The Body and Desire

Gregory of Nyssa's Ascetical Theology

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Raphael A. Cadenhead
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , November
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Body and Desire: Gregory of Nyssa’s Ascetical Theology, Raphael Cadenhead focuses on the theory of desire in Gregory of Nyssa’s “ascetical theology” in order to chart a path between what Cadenhead characterizes as the sequestered world of “patristics,” which adds “little to contemporary philosophical and ethical discussion,” and the decontextualized field of “early Christian studies,” which often makes Gregory “the cultural icon of postmodern rupture and subversion” (12). 

Cadenhead lays out three goals for his study. Two of the three are to reclaim Gregory of Nyssa from “postmodern presumptions” (2). He first shifts discussions of Gregory’s understanding of the ascetic life away from “theories of power, subversion, normalcy, and fluidity” and toward “discussions of protology, eschatology, spiritual ascent, sin, and purity” (2). Second, Cadenhead shifts discussions of sexuality away from what he calls “unchallenged Freudian and Foucauldian interpretations” (1). For example, he schematizes the dozen or so words that can be translated as “desire” in Gregory’s writings and argues that theyhave discrete meanings and must not be simply lumped together in the psychoanalytically-laden category of “desire” (11-12). Third, Cadenhead highlights Gregory’s insistence on ascetic maturation, which, over tim­­­e, transforms fleshly desire into spiritual desire. This ordered growth should quell the “representations of disordered fleshly desire in spiritual texts” (2), a point, he argues, that scholars such as Virginia Burrus miss when they drag Gregory into “a libertine ethic of erotic and gender fluidity” (16). 

The book traces the development of Gregory’s ascetical theology over three phases of his writing. Each phase holds a different relationship between the body and desire. The first section of the book examines Gregory’s earliest known work, On Virginity. Cadenhead follows Sarah Coakley in arguing that that modern readers mistakenly sequester sexual desire from Gregory’s larger program of virtue. Virginity is not primarily about sex, marriage, or gender-bending, as much as it is an “erotic transformation” (6) toward the true (non-erotic) goal of virtue. Gregory’s rewriting of the Symposium exchanges Plato’s “pederastic pedagogic relationship for a nonerotic alternative: the relationship between an older ascetic and a younger ascetic” (50). 

The “middle phase” (September 378-387) highlights how a current of Gregory’s writings stresses the importance of carefully distinguishing genders, even as an undertow posits that, in the Godhead, the hierarchy of female passivity to male activity ceases to exist. Naucratius and Macrina both, therefore, surpass their gendered virtues as they imitate God or the angels who also are neither male nor female. One key development in this phase of Gregory’s writing is an emphasis on how maturity changes what might appear to be fixed gender categories. Ascetic practices allow for the overcoming of “womanish passion” or “male virility” (89, 93). Ascetic self-mastery also changes the role of eros: “erotic desire for God (associated with mature ascetical self-mastery) and sexual bodily desires (characteristic of youth) are rival forms of desire” (94). For example, “when the older man imitates youthfulness, he desires God with an intensity otherwise associated with bodily, sexual pleasures. When the young person imitates the older ascetic, he seeks to quell the passions and convert sexual excess into spiritual erōs for God” (94). 

In the final section, Cadenhead turns his attention to On PerfectionThe Life of Moses, and the Homilies on the Song of Songs. If in the previous sections one can mature into the life of virtue, by the end of Gregory’s life, “no one is truly old in the pursuit of virtue; everyone is young in the ascent to God” (121). Also while Gregory, in his early career, champions physical virginity, by his later writings the spiritual value of virginity takes center stage. In his early writings he makes a parallel between physical erotic drives and spiritual ones (i.e., both physical and spiritual desire can increase), but by the end of his life Gregory’s discussion of “maturity” does not take spiritual desire into old age, but rather keeps it located at “the height of one’s physical powers” (134). Spiritual erōs for God, moreover, bubbles over to a non-sexual but “fraternal erōs” (137). Homilies on the Song of Songs, Cadenhead writes, “is addressed to spiritually advanced Christians,” a claim that sets up his argument that gendered categories such as “female vice” can be transformed (rather than overcome) into “passionate desire for Christ” (142-44).

The book concludes with a brief gesture toward the study’s contemporary implications, chiefly that queer theory needs to think harder about “individual moral formation” (158), rather than seeing “subversion of cultural norms” as its “primary goal (158). “Ever-new and ever-subversive gender theories” must have an “accompanying theory of maturation” (158). Cadenhead sees as liberating the idea that all desire ought, ultimately, to be aimed toward God and that, therefore, the objects of desire ought to matter less as they are temporary; other readers, however, may worry that “maturation” is vague as a guide to a reformed ethical or political life. 

Readers will quibble about particular readings, and they may be left wondering why sexuality became such an important crossing point for so many vectors of Christian formation, but the larger points about Gregory—that his understanding of desire is tethered to his understanding and training of the body, and that his views on the body shift over time—are important and well taken. The first two aims of the book, however, require more discussion because they raise questions about the role of theology in the study of early Christianity. The book opens with an accusation: Peter Brown and Elizabeth Clark, leaders of “early Christian studies,” posit “unchallenged Freudian and Foucauldian interpretations” of desire (1). This accusation remains unpersuasive for at least two reasons. First, conflating Freud and Foucault only highlights the book’s lack of interest in actual modern theories of desire. Second, the claim that Brown and Clark draw on contemporary theory and therefore are not analyzing evidence but simply plugging early Christian authors into conceptual holes evidences a lack of nuance about the role of theory in the practice of writing history or theology. 

Early Christian studies is marked by the claim that if scholars do not think about theory—about the kinds of questions they ask of the texts they study—they will reproduce existing structures of power. Theorizing ethics and desire has been a rich, lively, and vibrant area of scholarship. But readers gain, according to Cadenhead, almost nothing from contemporary theory. Such categories of interpretation are “unfortunate” (1), and “distract” (139) from what really matters, which, he argues, is “ascetical theology”—a category that the book retained not because it is native to Gregory, but “because it has been used for centuries to denote a branch of Roman Catholic theology that has dealt with the practices of virtue and the mortification of bodily vice” (9). The ambitious project of rethinking the relationship between history, theology, and the ethics of desire requires engaging with contemporary theories, not brushing them aside.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Motia is Associate Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Raphael A. Cadenhead holds a doctorate in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Cambridge.



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