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22.08.19 Motia, Imitations of Infinity

22.08.19 Motia, Imitations of Infinity

“Christianity is mimesis of the Divine Nature” (On What it Means to Call Oneself a Christian, 85).

With this quotation Motia launches his study of select writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa on the themes of aesthetic mimesis/imitation and ontological participation,or the contrasting intellectual tasks of representationon the one hand, and of “worship” (as Motia calls it) on the other, in the forward journey of the Christian life. Motia devotes much attention to the antecedents of these themes in the shared culture of Hellenic paideia that had reached a crescendo in Gregory’s young adulthood, in the 360s. That means he covers extensively the trajectory of Platonism as it was worked over by the Neo-Platonists of the third and fourth centuries AD. Motia has extensively read in Plotinus, Porphyry, and above all in Iamblichus, who, from his base in Apamea in Coele-Syria, set the tone of the Hellenic paideia of fourth century, and whose theurgic practices, mediated through Maximus of Ephesus, in every way informed Emperor Julian’s ambitious cultural project, his “Theory of Everything.”

Crossing over into specifically Christian writers, Motia pursues the themes of imitation in St. Paul, the Christian martyrs, Origen, Athanasius--especially his Life of Antony, touches of Basil and Gregory the Theologian--and Eunomius, and the transformations of Christian visual iconography through the fourth century. There is no focussed engagement with the person of Christ, which is an interesting exclusion. Why this is might be so, a little later. In chapter 4, Motia commences a sustained investigation of Gregory’s writings, beginning with a long study (99-124) of Gregory’s letter/treatise On Perfection, which outlines what progress in Christ will look like, if we set out seriously to assimilate in body and soul the thirty-four “names” of Christ that can be learned from St. Paul. Motia then pauses over Gregory’s ambivalence about pilgrimages, before probing his treatment of “places” and “spaces.” We then come to (132) a study of Gregory’s early treatise On the Inscriptions on the Psalms, in which Gregory maps the “journey” of progress in virtue as he discerns it in the Book of Psalms. There are five stages: the Stadium, the Fountain, the Lookout, the Boundary, Through the Spider’s Web. It is interesting to see how Gregory is tuned to the trajectory of Moses in this early work.

Motia next comes (143) to Gregory’s On the Song of Songs, in which Gregory unpacks his long brewing sense of epektasis, “reaching beyond,” or “stretching out for.” In chapter 6 Motia begins to study Gregory’s On what it means to call to oneself a Christian,wherein he takes the measure of the world of the theatres, of actors and of masks. Motia turns to The Life of Moses (160),in which Gregory considers Moses as a “representation” or imitable exemplar, and the limitations of mimesis in relation to divine infinitude. Then he turns to another great imitator of God and exemplar, his own sister and spiritual preceptress, Macrina (168).

From Motia’s “Conclusion: Mimesis and Mystery” (180-186), the following may be taken as a fair representation of his argument:

How does one imitate the infinite? What “likeness” can be found

between an unbound creator and its bounded creatures, who--in

their expanding desire—constantly push up against boundaries?

Imitations of Infinity has argued that the mingling of Plato’s two

conceptions of mimesis--“ontological participation” and “aesthetic

representation”--form the conceptual context for Gregory of Nyssa’s

claim that humans imitate an infinite God by infinitely stretching

toward God. When Gregory wrote that “Christianity is mimesis of

the divine nature,” he joined and transformed a lively late ancient

discourse. His theological claim that the divine is “infinite”

troubled previously established rules of mimetic relationships and

made recognizable another mode of relationship. Desire, for Gregory,

would not only motivate imitation; imitation and desire became

mutually constitutive, reinforcing, and expanding.

Now a few observations. The typographical design of the book relegates to the back of the book the extensive and important notes to the body-text, which I find discourteous and irritating. The book needed more careful copy editing. Often enough the same phrase is quoted in Greek twice within a few lines, or over a few pages. Similar redundancies in English want eliminating, and a range of typos. On occasion the standard of English, and the cogency of argument, begs some re-thinking.

Taking our considerations a little deeper, the author, perhaps reflecting the catchment of commentators he is reading, dwindles into a form of merely secular “Early Christian Studies,” the pale outlier of the old German “higher criticism”--which of course I regard as “lower” criticism--warmed over by a latter-day Derridean and post-modernist approaches to linguistic theory. It is an arch, hyper-reflexive approach that knows only how to read through the lens of strategies of verbal manipulation. As an example, on p. 203, we have the evangelist Luke, supposedly under the influence of “martyr” texts (in the third quarter of the first century AD?) placing a similar phrase on the lips of the crucified Jesus and the stoned Stephen. Evidently such sophisticated scepticism is to be expected of a certain kind of “academia.”

Feminist nostrums of the 1980s abound, e.g., we may not use an ostensibly masculine gender pronoun to refer to God. Hence “God...God’s...God” in pronoun-free sentences, varied only by God as an “it” or “its.” And what, pray tell, is “progress in Godself” (127) supposed to mean? Then there’s “For Gregory, God can be present in these names even if they are not the bodies of the God” (103). “The bodies of the God”...yes? There is a want of theological sensitivity in the English words chosen to translate Greek words. For example, Motia sees a trend in accounts of Christian martyrdom, to worship the martyrs. Hardly! It is difficult to see how a Church that spent much of the fourth century refusing strong cultural and political inducements to “worship” the Arian Logos, because, however lofty, it was a mere creature, can be tempted to “worship” a martyr. Some form of “reverence” do you think? Exceeding admiration?

At its worst I find Imitations of Infinity a laborious, over wordy book. If, however, you wish to tune in to a certain brand of scholarly exchange in secularist Early Christian Studies or, better, “late ancient studies,” this book will bring you up to date and educate you in the requisite discourse. Depending on what you bring to it, you might pick up hints from Gregory of Nyssa himself that invite a lover of Christ to soar free of competing with the latest and best in contemporary academic correct-speak.