Gregory of Nyssa against the Materialists

Today, I read perhaps the first third of Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection (an embarrassing admission: I’m not reading from an even remotely respectable edition, just the online version hosted at New Advent). He composed this really touching treatise as a dialogue between his sister, Macrina (called simply “The Teacher” or “the Virgin”) and himself, upon the death of their brother, Basil (as in “Basil the Great”—these two, along with Gregory of Nazianzus are the Cappadocian Fathers). The Gregory of the dialogue comes to Macrina seeking solace at his loss (this brilliant man was humble enough to cast himself as a bumbling foil to his talented sister); she persuades him of the existence, simplicity, and immortality of the soul, and of the truth of bodily resurrection.

So far, the dialogue has only covered arguments for and against the existence of the soul; these are fascinating principally for their tone: dialogue-Gregory tentatively offers a materialist account of the soul (the “soul” must be a composite of the body’s elements, because if not, reason could not suggest a location for it, and “if a thing can be found nowhere, plainly it has no existence”). At this, 

the Teacher sighed gently […] and then said […] “I hear Epicurus carried his theories in this very direction. The framework of things was to his mind a fortuitous and mechanical affair, without a Providence penetrating its operations […] To him the visible was the limit of existence; he made our senses the only mans of our apprehension of things. 

She calls such materialism, a “narrow-minded, groveling view of the world, ” which blinds its advocate to realms of spiritual truth hidden by the “earthen wall” of sensible objects: “while the sight of a garment suggests to any one the weaver of it, and the thought of the shipwright comes at the sight of the ship […] these little souls gaze upon the world, but their eyes are blind to Him whom all this that we see around us makes manifest,” even as “the Creation proclaims outright the Creator, for the very heavens, as the Prophet says, declare the glory of God with their unutterable words.”  

This made me chuckle, because much contemporary writing from a materialist perspective adopts a similar tone of dismissive disbelief: in Godel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hoftstadter dismisses the Christian doctrine of the soul out of hand, referring to its proponents as “soulists”; Daniel Dennett insists upon referring to his atheist cohort as “Brights.” Here it is appropriate to quote David Bentley Hart (the first author of my acquaintance who discussed Gregory):

The experience of the delightful needlessness of the beautiful awakens us to the needlessness of the existence of things, to their ontological contingency, to the failure of their essences (conceived statically) to account for their existence. In this moment, we are aware—not always reflectively or speculatively, admittedly—of the difference between being and beings; and so long as we dwell in that apprehension, we cannot fall prey to that excruciating confusion that makes someone like, say, Richard Dawkins incapable of grasping the difference between the mystery of existence and the question of origins. The philistine hath said in his heart . . . 

Hart is onto something profound in this paragraph: it seems that the most fundamental difference between a materialist and a “soulist” is not one of competing truth claims, but rather of incompatible aesthetics. Per my discussion of Rorty last night, the materialist is not so much unconvinced by Christian reflection on being as he is bored by it, repelled by its seeming lack of elegance, while the Christian has not so much a chain of argument to defend the existence of God as an overwhelming artistic impression sparked by (to borrow Hart’s phrase once more) “the ontological mystery,” the starkly wondrous fact that anything comes to be in the first place. 

This part of the treatise culminates in Gregory’s offering one of the most captivating descriptions of God I have ever read: 

A Divine power, working with skill and method, is manifesting itself in this actual world, and, penetrating each portion, combines those portions with the whole and completes the whole by the portions, and encompasses the universe with a single all-controlling force, self-centred and self-contained, never ceasing from its motion, yet never altering the position which it holds.

This is not a description that can be “founded” by the elements of pure reason; that is, a person may consistently affirm the non-existence of any rational ordering principle pervading the cosmos. However, the costs of such a denial are very high: as Macrina suggests, “If it is not possible for the soul to exist after death, though the elements do, then, I say, according to this teaching our life as well is proved to be nothing else but death.”

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