Augustine for the 21st Century (6): Selected Passages by Augustine, Reading Recommendations, and Concluding Thoughts

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Now, this installment is well worth your time reading. Unlike the previous installments of this blog series in which I bloviated about Augustine, this installment provides the real payoff: some bona fide passages from Augustine’s sermons and commentaries. Although I have read several of his books (City of God, The Confessions, and On Christian Doctrine), I have not read his sermons, commentaries and letters. Therefore in this post I rely upon Jules Brady’s collection in Augustine for Everyone. In this 60 page booklet, Brady collects 101 brief passages, organizes them under seventeen headings, and translates them into readable English. In the pages that follow, I will provide a few of those quotes, utilizing Brady’s translation, and organize them under my own system of headings. In the above installments you’ve gotten a taste of Augustine academic and polemical work. In this installment, however, you will see him at his pastoral best, distilling biblical teaching into concise and memorable sentences.

God

How can the beauty of the universe inspire us to praise God’s beauty?

“The pleasure we experience in seeing a beautiful cathedral reminds us to admire the church’s architect. How much more should viewing the universe’s infinite variety stir us to praise the Beauty of its Creator. Consider, for a moment, the whole of creation. The splendor of the starry skies, the various flowers in a flower garden, the stately majesty of a cluster of trees, the melodious songs of birds, the variations of creatures in the animal kingdom, the sense and intellectual faculties of a human person, are like so many voices that praise the Beauty of their Author. Word fail us in our effort to describe adequately what the beauty of the universe tells us of the Divine Artist’s Beauty. Does triumphant music come closer to expressing God’s Beauty?” (On Psalm 26)

Why is God more beautiful than the Sun?

“There are two reasons for this: First, when the sun rises, it lights up the earth; it illumines colors; it shines through windows; but it cannot penetrate walls. However, God is present in all places, even in a wall. Secondly, when the sun rises in the East, it is absent from the West. When the sun sets in the West, it is away from the East. At night the sun is not seen. However, when God is in the East, he is also in the West. When He is in the West, He is likewise in the East. He is also present at night. He is whole everywhere. If the sun is beautiful, how much more beautiful is God, the sun’s Maker.” (Sermon 70, 2)

Why does the love of God surpass all other loves?

“Some endure toil, dangers, and troubles for the love of money. But at the same time, they may lose sleep for fear of thieves. Others ask an inferior to secure the love of a powerful friend. god says to us: ‘Love Me and I am with you.’ there love is without toil, without dangers, without troubles, without fear of thieves, and without the assistance of a go-between. This love surpasses all other loves.” (Epistle of John to the Parthians 10, 4)

How can we love God instead of loving the world?

“If my hand is holding a heavy book, it cannot hold another heavy object at the same time. I must first put down the book in order to receive a heavy gift package. My love is the hand of my soul. It cannot love God and the world at the same time. It must first cease loving the world in order to love God.” (Sermon 75, 7)

How can we love Christ?

“If you are caught in the river of time and are drifting down the rapids, you have a choice. Either you may drown in the water, or you can catch hold of a tree by the stream and save your life. Similarly, you have a choice in the world. Either you may love the world that passes away with time, or you may hold on to Christ and live eternally with God.” (Epistle of John to the Parthians 2, 10)

Evil

How can the same affliction prompt the wicked to curse God and inspire the good to praise Him?

“The same fire causes straw to smoke and gold to gleam. The same press threshes the grain and crushes the stalk. So, the same trouble worsens the wicked and improves the good. Consequently, the difference between the wicked and the good is not what they suffer but the way they suffer. Therefore, the same evil incites the wicked to deny God and stirs the good to pray to Him.” (City of God 1,8)

Why does God allow tribulations to happen to us?

“Because we cannot endure perpetually the hardships of life, we seek rest in some earthly thing. It may be our house, our family, our children, a little farm, an orchard, or a book we have published. God allows us to suffer tribulations even in these innocent delights in order that we may love only life eternal. Otherwise, as travelers going to their country, we might choose the inn-this world-instead of our true home: eternal life.” (On Psalm 41, 4)

Why does God send trials to His saints?

“While the unskillful pronounce a work of art-a painting, a sculpture, a building-perfect, the artist continues to polish them. The unskillful wonder why these art pieces receive additional polish. The judgment of the inexperienced is one thing, the rule of art another. Likewise, someone noticing the sufferings of a saint questions why God continues to afflict such a holy person. God so acts not to punish the saint for sins but to purify the saint’s perfections, and thus to remove the imperfections.” (On Psalm 99, 10)

How is a Christian similar to a squared stone?

“If you turn over a squared stone, the stone remains erect. When trials, as it were, turn a Christian over, the Christian does not fall down but stands erect.” (On Psalm 87, 3)

Preaching and Teaching

What is the secret of successful teaching?

“When we show out of town friends a city’s beautiful sights that we have often noticed without any pleasure, we experience delight by the delight our friends have for these scenes. So it is that a teacher, teaching a familiar topic to students who are thrilled by learning something new, experiences renewed pleasure in teaching the subject. The greater the bond of friendship between teacher and student, the greater will be the love the teacher has for teaching and the greater will be the love the students have for learning.” (On Catechizing the Uninstructed 12, 17)

Friends and Enemies

How may we love an enemy?

“Suppose a carpenter walking through a forest sees a tree trunk, unhewn, cut down, lying on the ground. The artisan loves the piece of timber at first sight not because of the wood’s present state, but because properly crafted the trunk will become part of a building. So, when meeting an enemy insulting you, there is a way of loving the enemy at first meeting, not by noticing the insulting remarks but by remembering that humble prayer may change the malicious person into your friend. You love the enemy not as a hostile person but as a future friend.” (Epistle of John to the Parthians 8, 10)

What kinds of persons should I cultivate as friends?

“Suppose you meet a person whose beautiful color and symmetrical shape attract your eyes. Yet, when you learn the person is a thief, you will have nothing to do with such an individual. On the other hand, you may encounter an elderly person, leaning on a cane, hardly able to walk, covered with wrinkles. Moreover, if you find out the person is just, you will want such a one as your friend.” (On the Gospel of John 3, 21)

Prayer

What should I ask from God?

“If the Emperor told you, “Ask what you will,” perhaps you would request a tribuneship, a chief office of the state or external wealth. Almighty God says, “Ask what you will,” and you might ask for the whole earth, the sea, the air, the heavens, the sun, the moon and the stars. They are all beautiful; but they are made by God. Ask for God Himself and you will have God, Beauty in Itself. And in Him you will possess everything He has made. God loves you and wishes to give you Himself more than anything else.” (On Psalm 34; Sermon 1, 12)

This World and the Hereafter

How does temporal happiness compare with eternal happiness?

“The supreme good of the City of God is eternal and perfect peace, not in our mortal transit from birth to death, but in our immortal freedom from all adversity. This is the happiest life-who can deny it?-and in comparison with it our life on earth, however blessed with external prosperity or goods of soul and body, is utterly miserable. Nonetheless, whoever accepts it and makes use of it as a means to that other life that he longs for and hopes for, may not unreasonably be called happy even now-happy in hope rather than in reality.” (City of God 19:20)

Concluding Thoughts

This post concludes the series. Because of the limitations of a blog format, I have left out many lessons we could have learned from Augustine’s life and writings. In lieu of being able to explore the many lessons learned from some of the books written by and about Augustine, allow me to make a few reading recommendations:

1. Augustine of Hippo (by Peter Brown). This is a classic biography of Augustine.

2. City of God (Augustine). Augustine wrote two great books, City of God and The Confessions. In writing City of God, Augustine invented a genre, philosophy (or theology) of history, and gave us a classic theological text for the ages.

3. The Confessions (Augustine) In writing The Confessions, Augustine invented yet another genre, spiritual/philosophical autobiography, and gave us yet another classic theological text for the ages.

4. Secondary in importance to his classics, yet of great significance still, Augustine’s many other texts commend themselves to us. I recommend: On Christian Doctrine and Enchiridion.

-BA

Augustine for the 21st Century (5): What Can We Learn from Augustine as a Pastor-Theologian?

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Pastor Augustine was not a perfect man, but he embodied certain virtues, disciplines, and convictions that we would do well to emulate. Sixteen hundred years after he lived and wrote he continues to teach.

Summary of Augustine’s Life. Augustine was born in Hippo (modern-day Algeria) in AD 354 to a Christian mother and a pagan father. At age 18 he discovered Cicero’s writings and started his quest as a philosopher. At first, he was drawn to Manichaeanism, a dualistic philosophy which taught that the universe is a battleground between equal and opposing forces of good and evil. Next, he became a skeptic and later a Plotinian neo-Platonist. At age 32, he converted to the Christian faith. From this time onward, he was a tireless proponent of the gospel, laboring as a pastor, theologian, apologist, and philosopher. For the purposes of this blogpost, I will focus on what we can learn from three aspects of Augustine’s life-Augustine as public theologian, pastoral theologian, and pretty smart J theologian.”

Augustine as public theologian. Recently, I read Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, which provides a good jumping off point for our discussion of Augustine as a public intellectual. In the book, Said argues that intellectuals are essentially outliers and disturbers of the status quo who call into question existing paradigms even at the risk of ostracism and exile. “The intellectual,” writes Said, “is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted….” The public intellectual, however, is never to use divine revelation. “In the secular world….the intellectual has only secular means to work with; revelation and inspiration, while perfectly feasible as modes for understanding in private life, are disasters and even barbaric when put to use by theoretically minded men and women.

Said’s argument raises a perennial question for public theologians (a better term, perhaps, than “Christian intellectuals”). Should we speak with the thick discourse of Christian particularity, relying on Scripture to make our arguments, at the risk of being dismissed or misunderstood? Or do we speak the thin discourse of translation, using language that is less specifically Christian, at the risk of losing some of the distinctiveness of the particular point we are trying to make? It is here that Augustine tutors us in being public theologians. On my interpretation of his writings, he adapted his strategy depending on where, to whom, and on what he was discoursing. On the one hand, he was not averse to thin discourse as he made powerful, refined, and nuanced philosophical arguments. It is for this reason that Anthony Kenny calls him the “last flowering of classical philosophy.” On the other hand, in City of God and other writings he employed powerfully thick discourse as he spoke directly from the Scriptures. For the public theologian, the thickness of our discourse is a matter of discernment.

Augustine as pastoral theologian. Augustine was consecrated Bishop of Hippo at age 41. He had been appointed professor of rhetoric in Milan at age 30 but upon becoming a pastor he never looked back. He wrote a total of 93 books, as well as numerous letters and sermons totaling more than 5 million words. One of the great distinctives of his books, letters and sermons is their pastoral nature. In his later years, his works were almost exclusively biblical exegesis, theological argumentation, and apologetics. Even his most academic treatises were written for the church, in the sense that they were written for God’s glory and for the health of his people. Like Calvin, Pascal, Lewis, and others after him, he had the unique ability to write top-tier theology in a style that evokes passion and mediates his love for Christ and the church.

Augustine as pretty smart theologian. I am amazed every time I sit back and think that the author of The City of God and The Confessions was a pastor. He was arguably the most erudite scholar in the Roman empire and he was a parson! Now, please allow me to make myself clear: Intellectual prowess and scholarly erudition are not qualifications for being a pastor and theologian. Theology is at heart a spiritual task. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10). Theology is done primarily for the glory of God and the good of his church. That is why the qualifications for teachers (1 Tim 3:1-7, Tit 1:5-9) are primarily spiritual, not intellectual. Paul does mention the ability to teach (which implies analytical and communicative ability) but most of the qualifications he gives are ethical in nature. In order to be a good theologian, one must be godly. In order to see clearly, one must walk closely. That is why there are many simple believers who know God better than many learned theologians. Theology and godly living enforce one another.

With that said, however, the Creator chose to make us in his image and likeness, with part of that likeness being our rational and creative capacities. Every one of us who bear God’s image have the unique and special responsibility to exercise our capacities to the maximum for God’s glory. Because Augustine had exercised his God-given capacities to their utmost, he was a more adaptable tool in the hands of the Lord. He was able to proclaim and defend the gospel inside the four walls of his church and outside in the public square. He was able to influence both the man on the street and the scholarly elite. He was in a position to speak not only about the gospel in relation to his parishioner’s devotional lives, but also about the gospel’s implications for the arts and sciences. The lesson to be learned: May we exercise our capacities to the utmost for the glory of God and the good of the church and the world.

Augustine for the 21st Century (4): What Were Augustine’s Starting Points and How are They Relevant for Today?

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Augustine teaches us to use Christian doctrine as a lever to unseat false prophets such as Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens.

Augustine defended Christianity from one basic starting point: the biblical narrative is true and it alone explains the world within (existential viability) and the world without (empirical adequacy). He knew that his interlocutors did not agree. Augustine understood that, as Romans 1 puts it so damningly, the Roman pagans were busy suppressing the knowledge of the truth, exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and worshipping the creature rather than the creator. In response to their idolatry, therefore, Augustine presupposed and proclaimed the truth of the biblical narrative. He used certain basic Christian doctrines (God, Creation, Man, Sin, Redemption) as starting points to show the falsity of the competing Roman narrative.

Those same doctrines provide starting points for us in defending the gospel in a 21st century context.

Take, for example, the doctrine of man in relation to atheism. As I wrote in an article in Spring 2007, “The problem with atheism, as with other worldviews, is that it is not able to account for the unique nature, capacities, and ends of human existence. Inevitably, it tends toward either an enthronement or a denigration of humanity, unable to strike a proper balance.

At times, atheists tend toward the enthronement of humanity. This might seem an obvious move; if one chooses not to worship God on His throne, the next best thing would be to enthrone oneself. This can be seen in Humanist Manifesto II, which states that, ‘At the present juncture of history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable.’

At other times (or ironically, at the same time), atheists denigrate humanity. A glittering example of this is Peter Singer, of Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. Singer, like Nietzche and others, realizes what a radical revisioning of mankind must take place. For him this means that we cannot base our ethics on the imago Dei or argue that our immortal soul distinguishes us from the animals. ‘By 2040,’ he writes, ‘it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.’[1]

For Singer, the moral status of a human being is defined, not by his being created in the image of God, but by his consciousness and ability to function. Those humans who are most conscious and functional have more worth and moral status that those who are less conscious and functional. Healthy teenagers and middle-aged folks, then, are worth more than babies and old people, and certainly more than the mentally and physically handicapped.

For this reason, certain non-human animals have higher moral status than certain human animals. A donkey or a dog will often have superior consciousness and function than a defective human baby. It is for this reason that he believes one might find instances when infanticide is acceptable; sometimes, he thinks, it would be more wrong to take the life of an animal than to take the life of a defective baby.[2]

Furthermore, since Singer does not hold to the imago Dei, which gives a clear line of delineation between humans and animals, he has no problem suggesting that inter-species sexual activity is sometimes acceptable. In some instances, sex between a man and an animal might be mutually satisfying and, therefore, not problematic. He hurries to say, however, that with small animals such as chickens or ferrets, sexual activity might be painful for the animal and would therefore be problematic.[3]

Singer’s re-definition of humanity finds company even in popular culture. Take, for example, the movie Bicentennial Man (1999). In this movie Robin Williams is a robot who is on a two-century journey toward becoming ‘human.’ At one point in the movie, he begins to use the word ‘I,’ signifying that he has now become self-conscious. He is now every bit as ‘conscious’ as human beings, and the implication, it seems, is that he has therefore achieved humanness.”[4]

Atheism-like any worldview other than Christianity-cannot make proper sense of mankind. It tends toward either the enthronement or the denigration of humanity. The imago Dei is essential for understanding humanity. It makes sense of who we are; indeed, it renders coherent the socio-cultural activities that surround us and pervade our lives. As we image forth God through our capacities for spirituality, morality, rationality, relationality, and imagination, we are able to live distinctively human lives. Our work in the sciences is possible because of our ability to reason. In the arts, we may participate because of our imaginative and creative capacities. In the public square, we may act and interact because God made us not only rational but relational beings. As theologians, this robust anthropology unlocks the complexities of man’s unique capacities and his relationship to the rest of the created order.

Or take the doctrine of God in relation to pantheism (Note: Certain ancient philosophers, most Buddhists, many Hindus are pantheists. Pantheism comes in many varieties, and this blogpost inevitably will refer only to certain streams of pantheism). One of the problems for pantheists is that they are unable to account for aspects of human life such as evil or logic precisely because they do not believe in the God of the Bible. As Christian theists, we believe that God is eternal and good. He created the world from nothing, is separate from it, but relates personally to it. Pantheists, on the other hand, believe that God is the world and the world is God. All is one. This monism, however, puts the pantheist in a major bind. If all is one, then there can be no distinctions. But few things are more apparently false than this belief.

If all is one, there can be no such thing as logic. Logic just is the making of distinctions. Logic is premised upon the belief that A cannot be non-A at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way. Our use of human language is in turn premised upon logic. When we state something, we intend for it to be taken in the way that we meant it (“A”) rather than in the opposite manner (“non-A”). But for Buddhists, logic is the enemy and if we are to become one with the world we must rid ourselves of it. This is why one can find Buddhists meditating on the sound of one hand clapping. It is an illogical exercise aimed at setting the practitioner free from captivity to logic. The Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, for example, argues that we must abandon/transcend logic because it is not applicable to reality.[5] But in order to deny that logic applies to reality, one must make a “logical” statement about reality to the effect that one cannot make logical statements. If a person states that there is no logic (because all is one and there are no distinctions), his statement is itself a distinction.

Further, if all is one, I find it difficult to imagine how one can explain evil in relation to goodness. If all is one, the concepts of “good” and “evil” are not really opposed to one another after all-they are really the same thing. For this reason, some pantheists argue that there is neither good nor evil and others argue that evil is an illusion. Prabhavananda and Usherwood, for example, say, “All good and all evil is relative to the individual point of growth….But, in the highest sense, there can be neither good nor evil.”[6] Such an argument, however, is not only counter-intuitive but goes against an abundance of empirical evidence. Good and evil exist and evil is not an illusion.

In summary, just as Augustine used basic Christian doctrines to show how the competing pagan worldview lacked explanatory power, we are able to use those same doctrines to expose the weaknesses, fallacies, and falsities of pantheism, atheism, and other worldviews.


[1] Peter Singer, “The Sanctity of Life,” in Foreign Policy (Sept/Oct 2005) 40.

[2] Ibid., “Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life,” Pediatrics (July 1983) 129. Also, in Practical Ethics (New York: Cambridge University, 1979), he argues that membership in the human species is irrelevant to moral status.

[3] Singer’s most famous treatment of bestiality, or as he calls it zoophilia, is “Heavy Petting,” published at Nerve.com, on March 12, 2001. Lest one think that Singer is an obscure radical with no real influence, it should be noted that he is often called one of the most influential philosophers alive. In fact, his Practical Ethics is the most successful philosophy text ever published by Cambridge University Press.

[4] Bruce Riley Ashford, “Worldview, Anthropology, and Gender: A Call to Broaden the Parameters of the Discussion.” The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood XII, Issue 1 (Spring 2007) 7-9.

[5] D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, 58.

[6] Prabhavananda and Usherwood, Bhagavad-Gita, 140.