Saturday, November 6

Augustine: Confessions Book 7

This entry is part of my continuing set of essays I am writing as I read Augustine's and a readers Confessions and a Readers Companion to Augustine's Confessions. See the previous entries here:
  1. Book 1. part 1 2 and 3.
  2. Book 2
  3. Book 3.
  4. Book 4
  5. Book 5
  6. Book 6
Book 7. Well on our way, in fact numerically, we cross the midpoint (7 of 13). This is a somewhat complicated book. Augustine struggles with (with some personal sense of urgency) with a notion of God and the origin and nature of Evil. He starts with his (now discarded) but nevertheless Manichean roots that God has some sort of material substance (as would Evil). Since God is everywhere, yet eternal and incorruptible, What is he? After some wrestling, he comes across some NeoPlatonist writings (Plotinus) who helps him in figuring this out.

Our Companion guide for this Book is Phillip Cary. Mr Cary is Director of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is also Scholar in Residence at Templeton Honors College and Associate Professor of Philosophy (I guess at Templeton). He has written about books and essays about Augustine.

Our guide warns us against misunderstanding the urgency of Augustine's wrestling. These may seem like abstract issues to us, but were of great import to Augustine who writes, "What tortures of my heart in labor! What sighs, my God. (snip) You (God) knew what I suffered, and no man." This is Augustine praying for help and divine insight.

Now the solution is one we are more familiar with, our modern conception of God. However, that owes much to Augustine's wrestling. Also, our guide points out, that Augustine's turning inward for the understanding of God was later supplanted by a Thomist (Aquinas) view in which we turn also turn to the natural world to help us understand God. But I'm getting ahead of myself. As to Augustine's understanding of Evil, Mr Cary informs us (for Augustine) that moral evil is rooted in our free will to choose things wrongly. For Augustine, evil is not a noun but an adverb. Choosing "evilly" or with a perversion of the will is the origin of evil.

Mr Cary informs us by this time in Book 7, Augustine is a believer, but he has not yet been baptized and accepted into the Catholic community. He points out that Augustine has no difficulty with the Platonic philosophy being in discord with Christian thought.

Mr Cary ends with a historical overview of where Augustine's thought fits in with Christian "ontotheology" (the attempt to combine the philosophy of the "eternal being" with a religious understanding of the Divine). Augustine was perhaps the first and most influential of these thinkers. The ideas Augustine presents of the transcendence of God, Mr Cary informs us are not as popular today. Bonheoffer says, "Only a suffering God can help." In fact, Mr Cary tells us that today,
Augustine's Platonist notion that intellectual vision of God is natural to us has long dropped out of Catholic theology in favor of Thomist that the vision of God is supernatural, requiring grace...(snip)... What remains of Augustinian spirituality, for de Lubac and John Paul, is the restless heart that cannot find rest apart from knowing God...

Well, that's a big bite to swallow. What, gentle reader you ask, is my impression (being neither philosophe nor thelogian).

I found the notion that Augustine wrestles in an very intellectual way in order to find God a good lesson for today. One need not look for God in empassioned spritual longing or untamed spirituality. Perhaps, it (or arguments like it) could be used to guide home those of "Scientific bent", whose heart is having difficulty "knowing God" and is not finding it in the secular philosophy of the day. I am not convinced however that the particulars of Augustine's arguments themselves will find traction in the hearts of students today. For myself I found more traction in the livid prose of GK Chesterton, e.g., Orthodoxy. But the reason is not that the method is flawed, it is just that the Platonic view of the world is perhaps not as attractive today. I have read (mostly from Chesterton) that Aquinas reconciled Aristotelian natural philosophy with Augustine's Platonic Christianity. I have in mind to understand what this really means in the future. But for now, we still have 6 more books to go in this exercise.