Wednesday, July 13, 2011

One Thing We can Learn from St. Augustine Today

This point is at the heart of my -first- vocation to know and love the Lord. It's easy to identify a selfish tendency within this, but the abuse should not obfuscate the fact: we are made first to know and to love the Lord.

The knowing part is strongly emphasized in Augustine's life and writing. It would be misleading to simply call him a mystic and then move on. He was a mystic, in a certain sense, but not in the sense that he only dealt with the nearly-unutterable, that which pertained to the interior alone. He was concerned with these things most of all, but strongly believed that, as the goal of intellection, mystical things could only be attained - and could only be meaningful - after rigorous mental endeavour. Today many of us get into religion deeply and avoid mental work, perhaps in order to avoid mental work. This was not Augustine's way. He assumed that one could encounter God in the deepest recesses of the mind, on those rarest occasions of profound insight. Christianity was to him philosophy, not the end of it.

This is extremely undemocratic. Is God the God of the philosophers most of all? No, but He is the God of the philosopher-saint most of all, Augustine would maintain. Monica is not a model of holy ignorance; the point she serves in Confessions (and other of his writings) is more to show that God can give the gift of wisdom to anyone. Monica yearned for wisdom too, and she was blessed with receiving it, despite her lack of formal education, not despite the effort to know. The lack of formal education is no excuse for failing to obey the universal commandment to know.

It is unfortunate that too often today, when confronted with the hugely complex issues relating to such things as evolution and the interpretation of the Bible, for instance, Catholics simply avoid learning, and instead retreat into a cozier home of condemnation, private revelation and outdated teaching.

That was not Augustine's way. Augustine exemplified the best part of the Catholic intellectual tradition: he wanted to learn about all the important questions. He had no time for the unimportant ones, of course - and we may find fault with that, perhaps. But we commend his indefatigable study of everything that in anyway pertained to the truth of God and human life. Throughout his whole life he studied the great theologians and the great pagan philosophers. Nor did he study the latter simply to dismiss them arrogantly. He learned from them some pretty important things: most of all, perhaps, from Plotinus, how to begin to think about the Trinity, believe it or not.

By contrast, we are Gnostics. We retreat into our secret world of privileged knowledge, a place that cannot be challenged by critics. We congratulate ourselves on our possession of the True Faith and in our reading seek only to encounter again and again what we have already assented to. That's at our worst.

A little better, but not by much, is the tendency of many to reduce philosophy (truth, knowledge, wisdom, our vocation to know) to catechism, that is, to believe that one learns truth like St. Thomas did by memorizing Thomas' conclusions and not by going through his philosophical process. The difference between these two things is equivalent, for example, to knowing that abortion is wrong because it undermines human dignity, without being moved by the reality that is represented by those words, human dignity. In this case, you are at least reading St. Thomas, which is better than reading most Catholic pulp literature. Indeed, knowledge of the Faith is not a possession, it is a resource. Neither is it a weapon for apologetics, at heart. Knowledge is a spiritual blessing, both knowledge of the Articles of the Faith and scientific knowledge of the universe. Both are used poorly all the time, the former no less frequently than the latter. It is simply incorrect to assume - as so many Catholics do - that only the second kind of knowledge can be abused. Both are intrinsically good because God is the author of both the natural and the supernatural sphere. Both are knowledge of God.
Yes, Thomas is over many people's heads. But Augustine would, I am quite certain, urge that more and more people read him, urge us to get out of him whatever we can, to use him as a means of deepening our rational awareness of God. Augustine simply assumed that God was to be encountered in the mind most of all. Like many of the Fathers of the Church, he believed that our imaging of God lay in our intellectual capacity most of all. So my complaint, that we Catholics do not do enough thinking, philosophical thinking, is one that I am quite certain Augustine would support. It's not about becoming well-read, or an intellectual of stature; it's simply about expanding our minds in the way God wants us to. Whatever capacity we have is what we should fill by the grace of God. That this was what God intended was obvious to Augustine. Otherwise, He would not have given us minds.

So, let us all think about the big things - the nature of the Blessed Trinity, the nature of the universe - why is it like this, why is it this big, this old, etc., the nature of man, the nature of love, etc. Spend a lot less time thinking about: politics, homosexuality, private revelation, liturgical minutiae, and - it even redounds upon me - zombie movies... In all of this Augustine would be quite happy.

Note, I didn't say read about the Blessed Trinity, the universe, love, etc. I said think about them.

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