Against Virtue: 1

Up until this point, you’d be forgiven for assuming I generally approved of all things Gregory of Nyssa. While each of my last three posts may have departed from him, these departures were along trajectories that he at least opens up; they’re sort of modern-day extensions of his thought, which would have been impossible for him to make during his lifetime, but which (one could argue) aren’t diametrically opposed to the paths he’s generally headed down.

When it comes to Nyssa’s account of virtue, however, I must take a different tack. Rather than simply using his work as a jumping off point (like in the previous posts), I must reject it.

Full stop.

Here's why:

As mentioned previously, Nyssa’s understanding of the Christian life in The Life of Moses is one in which the individual is increasingly purified and reordered in their passions, desires, loves, and actions. Within this movement, our conceptions and God-talk break down in light of who God is. This is our growth in virtue. BUT, it is only those who are already growing in virtue who can and do know God. The vice-filled life cannot see or behold God, but naturally turns away from her. As such, those who see God are already living lives of actively increasing conformity to God. The virtuous life is one of balance, integrity, health, and wholeness, seemingly untouched by the disturbing ripples of this life, and it is this lived reality which allows access to the sight of God. “It is upon us who continue in this quiet and peaceful course of life that the truth will shine, illuminating the eyes of our souls with its rays” (37). Those who walk the path of steadfast, unwavering, and deepening virtue are enabled to do this because of “the assistance which God gives… to those who correctly live the life of virtue” (43).

In order to progress in virtue, it seems, one must already be walking down its highways and byways. Within Nyssa’s account, then, the human will seems utterly free to choose between good and evil. The path we take in this life is purely a matter of our own unfettered choices. Far from being bound or naturally constrained, we have “in ourselves, in our own nature and by our own choice, the causes of light or of darkness” (53). This is because it is entirely our own decision “in whichever sphere we wish to be” (53). So, those who incline towards and pursue God, living in light, life, and hope do this freely, and those bound in darkness, despair, and self-destructive behaviors also do so freely. None of this is coerced, none are limited from without or within, everything is a product of the unrestrained free will. Simply put, “People live differently—some live uprightly in virtue while others slide into vice” (50).

This is the point at which I must part ways with Nyssa, for, while this understanding of virtue may seem quite optimistic and cheery, it has pastorally catastrophic results. Within Gregory’s purview, the individual is directly and solely responsible for her actions, ideas, and dispositions. Limitless potential is at her fingertips, and the way her life unfolds is entirely a product of her freely-willed choices. So, those whose lives display a certain coherence, wholeness, integrity and “moral splendor” have all of this simply because they wanted it enough, they really, truly, were on about God above all else. And, those whose lives are fragmented, broken, caught up in spirals of (say) depression, anxiety, addiction or other destructive behaviors are this way simply because this is what they wanted deep down, really, truly, at the end of the day. The tragedies and fractures of life simply unfold because of people’s obeisance and self-sacrifice before the puny dominions of lesser gods.

In order to get straightened out, then, you just have to get more serious about your relationship with God. You have to put in the leg work, the endurance, the stamina, the fortitude. Just memorize a bit more scripture. Spend more time in prayer. Truly believe and have faith, and ultimate possibility is at your fingertips. You have all of this, all of this ability, all of this potential, just as you are, so it’s simply a matter of buckling down and lifting yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps. “God helps those who help themselves.”

Within this scope, the Gospel is about purification, not liberation, about increasing health and wholeness in those who are already willfully tending in that direction. There is no account here of being set free from bondage, of being liberated from a cosmos enslaved to the powers that bind, of being chained to forces greater than ourselves, because the cosmos is free for God and its fundamental structures of growth and goodness remain intact. Where they are not on full display, it’s the individual's fault, for the human will is omnicompetent and omnipotent, reaping the just desserts of its desires.

At root, then, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Gregory’s understanding of virtue unfolds simply as a form of cosmic victim-blaming. You get what you deserve, what you were really on about from the start. “Quit trying to fool yourself or anyone else into believing that you weren’t asking for it. Why’d you wear the dress if that wasn’t on your mind?”

This is a distortion which betrays the very heart of God’s will and ways amongst us.

God comes to release victims from the chains which bind. God doesn’t leave us on our own, attempting to gather our resources or to make do on our own steam, but plummets into the darkness with us, rupturing virtue and all of its damning claims.

We find here that where virtue ends, life begins.

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[1] Again, my text is Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (HarperOne: New York, 2006).