Lecture Notes: Hans Boersma on Embodiment and Gender in Gregory of Nyssa
Less than a fortnight ago at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.,I was able to attend a reading from Hans Boersma‘s most recent book, published by Oxford University Press, called Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach. The reading given was from chapter three of the book, “Gendered Body,” and was called “Putting on Clothes: Body, Sex & Gender in Gregory of Nyssa.” It included an intro from John Stackhouse, Jr., responses from James Houston and Craig Allen, and a final rejoinder from Boersma.
There were a few interesting nuggets, not the least of which being Boersma’s (admirable) admission that the book he set out to write did not materialize because Gregory of Nyssa did not quite say what Boersma figured (or hoped) he would say. It seems Boersma was set to find Gregory a more solid ally in what he calls the “embrace of time-bound embodiment as sacrament,” only to have the fourth century Cappadocian fit the Neoplatonic mould more than expected.
Turns out that Gregory’s is something of a “theology of ascent,” wherein embodiment (including gender) is penultimate—i.e., a means to an end (that end being virtue). (In his response, it should be noted, retired professor James Houston suggested that Gregory did some subverting of Neoplatonism from within, and Boersma seemed to agree).
The upshot of all this was a very intriguing (if sometimes odd) account of gender and sexuality in Gregory’s work, which includes a (fairly typical) allegorical reading of Song of Songs and a (rather less than typical) reading of Genesis 3 wherein the “tunics of skin” provided to cover Adam and Eve after their sin are not animal skins but the gendered bodies we have come to know today. (Boersma indicated that Gregory had to do some exegetical footwork to get this to work with Genesis 1-2, but left it at that, which I suppose makes for a bit of a teaser).
What stuck out to me most in this lecture was the “penultimacy of gender” in Gregory’s account, as well as the high esteem which he assigned to virginity. (Seriously: at one point he says that “virginity’s praiseworthiness eliminates the need for praise”). The latter has a bit of a gnostic ring to it, of course, but together these impulses in the early church father’s theology do place a sharp question mark on contemporary evangelicalism’s oft-assumed combo of gender essentialism and marriage-primacy. As Boersma put it, Gregory “seems intent on destabilizing gender.” (And here we thought the twenty-first century was being so novel).
Lastly, I really enjoyed Boersma’s recounting of Gregory’s admiration for his sister Macrina. Reflecting on her untimely death Gregory wrote his Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection, wherein he reportedly says she was twice the man he was, and waxes eloquent about her quality. I was rather captivated by the story, so I’m going to have to follow that one up. Which reminds me: we don’t hear enough about the early church “mothers”.