The veil of the flesh : a phenomenological reading of Gregory of Nyssa.


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The aim of this project is to articulate the significance of embodiment in the theological doctrine of the imago Dei. Reading Gregory of Nyssa’s theological anthropology in conversation with three French phenomenologists—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Henry, and Jean-Louis Chrétien—I explore divine imaging not as an aspect of human creatureliness, but rather as that which constitutes human creatureliness itself. Drawing upon these sources, I describe the dynamic character of an ontology of imaging that expresses, simultaneously, the inherent nothingness of the creature and the transcendent reality of divine likeness. Bringing together Christology and anthropology, this project contends that this dynamism is experienced and revealed paradigmatically in the veil of the flesh. Following Chapter One’s introduction to the project, Chapters Two works to loosen the grip of a common reading of Gregory’s anthropology. According to this interpretation, Gregory’s understanding of the immaterial and immortal soul sits in uneasy tension with his affirmations of the goodness of all creation and the psychosomatic unity of the human creature. Against this reading, I argue that the creature’s nearness and distance to God do not ultimately correspond to the human creature’s dual composition. Rather they express the dynamics of dissimilarity and similarity inherent to the ontology of the image. Chapters Three and Four explore these dynamics in turn, first, analyzing finitude and contingency as they are experienced paradigmatically in the flesh, and, second, tracing the relationship between finite nature and divine likeness. Chapter Five turns to phenomenological conceptions of finitude in Merleau-Ponty, Henry, and Chrétien. While Merleau-Ponty’s more classical phenomenology both challenges and supports Gregory’s theological understanding of creaturely finitude, Henry and Chrétien, in turn, articulate in a phenomenological idiom the nature of finitude’s constitution by the infinite. Chapter Six dwells upon one particular image that arises in this intersection of theology and phenomenology, taking up Chrétien’s and Gregory’s language of wounding as a description of the creature’s encounter with God. I conclude by carrying these reflections into a reading of James Baldwin’s fiction, which identifies the historical and political complexity of affirming divine encounter in the flesh.



Gregory of Nyssa. Phenomenology. Anthropology. Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Michel Henry. Jean-Louis Chrétien. Flesh. Embodiment. Image. James Baldwin.