The Greatest Torment

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We should desire nothing other than the joy of the truth that is Christ, avoid nothing other than his absence. The greatest torment of a rational creature consists in the deprivation or absence of Christ. Indeed, this must be considered the one cause of total and eternal sorrow. Take Christ from me, and I am left with no good thing, nor will anything terrify me so much as his absence. The greatest torments of a rational creature are the deprivations and absence of him.

This quotation comes from John Scotus Erigena, and I happened across it while reading Church Fathers and Teachers by Benedict XVI. (all the quotations of Erigena come from this book)

While I am (hopefully) somewhat knowledgeable concerning patristics of the ante-nicene and nicene periods, I must confess only a passing familiarity with later church fathers, Erigena among them. Thus, while this particular book gives only the briefest snapshots of the writers and thinkers of the late patristic age, it has been quite valuable in sketching out major lines of thought and the ‘highlights’ of this period.

(My first encounter with John Scotus Erigena was somewhat indirect, back when I was in college. At the time I was fascinated with all things Celtic, and so I began to study Celtic art, (the photo above is of some celtic artwork I created in college) music, history and, finally, theology. At the time I was looking for ways to deepen my prayer life, and so I happened upon some devotional books full of Celtic art and prayers written by J. Philip Newell, who has been influenced by Celtic theology and spirituality, especially that of Erigena.)

Anyway, I was struck by the power of this passage, and how it obviously comes from a heart that desires Christ above all else. At the same time, I was struck at how theologically rich it is, even within the poetic phrasing.

1. Utter dependence on God. Within Christian theology, only God has aseity- that is, self-existence. God exists in and of himself, having no external cause. As only God is self-existent, everything else has contingent being- that is, it is dependent upon God for being. The very notion of God as ‘Creator’ within patristic theology is not so much about God as ‘beginning’ everything (although this was not necessarily excluded) but rather is about God being the cause and sustainer of everything that is. For the church fathers, deism (where God starts the universe and then walks away) was an unthinkable absurdity, for God’s action as being the source of being for all that has being meant tat God was intimately and immanently present at all moments in creation. Thus, creation was not a singular act, but is a continual and gratuitous gift of being.

2. Sin as Privation. While there are no doubt numerous ways of thinking about and approaching sin, for the church fathers sin was no so much a transgression of some moral absolute as codified in a law as it was an ontological movement away from God. That is, since God is the source of being, and as one depends upon God at every moment for being, any movement away from God (through will, action, etc.) brings about a lessening of that being that one receives, as further closing the blinds on a window diminishes the amount of light that comes through the window. Left to ourselves, we would fall into non-being because of our sin, since our sin cuts us off from God and from life. Thus, when Erigena speaks of hell being the deprivation or absence of Christ, he is alluding to this understanding of sin. The pains of hell are not so much a punitive thing as they are the inevitable and unhappy result of being cut off from Christ, from the source of life and being.

3. Christ as divine. By Erigena’s time, the Christological controversies that had rocked the Church through much of the preceding half of a millenium had, for the most part, dissipated. Thus, Erigena’s statement here is hardly controversial. However, it is interesting how he describes Christ’s absence as leaving ‘no good thing.’ This ties into the idea (and perhaps I am being a bit anachronistic here) of God as the summa bonum– the highest good. Thus, if to not have Christ is to have no good thing, (even though one may have some things that could be described as ‘good’) it presupposes that Christ is the good that surpasses and encompasses all goods; thus, Christ is God.

4. Teleology. Our lives are not just random collections of molecules bumping into each other- we have a purpose. This end or goal, according to Erigena, is to know the joy of the truth that is Christ. Since we depend on God for our being, our being is only complete when we are fully united to God. The joys that this world tries to offer us ultimately only pull us away from the true joy of knowing God and being one with him, and when we give up this joy for the others, the true joy is diminished in our lives. This diminishing of our true end can only be described as he describes it: torment. Thus, we should strive with every fiber of our being to be in Christ’s presence, and equally strive to avoid his absence. Only in this way do we become what we are made to be. As Erigena says:

Just as red-hot iron is liquified to the point that it seems nothing but fire and yet the substances remain distinct from one another, so it must be accepted that after the end of this world all nature, both the corporeal and the incorporeal, will show forth God alone and yet remain integral so that God can in a certain way be comprehended while remaining incomprehensible and that the creature itself may be transformed, with ineffable wonder, and reunited with God.

We belong to God, and our true end is to belong completely to him. In this mystery, faith begins the turn back to God from the lost-ness of our sin and dis-unity with God.

salus nostra ex fide inchoat (our salvation begins with faith)

*caveat emptor: There are some things within Erigena’s writings and thought which, due to their speculative nature, are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with Christian orthodoxy. That being said, his thought and works are a fascinating unfolding of someone who clearly loved God with both his heart and his mind, and that deserves, in my opinion, the benefit of discretion rather than wholesale repudiation.

4 comments

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  • “Creation was not a singular act, but is a continual and gratuitous gift of being.” Each year, I realize this more and more — maybe because the overtones of invincibility and narcissism fade with age.

    For me, the caveat is the second point of impact in this discussion: The whole of something need not be true in order to find and claim some portion of truth, beauty and justice within in it. That fragment of truth can still be God or God honoring — just as a small flame in a darkened space is a legitimate source of light and warmth and hope ; there is no need for the entire space to be illuminated in order to validate the properties of the single flame.

  • I kind of see the idea of no good things happening apart from Christ as dangerous theology, at least superficially. I look around, and I can’t help but see at least a little bit of goodness and even godliness in every person, as if we can’t help but be at least a little bit like the image we were created in, even despite our best efforts not to. There is no perfect good, and hence salvation, apart from Christ, which is what I think the writer was getting at; but it’s very easy for younger and even mature Christians to run with this thought and assume a monopoly on morality. (I’m speaking from personal experience, here, as I actually used to think that.) Even without this extremity, it’s easy for our words to be misinterpreted as such, which can reinforce negative stereotypes about Christians.

    I realize I’m arguing semantics, here, but these are things non-believers, who are often quite content with their lives, wince to see. I personally would not trade the good of Christ for any of the things I’ve given up to enter communion with him, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t occasionally long for those things too. That’s the unfortunate tension that comes along with our dual citizenship in this world and the next.

    I have to close all that out by saying that I do actually agree with these thoughts, although I don’t find it as easy to agree to as the writer (although I wish I did).

    • Good points. I think John E. would agree to some extent, certainly that there is goodness in those who aren’t Christians. For him, (being influenced heavily by Psuedo-Dionysius) ‘good’ isn’t as much about morality (although not necessarily exclusive of it) as it is a transcendental. Given the convertibility of transcendentals, ‘good’ is convertible with being, and thus John E. is probably speaking of ‘good’ as ultimately being convertible with being. As such, transcendentals do not inhere in contingent beings save by participation.

      In that sense then, the idea that there is no good(being) thing apart from Christ is certainly correct. For John E., creation is only good to the extent that it participates in the good, which, given that non-believers have existence, indicates that they have the capacity, to whatever limited extent, to participate in the good as well.

      I think one of the biggest disasters theologically since the reformation has been Total Depravity, which leads some to believe there can be no moral acts by non-Christians. Certainly John E. would have found it quite unreasonable.

      As for the tension you described- I think that reading between the lines one can sense that same experience in Eriugena’s words here. In the torment he describes one can detect an almost indirect self-chastisement, or at least the description of personal experience. It’s interesting in reading about the lives of monks and saints- almost all of them describe immense personal struggle with vices and pride and lust and the gambit of temptations, so it would seem you are in good company.

      Thanks for the comments. Actually, I think it has inspired a forthcoming blog post. 🙂

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Jason Watson

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