CNA - Saint of the Day

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Augustine - The Mystery of God

Augustine was born in 354 at Tagaste in Africa, a region heavily latinized in both culture and language. He was brought up in the Christian faith, but without receiving baptism. An ambitious schoolchild of brilliant talent and violent passions, he early lost both his faith and innocence. He studied rhetoric in Carthage and it was during this time that he read the Hortensius by Cicero that altered his affections and awoke within him “an incredibly burning desire for an immortality of wisdom”[1]. His realisation that one cannot effectively find truth without Jesus led him away from this work to an inelegant Bible which disappointed him because there “he discovered neither the loftiness of philosophy nor the splendour of the search for the truth”[2]. His desire to live a life in God brought him into contact with the Manicheans, a group who presented themselves as Christians, promoted a rational religion and gave the prospect of a career. They proved incapable of dispelling his doubts and so he distanced himself from them and moved, first to Rome, and then on to Milan where he acquired the habit of listening to St. Ambrose initially in order to enrich his rhetoric. Through the Prelates “allegorical interpretation of Scripture and use of Neo-Platonic philosophy”[3], however, he was finally able to solve the seemingly insurmountable intellectual difficulties of his earlier biblical encounters. "Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee!"[4] sums up his discovery. The God he found was a personal God, “a God who made himself "tangible", one of us, … a God to whom he could pray, for whom and with whom he could live”[5]. This left him, however, with the problem of how he would relate the Greek conception of an immutable God with the Hebrew conception of a passionate God who interacts with and responds to human beings.
His association with those who promoted acquisitive fantasies left Augustine in a position where he could not understand how God could be spirit. "Nearly nine years passed in which I wallowed in the slime of that deep pit and the darkness of falsehood, striving often to rise, but being all the more heavily dashed down."[6] After hearing Ambrose, Augustine came to realize that the Christian faith did not hold, as Manicheans had supposed, that God was bounded by human form and was therefore embarrassed that he had held such easily confuted arguments for so many years. But, "what was the nature of a spiritual substance I had not the faintest or dimmest suspicion."[7] Although he now did not think of God in a human body, he "could not avoid a concept of something corporeal in space, either infused into the world, or infinitely diffused beyond it."[8] However, though his earlier Platonist readings he was able to ascend "from bodies to the soul . . . on to the reasoning faculty . . . And thus, with the flash of a trembling glance . . . saw Thy invisible things."[9] According to Whitney J. Oates, "The Platonic tradition unquestionably prepared the way for him to accept and realize the meaning of Christianity’s doctrine of God as Spirit."[10] Ambrose's sermons, with their emphasis on the Pauline distinction of letter and spirit as a means of interpreting the chasm between the Old and New Testament[11], also helped Augustine to realize that true understanding of God’s justice, as requiring punishment and reward, begins within the individual and that the key to personal order is an attitude of subjection to God. The questions that beleaguered him did indeed speak to the heart of his religious experience of the divine, and when he had removed those obstacles he found a way to a God who was not a phantasma but a real and true God. A triptych of consecutive and concentric revelations provided Augustine with a realization that whatever God does is directed toward the ultimate goodness of the created order but always with justice toward each of His creatures. The justice of God he now conceived as “a function of the law of love”[12] ; and this was an adequate apologetic for Judaism. His insights into the spiritual nature of God provided refutation for the pagans, and the new understanding of the goodness of God and God's creation was the decisive argument against the Manichees.
Augustine was a passionate seeker of truth and devoted almost thirty years to his composition De Trinitatae in which he asserts that humankind is made in the image of the triune God, and that an image of the Trinity, albeit “utterly imperfect and inadequate”[13], exists in man’s nature. In order to demonstrate this Augustine provided several illustrations of the Trinity in the human experience. There exists the “mind, and the knowledge wherewith the mind knows itself, and the love wherewith it loves both itself and its own knowledge; and these three are shown to be mutually equal, and of one essence.”[14] We can realize, consequently, that as we have three parts, God also has three parts. He does not attempt to hide the failures of these illustrations and regards them simply as “footprints of the Trinity in creation”[15] and an inadequate image. He recognises the errors within them concerning the nature of God, and states that although they are “very far removed from [God].” (197), his point, in using them, has been to discover three things which ‘are exhibited separately, whose operation is inseparable.’ (198). Through this treatise Augustine also emphasised the consubstantiality of the divine persons, asserting the procession of the Spirit from the Father. He maintains, continually, that Sonship as a relationship is second and subordinate to Fatherhood. Whilst a Divine Father and a Divine Son must necessarily be of the very same nature and grade of being, the latter issues from the former. Augustine designates the Father the principium of the Son, and the Father and Son the principium of the Holy Spirit. “The Father is the beginning of the whole divinity, or if it is better so expressed, deity.”[16] The term “beginning” is used only in relation to the person, not to the essence since there is no “beginning,” or source, when the essence itself is spoken of. The “subordination”, therefore, is not the Arian subordination, as to essence, but the trinitarian subordination, as to person and relation.
Augustine insists, through reflecting a Neoplatonic unified “hierarchy of being”[17] and avoiding Plotinus’ notion of emanation, that creation is the free act of God where God chooses to create the world ex nihilo. God was the Supreme Being on whom all other beings, including time itself, were totally dependent and therefore “deserving of the love and attention of the created”[18]. For Augustine, the ethical task of loving each thing appropriately was paramount. This means loving God, the very being of all that is, above all things. In loving God, all beings prove that they are good because they tend back toward their creator who had made them from nothing. Humans, however, possess free will, and can only tend back to God by an act of the will. Man's refusal to turn to God is evil, so although the whole of creation is good, evil comes into the world through man's rejection of the good that is, God.  "For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil - not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked.”[19] God allows evil to exist since it doesn't conflict with His goodness and it gives need for the existence of virtues such as courage, mercy, forgiveness and patience which are not theoretical virtues, but elements of character. When viewed as a whole, therefore, that which appears to be evil eventually contributes to the greater good.
St Augustine understood that not everyone was aware that they were capax Dei. In response, he proposed the way of interiority - the turning from the outer world to the inner self.[20] "Do not go outward; return within yourself. In the inward person dwells truth."[21] It is here that an essential distinction is made between cogitare, and scire as he points out that one can know about oneself, but it is through understanding the mystery of oneself that one can come to understand the mystery of God. “We seek one mystery, God, with another mystery, ourselves. We are mysterious to ourselves because God’s mystery is in us:”[22] Therefore, as humans are mysteries to themselves, God is to be understood as wholly mysterious. The restless pursuit of God involves pursuing a goal that continually recedes from the seeker. If God is forever incomprehensible, does the mystery of human life remain unsolved? Our inability to reduce the comprehensibility of God should not disturb us for “God manifests himself in just the measure of which he knows the one who is receiving him is capable.”[23] As St. Augustine says, God will fill his capacity to the uttermost limit. Anyone who is so filled cannot desire further fulfilment. If God was to give himself to a person more fully than one could stand the extra happiness would be overstraining. If God were to explain more fully than one could understand, mind and heart would be darkened. All hear or see the same thing, but each sees or hears it according to the measure of one’s ability to comprehend it. And so, even though the Spirit of God is always manifested in the life of those who share in him, he remains invisible to all, because the mystery is forever transcendent.[24] We comfort ourselves with the ever new and never changing truth that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and forever: the mystery is always new therefore the mind in understanding it, will never be deprived it of its freshness.

[1] Augustine Confessions 3:7:12
[2] Benedict XVI The Fathers p177
[3] Ibid p179
[5] Benedict XVI The Fathers p198
[6] Whitney J. Oates Augustine, Confessions book 3, section 11 Verse 40, in The Basic Writings of St. Augustine
[7] Confessions. 6, 3, 76
[8] Ibid. 7, 1, 91.
[9] Ibid. 7, 17, 105.
[10] Oates’s Introduction, xvi-xvii.
[11] Confessions. 6,4,6
[15] Mariasusai Dhavamony - A Trinitarian Theology of God’s Kingdom p91
[16] Confessions. 4, 20, 29
[17] Henry Chadwick – Augustine, A very short introduction p58
[18] Werner J. Jeanrond - A Theology of Love p52
[19] Augustine, City of God. 12, 6
[20] Augustine, Confessions 10,6
[22] Garry Wills – Saint Augustine Introduction p xii
[23] Five Centuries of St Maximus the Confessor
[24] ibid

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