Spiritual Formation and Immaturity: on the folly of biblical certainty

top of donard in the mournes

Gregory of Nyssa was a brilliant theologian, who among other things contributed to the development of the Nicene Creed. He also wrote a life of Moses which is a fascinating read (pdf available here).

I was reading it recently having just finished Avivah Zornberg’s Moses: A Human Life. In his book Gregory treats the story of Moses as an allegory for human life and says something interesting about spiritual development. He points out that in the early part of Moses’ life his encounters with God tended to be characterised by light, but as he got older he seemed to encounter God in the clouds.

For Gregory this symbolised how a relationship with God can, and even should, be changing over time. In the early years we are certain of things, everything is black and white and our passions are stirred by those who diverge from what we hold as capital ‘T’ Truth. But as we age we discover that knowledge of God and faith and spiritual things is much more complex and difficult and challenging. As we grow in wisdom we grow in appreciation and understanding of the complexity of God even as our understanding is shaded

This was a striking idea in recent days in the light of a facebook thread which was questioning the rightness or otherwise of ordaining women. The thread was remarkable for the certainty of opinions. People professed to know the Truth, to actually know God’s mind on this matter and to be certain that a declension from the standard was a matter of serious sin meriting harsh judgment.

It was in the middle of this whole argument, which has been lingering like a bad smell since the PCI assembly, that I read Gregory’s Life of Moses. His allegorical understanding of life as a progression in complexity is seen most clearly in the ascent of Sinai. Gregory describes the elaborate preparations being made to purify the people before their encounter with God. His descriptions of the physical manifestations of that encounter the sound of blaring trumpets and the terror of the unstable ground are vivid and arresting (43-44). The people were so overcome by terror at the unmediated presence of God that they implored Moses to go on their behalf to mediate the law to them. So Moses, despite his own terrors, ascends the mountain.

He enters, says Gregory, “the invisible things where he was no longer seen by those watching,” and was thus in “the company of the Invisible.”(46)

Gregory writes of Moses,

He teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and (lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible) believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach. (46)

It was the final phrase here which has stuck with me. The one who seeks to walk intimately with God must constantly journey into that place where understanding doesn’t reach. Faith is the energy that drives us forward towards the ineffable. God is always just beyond our grasp, but we keep reaching because we see something of God which is compelling and singularly attractive in the person of Jesus.

Now it would be entirely possible to have stayed at the bottom of the mountain, as the people did. Down there the ground was a bit more stable and the horizon was still visible. Down on the ground, at the bottom of the mountain things are less fearful and more certain because the people know where they stand. The sad thing though is that face to face communion with God is happening up there in the clouds.

In this case the desire for certainty and a degree of security means they miss the real growth opportunity which the face to face encounter in the clouds affords. Is it reading too much into Gregory to say that belief characterised by an excess of certainty is an infantilised faith, unduly attached to the bright certainties of youth rather than the uncomfortable complexities of age and maturity?


Renowned Jewish scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg is leading a seminar for Corrymeela on 5 September in the Connor Lecture Theatre at Ulster University Belfast Campus at 7pm, in partnership with the Chaplaincy at UU. Her writings on Genesis and Exodus are startling and challenging and I’ve quoted her countless times over the years, including on this blog. The seminar title is “Trauma, Resilience and Remembering: Reading Moses in the Context of Conflict.” Tickets for the event are available HERE.

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