Posted on: February 20th, 2020 Augustine on passionately returning to God

This section of the Confessions (XII.ix.10) blows my mind (not least b/c it occurs in nestled within a rigorous interrogation of the cosmology presented by the Book of Genesis).

May the truth, the light of my heart, not my darkness, speak to me. I slipped down into the dark and was plunged into obscurity. Yet from there, even from there, I loved you. “I erred and remembered you” (Ps 118:76). “I heard your voice behind me” (Ezek 3:12) calling me to return. And I could hardly hear because of the hubbub of the people who know no peace. Now, see, I am returning hot and panting to your spring. Let no one stand in my path. Let me drink this and live by it. May i not be my own life. On my own resources I lived evilly. To myself I was death. In you I am recovering life. Speak to me, instruct me. I have put faith in your books. And their words are mysterious indeed.

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Posted on: March 5th, 2019 Augustine’s Confessions I: Notes

I’m currently rereading Augustine’s Confessions (for the third or fourth time), this time as part of the larger project that is my doctoral dissertation.

Lots going on in Book I. I want to give a quick list of some important themes, and then focus in particular on two: his way of overcoming destructive desires, and his “hermeneutic of suspicion” of the pagan Greek religious deities.

First, the quick list. Augustine introduces several themes which will emerge later in the book, including: the role of memory in the pursuit of God, language acquisition in infants, the pejorative nature of custom (Latin mos: see esp. xvi.25), his opposition to capital punishment, his deferred baptism (xi.17–18) his own identity as both sinner and victim, seeds of grace in the early years of his life.

One riveting theme, however, which I have not noticed in the past: his way of reading the pantheon of Greek deities, and the religious “system” in which they appear. In addition to reiterating his view that the Greek gods are veiled demonic, evil spirits, Augustine actually claims in this early book that a prime motivation for ancient pagan mythology is the need, on the part of the powerful, to justify their own immorality and corruption, particularly their sexual immorality:

Have I not read … of Jupiter, at once both thunderer and adulterer? Of course the two activities cannot be combined, but he was described as to give an example of real adultery defended by a fictitious thunderclap acting as a go-between.

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.25.

Here Augustine is participating in the great philosophical work of demythologization, adding his voice to the likes of Xenophanes and Plato before him. As for both predecessors, so also for Augustine: after ridding ourselves of pernicious myth, there is still a substratum of legitimate myth, good and proper myth remaining underneath. It is not the case for any of these demythologizers that once we dispel bad myth we are left with “science” or “pure reason” completely without remainder.

What is the real truth about ancient pagan myth? It underwrites and legitimizes the (sexual) immorality of those in power. “If Zeus can do it, then so can I,” says in effect, not only the likes not only of Homer but also of Terence:

But what a god ([Terence] says)! He strikes the temples of heaven with his immense sound. And am I, poor little fellow, not to do the same as he? Yes indeed, I have done it with pleasure.

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.26.

The second point of interest, coming from Book I, is the way Augustine deals with his illicit desires. Far from trying to beat down his lusts, he counters them with a stronger desire, a joyful aching, for God:

Bring to me a sweetness surpassing all the seductive delights which I pursued. Enable me to love you with all my strength that I may clasp your hand with all my heart.

Augustine, Confessions, I.xv.24

And again:

Even at this moment you are delivering from this terrifying abyss the soul who seeks for you and thirsts for your delights (Ps. 41:3), whose heart tells you ‘I have sought your face; your face, Lord, will I seek’ (Ps. 26:8).

Augustine, Confessions, I.xviii.28
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Posted on: July 14th, 2018 Verstand & Dianoia (in Bavaria)

I am having the most amazing time today in my room here at the Priesterseminar in Regensburg (though it is not completely free of various kinds of turmoil).

For years, I have noticed how the work or the process of dianoia is inherently taxing. It’s a ton of work. Not just that, but also it is stressful to the soul in a subtle way. For example, reading a dense text, or doing some kind of logical (or mathematical) proof, or learning a new language. It is the same kind of disturbing tedium involved in reading an owner’s manual when trying to assemble or repair some kind of appliance, such as a chainsaw, or searching Google to try to figure out how to do something on your computer such as editing a PDF or inserting the symbol for the currency Euro into a Word document.

Now, in my PhD coursework I became convinced that the opposite of this dianoia is in a certain sense what I call “intellect” or “nous” or “Verstand.” (CS Lewis has a relevant section in The Discarded Image; Also Plato’s divided line in Book VII [?] of the Republic.) For me perhaps the best way to characterize it is a “the moment of recognition.” It is when you have an “aha” experience and, either for the first time or in an act of remembering, you “see” something.

During my time in Munich, studying at the Goethe Institute, I was constantly oscillating between dianoia and Verstand. There were times in which I felt like I was existentially “in the weeds of William James’ ‘blooming buzzing confusion.’” During these times, for example, as I was trying to figure out the proper case ending for a dative masculine definite article, or trying to translate a paragraph containing many unknown words which I would then have to look up in the dictionary, I was unable—so it felt—to recognize anything. It was hell. But then, at other times I would have flashes of insight, recognition, in which I would suddenly “see” something, grasp something: a sentence from my instructor’s mouth, the dialogue of a video, etc. It was Heaven.

This whole dynamic—emerging from the blooming buzzing confusion into the state of recognition—has always reminded me of some scenes from the Matrix, just after Thomas Anderson’s celebral plug is pulled, and he slides down the tubular portals of existential chaos. By the end of the movie, though, not only can he dodge bullets; he can also kick the ass of the bad guy “on the back of his hand,” almost as if he is resting. This process is also, surely, closely akin to what certain thinkers mean by “waking up” or even becoming conscious.

When recently reading Nathan Jennings’s book, Liturgy and Reality (and discussing some things with him), and also while reading Returning to Reality and Bonaventure’s Hexaëmeron, I realized that, one of the riveting things about Verstand is that is occurs both before and after dianoia. (Actually, now that I think about it, I had realized this far earlier, since I have tried to teach this dynamic in various philosophy classes at UTT.)

The struggle for achieving the post-dianoetic Verstand—what Whitehead called “the simplicity on the far side of complexity”—is really the heart of my dissertation writing process. The goal of the difficult process of research is to achieve a vision of Ratzinger’s Bonaventure, for everything to “fall into place,” for the dissertation to “write itself.” I do think that this will happen—it has already begun to happen and it has happened in smaller-scale ways.

This pattern of nous–dianoia–nous characterizes:

  • the exit and return structure of neoplatonism & Bonaventure;
  • Gadamer’s hermeneutic circle;
  • “Meno’s Paradox” regarding anamnesis & searching;
  • Augustine’s divine illumination theory (exemplified in Bonaventure’s account of the creation of intellectual light on Day 1 in the Hexaëmeron).

This reality of Verstand, or Intellect, is also crucially related to faith, how Christian intellectuals historically have thought about faith. Faith is a kind of a recognition. It is the grasping of a gift, a word, a message, a vision … which originates not from one’s own mind or resources. It is not reason. Reason’s role—for example in both dogmatic and fundamental theology—is to take these gift-messages, and to work on them. To examine them, to string them together or synthesize them. To strive to approach “far-side” recognitions of simplicity. But the first move, that of Verstand, is the simple reception of the message, the recognition of it. This is the (the work of the) intellecus fidei.

On a more personal note: what I realized today in my Priesterseminar room is that, I can rest, very deeply, by engaging in Verstand, in particular the “pre-dianoia” Verstand. What I was doing was simply meditating on the Inhalt of a compilation of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. Even though I had to look up some words (such as “Vergänglicheit,” transcience) I felt like I was in heaven! Surely this is very closely related to the heart of true meditation, Christian meditation. Like the cow chewing the cud.

This is what I want to do with the Psalms, in multiple languages. This is what I want to do in the presence of God, with my heart, at the deepest level of my “ontological conscience,” openly, purely, freely, sensitively, listening.

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Posted on: January 16th, 2017 Medieval Roots of Biblical Typology

Nerd alert: this post is intended for theology geeks only!

In so many ways I’m grateful for the education I received in my MDiv program at Westminster Theological Seminary. However, one qualm I have: WTS’ consistent presumption of a-historicity. That is, it tends to deny that its primary doctrinal emphases (most of which I am totally “down with”) are rooted in a particular history.

Case in point. In the biblical departments there was much (extremely valuable) emphasis on biblical typology.

For decades I’ve wondered, “Does this idea have any historical precedence in medieval thought?” Now I know that it does:

All the mysteries of Scripture treat of Christ with his Body…. This is the meaning of Augustine in his book on the City of God.

So writes Bonaventure in Hexaemeron XV,[1] thus indicating that for him, Augustine’s primary mode of exegesis is an example of a figura sacramental, and not of the allegorical or spiritual sense of Scripture (that is, the “four-fold sense”).

Basically Augustine is doing typological exegesis, and not “spiritual” exegesis, according to Bonaventure. Hence, we can say that Westminster’s emphasis on biblical typology almost certainly has a historical dependence on Augustine. The fact that at least one medieval author (Bonaventure) explicitly acknowledges Augustine as exegeting in a non-“allegorical” way makes this clear.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History of St. Bonaventure, tr. Zachary Hayes, O.F.M. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1989), 10.

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Posted on: January 13th, 2016 Incurvatus in se

In one of his earlier works, the Lectures on the Romans, Martin Luther drew on highlights from Augustine to introduce theology to an extraordinary image for understanding the experience of being a sinner. ‘Scripture,’ Luther tells us, ‘describes man as so curved in upon himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself.’ (Luther’s Works, vol. 25, p. 345, see also pp. 291-92). What Luther means is  (i) that despite our best efforts to get beyond ourselves, to love and serve others to the best of our ability, human beings find it impossible to escape the gravity well of self-interest, and (ii) we are often unconscious of this fact, even as it in fact drives our behavior. Luther quotes Jeremiah 17:9: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt–who can understand it?’

— Quoted from The Mockingbird, vol. 6, p. 35.

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Posted on: January 28th, 2013 St. Augustine’s Basilica of Peace

On the architecture and the spatial layout of the Basilica Pacis (Basilica of Peace) at Hippo, where St. Augustine ministered, William Harmless writes,
Its ruins were excavated in the 1950’s, and its floor plan – 41 yards long, 20 yards wide – makes it one of the largest churches uncovered in Roman North Africa. It lay on the outskirts of town, away from the central marketplace with its old pagan temples. The first thing one would have noticed upon entering Augustine’s church was the flicker of flames from small oil lamps, filling the interior with a golden glow. The basilica’s floor, like that of many ancient churches, was inlaid with bright-colored mosaics. There were no pews. The congregation stood, men on one side, women on the other. Services could draw packed audiences. “The great numbers,” Augustine once noted, “crowd right up the walls; they annoy each other by the pressure and almost choke each other by their overflowing numbers.” The altar, unlike that found in medieval and many modern churches, stood in the center of the nave and was surrounded by wood railings. At the basilica’s far end [east end, I am guessing] was a semi-circular apse, lined with stone benches where the presbyters sat. At the apse’s center, slightly elevated, was the bishop’s seat (cathedra). From here Augustine presided and preached.
– Harmless, William, S.J. Augustine in his own Words Washington, DC: Catholic UP, 2010.
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Posted on: January 15th, 2013 Why St. Augustine?

I wrote this short piece for my church newsletter, the Crucifer.

For my Christian Formation class this Spring, we are studying the Confessions of St. Augustine. I thought I’d take a few minutes and explain why we have decided to look at this magisterial work. I can think of three reasons which have motivated this decision.

First, the Confessions narrates a story about exit and return. You see I frequently have parents and grandparents from Christ Church approach me with heavy hearts, burdened by the perceived lack of interest in spiritual things on the part of their children and grandchildren. In fact, even in my previous denomination (a very evangelical denomination) studies have shown dramatic trends of young adults leaving the church, a new reality leading to the sobering realization that even the most evangelical denominations in the US are declining numerically.

And yet, on page 298 of our Prayer Book, it states that the bond which God establishes in baptism is indissoluble. Which means that those who, like the prodigal son of Luke 15, journey far away from God’s people into what St. Augustine calls “the region of dissimilarity” can be prayed for, with the expectation that they will return. (This primeval pattern of exitus et reditu runs deep throughout the western tradition, beginning with Odysseus’ journey in the Odyssey and can even be seen in God the Son’s journey from and back to his eternal Father.) It is just this kind of prayer which St. Augustine’s godly mother, Monica, engaged in for decades. At times it looked hopeless, and yet Augustine’s is a story of eventual return to the God who calls us home, thanks to the fervent and persevering prayers of his faithful mother.

Second, the Confessions narrates the story of a man who was living in, and interacting with, a highly pluralistic culture. The young Augustine was passionate in his search for truth, a search which would take him through the Stoicism of Cicero,  then through the dualism of Manicheanism,[*] then through neo-Platonic philosophy, and finally to the eventual landing point of Christian theology. What is interesting, however, is that Augustine believed that both Cicero and Neoplatonism were redolent with God’s truth. He considered Cicero a “righteous pagan,” and neoplatonism as a prologue to the Gospel. In fact, Augustine’s last words were a quotation of Cicero!

This situation could not be more relevant to our own time, and to the lives of many Christ Church folks (and to their friends and loved ones) as they make their way in a highly pluralistic world in which we constantly face such influences as the rise of neo-paganism, a cultural development which will only intensify in our increasingly connected global information age.

Finally,  the Confessions is a story which deals, in a brutally honest way, with the disturbing and often perplexing nature of human desire. In fact, this is perhaps the most interesting point of all for me personally. Why, do you think, Augustine eventually rejected these competing world views and eventually embraced the Good News of Jesus Christ? It was not simply because he found them to be rationally less compelling than the Christian story. Rather, it was because he continually failed to live up to the ethical and moral standards which they taught. Stoicism, Manicheanism, and Neoplatonism all commended lifestyles of the highest moral caliber, and Augustine simply could not live up.

Not until he dealt with his desires (for sex, for food and drink, for fame) could he finally begin to live a life of satisfaction and coherence. As he prays near the beginning of the Confessions: “Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”

[*] The heretical system of Manicheanism was dualistic in that it taught that good and evil are equally ultimate in the universe.

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