by hans boersma
eerdmans, 224 pages, $22
The early Church’s appropriation of Greek philosophy is easily caricatured as an exchange that left Christianity intellectually enriched but spiritually impoverished. In reality, the Church Fathers converted Plato before they baptized him. That is, they found Greek metaphysics useful, but they used it for their own purposes. Still, the question remains: Christians changed Plato, but how much did Plato change Christianity?
For me, the point of asking that question is not to expunge Platonism or even to straighten out all the tangled knots that make so much of theology unthinkable without its Greek trappings. Christianity, I suspect, will never be done thinking about Plato, but that does not preclude the need to push forward toward a more Christian Platonism, even if we cannot get back to a pre-Platonic Christianity.
No ancient theologian has been closer to the center of discussions about the viability of Christian Platonism than Gregory of Nyssa, and no contemporary Protestant theologian has been more enamored of the kind of theology he represents than Hans Boersma. Writing from a Reformed perspective, Boersma set out to combat modern materialism by retrieving pre-modern philosophy in an important book, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry . “The purpose of all matter,” he writes, “is to lead us into God’s heavenly presence.” The Platonist-Christian tradition can help us to see how the entire cosmos is a window onto the divine.
Gregory radicalized the incommensurability of creator and creation, which appeals to Boersma’s Calvinism, but Gregory also propounded a boldly speculative ontology of the finite world’s participation in the infinite. Boersma wagers that both sides of Gregory’s thoughtthe infinite gap between God and us and a sacramental mysticism that folds our souls quite naturally into the life of the divinemake sense only when held tightly together.
It is significant, then, that Boersma now admits that Gregory promises more than he delivers. In his new book, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa, Boersma writes that “he wanted to test my hunch that the pre-modern Platonist-Christian synthesis does not require us to abandon the goodness of matter.” In an extensive investigation of Gregory’s views on gender, marriage, exegesis, death, virtue and the church, he concludes that Gregory’s “anagogical or upward transposition leaves behind the objects of earthly, embodied existence.”
The fatal flaw in Gregory’s metaphysics is not his otherworldliness but his inability to conceive of the worldliness of the supernatural. Gregory correlates God’s infinity with the soul’s infinite desire, but the incorporeality of the soul’s eternal progression toward God leaves times and space behind. Even beauty must be stripped of its surface in order to become an intelligible object of contemplation. As he writes in De virginitate, “The man who has purified the eye of his soul is able to look at such things and forget the matter in which the beauty is encased.”
By identifying God with infinity, Gregory puts himself into a hole that he can never quite fill with his idealistic view of matter. It is hard enough to imagine the prime matter of the Medievalists becoming transformed into spiritual matter in heaven, since prime matter is really nothing substantial in itself. For Gregory, however, matter in this world is already spirit, since physical objects are nothing more than a unity of intelligible (and thus spiritual) qualities. If matter is all in the mind, then it is already outside of space and time even here and now, and thus our resurrected bodies in the next world will not need to be located anywhere, nor will they need to undergo change, as we grow closer to God. Our bodies will become our minds, and we will become like thoughts in the mind of God.
Boersma is not yet willing to give up his quest re-Catholicize evangelicalism or the need for a contemporary version of the sacramental worldview, but he has set himself a difficult metaphysical task. It is, of course, the same task that ancient theology always faced: How can theologians reconcile Plato’s vision of ascent with the weight of resurrected bodies still grounded in a reality that resists being spiritually consumed.