Thursday, April 23, 2015

Augustine's "One-World" Solution

In reimmersing myself in Augustine's Confessions, I pulled from the shelf a fine introductory text -- Language and Love: Introducing Augustine's Religious Thought through the Confessions Story by William Mallard (Pennsylvania State University, 1994).
This work, lucid and accessible, would make a helpful companion volume for an adult education forum or undergraduate class on Augustine. In the introduction Mallard offers a succinct precis of the Confessions and of the north African bishop's lifelong religious quest.

As Mallard frames the matter, Augustine's basic problem -- the abiding source of his "restless heart" -- is that from a very early age he was presented with two incommensurable worlds: "the world of his mother's religious faith, and the world of everything else" (p. 2). In one of these worlds, a loving and provident creator sends Jesus Christ to save believers from sin and death; in the other world, human beings hone their skills to get ahead and to "win" in a world of competitive selfishness. Mallard writes:

To live in two worlds and talk two ways about life disturbed Augustine as a child and youth. Even his mother, Monica, added to the confusion in some ways. She taught him that nothing and no one was a important as his Father in heaven. Yet she did not have him baptized (p. 3).

Augustine was enrolled in the Catechumenate and presumably would be baptized eventually. Nonetheless, Monica's failure to call a priest when her 11-year-old son was potentially on his deathbed haunted Augustine into his middle-aged years (Augustine wrote his Confessions at age 44). As a young adult Augustine pursued several dead-end paths to resolve his insatiable quest for meaning and to achieve identity closure. He immersed himself in his career as rhetorician and teacher that his parents urged upon him. He also, famously, sought affirmation from his peers and release through romantic love: "I came to Carthage and all around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves.... I was in love with love" (Confessions III.1, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford, 1991). For a time he sought answers for his questing heart and mind in an heretical eastern sect, the Manicheans, but the dualism of their cosmology and soteriology only heightened the sense of an unbridgeable chasm between heaven and earth.

Augustine's solution, as Mallard puts it, was to embrace and pursue the reality of a unified world -- that of a loving and all-provident God who creates and directs the course of the finite world and redeems the faithful from chaos and dissolution. Yet Augustine realized that people would still have a foot in two realms, as it were, and surviving and thriving in this life would entail patience and risk. The Christian life is a long haul rather than a quick exit. Hence the Augustinian emphasis on forming habits that lead the believer toward the Creator and obsessive fixation on the realm of creation. Mallard continues:

Augustine came to believe in one essential key to living in God's good, but dangerous, created world: learn to do it gradually. There has to be steady practice, day by day and year by year, which starts small and patiently lives in the world, hoping to grow (p. 6).

Isolated individuals will be unable to take this path alone; they need a safe space and time to cultivate their life with God in God's one good world. Sadly, families are often divided, and can even be the locus of violence and unsafety. What human beings must have to flourish, in such a precarious world, is a larger community, a surrogate family -- composed not of perfect individuals, to be sure, but a group of people who attempt to follow the Creator's rules and travel the path together. Enter Christology and ecclesiology. What Mallard writes about this is so beautiful and succinct it deserves to be quoted at length:

The Creator's church, then, was like a family, a family Augustine did not experience in his early life, but discovered after much struggle. This family offered closeness and warmth, personal nurture, as well as discipline. Augustine, finally, held that the Creator actually had appeared on earth to provide what the family needed: authority, self-giving, trust. That seemed like a mythological tale, and it was a long time before he could grasp it. Yet mythology deals in a two-world outlook, the immortal gods and mortal humanity, while the Creator's appearance was God uniting with humanity, in Christ, even dying, to accomplish a one-world outlook. This appearance as a human being, and the onset of the Creator's church, were local and particular; they had to be if they responded to humanity's need for a place to start again. Yet people of every nation and race on earth were invited to participate (p. 6).


But what if the church itself is not a safe place but, rather, a source of hurt and trauma, a place where authority is abused, where the suffering of the marginal is compounded and fundamental human needs remain unmet? Augustine, of course, was aware that the church is compromised, comprised of fallen individuals, afflicted with confusion, greed, double-mindedness. The church is meant to bring healing to a broken and unjust world, but what if it becomes, structurally and not just as an aggregate of individuals, more part of the problem than part of the solution? To be sure, unlike some Christian utopians, Augustine recognized the fallibility of the church. My persistent question, from the standpoint of what I've read and people I've known, is whether this recognition goes far enough.

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