Monday, 31 December 2012

Gregory of Nyssa, Immanuel Kant, the Aesthetic, and the Infinity of God

Gregory speaks of spiritual progress principally in terms of virtue, but by this he means more than either the prudent restraint of sinful nature or the active pursuit of morality; for goodness has no being outside the plenitude of God's goodness.  Whereas the perfection of things sensible, says Gregory, lies in their limitations, the perfection of virtue is in its very limitlessness: this because it is the presence of the infinite God; and every excellence within the soul is nothing less than a participation in God's fullness - again, not as a fixed property or substance, and not according to the soul's own capacity, but only through its ecstasy.  Still, when Gregory speaks of a "growth" in glory, he really means a transformation of the soul into something other.  "In all the endless ages, the one running to you becomes greater, more exalted, ever growing in proportion to his ascent through the good."  Gregory likens the soul partaking of divine blessings to a vessel endlessly expanding as it receives what flows into it inexhaustibly; participation in the good, he says, makes the participant ever more capacious and receptive of beauty...    

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 196

Gregory of Nyssa

While I would be very wary of linking up the thought of Gregory of Nyssa with that of Kant, there seems to me to be a distinct connection between the former's thought on the infinity of God and the infinity of the aesthetic in the latter.  Indeed, had Kant sought to locate God within the domain of the aesthetic rather than within the domain of pure and practical reason there is every reason to suppose that the Kantian God would have appeared less as a monstrously sublime ethical demon and more like the Christian God.  That said, the point I want to make here in relation to David Bentley Hart's piece above is that thought through Kant's aesthetic theory God could be likened to a perfect work of art.  That is, within Kant's aesthetic theory you can say that a bad work of art is one that gives itself wholly over to the viewer without any effort on their part.  A good work of art will cast a multitude of meanings over a wide area, some reasonable, some less so.  The (Kantian) imagination delights in bringing together as many meanings as possible in "working out" what a work of art means - the more the better.  This bringing-together capacity isn't endless, though, and if any possible meaning(s) become untenable for the imagination to synthesize, the work either fails as art or passes into the sublime.  Whatever else it may be, at this point it isn't beautiful.  The best work of art, for Kant, would be one which both casts a multitude of meanings, but also one in which those possible meanings themselves are open to an infinite regress of depth.  That is, to use a cliched example, the smile of the Mona Lisa opens itself out to a multitude of interpretations, but always it is the smile itself that captivates and fascinates.  One is drawn into the depths of that smile, not just in terms of what it means, but in terms of the infinite play of the fact of a smile that can never be fully known.  That the same smile can both cast a variety of plausible meanings and at the same time remain forever elusive lies at the heart of the aesthetic appeal of the Mona Lisa.  To actually know why she is smiling would reduce the work to the level of kitsch.

God as infinite love is more or less the same.  The description of Gregory's thought above likens the soul's ascent to God as ever-widening to receive the infinite plenitude of God.  This plenitude is not an infinite variety of possible meanings or aspects of God, but a constantly deepening infinity of the knowledge that God is love ('all the way down' to quote Rowan Williams) in which the soul expands it's capacity to know that love.  Like the most perfect work of art, there is nothing behind God that hasn't been revealed which will surprise us in the sense of an infinite progression of new things to discover.  What salvation means (one meaning, at least) is that our capacity to understand the love of God will increase exponentially in an endless ecstasy of understanding - we will never get to the bottom of what God's love means, even though there will never be anything new or deeper to discover about God.  

With this in mind, I wonder if a reappraisal of Kant's aesthetic thought in the light of Gregory's ought to be looked into, not to reclaim Kant for theology, but at least to correct a very destructive tendency within both Kantian and Enlightenment thought regarding God, immortality and freedom.  By locating God within the infinity of reason rather than the infinity of the aesthetic, Kant more or less led both God and art to their doom within philosophy: God becomes a moral monster, while art is torn from any relation to truth and goodness.   


  1. DBH is deffo one to watch....for the future AND for the present...and, er, the past!