WITH IRISH EYES: THE UNIVERSE AS THEOPHANY

 

    During the millennium that followed the Roman theocracy’s divinization of the Christian Church, the same dualism that separated reality into matter and spirit, sowing the seeds of a schizoid denigration of the flesh, also, ironically, created a deeply mystical sense of the intimate presence of an immanent “God.”  These distinctly antithetical currents dominated the Western cultural mindset relatively unchallenged until the 14th century. 

  

    It was belief in the existence of a world of spirits, that set matter off in a state of metaphysical inferiority, opening the door to prejudicial divisions that, while they were repeatedly rejected as philosophically erroneous, exercised a mesmerizing effect on the imagination.  Matter was as close to an “evil thing” as you could get.  Hence “flesh” was taken as the source of all our problems.  For Christian Platonists like Origen of Alexandria, the disrespect for the body and its functions, as if it were a separate depraved entity conspiring against the detached purity of a captive spirit, ruled all programs of personal formation. 

 

    Aristotle had clearly denounced any conceptualization that imagined matter and form as other than principles of being, … and declared them non-existent apart from their co-presence in the concrete individual.  “Form” for him was not, as it was for Plato, a separate “idea-entity” independently existing in the Mind of God.  But Aristotle’s corrections were ignored.  The West clung to the Platonic Paradigm and with it the notion of a “World of Ideas” which translated to the “Mind of God.”  This fed a deep mystical pool that stood in the center of the Western landscape.  It opened a third eye that saw all things as the reflected images of divine perfection.  A little stillness, it said, and we could actually hear the echoes of the Divine Voice that called us forth.  This world might be a shadow world, but what it shadowed was nothing less than God Himself. 

           

    Furthermore, the Master Mind that thought it all, also held it all in the one pure passionate embrace of His own existence.  From this vision came the sense of a divine presence, more interior to things than they to themselves, providing them everything: what, that, how, and why they were.  It made the world a sacred place, the residence of a Lover-God who used this universe to put Him/Herself on shameless display for all to see, desire and pursue.  It was a world teeming with living wonders and gardens of endless delight.  The universe was a “theophany,” a “God-Show,” a heaven on earth.

 

    These two contrary, if not contradictory streams, which drew their courses from the same spring, shared a tenuous co-existence.  For a thousand years the toxic potential of their incompatibility was blithely overlooked because of the uncanny balance provided by this two-edged sword.  We forgot that one part of this vision could tear your flesh and spirit asunder and leave you immobilized with self-loathing … because the other would play the gentlest of summer breezes on your cheek: God’s tender sigh of intimate love. 

   In any case, the Platonic vision explained it all.

 

John Scotus Eriúgena

 

          It was in this context that John Scotus Eriúgena worked, read, prayed and wrote in the ninth century.

   He was Irish.  That’s what Eriúgena means. Erse. Sometimes it’s written “Erigena.”  It’s used in combination with Scot, or Scottus which signified the very same thing, referring to all who lived beyond Hadrian’s wall, and on whatever islands that faced into the wind in the frigid seas of the North.

    John knew Greek.  He translated Pseudo-Dionysius and had read the Cappadocian Fathers; their doctrines were central to his thought.  How he came to be one of the few men in all of Europe who could read Greek was a well kept secret of the Irish monasteries that preserved learning like a polished stone hidden in the darkness of the times.  These were not easy days for bookish endeavors.  The Great Heathen Army of Danes, Vikings and other uninvited guests from less hospitable regions spent the better part of the century plundering their way into the warm hearths of the Carolingian household. 

    It was this well-known erudition, nurtured for so long in these monasteries just then becoming the targets of Viking incursions, that brought John in 845 from his scholar’s cell in Ireland to the court of Charles the Bald, the grandson of Charlemagne and the very heir of Caesar himself.  Charles was shakily enthroned in the land of the Franks, eternally defending his “holy empire” against the invading hordes.  He was not always successful.  Paris itself was burned by Norse raiders in 856, eleven years after Eriúgena responded to the call of the king to promote education in the semi-barbaric European main­land. 

    John was one of the many educated monks drawn from Ireland in the centuries after the Roman collapse and sent to spread learning in the monastery schools like Laon and Compiègne in France (where John may have lived), and then eastward to Reichenau and Fulda in what was later to become Germany.  Education in Western Europe was dependent on the steady flow of scholars from Ireland.[1]  But he was not just one more teacher-monk.  Because of his direct contact with Greek sources, the sweep of his theological vision and the audacity he employed in saying what he saw, he became what many consider the greatest thinker in the West between Augustine and Aquinas.[2]

 

His doctrines

    His doctrine was unique and often stands in stark contrast to elements of the Augustinian synthesis, which dominated Western theology from the 5th century until displaced by Aristotelian scholasticism in the 13th. 

 

    In an early work on the Eucharist, now lost, Eriúgena defended his belief in the symbolic presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  We consume Christ, he said mente non dente … a position not yet considered heretical.[3]  He agreed with Augustine in this regard.  Commentators remark that for Augustine as for all the Fathers, the literal presence of Christ was not an issue … because it was not the point.

 

    Then in 851, Eriúgena became embroiled in a controversy over Augustine’s doctrine of predestination with a Saxon monk named Gottschalk.  Gottschalk interpreted Augus­tine (many feel, correctly) to say that there was a double predestination.  Since, according to Augustine, no one can be saved without God’s grace (and it is the grace that actually achieves salvation), it followed that those who were not saved must have been denied sufficient grace and were, in effect, predestined to be damned.  God willed some to heaven and some to hell.

 

    In his counter argument, presented in the tract, On Predestination, Eriúgena said that God’s Simplicity and unmitigated Goodness prevents Him from even knowing evil, much less permitting (willing) that a human being should ever commit evil, which is the implication of double predestination.  God’s will, said Eriúgena, is simply that all should be saved. More­over, there is no such place as “hell,” God could not will or create any such thing.  Hell is simply the anguish felt at being separated from God ― a self-imposed exile.  (Later, in the Periphyseon he will spiritualize “paradise” as well, denying that it is a place and offer instead that it is a symbol of the potential happiness of the human being enfolded in the love of God. Thus paradise, like hell, is a perception, a state pf mind.)  Extraordinary for a mediaeval Christian?  Indeed.  Eriúgena was reprimanded by a synod held at Valence in 855.  His work was dismissed by the gathered clerics as pultes scotorum, “Irish Porridge.”

 

    But it was in his greatest work, written in the 860’s which he called Periphyseon and later titled On the Division of Nature, that he was to display his metaphoric vision of a universe that radiated the presence and Goodness of God.  His innovations in thought and expression were predictably more than the Western Roman mindset could absorb, and the Periphyseon, in turn, was condemned repeatedly after his death, first in the eleventh century and then in the 13th and again in the 16th. 

 

    The key to his presentation is a fourfold division of “Nature” into (1) nature that is uncreated and creates, (2) nature that is created and creates, (3) nature that is created and does not create and (4) nature that is uncreated and does not create.  Thus begins a long dialogue between master and student.  This “Irish riddle” is soon explained: the first is God the creator, the second, the primordial causes (Plato’s “subsistent forms” in the Mind of God.  Among these some commentators, like Moran, include “formless matter.”), the third is our finite universe of created things, and the fourth is God as the goal of the great return of all things to their source.

 

    The first indication of the grand synthesis this work portends is the all-encompassing scope of the word “Nature” in which God is obviously included.  So, right from the very start, the “divisions” are declared to be merely separate ways of looking and speaking about one and the same thing, Nature.  Then we are quickly introduced to the concept that will function throughout the work like a leitmotif, used to explain the relationship of Creator and creature: theophany

 

    Theophany means, as we’ve suggested, a “God-display.”  For Eriúgena, in creation God “comes-to-be” (fieri), because the visible things of this world give visible form to the One-Who-Has-No-Form … just as a “formless” human intellect can be said not “to be” anything until it actually is “informed” by the things it knows, similarly, says Eriúgena, the divine nature is rightly said to be created (creari) as it creates the things that subsist only from It and through It and in It and for It. (I, 454C)  The divine nature, in making itself manifest, makes itself “to be” “God” for us.

An element of background for this imagery is the neo-Platonic tradition of referring to God as “non-being,” nothing, meaning superessential, indefinable by any distinction of forms, unknowable and therefore not “being,” (being and intelligibility being equated.) From that angle, calling God nothing means “more than being.” It is out of this nothing, then, that God creates. For Eriúgena, ex nihilo means that the universe is not only made by God (a Deo) but from God (ex Deo), it is “God-stuff,” following the Eastern Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea. Creation then is the finite display of the divine nature which otherwise would have remained inaccessible in the absolute darkness of its infinity, it’s nothingness. Creation is God making Himself something that can be known both by us and by Him.

    It’s especially in Book III, where Eriúgena is trying to elucidate his vision of the intrinsic make-up of the created universe that “theophany” is given its unexpected depths and awesome scope: 

 

“For whatever, in things, is truly understood to subsist, is nothing other than the Ineffable Nature of Divine Goodness. … It alone truly and properly has being in everything, and nothing except itself truly and properly has being … we should not therefore understand God and creation as two different things, but as one and the same.  For creation subsists in God and God is created in creation in a remarkable and ineffable way, manifesting Himself, and though invisible, making Himself visible, and though incomprehensible, making Himself comprehensible, and though unknown, making Himself known, though lacking in form and species, endowing Himself with form and species, though superessential, making Himself essential, though supernatural, making Himself natural, though simple making Himself compound, … though infinite, making Himself finite, … though above time, making Himself temporal, though above place, making Himself local, though creating everything, making Himself created in everything. 

       The Maker of all, is made in all and, though motionless, moves into everything and becomes all things in all things.  [Creation is] the ineffable condescension of the Highest Good … to things with being in order that they may have being, or rather that It Itself may be in everything from the highest down, always eternal, always made by Itself in Itself, … and while eternal, It does not cease to be made, and though made, It does not cease to be eternal and makes Itself from Itself.  It has no need of other matter besides Itself, in which it makes Itself.  Otherwise It would seem impotent and imperfect in Itself if It received from another source any assistance toward Its appearance and perfection. 

       From Himself, then, God receives the occasions for His theophanies i.e., His divine appearances since “all things are from Him, through Him, in Him and directed toward Him.”  Hence matter itself, from which, as we read, he made the world, is from Him and in Him and He is in it insofar as it is understood to have being. …[4]

 

… Formless matter, says Eriúgena, approximates the formlessness of divine wisdom which looks to no standard above itself for its formation and which is the infinite exemplar of all other forms.[5]

 

    In this same section of Book III, following on his theme that God makes Himself “to be,” i.e., “creates” Himself in created theophanies and thus “makes” Himself manifest, knowable, Eriúgena dares to claim that this is not just for our benefit:

 

the Divine Nature … allows Itself to appear in its theophanies, willing to emerge from the most hidden recesses of its nature in which it is unknown even to Itself, that is, knows Itself in nothing because It is infinite and supernatural and superessential and beyond everything that can and cannot be understood, but by descending into the principles of things, and, as it were, creating Itself, It begins to know Itself in something. (III 689B)[6]

 

    Eriúgena’s fourth “division” of Nature, namely nature that is “uncreated and does not create” refers to God as the attractive pole of all change, motion and becoming ― what Teilhard would call Omega.  It is the process of theophany in its return to its Source, the irresistible Divine Nature, object of all longing and all process in the Universe.  This return is classic neo-Platonic doctrine.  It insists that the process in which all things “become divinized” in the Return, the reditus, is entirely natural.  It is the inevitable process of Universal Nature itself.  The redemption does not create the Return, it simply enhances it, drawing it into the loving relations of the Word in the Trinity within which creation originally proceeded.

 

    ExtraordinaryEriúgena himself was aware of the resistance his ideas would meet, and the very end of the Periphyseon reflects his foreboding.

 

    Recent commentary sees Eriúgena as the forerunner of later 18th and 19th century Idealism.[7]  His notions of defining God as non-being went further than the usual neo-Platonic terminology for superessentialism and explored the role of negation in the processes of creation and theophany.  These bear premonitions of later existentialism.  Observers have also drawn attention to the similarity of Eriúgena with the 14th century neo-Platonist Meister Eckhart.  In both men, the concept of nothingness plays an important role in explaining our relationship to an unknowable God.

 

The eye of the eagle

 

    Eriúgena looks at the world with new eyes.  In his homily on the prologue of John’s Gospel, he will draw attention to the eyes of the eagle that gave the evangelist such a panoramic view of the Light that overcomes our darkness. 

 

What sort of light, John asks, is possible for us in this life where we are born but to die, grow but to decay, congeal but to be dissolved again, falling from the restfulness of silent nature into the restlessness of bustling misery?  Tell me please, what kind of spiritual and true light is there for those people born into a transitory and false life?  Is not precisely this world a fit dwelling for those alienated from true Light?  Is it not justly called the region of the shadow of death, the valley of tears, the abyss of ignorance, the earthly habitation that weighs down the human soul and expels the true beholding of the Light from the inner eyes? 

 

Mixing metaphors, this Light for John is the Word, and the Word is this world … spoken into existence along with the loving utterance of the Word by the Father:

 

… in the created universe as a whole, the Word is the true Light that subsists now and always has, because it never ceases to subsist in all things.

       For just as in the case of one who speaks, when he stops speaking, his voice ceases and disappears, so also with the heavenly Father, should He stop speaking his Word, the effect of his Word ― the created universe ― would cease to subsist.  For the continuous maintenance by subsistence ― the very continuance ― of the created universe is the speech of God the Father, the eternal and unchangeable generation of his Word.[8]


[1] Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena, Cambridge: Cambridge U. Pr, p.2

[2] Deirdre Carabine, John Scottus Eriugena, NY: Oxford U. Press, 2000, p.13

[3] Moran, p.24

[4] Johannes Scotus Eriúgena, Periphyseon, tr, Uhlfelder, Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1974, III [17] pp.196-198

[5] Joannis Scoti Erigenae, De Divisione Naturae, Oxford: Sheldon, 1681, reprinted Frankfurt Am Main: Minerva, 1964 (III,XIX) p.127, translation mine.

[6] Carabine,  p.36

[7] Moran, passim

[8] Christopher Bamford The Voice of the Eagle, Great Barrington: Lindisfarne Books, 1990, pp 100-102

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5 comments on “WITH IRISH EYES: THE UNIVERSE AS THEOPHANY

  1. Dorothy says:

    Top of the morning, Tony!
    I really enjoyed your serving of good stone-ground, sticks-to-the-ribs, down to earth Irish oatmeal. I’ve never heard of Eriugena so that made it all the more interesting. Thank the Unknown that some people are emerging from the more frightening ideologies and can so clearly articulate this for the rest of us.
    Thanks, Tony.

  2. The history of dualism in the thinking of the Roman Catholic Church is, for me, one of your most liberating themes. Understanding the source of this self-hatred and fear of the material world is like escaping from a dark prison.

    I have been doing battle, though, with this idea of an unknowable god. At first, I thought that the idea of god-as-immanent, combined with the conviction that this universe (or these universes, if that is the case) could make an unknowable god work as a concept. But now I can’t see the point of the concept of god at all. It seems to me that scientists more or less accept the idea that the universe itself is unknowable in its entirety. We can endlessly keep learning more, keep delving more and more deeply into its mystery, but never grasp it all. What more does adding an unknowable god add to this exploration? particularly an immanent god?

    Perhaps one difference between us is in our experience of science. You have described the world as seen by science (somewhere but I’ve forgotten the source) as flat, as one-dimensional – or words to that effect. For me, on the other hand, science presents a world of breath-taking mystery, of such dazzling awe that I truly can contemplate spending eternity immersed in it. Why add the word “god”? or even “sacred”? I do sense the sacred, yes. But totally intrinsic to the universe. Not “other” in any sense.

    I often do not emphasize, in my writings or conversations with others, the fact that the concept of “god” is not one which I accept. I do this because to some people, I sound like an evil-sounding materialist atheist, and there is rarely time to explain why this isn’t so. But I suspect that this is not true for you. I suspect that your “god” or “the sacred” is different from my own conception. If you understand what I’m saying, I would be most interested in hearing your point of view.

    In any case, thank you for taking the time to share your thinking with the rest of us searchers. Terry

  3. tonyequale says:

    Terry,
    Thanks for your insightful comment. As usual, you go right to the heart of the matter (as it were).
    I surmise that you got the sense that Eriugena is saying (and I agree) that there is no discernible distinction between “God” and the rest of the material universe. Yes, I believe that is the burden of his vision, and it is exactly the import of pan-entheism. Whe¬ther you’re speaking of atheism, pantheism or pan-entheism, the world looks the same: there is no separate “God.” “God” does nothing. All there is to see is us.

    • with atheism there is no God, so all there is to see is us.
    • with pantheism there is a “God” and God is only us, so all there is to see is us
    • with pan-entheism (Eriugena), there is a “God” who is more than us but that this “more” is “nothing” (meaning not knowable, even by God), so all there is to see is us.

    Pan-entheism might be aptly termed “Pantheism lite.” I can speak cavalierly about this because of the distance our civilization has traveled in just four hundred years. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for pantheism in February of 1600; Eriugena and Eckhart were both condemned posthumously for the same thing. These men were not pantheists, they were pan-enthesists. The inquisitors, whatever else they might have been, were not stupid. They knew the difference, even if they didn’t use the word. Pan-entheism was the more dangerous of the two because of its ability to subvert “orthodox” doctrine. Pan-enthe¬ism undermined the standard lucrative ecclesiastical economy premised on a naïvely theistic “God,” an intervening and punitive “person,” totally other than, distant from, and easily offended by us. The subtle distinctions between pantheism and pan-entheism were such that most people couldn’t be bothered. Pan-enthe¬ism was conveniently labeled pantheism, summarily condemned, and thus prevented from affecting the brisk sale of “salvation.” For in Eriugena’s vision (and in Eckhart’s and Bruno’s and Nicolas of Cusa and Gregory of Nyssa), there is no condemnation, for “God’ is not other than us even though more than us. This is pan-enthe¬ism.

    So pantheism or pan-entheism: … what’s the difference? The difference is there is a “God” who even though we are spawned of her own substance, and subsist in her subsistence, is always more than us. And while that “God” is the very being of the material universe the fact of her transcendence (her “more than”) means that the whole process is an act of self-donation, a gift. It means that while we are only “her,” “she” is not only us. And so we are not only our selves, but the products and recipients of LOVE. We are, in other words, in a relationship. (That statement doesn’t mean “God” is a “person” in the same way that I am a person; “God” is my person. Nor does it imply that “God” acts in our world; “God” is our world. But it does mean there is a bearing, a benevolent intentionality in which we are inescapably, ontologically immersed … and therefore inescapably beloved.) If atheism or pantheism defines us, there would only be us, and we would of course love ourselves. But we would be alone. In a pan-enthe¬ist universe, however, “God” not only loves us, but loves us so much that she “became” us … we are her very essence … her substance … her nature … her being … her creativity, … we have received her self, first as lover-recipients, and then as lover-donors and co-creators. So what’s the difference? The difference is LOVE.

    LOVE. Is it a subjective word, a romantic sentiment? Not for us. Let’s be perfectly honest … we can’t live without it. What kind of importance does it imply to say that we CANNOT LIVE without love … that its absence is hell-on-earth, and conversely, that love makes us ecstatically happy? Doesn’t that in itself suggest a metaphysical dimension cauterized in our very flesh? What are we, that love should so define us?

    Does the yearning of my “flesh” give me the right to extrapolate and say that at the center of the universe there is a loving heart, a kenosis, a self-emptying donation … and even more: an explosive, volcanic creativity diffused in “formless matter” itself that has “trickled down” into the ecstatic excitement that overwhelms my flesh with the impulse to love?

    The difference is love. The ONLY difference is love. There is no difference for our experience between a world with God and a world without God except love.

    And for me, as for Eriugena and many of the Fathers, paradise is love … and so we don’t have to wait. We can walk into paradise anytime we want.

  4. I’ve come back several times to your comment above, Tony, to think about it. Especially “The difference is love.” Thank you many times over for taking the time to write it.

    One of the things that modern sociobiology can’t explain is altruistic behavior between species — dolphins who safe the lives of swimmers being attacked by sharks, the bear who shares his lunch with the starving cat, the elephant who waits outside the vet’s clinic for his canine friend, the dog who spends his last fifteen years at the graveside of his dead master. Etc. I cavil against using what science cannot explain as “proof” or even support for my version of divinity. It is far more often support for the limitations of human knowledge. Having said that, inter-species altruism is consonant with “the difference is love.”

  5. tonyequale says:

    Terry
    Thanks for your encouraging comment. I added that new post, the allegory “ON BEING KISSED” for Easter, with exactly that theme in mind. Those who don’t discern, preferably wordlessly, that in being touched by what Ursula Goodenough calls “the sacred depths of nature” they are in fact “being kissed,” are a lot like the infant before she recognizes her mother. It’s all just wonderful, but it’s not the same as knowing you are “being kissed.” Those who have been “wholly” kissed, know the difference. e.e.cummings, knew.

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