I have recently entered into an exchange of essays with my friend Jesse Hake. We have been exploring an idea called the atemporal fall or the meta-historical fall. His position is that the universe as we experience it in our daily lives is fallen and does not reflect God’s intentions. I have taken the opposite position. You can read his most recent essay HERE and the Wikipedia article he wrote on the topic HERE.
We have already discussed the question of theodicy (is God responsible for death and suffering), so this essay will simply skirt around the issue and remain focused on the atemporal fall itself. Perhaps we can revisit that question at some point, as Jesse made a number of good comments I would like to respond to.
This is a massively complex topic and so I had a difficult time keeping my essay succinct and digestible. I opted to let it be fairly long and involved instead. It is divided into two sections: The first is about the atemporal fall from the perspective of Eriugena, who is my primary source. It is not exactly the same as Jesse’s position which is influenced by Sergei Bulgakov and David Bentley Hart. The second is my actual response to Jesse and reflects my own theological speculations. I tried to take a more collaborative approach and create a synthesis between our positions.
In Eriugena’s thought, the whole of creation was made in a single act outside of time. Simultaneous with the eternal generation of the Son from the Mother, everything that ever was or will be came into being within Christ. This is how Eriugena understands predestination, not as a force that contradicts free will, but as the eternal existence of all creatures, their wills, and their decisions in the mind of God. These eternally existing realities are called “predestinations” and “primordial causes.” In his commentary on the prologue to John’s gospel he says,
“At the moment the Word was born of the Father before all things, all things were made with him and through him. For the generation of the Word from the Father is the creation of all causes and is the effective production of all things which proceed from the causes as genus and kind. Indeed, all things were made through the generation of God the Word from God who is Principle and beginning…The essence of the Son is coeternal with the Father. The essence of those things which were made through him began to exist in him before all the ages of the world, not in time but with time.” (trans by Davies)
In Periphyseon, he describes the way that temporal (within time) realities are actually manifestations of eternal (outside of time) principles. Creation is primarily eternal and our experience of time and space is a theophany of our eternal life in Christ. He says,
“Everything that is understood and sensed is nothing else but the apparition of what is not apparent, the manifestation of the hidden…the materialization of the spiritual, the visibility of the invisible, the place of that which is no place, the time of the timeless, the definition of the infinite, the circumscription of the uncircumscribed.” (trans by Sheldon-Williams and O’Meara)
To help this very abstract concept make sense, Eriugena gives an example from human experience. The way that creation exists outside of time in the mind of God and yet is also manifested into time and space is comparable to the way we write down our ideas onto paper (or parchment as the case may be). The words written on the page are symbolic of the universe within space and time while the ideas in our minds that the words represent are symbolic of the eternal principles in the mind of God.
Our ideas must exist in our minds before we can write them down, because the words on the page are representations of those ideas. When our thoughts are written down on paper, they are not removed from our minds in the process. Our ideas remain within us even when we give them material expression on the page. In the same way, as a creature becomes manifest in the world of time and space, it exists eternally unchanged in the mind of God.
For Eriugena, our existence in time and space is not the way we were meant to be. The garden of Eden is understood as our original condition in eternity and the fall from Eden is our descent into time. Time is seen as worse than eternity, because death is only possible within time. Living beings within time are subject to rot and decay, they are constantly changing and this is the ultimate source of all suffering. God did not create suffering, and so this present universe is not creation as God intended it.
All of creation still exists in eternity, and so our experience of temporality and the suffering it entails is only temporary and everything without exception will eventually return to its original condition in the eternity of Christ. Eriugena believed in universal salvation, that all beings without exception will be restored to their original beauty and be liberated from death and decay in the process.
The salvation of all creation is brought about by the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, but in order to explain that, we will need to back up a little first and talk about Adam.
For Eriugena, the eternal creation is undifferentiated and undivided. There is no Jew or Greek; there is no slave or free; there is no male and female, for everything is one in Christ Jesus. The unity of being is itself human nature and Adam is understood as the whole of creation, sometimes referred to as the microcosm.
The eternal Adam, being a complete unity without division, is genderless and the separation of humanity into male and female is part of the fall into time and space. We are all meant to be non-binary and when we return to our original condition, there will be no more gender. (I am not sure how this is to be reconciled with the fact that Eve was separated from Adam before they fell or the fact that both male and female are created in the image of God in Genesis 1)
Because Adam is the universal workshop who unites both heaven and earth, when he fell from Eden the entire cosmos fell with him. This is why all of creation is subject to death and decay under the relentless marching of time. Christ, as the second Adam, took the whole of creation into himself in the incarnation, because all of creation exists within human nature. When Christ rose from the grave, he resurrected the whole of creation. Just as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
The fall from Eden happened outside of time at the “moment” of creation and all of cosmic history from the big bang (which Eriugena did not know about) until the coming restoration of all things is corrupted and tainted by Adam’s disobedience. However, Eriugena does not blame Adam for this fall, because he was naive and sinned out of ignorance rather than malice.
At the “time” of the fall, Adam was still incomplete. Eden was meant as a starting place, not a static end of creation. Humanity had not yet become fully itself, and that is why it was able to be deceived. When human nature is complete, it will never make such a mistake again. In Periphyseon Eriugena says,
“This is something common to all animals, to avoid and fear death and the causes of death. Therefore, just as no philosopher wishes to enter into error, so human nature did not wish to sin, and therefore her Creator, being just, did not wish to punish her…For the reasonable and intellectual nature, although not wishing to be deceived, was not incapable of suffering deceit, especially as she had not yet attained the perfection of her form which she was to receive as the reward of her obedience and by which she was to be transformed in theosis or deification.” (trans by Sheldon-Williams and O’Meara)
So, even though all of space and time is the result of a cosmic blunder in eternity, it is in no way a punishment. It is actually a generous solution offered to humanity by God. The universe as it exists in time and space is a remedial school in which we are able to repent of Adam’s sin. The whole of history, in this way of thinking, is the process by which human nature is reunited with itself and all of creation so that it can return to its original condition in the mind of God. Eriugena goes on to say,
“It is not to be believed that the most divine clemency of the Creator thrust forth sinning man into this world as though actuated by anger or desirous of revenge – for sound reason shows that these accidents are absent from the Divine Goodness -, but as a kind of ineffable teaching and incomprehensible clemency, so that man, who, by the judgement of his free will, had refused to maintain himself in the status of his nature…might return to his first state, from which, protected by grace and the free judgement [of his will] he would not fall again or wish to fall or be able to fall.” (trans by Sheldon-Williams and O’Meara)
While I love Eriugena and use him as the primary source of my own theology and metaphysics, the idea of an atemporal fall has never felt quite right to me. Admittedly, the primary reason is that I have an ineffable inner sense that this universe is blessed and good exactly the way it is. In contemplation I find myself enraptured with the beauty and artistry of nature and I have no sense at all that it is broken and needs to be fixed.
Even though I have personally experienced many great hardships in life, some of which I am still suffering from today, I find comfort in the idea that there is a love and intention deeper than my suffering flowing through the hidden recesses of nature, ensuring that everything is working together for good.
I suppose that Eriugena’s model does a good cosmos, even though it is not as good as it should be, but I still feel that there is something that he’s missing. In what follows, I will haphazardly explore those feelings in theological terms to see if I can find reasonable explanations for what I know in my heart.
Firstly, I want to explore the relationship between the temporal and the eternal. Jesse’s account of the atemporal (he prefers meta-historical) fall works a little differently than Eriugena’s. In his most recent essay and his wikipedia article, he talks about different kinds of time. His position (as I am understanding it) is that Eden was not originally eternal but rather created in a higher order of time that is non-sequential. He maintains a distinction between creation and creator by saying that all creatures are temporal by nature and only the persons of the Trinity are eternal.
I don’t feel like I have a good sense of how the various kinds of time would differ from each other and what non-sequential time would even look like. In a recent conversation, Jesse suggested that I think of linear time as quantitative and non-linear time as qualitative. He also suggested that it is impossible for us to understand non-sequential time from within sequential time, except in wordless and incommunicable contemplation. I find both of these ideas compelling and will sit with them in meditation.
Ultimately, I can see myself developing a levelled understanding of time that is analogous or at least related to the Celestial Hierarchy, but for now, until I have a better grasp of how it might work, I will use Eriugena’s eternity/time distinction. I believe that follows will apply equally to both frameworks.
Eternity is not an endless progression of moments, as if things were just like we experience them now except you don’t die. Eternity is the complete transcendence of time. There is no such thing as the present moment in eternity because every moment is equally present. This is how the atemporal fall is thought to affect the entire history of time equally, because it is found in every moment from the beginning until the end.
What is temporal always participates in what is eternal. To use Eriugena’s metaphor, the words we write down on the page are always theophanies of the ideas in our minds. The words on the page are contingent upon the thoughts that created them. The metaphor falls short, however, because our minds are bound to linear time. We can write down an idea and then change our minds about it later, but the primordial causes are the same yesterday as they are tomorrow, if they change in the present they also change in the past and the future.
This is how the atemporal fall is thought to affect the fabric of reality. When an eternal principle is altered, every manifestation of that principle will reflect the change in every moment of its timeline. This means that the salvation of Christ, if it truly undoes the curse of Adam, needs to be eternal as well. And, of course, what Christ promises is precisely eternal life.
While the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ happened within history, they must also happen eternally if they are to heal eternal wounds. The grace of salvation is not limited by time or space. If it is for everyone and everything, that must include the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega.
In previous essays I have written about the way Easter imprints reality with the pattern of death and resurrection. I was inspired in this direction by Eriugena and The Evernew Tongue. You can read an Easter homily HERE and a meditation on the Paschal Mystery and prayer HERE that both discuss this in more detail.
In my thinking, the life of the historical Jesus was a temporal expression of this eternal reality. The major events of the life of Jesus (incarnation, transfiguration, resurrection, etc) are Christ’s eternal words written on the pages of history. We can read the words of the gospel that talk about Jesus the man from Nazareth and learn about the eternal life of the Son of God.
While the gospels speak, at least in part, about historical people and events, I have never interpreted Eden in this way. Eve, Adam, and the serpent are all symbols that point to inner realities at work within the human soul. Eriugena very much uses it this way as well and I have written an essay about Eden as a symbol of the soul’s own fall and redemption HERE and an essay about the rivers of Spirit that flow through our angelic nature HERE.
Perhaps the atemporal fall and the atemporal resurrection can be brought together into a more complete narrative that gives Christ the title Second Adam. If both salvation and the fall happen eternally, then the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth can be seen to manifest both. His passion is the fall and his resurrection is the new Eden promised in Revelation 22.
Though the eternal realities of fall and redemption are given temporal expression in the life of Jesus, it is the salvific act that is given both an eternal and a temporal expression because it is greater than the fall that precedes it.
Death and resurrection are woven into the fabric of reality and we participate in both. If we wish to walk in the light, as Christ is in the light, then we must choose the path that leads to eternal life. The light of Christ dispels the darkness of our inner eyes. My last two essays looked at the effects of the fall as a blindness of our spiritual senses. I wrote one about why humans can’t see fairies HERE and one from the perspective of Eriugena HERE.
The restoration of all things participates in the eternal sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world and we call it the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God we will have eternal life, and eternity is equally present in every moment. That means that the kingdom of God is accessible from any land and at any time. All of cosmic history before Jesus wasn’t simply a waste, it too is deified and made into God.
Perhaps this is why in Luke 17 Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
The synthesis of the atemporal fall and the atemporal Paschal Mystery that I have been muddling my way through imagines creation as both fallen and redeemed from the outset. The kingdom of God is in our midst even though we all walk in the valley of the shadow of death.
The atemporal fall, if it is to exist at all, must be overcome by an atemporal resurrection. This means that salvation was present at the big bang in the same way that the curse of Adam was. If we are to assume that creation itself is fallen, then we must also assume that creation is redeemed, if we truly believe that Christ has conquered death.
The cycles of life and death, the changing of the seasons, and the way each new generation replaces the old are all theophanies of the eternal relationship between death and resurrection. We experience fallen time and eternal salvation in every moment – but life is always stronger than death, just as no amount of darkness can extinguish the light of a single candle. Therefore we walk in the light and practice the truth.
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