In this article I would like to share with you a teaching from John Scotus Eriugena about how we know and love ourselves completely by nature, but have become ignorant of that truth. Before we delve into that idea, however, let’s step back and look briefly at Eriugena’s trinitarian metaphysics (how he thinks the Trinity works). We will do this because Eriugena believes that the human soul, as the image of God, operates on the same principles as the Holy Trinity.
There is an ancient debate in Christian theology which most people today find to be a minor technicality only relevant to academic theologians. In many cases that’s entirely true. The question of the filioque controversy does not have much practical application as it is usually presented. Eriugena takes it in a really interesting direction, however, and uses his answer to that ancient question in many other aspects of his thought. I have written more fully on his trinitarian metaphysics HERE so I will only give you the briefest of explanations in this article.
The question of the filioque controversy is about whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or whether it proceeds from the Father AND the Son. The east maintains that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone and the west maintains that the Spirit proceeds from both. This is controversial because the former implies that the Father is greater than the Son and the latter that they are equal. Again, not super relevant to most people. Despite its highly technical and seemingly unimportant emphasis, it was a point of major contention between the eastern and western churches. Eriugena sought to reconcile eastern and western thought in his own work and so his exploration of this theological dilemma represents a blending of both east and west.
Christ is the logos, which we usually translate as “the Word” in English. This is a perfectly accurate translation, though it is a little flat. The ancient idea of a logos was much more than just a word which is spoken, though it also meant that. A logos is an organising principle. You can think of the word logic here, which has logos as its root. Christ is, therefore, the organising principle of all creation, the wisdom behind everything. That’s why Collossians say that, “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Christ, the logos, the organising principle, is what allows the universe to be the remarkable web of interdependence and physical laws which it is. Christ is the reason behind everything, the cause of all truth and order. To bring it all back to the relationship of the person’s in the Trinity, Eriugena names the Father as essence, the Son as wisdom, and the Spirit as life. Everything proceeds from the Father, who is the source of all that is and is not. Everything proceeds through the Son, who gives order to everything which proceeds from the Father. The Spirit is what gives motion and life to all things, allowing them to grow and change. All of this is explained in more detail in the article I linked above.
So, Eriugena’s answer to the ancient question of the filioque clause is a non-dual one, it’s both-and. The Spirit proceeds from the Father THROUGH the Son. This allows for both the eastern and western positions to be reconciled by including the Son and also giving primacy to the Father. But that’s not why I’m telling you all of this. Rather, it is the fact that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son which is relevant. That and the designations of essence, wisdom, and life for the persons of the Trinity.
Within our own soul, Eriugena uses these principles to speak about the importance of self knowledge and self love. He equates our mind with essence, our knowledge with wisdom, and our love with life. By equating these aspects of our soul with the persons of the Trinity, he enables us to have a greater understanding of ourselves. Our reason, therefore, is born out of our mind co-eternally with it. Our love also proceeds from our mind co-eternally, but it does so by moving through the logos of the soul, our reason. In the same way that the three persons of the Trinity exist completely as one, we cannot separate mind, knowledge, and love from each other. Our mind naturally knows itself and loves itself. It also knows its love for itself and loves its knowledge of itself. They are all inseparable from one another. We should never try to separate them. Knowledge and love work together within the mind.
Our ability to love ourselves passes first through our self knowledge. If we do not know ourselves properly then we will not love ourselves properly. The teaching that human beings are worthless and inherently sinful is a false knowledge which prevents us from realising the true self love which God has created within us. And so, the first step in loving ourselves is to gain a true knowledge of ourselves as we really are. When we see ourselves with the clarity of truth, unclouded by the fog of ignorance, we will have no choice but to love ourselves. Our true nature is an image of the God who created us and if we see that image with clarity then we see nothing in ourselves other than God’s goodness. Our ability to love ourselves is dependent on having the right knowledge about ourselves.
This dynamic of mind, knowledge, and love exists in our hearts as the image of God imprinted there – but it is hidden underneath our habits and vices and our inner eyes are unable to discern the truth of our hearts because of the fog of folly which covers them. You can read more about that HERE. Yet, we unconsciously seek to uncover this hidden imprint because on some deep heart level we know it to be true, even if our minds are unable to perceive it. Eriugena said,
“Therefore, it seeks by the powers of reason nothing else but to learn in what way and how much it knows itself and loves itself and its knowledge of itself, and when this whole is converted to the knowledge and love of its Creator, then the most perfect image of Him is achieved…And this is the greatest and perhaps the only step towards knowledge of the truth, namely, that human nature should first know and love itself and then refer the whole of its knowledge of itself and the whole of its love of itself to the glory and knowledge and love of its creator.”
Deep in our hearts we know ourselves and love ourselves. If we reach down into the hidden depths of our original goodness we can find self knowledge and self love dancing without interference with our minds. When we have uncovered this truth within ourselves then we are able to direct our knowledge and love towards God. Since our souls are the image of God, when we love ourselves it is truly God who we love, through the image of her in our hearts.
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