Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Ann Conway-Jones: Gregory of Nyssa's Tabernacle Imagery: Mysticism, Theology and Politics

Daniélou describes Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses as a mystical treatise.  Not everyone agrees.  Heine argues that it reflects Gregory’s polemical debates with Origenism and Eunomianism.  Lim, meanwhile, points out the social and political factors behind Cappadocian apophaticism.  This paper will explore the interplay between mysticism, theology and politics in Life of Moses, by focussing on Gregory’s tabernacle imagery.  In Life of Moses 2.170-201, Gregory describes Moses’ mystical vision of ‘the tabernacle not made with hands’.  This vision conveys theological truths about the pre-existent and incarnate Christ.  It also contains a clear warning that the common people – hoi polloi – are to steer clear of such theological mysteries.  They are to worship in the earthly tabernacle, without trying to enter the holy of holies.  It will be argued that Gregory is drawing on the paradigm of heavenly ascent, which was widespread in the Hellenistic and Late Antique worlds.  Other heavenly ascent texts show a similar intertwining of religious experience, revelation of divine secrets, and claims to political authority.  And just as there are debates over whether Life of Moses should be labelled ‘mystical’ or ‘theological’, so scholars of heavenly ascent texts argue over whether they reflect ‘experience’ or ‘exegesis’.  Stone and Himmelfarb, for example, disagree over whether the pseudepigraphic ascent apocalypses are literary documents or manifestations of visionary activity.  This paper will put forward the view that experience and exegesis exist in a dynamic relationship, each informing the other, and that neither is apolitical.  What we might think of as distinct, even competing, categories, in heavenly ascent texts are found to be mutually reinforcing.  So for Gregory, the high point of an ascent to the divine was the mystery of Christian doctrine; and contact with such holiness was an initiation into responsibility.

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