and increasingly conformed to God.

It is because of this reality that Nyssa speak of the darkness of God

Most Christian and biblical depictions of God tend to focus on God as the “light” who illumines everything, through whose rays we behold the world, and in whom “there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Gregory doesn’t disagree with any of this, but wants to hone in on the implications of the fact that God, the Uncreated One, is light.

Whenever we try to talk and speak about God, the only way we can do this is through the language and images we’ve assembled through what we’ve seen, heard, tasted, touched, or smelled; we’re straining to bend our thoughts and language to the Uncreated One, but the only way we can do this is with and through created forms and expressions.[1] To be sure, God impresses herself[2] directly on our minds and discloses herself to us there, but our only way of making sense of this is through our natural ways of speaking and knowing, attempting to fashion images and words for what exceeds all of these things.

For example: while we talk of God as Light, or Life, or Father, or Son, or Three or One, these don’t actually describe what God is: they’re creaturely categories that properly describe created things.[3]

Gregory, then, wants to highlight the way that the more we come to know God, the more we find our ways of thinking and speaking break down—God simply exceeds and eclipses all of the created media through which we try to make sense and speak of God.

Enter: God’s darkness.

Though God is "light," the closer we come to the Divine, the more clearly we see how utterly radiant God is, and “what of the divine nature is uncontemplated” (80).[4] The uncreated reality of God increasingly impresses itself upon us, but we have no way of processing or making sense of this. So, God appears as nonsense or gibberish, as darkness. Much like perpetually gazing unprotected at the sun induces blindness, so too God is simply too radiant for our creaturely faculties; God overwhelms them and appears to us as a dazzling darkness that leaves us reeling.

For Nyssa, then, we really do “see” God, but this is not something that our rational mind can grasp onto and process; this is not something we can assimilate or distill or latch onto.

It is precisely here, then, when we are venturing further into God, that our intelligence fails us, our thoughts break down, and our cognition folds. It is here that we are brought to know and see this God who is invisible and incomprehensible: “this is the seeing that consists in not seeing” (80).

In our seeking after God, God is the one who is so far above all knowledge that she is “separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness” (80). God to the core simply outstrips and is above “all knowledge and comprehension” (81). No amount of study, no amount of reflection, no amount of rigor and discipline gets us around this.

God, we might say, is the abyss into whom we can pour everything we have—all that we’ve got—without ever truly plumbing the depths—or even the surface—of the Divine. The more we lose ourselves in God, the more we are immersed in the Divine, the more we realize we don’t know.

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.[5]


[1] Just a heads up: this paragraph is largely an educated guess on my part about what Gregory is on about here. His actual description of why we are unable to process God is pretty brief, so I’m trying to slop together (in an appetizingly nourishing way), a couple of half-hinted and vague gestures he makes. Feel free to correct any misunderstandings on my part, and I’m happy to repent in sackcloth and ashes.

[2] I should note that, as far as I know, Nyssa doesn’t employ feminine pronouns of God. Nonetheless, I think it’s appropriate. Were he plopped down in the 21st century, and were he to survive the spiritual and existential trauma this inflicted on him, I’m pretty confident he would have no problem with this language, regardless of whether or not he employed it in his own time. Times change, y’all.

[3] I also think this is why apophatic theology has to take seriously and be interrogated and transformed by liberationist, feminist, black, and queer critiques of our God thought and talk. More on that in a later post.

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

[5] Don’t take this out of context. I know you want to.