Category Archives: Augustine

Reimagining the Past

Augustine’s litany of woe near the end of his endless masterpiece has a careful purpose — it’s the City of Man opposed to his City of God. All those poisons and hailstorms and treachery and legal issues he lists that beset us in life are not simply an invitation to suicide: they’re solid marketing for something else:

“From this hell upon earth [i.e., our lives!] there is no escape, save through the grace of the Saviour Christ, our God and Lord.” (XXI: Ch 22)

Early Christians were in the odd position of having to make actual life seem worse than a disease because what they were preaching was better than a cure. Once Easter happened (or was thought to have happened), everything had to be filtered through it.

Early Christians were something like a wife who suddenly suspects her husband is having an affair … frantically sifting through a shared past, reinterpreting formerly idle events (weight loss, new haircut, smile) as sinister proof of a crime. For the early believers to think God himself came down to Earth to fix things then — ergo, case closed, doh! — things down here must be a lot worse than we thought!

Augustine’s City of God is the spouse’s witch hunt. Again and again, in a devastating, systematic way, he piles fact upon fact into a carapace of undeniable power with a single apologetic aim: to demonstrate not just the superiority but the absolute existential necessity for dying in Christ to be raised up again in the Kingdom of God.

A couple examples:

  • Original Sin — Jews didn’t make a big deal out of Adam and Eve. Genesis was a story of origins, from which we move on. To justify Christ’s coming to save us, Augustine had to reinterpret Genesis as an absolutely fatal diagnosis.
  • Jewish Law — A lot of the Hebrew Bible, of course, is concerned with the Law, and Jewish theology is Law-based, from Mishna to Talmud. What is Law? A set of rules about how to live in this world now, right? Early Christians were not so concerned about now as they were with later (post-Salvation). So they ejected most of the Law.
  • Platonism — Augustine was a Platonist, which is to Apocalypticism as a marathon is to a sprint. Platonists aren’t dualists: they respect this world as basically okay. But it’s nothing nearly so perfect as the ideal, supernatural realm — i.e., the City of God.

The theme here is:

Life in the Kingdom of God = Good

Life on Earth = Bad

Christians are notoriously challenged by three things: sex, getting along with one another, and feeling guilt-free.

Thanks to Augustine, we’re never entirely comfortable right here, right now.

Life’s Not a Destination, It’s a Gurney

Reading ancient authors like our brother Augustine, we should never forget what a fraught and deadly world they lived in, how close to the edge, at all times, they were. Death was a live option and physical pain their prairie home companion.

How bad was it? Augustine tells us in Chapter 22 of Book XXI of his City of God, which starts with a rousing chorus of “the whole human race has been condemned in its first origin” and then gets down to the really bad news.

Our human life — “if life it is to be called,” he sighs — is gnawed by a “host of cruel ills.” What’s worse, we’re all idiots, marinating in “dreadful ignorance.” Okay. Can I check out now? Nope: “No man can be delivered [from life] without toil, pain, and fear.”

But what if I’m an optimist? Surely the glass is — yeah, right.

Life on earth, says Augustine, is just a dead man’s march of:

“… gnawing cares, disquiet, griefs, fears, wild joys, quarrels, lawsuits, wars, treasons, angers, hatreds, deceit, flattery, fraud, theft, robbery, perfidy, pride, ambition, envy, murders, patricides, cruelty, ferocity, wickedness, luxury, insolence, impudence, shamelessness, fornications, adulteries, incests.”

Anything else?

“Sacrileges, heresies, blasphemies, perjuries, oppression of the innocent, calumnies, plots, falsehoods, false witnessings, unrighteous judgments, violent deeds, plunderings.”

Okay — so we need to fix things, get to work!

“Inactivity, sloth, laziness, negligence, are vices which shun labor, since labor, though useful, is itself a punishment.”

But we can rely on the helping hand of our brother, right?

“At their hands we suffer robbery, captivity, chains, imprisonment, exile, torture, mutilation, loss of sight, the violation of chastity to satisfy the lust of the oppressor, and many other dreadful evils.”

Ah. Then all we have left is the solace of the natural world!

“… Extremes of heat and cold, storms, floods, inundations, lightning, thunder, hail, earthquakes, houses falling … countless poisons in fruits, water, air, animals.”

Oh, well. I’ll just stay inside with my dog.

“The madness which the mad dog communicates, so that even the animal which of all others is most gentle and friendly to its own master, becomes an object of intenser fear than a lion or dragon!”

What Is Faith?

This little word “faith” troubles believers and unbelievers alike. Some say it’s trusting in fairy tales; others, submitting to authority.

Our brother from another mother, Augustine, has a lovely definition tucked deep inside his City of God:

“But the peace which is peculiar to ourselves we enjoy now with God by faith, and shall hereafter enjoy eternally with Him by sight. But the peace which we enjoy in this life … is rather the solace of our misery than the positive enjoyment of felicity.”

Why?

“Our very righteousness … is yet in this life of such a kind that it consists rather in the remission of sins than in the perfecting of virtues.”

We are constantly fighting a losing battle.

So what is faith?

It’s like this: You are the Vikings and you’re in the Super Bowl. Now imagine, as the game starts, you KNOW you are going to win. You relax. Peace, right?

That’s an analogy to the kind of peace Augustine claims is known in this life by those who have faith.

The journey itself may be arduous, of course. But if you KNOW it’s going to end well, it’s easier. So faith is not the same as believing a fact. It’s more like time travel.

“Secret Ruin Precedes Open Ruin”

"Enough about me - what do YOU think of my figleaf?"

As we were saying, there’s a mind-bending insight at the heart of Augustine’s squib on Original Sin located dead center in his City of God. His biology is bad, but his psychology is time warps ahead of somewhere.

Augustine’s viewpoint is binary: it’s in his title. There’s what he calls both the “City of Man” and the “flesh,” which is where we all live — a universe of whims and desires and confusions very much like the Buddha’s “dukka.” And then there’s the “City of God” and the “soul.”

So Augustine’s point is that men are at war inside themselves just as states are at war; and of course, this ain’t no coincidence. The engine of all is the human will: “For the will is in them all; yea, none of them is anything else than will.”

Where we point our wills is all-important. Even emotions are caused by our wills, as we are sad because something we’ve decided to want is denied us. “And generally,” he says in Book XIV Ch. 6:

“… in respect of all that we seek or shun, as a man’s will is attracted or repelled, so it is changed and turned into these different affections.”

Look at that, girls! He’s saying where we point our wills is what we become. Again: we become what we love. So be careful what you love. (“The right will is … well-directed love, and the wrong will is ill-directed love.” XIV:7)

And what about Eve and Adam? Truckloads of theology and pastoral commentary have been forklifted onto the question: Why did they eat the freakin’ fruit? Genesis doesn’t really tell us. They were tempted, yes. But why did they — the Children of God — actually do it?

Their choice — the Original Sin — was an act of the will. But why oh why could they not follow some simple instructions?

We will what we love, says Augustine. So a better question is: What did Adam & Eve LOVE more than God? His answer is clear: THEMSELVES.

The Original Sin is self-centeredness. And humans are self-centered because of a perceptual bias caused by our senses: we are, quite literally, at the center of our world. Our mistake is in failing to know — or too often forgetting — this simple truth.

Bet you didn’t know that. I know I didn’t, before Augustine told me. Here’s how he works it out.

Life in Eden was sweet, endless, and lacked any pain. God’s one requirement was to listen up. Each human is created so that “submission is advantageous to it, while the fulfillment of its own will in preference to the Creator’s is destruction” (XIV:12).

We are like canines, not wolves, forced to live in a human world. Survival requires submission to one who knows more than we do (i.e., dog trainer/God). When we think we know better, we are wrong. Bam. Print that, people.

In Chapter 13, Augustine lays it on us:

“Our first parents fell into open disobedience because already they were secretly corrupted; for the evil act had never been done had not an evil will preceded it. And what is the origin of our evil will but pride?”

What is this horrible “pride,” anyway? It’s when the soul “becomes a kind of end to itself.” He quotes Proverbs 18:12: “Pride goes before destruction, and before honor is humility.” “That is to say,” he says in a typically lovely phrase, “secret ruin precedes open ruin.”

It’s the paradox of our lives: Wanting to be more than we are, we become less; and in humility, a simple acceptance of present reality, we are lifted up and “exalted.”

In this light, our punishment is actually kind of poetic:

“For what else is man’s misery but his own disobedience to himself, so that in consequence of his not being willing to do what he could do, he now wills to do what he cannot?”

We are condemned to see Paradise, and want it, and yet fail to get there again and again for the odd reason that we cannot obey our own wills. I’d be so much happier if I ate right, exercised, didn’t yell at my kids, didn’t expect too much, cared about my clients, felt good about life, helped those in pain. Right? And isn’t my life one loooong failure to do this?

I know mine is.

This post is already too long. I’ll point to where we’re going with this: Augustine knew there’s something baked into people that makes us self-centered. That thing is intrinsic to our perspective: we are literally the center of our worlds.

And we’re back to Religious Epistemology for Absolute Blithering Idiots! … and our favorite self-centered philosopher, the great Soren Kierkegaard ;-)

“There’s No Such Thing As an Original Sin”

Welcome back, sinners! Elvis Costello is right, as usual, but he’s referring to “actual” sins — which are finite — not Original Sin, which is not our fault. Or is it?

So what does the man who explained it actually say about Original Sin in his City of God? Thanks for asking.

Augustine is usually thought to have invented the idea, which has come to embody everything that’s wrong with religion to the modern mind: petty doctrines, pointless guilt, fear and mind control. Bad Augustine!

But of course, he didn’t really invent it, and it’s not what people think. He builds on Paul’s Romans 5:12f and 1 Corinthians 15, Irenaeus, his teacher Ambrose, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyprian and others. Irenaeus — the church’s first professional heresy hunter — said Adam was a big baby whose fruit-eating fit made God mad but doesn’t seem to be genetic. “In the person of the first Adam we offended God, disobeying his precept” (Heresies V:xvi:3).

Our old friend Tertullian had more to say, inventing an idea called Traducianism, which claims human souls are physically located in our DNA and are inherited. (An opposing school that used to be called Creationism — not modern Creationism — held souls are injected by God at conception.) Adam’s sin corrupted his physical soul-body, and as all of our great-great-yadda-yadda-yadda-fathers, he literally passed it along to us, so that “that which is from God is rather obscured than extinguished” (De Anima 41).

Augustine also inherited the notion in ancient biology that all future offspring were microscopically present in their ancestors. So purely as a scientist, he believed that (a) all of us were microscopically present body and soul in our ancestor Adam, and (b) when Adam sinned we were all LITERALLY there!

Thus, we really are all guilty in some way and truly deserve God’s punishment: two kinds of death, physical and spiritual. “No one prior to Augustine had so thoroughly depicted the sinful complicity of all humanity with Adam,” says Daniel L. Akin in A Theology for the Church.

Now, all of this is old genetics and not that important to the Big Question: Why did Adam and Eve disobey God in the first place?

Augustine takes this head-on in Book XIII. Delicious.

This Post Is Already Too Long

The City of God took our friend Augustine maybe fifteen years to write, beginning in 410, when the Visigoths (briefly) occupied Rome and people got all end-of-the-worldy in the Roman Empire — for good reason, as it turned out — until, say, 425 . . . and five years later, Augustine was dead at a spry and active 76 years old.

Fifteen years of scriptorial labor crafting the 22 books of City yielded up half a million densely-considered words. It’s twice as long as the New Testament itself. Six times longer the average New York Times bestseller.

What’s particularly frothy about reading all those sentences are startling moments when the real Augustine — cranky, aging, very disciplined– comes peeking through the bales of prose. He felt every one of those fifteen long, long years.

How do we know? As frustrated as a modern (and no doubt ancient) reader can get with the work, it’s some consolation to know Augustine feels our pain. Why? Because he tells us. And tells us. And . . .

In Book XI, Chapter 31 —  just over half way up the mountain, — he’s talking about the symbolism of the number “7″ when he starts kvetching: “Much more might be said about the perfection of the number seven, but this book is already too long . . . .”

He gets back on track for a while, then in Book XVII, he interrupts a chat about prophecies with a howl of pain: “. . . and this, by the Lord’s help, shall be done more conveniently in the following book, that we may not further burden this one, which is already too long.”

Amen.

Two books later, Augustine’s holy hemorrhoids start acting out (in the middle of a disquisition on how true happiness comes from eternal life) as a near-sarcastic pellet spray aimed at himself: “. . . the Psalmist says of the city of God, the subject of this laborious work, ‘Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem . . . .’”

And finally, in the next Book XX, crotchety Augustine of Hippo starts a chapter on eschatology in Paul with a yelp of when-will-this-end: “I see that I must omit many of the statements of the gospels and epistles about this last judgment, that this volume may not become unduly long.”

There are other examples, but I omit them here, that this laborious post may not become too long.

Can I Get Chips with That?

Happy Sunday, Seekers! Before we stop apologizing, let me explain that “apologetics” is a genre of religious argument that mounts a reasoned intellectual defense against attacks from cultured despisers. Apologetics is actually the opposite of apologizing.

So I was browsing a web hub for some modern brother Seeker and ran across his own little apologia against Atheists and New Agers who say the fish was a pagan religious symbol stolen by early Christians.

Brother Seeker is a guy names James Patrick Holding who appears to be a kind of full-time intellectual Evangelical, with a YouTube channel, e-books, reams of rapidly written articles on topics from Star Trek to the Resurrection. He’s an active part of the online Evangelical pseudo-science universe, which is absolutely thriving.

Apparently this fish-pagan-copyist accusation was raised in a popular womynist reference doorstop called The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, by Barbara Walker, written in 1988 and still very much in print.
Holding offers the standard rebuttal that the fish symbol derives from the “fishers of men” parable in Matthew 4:19 and the coincidence that the Greek word for fish (“ICTYS”) forms an anagram for “Iesous Christos Theous Yios Soter” (“Jesus Christ, Son of God the Savior”). This clever-anagram apology is the standard Evangelical position.

No paganism here, right? Whew.

But wait. Ground stop. 10 count. The Evangelicals are only half-right.

"Have I got a prophecy for you!"

Had they been prancing their way through Augustine’s “City of God,” like us, they would have discovered the REAL story. In Book XVIII, Chapter 23, Augustine talks about the Ancient Greek Erythrean Sibyl, whose prophecies — pagan prophecies! — were widely quoted and revered by early Christians because they were thought to anticipate Christ, six centuries earlier. (Michelangelo depicts her in the Sistine Chapel.)

Augustine says a certain Roman scholar and proconsul named Flaccianus showed him a Greek manuscript one day. A manuscript that he claimed contained the original prophecies of the Erythrean Sibyl. One passage Augustine saw was a poem, the first letter of each line of which spelled out “Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Savior” in Greek.

Our code-breaking pal Augustine also notes that there are 27 lines in the Sibyl’s poem, which is 3 cubed, which is like Trinity Times Three = Turbo Trinity! Coincidence?

And this pagan prophecy yields the Greek anagram for FISH, as he says:

“… in which word Christ is mystically understood, because He was able to live, that is, to exist, without sin in the abyss of this mortality as in the depth of waters.”

Now, Augustine had no way of knowing that the so-called Sibylline Oracles so revered by early Christians are obvious first- and second-century forgeries entirely unrelated to the REAL Sibylline prophecies, which were probably destroyed by fire about a century before Christ’s time. Which is no doubt why modern Christian apologists have written them out of church history.

Happy fishing! And sorry.

Half-Way Up the Mountain

Before the Fall?

Augustine writes like an architect. His logic isn’t linear so much as structural, with ballrooms and storage rooms and corridors all rambled through at leisure, at times in darkness, until we think we’re lost or losing it and then . . . outside, at last, we see the house in daylight and it’s beautiful.

He was a very careful editor. Near the end of his life, he wrote a thing called Retractions that revisits all his major works and corrects parts, with reasons. He’s the only Ancient author whose individual works can be dated precisely because he did it for us.

In his two greatest hits — Confessions and City of God — Augustine puts his main point . . . where? Exactly where a modern writer would not: IN THE MIDDLE. Not just near the middle, or somewhat central . . . exactly in the middle, almost to the word. It’s an odd technique, no? Imagine Malcolm Gladwell putting the main thesis for Blink in the center of the book. He’d be working the toaster at Toronto’s Great Canadian Bagel.

What happens in the middle that’s so special? Thanks for asking:

  • Confessions — Augustine spends the first half of this book-length prayer confessing to a “misspent” youth that isn’t as bad as he says and a certain, um, lustiness that strikes us today as entirely normal. Then — at the end of Book 8, word 63,000 of this 126,000-word hut — he describes a life-shattering moment. In a Garden (knock knock, Adam!) he hears a voice and reads a passage from Galatians to “make no provision for the flesh” . . . and his old life is over. Like that.
  • City of God — The architect turns urban planner in this much bigger book, laid out like Confessions: first half describes the restlessness and torpor and (ouch) death that come from living in the world; second half, the completeness and peace and immortality that come from turning our eyes to the Big Banana in the African Sky. Both start refuting “errors” of non-Christians in meticulous detail and end explaining Genesis in meticulous detail. And in both books, these neat halves are separated by a conversion that is not a physical but a psychological event.

Put simply, both pivot on a moment when Augustine — and the reader — realize something. Something that’s been there all along but we just haven’t seen. It’s a moment of clear sight, a change in attitude, a step into the psychic light of truth.

Right in the middle of City of God is where Augustine talks about the nature of human beings and what we call Original Sin. As I said, it’s not what you may think. Hint: all of us are literally at the center of our worlds; it’s baked into being human. Right?

Postcards from ‘The City of God’

Forget 90 seconds, I’ll give you Augustine’s The City of God in 9 seconds:

  • First half: Pagans are stupid. Second half: People are genetically selfish; makes us miserable; need to stop; look up!

You’re welcome. It’s a fascinating book, more revealing of the real Augustine in its way than the supposedly autobiographical Confessions, which is a self-portrait of a self-conscious Saint, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin of its day.

What surprised me most? Two words: Original Sin. Augustine more or less invented the orthodox position on this topic and gave it a name. Ask me yesterday, I’d tell you it referred to something Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden that we people inherited like a multi-generational criminal sentence imposed by God. They committed a crime; we keep on paying.

Wrong, brothers. Wrong, sisters. It’s actually more psychologically subtle than that and gets back to Augustine’s mission for the City, which he says in the Preface is all about trying “to persuade the proud of the virtue of humility.” Huh? More on this next time.

For now, a couple tidbits to leaven your Lenten Sunday self-denial:

  1. Augustine was a Scientist — He tells us (Bk 16 Ch 9) that many smart people in his day thought there were people living on the opposite side of the Earth who were opposite-men, unhappy stumblebums who somehow walked “with their feet opposite ours.” This, he rejects, and in his rebuttal he notes it is “supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form.” Note that approving “scientifically demonstrated” and the use of common sense (i.e., opposite-people are silly). (This passage by the way refutes one of White’s and Draper’s 19th century calumnies against the Church: that it was full of flat-earthers.)
  2. Augustine was not a Biblical Literalist — He quotes God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis that “I will make your seed as the dust of the earth: if any one can number the dust of the earth, your seed shall also be numbered.” A literalist says: Wow, that’s a lot of peeps! Augustine says, clearly, this statement is “that figure the Greeks call hyperbole, which indeed is figurative, not literal” (Bk 16 Ch 21). Why? Well, says Brother Augustine, doodling patiently, “who does not see how incomparably larger the number of the dust must be than that of all men can be from Adam himself down to the end of the world?”

In other words, it’s common sense. Use your head, people. Don’t check those brains at the ostium.

Just Don’t Call Me a “Cynic”

Cynic Philosopher

Right now I’m reading Augustine’s incredibly long “City of God” and it’s a cannonade of awesomeness.

It starts slow. Ancient people didn’t share our modern, cinematic sense of story. Their books can seem like two or three or four things stapled together: Augustine’s own “Confessions” hits a wall at Chapter IX and seems to digress into a treatise on Time and Memory and so on, and you need a Ph.D. to understand why it all hangs together.

So: What’s a cynic? In Book XIV Ch. 20 of “City of God,” we get a startling explanation. Our word “cynic” comes from the ancient Greek word for dog, as does canine. “Kynikos” means “doglike.” Cynics were philosophers. In what way did they resemble dogs?

Augustine tells us that the cynics:

“. . . boastfully proclaimed their unclean and shameless opinion, worthy indeed of dogs, viz., that as the matrimonial act [i.e., bonking] is legitimate, no one should be ashamed to perform it openly, in the street or in any public place.”

Well! Much like the Big Bang and Heretics, Cynics were named by their enemies. Their esteemed leader, Diogenes, apparently, actually walked the walk, so to speak, performing a sex act in public like a dog. (Or faking it?)

Why? “Under the impression,” says Augustine, “that his sect would be all the more famous if his egregious shamelessness were deeply graven in the memory of mankind.”

So here we have Diogenes — the first Reality TV star!