SECOND SESSION SUNDAY JAN 21, 10 AM.—WHAT IS ST AUGUSTINE’S ATTITUDE TOWARD AND UNDERSTANDING OF THE NATURE OF GOD?
“Eternal truth and true love and beloved eternity: you are my God. To you I sigh ‘day and night’ (Ps. 42:2).” Confessions, Book VII, section 10.
Preparatory Reading: Confessions Book VII, (especially, sections 7-11) pp.119–124.
Focus Texts: Confessions Book VII, sections 8 and 9, pp. 120-123
I will follow the same procedure I used in the first session. We will first consider what St. A says in the Focus Text Confessions Book VII Sections 7 through 11 found on pages 119-124. Then, second, in the time we have left, I will present some important passages elsewhere in the Confessions. I have made no attempt to cover all that St. Austine says in this great book about his attitude to and understanding God, who he is and what he has done. But, I hope, enough to stimulate and enrich our own understanding and love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our creator and redeemer.
- Confessions Book VII Sections 7 through 11 found on pages 119-124.
1.1. First we need to notice the theme of Bk VII. Our translator Henry Chadwick has given it a title, “A Neoplatonic Quest” that could be misleading. While it is quite clear that St A’s thought is heavily influenced by the great Neoplatonic philosophers; Plotinus and his disciple Porphyry. (Notice the number of footnotes provided that refer to Plotinus’ writings.) It’s also true that he’s trying in a serious way to square the thinking of Plotinus with biblical revelation about the nature of God. (Now notice the references to crucial biblical passages such as the long quotation of the Prologue of John John 1:1-14 on page 121 followed by Phil. 2:6-11 p. 122.)
In the pages that follow that quote—pages 122-128 it is easy for us to lose track of where St. A is going. I hope to make that clearer to you in the next section but for now let’s notice what he says, at the beginning of Bk. xix or 19, page 128. He says he had then a different notion from what the church taught about the meaning of “the Word became flesh.” “I thought of Christ my Lord only as a man of excellent wisdom which none could equal… But the mystery of the Word made flesh I had not begun to guess.” In other words, he affirms Jesus as a good Neoplatonist, “with a wisdom which none could equal,” who despised “temporal things to gain immortality for us.” But it is clear from the life of Jesus given us in the gospels that he didn’t despise temporal things. Rather, he came precisely to redeem them. And his redemption was not a matter of gaining for us immortality but gaining for us redemption from our sins and gaining the resurrection life of Jesus.
At the end of this section 19 he says something very different. “…I admit it was some time later that I learnt, in relation to the words ‘the Word was made flesh’, how Catholic truth is to be distinguished from the false opinion of Plotinus.” (p.129)
But is not just a full acceptance of the truth of the incarnation that he sees as incompatible with, or at least absent from the Neoplatonist, but our redemption too is absent because unnecessary according to them. For Plotinus, our problem is not that we have rejected the God who loves us and his Son: our problem is ignorance of a God who is eternal and changeless and ignorance of our exalted status as sharing God’s immortality. Let’s look at what St. A goes on to say about our sin and God’s redemption.
For you Lord are just. But ‘we have sinned, we have done wickedly” (Dan. 3: 27,29)… What will wretched man do? “Who will deliver him from this body of death’ except your grace through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:24), who is your coeternal Son, whom you ‘created in the beginning of your ways’ (Prov. 8: 22)… None of this is in the Platonist books. (p. 131)
Finally, you will have noticed that in this book St. A thought has been moving inexorably away from Neoplatonist teaching to biblical teaching and this is seen in at least two ways: First, because “the scriptures are true” (p. 129) and their truth is not arrived at by human reasoning—as is the lofty teaching of the Neoplatonists—but is revealed to the humble. “I was puffed up with knowledge (I Cor. 8: 1) Where was the charity which builds on the foundation of humility which is Christ Jesus? When would the Platonist books have taught me that?”
However—subtle inquirer into his own complicated and torturous road to faith that he is—he goes on to ask this of God: “I believe you wanted me to encounter them before I came to study your scriptures.” Why did he think that? Because, he suspects that “If I had first been formed in mind by your holy books… and then I had thereafter met those volumes, perhaps they would have snatched me away from the solid foundations of piety.”
But then he further surmises, “If I had remained firm.., I might have supposed that the same ideas could be gained from those books by someone who had read only them.” (p. 130) That was of course what he himself had first thought.
In introducing both John 1:1-16 and Phil. 2: 6-11 he earlier was quite confident that they teach nothing more than what the Neoplatonists taught. They taught “not of course in these words, but entirely the same sense and supported by numerous and varied reasons” (ix, p. 121) what the Prologue of John taught. And in reference to St Paul ’s crucial teaching of the humility of God in Phil 2: 6-11 he says, “In reading the platonic books I found expressed in different words, and in a variety of ways,…the same truth St Paul taught.
If we leave things here however we will be in danger of obscuring St. A’s great debt to the Neoplatonists. While, as we have just seen, he comes to see that the incarnation and redemptive death of Christ cannot be squared with the purely spiritual philosophy of the Neoplatonists, he nevertheless is grateful to them from freeing him from attempts to conceive of God in terms of purely physical images that led him to a pantheistic conception of God.
We do not have time here to trace his larger problem in this book, namely, how to square his belief in an all good and all powerful God with the existence of evil in the world he had created. But, we can look briefly at how the Neoplatonists helped free him from thinking about God in purely physical images.
1.2. St. Augustine’s struggle to conceive of God other than in terms of a something physical. “I thought that anything from which space was abstracted was non-existent, indeed absolutely nothing,…”(Bk. VII, i, p. 111). A few sentences earlier he reinforces his difficulty by saying, “Although you were not in the shape of the human body, I nevertheless felt forced to imagine something physical occupying space diffused either in the world or through infinite space outside the world.”
I suspect that some of you might have begun to think to yourself this is very strange. I have had some odd ideas of what God is like but I’ve never thought of him as a material being extended in space somehow like my hand or the world’s oceans. He knows this is not the way to go for even earlier he writes “My heart vehemently protested against all the physical images in my mind…” he tried to dismiss them but he was unsuccessful. “Hardly had they been dispersed when in the flash of an eye they had regrouped and were back again.” It was reading Plotinus’ Enneads that helped to see “that the mental powers by which I formed these images does not occupy any space,…” But he still is thinking of God solely in terms of his infinity and incorruptibility in comparison with a finite and corruptible creation.
“I visualize you, Lord, surrounding [creation] on all sides and permeating it, but infinite in all directions, as if there was a sea everywhere, and stretching through immense distances, a single sea which had within it a large but finite sponge, and the sponge was in every part filled from the immense sea. This is the way in which I supposed your finite creation to be full of you, infinite as you are, and said: ‘Here is God and see what God has created. God is good and is most mightily and incomparably superior to these things.” (Bk. VII, v. p. 115.)
He says directly that “at that time, after reading the books of the Platonists and learning from them to seek for immaterial truth, I turned my attention to your ‘invisible nature understood through the things which are made. (Rom. 1: 20) (emphasis added) In contrast to what he said in the long quote just given he now says he is “certain that you are infinite without being infinitely diffused through finite space.”
1.3 In closing our review of St A’s testimony of the help he received from reading the neoplatonist to move on from and purely physicalist imaging of God to a transcendent and spiritual conception we need to reemphasize how he goes quite beyond anything the neoplatonoist taught about God. Specifically St A’s fully understanding of and rejoicing in the love of God revealed in “the Word made flesh” his Son Jesus who being found in human form humbled himself and became obedient unto death even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:8)
He begins the section of Bk VII a clear endorsement of who God is as revealed in” the sacred writings” that is the real food we need as sinner before a holy and loving God that is nowhere to be found in “the Platonist books.”
“With avid intensity I seized the sacred writings of you Spirit and especially the apostle Paul.” The crucial thing he has learned is the humility of God that is the expression of his love for Augustine on the one hand and his pride that just is his intellectual and moral sin before a just and loving God. “In the platonic books no one sings: “Surely my soul will be submissive to God? From him is my salvation;…” No one there hears him who calls “come to me, you who labor’ (Matt. 11: 28) They disdain to learn from him, for he is meek and humble of heart.”
2.1. Elsewhere in his Confessions
In focusing on God as the object of his love A in moving language tells in two passages in Bk X who God is not and who he is.
First, he has things in creation and all of creation declare that they are not the object of Augustine’s love.
“And what is the object of my love? And I asked the earth and it said: ‘It is not I.’ I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession. (Job 28:12f). I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: ‘We are not your God. look beyond us.’ I asked the breezes that blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said: ‘Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.’ I asked heaven, sun, moon, and stars; they said: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek.’ And I said to all those things in the external environment: ‘Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.’ and with great voice they cried out ‘He made us.’ ( Ps. 99:3). My question was the attention I gave them, and their response was their beauty.
Some comments on this passage
1) The phrase ‘Look beyond us.”
2) ‘Anaximenes was mistaken.’
3) ‘Tell me of my God who you are not.’Tel me something about.’ Augustine expects that they can reveal something about him. No doubt because he has taken Rom. 1: 20 to heart that he often quotes.
4) ‘…their response was their beauty.’
Second, in a positive description—just above the one just quoted— in which he uses the mystical idea of the five spiritual sense he writes this.
“But when I love you, what do I love? It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs not the gentle odor of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, no limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God—a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit which space cannot contain, where there is sound which time cannot seize, where there is perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no earthly satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.’ (Bk X vi, p. 183)
Some comments on this passage
1) Note the subtle and alluring way in which first describes the five senses and then uses each metaphorically to describe his love for God.
2) In his use of them as metaphors he does so brilliantly in contrast to the ‘satiety’ of all merely physical senses. ‘… there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no earthly satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.’ (Bk X vi, p. 183)