Against Virtue: 2

So, Gregory of Nyssa seems to believe in the unfettered omnicompetence of the human will. We all, at all times, are equally able to choose the things of God or not. Those who choose for God will find themselves growing in both virtue and knowledge of God. Those who choose against God will find themselves growing in bondage and degradation, increasingly unable to see or tend towards the things of God. One’s spiritual state, then, is ultimately a result of what one decides for on a daily basis.

In an effort to explain all of this, Gregory uses the metaphor of the athlete to explain the spiritual life in The Life of Moses.[1] The one pursuing virtue is like “one who has developed as an athlete by strenuous practice under his trainer,” such that he is able to enter the ring to contend with any adversary (41).[2] While this is a common enough metaphor, it would have been better if Nyssa had paid more attention to what the athletic life is actually like: not everyone can be an athlete. Bodies come in all sizes, shapes, and abilities, and no matter of willpower and dedication can overcome the natural limits which one’s body imposes on them. Some people are truly exceptional athletes, men and women whose names we all know; others are naturally athletic, allowing them to perform well in whatever smaller competitive theaters they find themselves in; others can stretch their bodies to develop a modest degree of athleticism through discipline and focus; but there are others whose bodies limit them in significant and unavoidable ways that no amount of rigor and focus will be able to overcome, ever. 

I would argue that the will and the spiritual life are similar.

There are those who seem to deploy a natural optimism or compassion or self-control or spirit of service; there are others who may be able to develop these things through acts of service or devotion or study, transcending their natural tendencies or conditioning; but there are still others who cannot on their own escape their depression, anxiety, addictions, and compulsive or self-harming behaviors. Perhaps these latter folks are trapped by circumstance, perhaps by brain chemistry, perhaps by some combination of the two, or by something entirely different, but it is simply the case that a fabric of darkness covers their lives, and no amount of wishing, praying, believing, or Bible-memorizing can get them over this wall. (In fact, the guilt and shame inflicted by the failure of these techniques can often increase their suffering, rather than alleviate it.)

There are times and places when the human will is simply incapable of lifting itself out of darkness, and this does not necessarily depend on the moral failings of the person so bound. Their downward spiral has nothing to do with people truly, deeply, in their depths, actually preferring and pursuing Death and all of his ways, but to factors outside of their control.

Where one’s account of the spiritual life depends on a Nyssan account of virtue it is hard to find room for admitting this. For this reason, it must be rejected.

Against Nyssa, I’d suggest that many times people need assistance; they can’t make this thing work on their own.

Where this is the case they need to get help.

Outside.

Help.

And this necessity does not stem from a moral failure or lack of character or faith on their part, but to the simple realities of being human, all too human.

Perhaps in therapy, perhaps through medication, perhaps through a program of recovery like the 12 Steps, or perhaps through something else, they may find freedom in company with others, where they were despairing on their own. Even where these methods take hold and even where a community of support grows up around them, however, this does not provide an untouched and unmoved life which is sealed off and free from the tremors which continue to roll through life.

Sometimes, all of these methods and approaches are not enough, and our loved one finally surrenders to the death that has been courting them their entire life.

I refuse to believe that God is not with this person and with them in death. I refuse to believe the lack of “light” in this person’s life is a deterrent to the relentless love of God. I refuse to believe that God casts this one off at the last. I don’t know how to square the circle of why some people find freedom and healing from bondage and others don’t, but I do know that it doesn’t have to do primarily with them, and I also know it has nothing to do with whether or not God truly loves and cares for them.

The incarnation and atonement prove God is on our side.

Definitively.

The God we have to do with is the one who steps into the breach, who becomes ones of us, sits and weeps in solidarity with those who weep and are downtrodden, and, yes, overthrows and undoes the fracture at the heart of being. Yet even Christ’s wounds remain. So may ours. This is not up to us to decide. And their lingering does not necessarily entail a spiritual or moral perversity or deception on our part. (Or that God wants them to suffer.)

Within this scope, salvation does not look like deliverance from the travails of this life, but about the ability to remain in the dark, so long as the night lasts. It is not about virtue, but about being able to take things as they come, one day at a time, and learning to give them up, even when the pain or compulsion still remains. Sometimes the mark of God’s presence in a person’s life is simply the fact that they did not kill themselves last night. Sometimes all that God gives us is the ability to endure the abyss, not deliverance from it.

Gregory presents no stable ground upon which most of these admissions seem possible.[3] If we are going to take seriously the claims he makes here, it seems that we must declare that the spiritual state of our lives is always and everywhere our own fault. For those who thrive spiritually, this is based on their own self-willed exertion; for those who languish, this is based on their own self-willed depravity and refusal of God. Life with God is one of coherence, balance, proportionality, and moderation, and this is always and everywhere a live option. Where this is not the case, it is our own fault.

Golgotha refutes this.

Easter declares it null and void.

Thank God.

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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).

[2] I should note that in his particular deployment of the image of the athlete here, Gregory actually inserts an element that seems to cut across the general trend of his formulations on virtue, by contrasting the person naturally disposed to virtue with the one who requires “illumination of the light” and the gift of “strength and power” to battle his enemies (41). Here he offers the suggestion that there must be some prior act of God awakening the pursuer of virtue and giving them a strength beyond themselves. Nevertheless, this does not seem to be an insight he maintains throughout the work. Despite his insertion of the athletic life as an apt metaphor coming within this context, I think it serves as a helpful way of understanding his more consistent account of virtue which seems to rest on the assumption that all of us are naturally already oriented towards and capable of pursuing a life of light, life, joy, and freedom. Just two pages later, for example, he further expands this understanding by saying that “the assistance which God gives to our nature is provided to those who correctly life the life of virtue. This assistance was already there at our birth, but it is manifested and made known whenever we apply ourselves to diligent training in the higher life and strip ourselves for the more vigorous contests” (43). Yes, there’s the claim that we are given things at birth, but this only gets up and running where we are already running after God. For those in bondage, I would argue that creation’s gifts--whatever those are--are no longer fully (or, sometimes, even partially) operative. But that’s a longer argument for another time.

[3] Yes, I know Gregory was a universalist, so therefore believed that God loved everyone and that Christ’s work was for everyone. It seems to me there are some tensions between what he writes here and his other writings which sketch out things in a more universalist direction. I'm simply honing in on one particular weakness in his account of the Christian life.