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Alden A. Mosshammer

Time For All and a Moment for Each:
The Sixth Homily of Gregory of Nyssa on Ecclesiastes

5. Some conclusions

The conjunction of the two phrases 'Futility of futilities' and 'Α moment for each thing that comes into being' leads Gregory in his commentary on Ecclesiastes towards a new understanding of created reality and of the role of man within it. The διάστημα is no longer a physical barrier in space separating all that is material, including man, from all that is intellectual, including the angels, but the common receptacle of all creation, intellectual as well as material. This διάστημα is both the chronological space of development from beginning to ending and the ontological space that distinguishes created becoming from uncreated being. The διάστημα remains an uncrossable barrier, but it is a barrier between creator and creature, not between intellectual and sensible being. The character of man's double life of body and soul is indeed miserable. It is miserable, however, not because of that conjunction in itself, but because of the distortion of nature caused by sin. That distortion will not completely be repaired until the return of all things to their original state, but meanwhile each individual has the capacity to anticipate that restoration by choosing to experience reality in God's right moment rather than to miss the moment and to participate instead in the plunge back towards not-being, Αll things are created good in time and within time man can experience creation as good if he chooses to do so. The distinction between intellectual and sensible being is as much moral as it is ontological. The man who lives intellectually and for the soul is the man who experiences the making that God has made. The one who lives somatically is he who has chosen to judge the good by his own moment. Both men live the double life of body and soul. In one there is a civil war between the two, in the other a harmonious blend of opposites that is the measure of virtue.

These ideas, which inform the perspective of Gregory's most mature works, are of great interest in themselves. In the homilies on Ecclesiastes Gregory is moving towards something like the modern notion of the 'social construction of reality'.(30) If reality has any objective existence of its own, that objectivity can be known only to God, because only God can stand outside the διάστημα that contains it. Μan shares the conditions of the reality that he seeks to know. He affects that reality in the very act of seeking to know it and to use it and is himself in turn affected by the effects he has caused. It is like eating garlic, Gregory says (422,17); what we choose we become. The idea that human beings create their own reality is one of the main theses of the homilies on the Song of Songs. Α good example is the discussion in the twelfth homily (GNO VI, 348,12-352,5) of the two trees in the centre of Paradise. By stating a geometrical impossibility the author of Genesis intends the reader to look beneath the literal meaning of the words for a deeper philosophy. There is in fact but one tree, which becomes life or death according as one chooses to appropriate it.

The interest of the Homilies on Ecclesiastes lies partly in their adumbration of these ideas, but primarily in their testimony to Gregory's own intellectual development. The sixth homily presents us with an excellent example of the mutual transformation of Platonism and Christianity. Contemplating the meaning of time from a Biblical point of view, Gregory comes to realize the inadequacy of his understanding of space from a Platonic point of view. Instead of abandoning the spatial categories that he now finds inconsistent with his Christian understanding of creation, he applies those categories to the dimension of time so as to define a new multidimensional space. However much Gregory might be shocked by the suggestion, his Platonism informs his Christianity, which would be much impoverished without it.


30. - See Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy. Elements of Sociology of Religion, New York 1969 and (with Thomas Luckmann) The Social Construction of Reality. Α Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, New York 1967.

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