Michael Motia, The Mimetic Life: Imitation and Infinity in Gregory of Nyssa, Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 2017.
“Christianity is mimesis of the divine nature.” That is how a graying Gregory of Nyssa defines Christianity for his young friend Harmonius. Modern scholars do not have many definitions of Christianity from late antiquity, so the sentence itself is something of a historical gem. But the sentence is also theologically puzzling in the context of Gregory’s larger thought. Gregory is the first Christian to make the infinity of God central to his theological program. This raises questions: How does one imitate the infinite? Or, perhaps more importantly: If Gregory describes the aim or perfection of the Christian life as “never to stop growing towards what is better and never placing any limit on perfection,” how does mīmēis (Greek: imitation, representation) function within that endless pursuit? And given that mimesis assumes a mode of desire, specifically eros—for love leads to likeness, and imitation incites, intensifies, reorients, and reinforces desire—how does a Christian love what she does not know? If the Christian life is mimetic, what is the presumed relationship between representation of the divine and reality? How do images of God remake humans in the image of God? What do Christians imitate when they imitate an inimitable God? What kinds of guidelines or practices govern this life? Gregory of Nyssa’s approach to these questions lie at the heart of my dissertation.
The ubiquity of mimesis in the classical world and in the early Church can blind readers to the different ways it is conceptualized to form selves and communities. The classical Greek and Roman worlds were often organized through mimetic relationships. How a teacher molds a student, how art shapes a soul, and how the Creator creates creation—questions most intimate or most cosmic, questions of identity, cultivation of the self, power and persuasion, and more—are framed in terms of archetype and imitation. But this ubiquity makes the analysis of the relations of power and the ontology implicit in these mimetic relationships even more important. What is expected in the desires, participations, and representations at work in imitation? Gregory’s most famous contributions to Christian thought—divine infinitude and the human mimicking of that infinitude in our endlessly expanding desire for God—are best understood as part of a larger late antique concern with imitating the divine. That is, Gregory carves out a new theorization of mimesis as he insists that humans imitate an infinite God not by becoming like a fixed object but by infinitely expanding their souls’ love for God, endlessly growing towards an endless God.
Mimesis is both a practice and a concept, both something to do and a way of organizing the world. And religion, if it is anything, is a mix of practices and organizing frameworks. Studies of mimesis, however, often emphasize only one side of this. Bringing together work on Greek rhetorical training by Tim Whitmarsh and Raffaella Cribiore with the conceptualization of the aesthetics of mimesis by Stephen Halliwell, I show how, for Gregory, mimesis structures a set of exercises, a way of life, aimed at Christian perfection. His theological and ascetic program involves both what to imitate (the names, spaces, and characters that entice his readers to become imitators of God) and how to imitate (the structures of desire, theorizations of participation, and practices of representation required for a virtuous life, defined as imitation of God).
The first half of the study, then, situates Gregory’s writings within Greco-Roman philosophical, rhetorical, and early Christian discourses around mimesis. I begin with Plato, who establishes what I classify as two conceptions of mimesis: aesthetic representation and ontological participation. These conceptions are related, but they flow from different animating anxieties. On the one hand, in, for example, books 2-3 and 10 of his Republic, Plato theorizes the relationship between representation and reality. How do the stories and images that mirror the world affect humans in their pursuit of the Good? On the other hand, within the dialogue that bears his name, Timaeus theorizes mimesis as primarily a matter of the structure of reality. His universe is created as a series of imitations or microcosms bound together by participatory relationships in which creatures are held in existence by their cause.
Following Catherine Zuckert, I then show how these two conceptions of mimesis correlate with two erotics or modes of desire. Representational mimesis excites readers to ascend a ladder of desire, which leads from individual images (or bodies) to more abstract loves. Having ascended, philosophers can perceive those bodies differently: they become flashes of beauty or points of intensity. In ontological mimesis, by contrast, Timaeus does not climb a ladder. He gazes directly at the “first principles” and longs for the perfect circle of the universe in his mind. Timaeus’s transcendence is that of an uninterrupted contemplation, mimesis without movement.
Chapter two examines what happens when these two conceptual paths merge, as third- and fourth-century readers attempt to synthesize Plato’s writings into one philosophical system. In late antiquity, readers of Plato become particularly concerned with the role of mimesis in the philosophical life. I examine how mimesis scaffolds the philosophical programs of the neo-Platonic thinkers, Plotinus and Iamblichus, and I compare how their different approaches to mimesis lead to quite different philosophical systems and practices. For Plotinus, mimesis is a stepping-stone toward a non-mimetic goal in which human souls are united to the One which is beyond all representation. Iamblichus, however, convinced that souls are too damaged to contemplate the divine without help, weds his philosophy to more specific theurgic rituals that transform practitioners into imitators of the divine. In ritual, theurgists encounter “symbols,” which are not representations of another reality, but an activating force for something otherwise inaccessible in humans. Only in performing these rituals and engaging these symbols do theurgists imitate and unite with the gods.
Although it may sound esoteric today, Iamblichean philosophy spread in popularity across the Roman empire, especially in Cappadocia, largely through the influence of the emperor Julian. As Susanna Elm argues, what Julian saw in Iamblichus was “a consistent system that merged everything.” His theory of everything challenged Christian theologians like Gregory of Nyssa to come up with their own in response.
Platonic Philosophers, of course, were not the only ones concerned with mimesis. Chapter three sets Gregory’s works within a wide range of early Christian discourse around mimesis. Paul’s request that the Corinthians “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 11:1) binds Christian formation to practices of imitating those who show what Christ looks like. Martyrs and saints, too, are cast as imitators of Christ, or even what Candida Moss calls “other Christs.” But with the multiplication of “other Christs,” questions emerge around the proper relationship one should have to these holy women and men: Should they be imitated, or are there other forms of reverent participation that can quicken early Christians? The chapter examines this tension between imitation and other forms of reverence in the martyr literature, hagiography, visual culture, and doctrinal disputes.
By the time I turn to Gregory, then, I hope it is clear that his writings operate within lively and contested discourses concerning mimesis. Late antiquity is often defined as a time when classical means of production and practices of representation are applied to new subject matter. I show how these new subjects emerge among shifting understandings of mimesis.
Having presented the two Platonic conceptions of mimesis (aesthetic representation and ontological participation) and demonstrated how their intersection becomes a problem in late antiquity, I show how these two aspects of mimesis play out with respect to three kinds of images Gregory explicitly rules out as being divine: names, spaces, and characters. These names, spaces, and characters are finite and therefore, Gregory argues, cannot be God. And yet, what Gregory takes away ontologically he gives back mimetically: they are images of God that shape humans into the image of God. This triptych forms, I argue, not only Gregory’s most common targets of mimetic desire, but also his own “theory of everything,” his way to connect heaven and earth.
With these three targets of desire, we see Gregory charting a path between those who seek to move beyond mimesis (e.g., Plotinus) and those who see the divine revealed in a mimetic target (e.g., Iamblichus). For Gregory, God’s infinitude troubles previously established rules of mimesis. Rather than seeing representations of God as only poor copies of the real God, the accommodated representations at once make God more clearly seen and more mysterious. Instead, the inventible misfiring between representation and represented fuels desire and deepens participation. The failure of images to be their archetype is, for Gregory, as much a promise as a threat. The troubles of representation (the limited nature of words, language’s constant reaching for something beyond its ken) become the problems of participation (limited nature of the self, self’s constant reaching beyond itself). For Gregory, humans are made and unmade in a constellating series of mimetic names, spaces, and characters that can remain unknown even as they govern and propel desire for God.
Chapter four examines Gregory’s treatise On Perfection and what he calls “the names we take into the soul.” In this work, Gregory lays out a distinction: those names that “we have room for, we imitate, and those that our nature does not have room for in imitation, we revere and worship.”  This distinction between imitation and worship is a fourth-century commonplace, but, for Gregory, it is one that is meant to be overcome. When Christianity is imitation of the divine nature, Christians cannot be satisfied with worshipful participation alone. They must also push at their own edges as they imitate what always exceeds them. These names, like water entering a pliant container, stretch what they fill. Christians long for and imitate the names of Christ, and as they do, these names multiply and reshape and enlarge the soul.
Chapter five draws on Henri Lefebvre’s tripartite understanding of space to discuss Gregory’s mimetic space. Not only are spaces (1) locations in which we live, they are also (2) ways to orient ourselves (as in a map), and (3) images that teach us about ourselves (e.g., Augustine’s “great palace of memory”). To get at how space can link heaven and earth I examine two literary practices Gregory often deploys. First, in conversation with Scott Johnson’s Literary Territories, I look to Gregory’s Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms to show how he, over and over, maps out the Christian life and asks Christians to make a journey through the stations he curates. Second, I focus on the production of affective spaces or spatial images that provide particularly intense sites of the divine. These spaces not only stylize the infinite, they also teach Christians to feel it. Gregory, that is, conjures and invites his audience into a space that, in his words, “contains the Uncontained,” and there invites them to expand into an infinite space as well.
Finally, chapter six turns to what might be the most obvious mimetic relationship Gregory hopes to inculcate, that with characters. These characters are not only moral exemplars, but also images of God. As Gregory increases his emphasis on divine incomparability, his production of mimetic characters also intensifies. The infinite growth of Paul or Macrina becomes, for Gregory, a representation of an infinite God, and their endlessly expanding desire invites others to join in their expansive love. These characters both reveal and exhort, spurring imitation by becoming containers of the uncontainable. Through these characters, we also see Gregory’s insistence that, in imitating an unknowable God, Christians become unknown.
The dissertation concludes by asking questions about the ethical and theological implications of imitating what one does not know. By reading Gregory of Nyssa closely, I draw attention to subtleties of imitation across the late ancient world, but I also hope the study raises broader questions of how we can be responsible to one another while insisting that we are also mysterious to each other. For Gregory, the names, spaces, and characters that govern and propel the life of Christian perfection frame ethical, political, and theological discourse and require embodied practices. His answers will not be ours, but even a passing glance at the news reminds me that asking questions about the names, spaces, and characters that shape public imaginations, govern desires, and propel imitation remains an urgent task.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On What it Means to Call Oneself a Christian, in St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, trans. Virginia Woods Callahan (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1967), 85. Greek in Gregorii Nysseni Opera Online, 60 vols., ed. Ekkehard Mühlenberg and Giulio Maspero (Leiden: Brill, 1952-) 29:136 (hereafter cited as GNO vol.page). Unless noted otherwise, translations of Gregory are mine with reference to Woods Callahan. For ease of reference I provide both the English and GNO page numbers.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection, in Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 122, GNO 30.213-14.
 Susana Elm, Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 335.
 Candida Moss, Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); See also Elizabeth A. Castelli, Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power (Louisville: Westminster, 1991), and Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
 Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection, 97, GNO 30.176.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection, 99, GNO 30.178.
 Book 10 of Augustine’s Confessions provides an account of the role of memory. Augustine compares the memory to “a great palace” or a “treasure-house” in which perceptions are stored and can be recalled without being present. What we see is that Augustine’s use of a space is a prescribed set of metaphors that carry an affective charge. For example, when the memory is “like” a great palace, the image not only assumes that the memory is filled with great things, but also that someone great lives in it. This “space,” then, conveys a sense of awe and also the comforts of a home. Lefebvre points to spaces such as “bed,” “church,” or “graveyard,” which has “an affective kernel or center…. It embraces the loci of passion, of actions and of lived situations” (The Production of Space, 42).
Michael Motia is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of World Religions and Lecturer on Theology at Harvard Divinity School.