When one hears the word, ‘beauty,’ one undoubtedly is evoked images of physical appeal–specifically feminine. This was not the case 2,000+ years ago with Socrates and Plato. For these Greek Masters, ‘beauty’ evokes powerful intellectual and pleasurable appeal of the highest and greatest attainment humans could ever grasp: the Ultimate (Good). Centuries later, another admirer of beauty not just philosophized but also (Christianly) theologized ‘beauty’ as God: Gregory of Nyssa (His name is Gregory and he bishoped at Nyssa).
Natalie Carnes, assistant professor of theology at Baylor, expanded her dissertation to this 250 paged book that crosses theological aesthetics (beauty) and Gregory of Nyssa’s theology. Carnes invites readers to absorb the foreign world of Greco-Roman antiquities and revive a (very dead but) worthy conversation partner on beauty.
The first chapter reviews the history of beauty’s demise, passing through the sullied hands of post-Enlightenment Europe. The rest of the three chapters retrieves Gregory of Nyssa’s theology according to his theological biographies and selected homilies. Carnes first establishes the radical transcendences of God based the ontological difference between Creator and creation in creatio ex nihilo. She then mingles beauty with ugliness with the Word’s scandalous mingling with flesh: poverty and suffering have been declared beautiful solely because Word dwelt among them. Finally, she described the animating and healing and beautifying power of the Spirit, through whom we have participation in the Word towards the radically transcendent God.
No book can solve all problems, but Carnes’s book stimulates important discussions on a topic that was, at first, so at home in theological and philosophical discourses, but now is absent. And though Gregory of Nyssa lived a vastly different world with starkly different worldviews from us, he is more than capable to hold his ground as we hold onto ours as we continue conversations. Welcome back, Gregory.