Tag Archives: Augustine

Two Cities

Augustine of Hippo wrote that there were two cities. If you’re reading this blog you probably know what they are. Today, according to some, is Easter. For others it’s not quite there yet. Call that one city. It’s also very near that other national holiday—tax day. That’d definitely be the other city. Now, I’m not going to go into any detail here, but I’ve always done my own taxes. If you’re old enough to remember going to the public library to pick up two or three copies of the paper forms, sitting at home with a pencil, eraser, pen, and TI-30, and spending an entire Saturday reading through the instructions and scribbling, you know what I’m talking about. These days everything’s online.

I can’t recall how many years I’ve used TurboTax. It was free, easy, and generally led to a refund. I miss those days. This year when I sat down with Intuit’s child, it started asking questions I didn’t understand. Perhaps you’ve run into some industries that do this—they make up their own vocabulary and if they use the words in a way the dictionary doesn’t, well, it’s the dictionary’s fault for not keeping up. TurboTax started doing that. And unless you want to pay even more than they’ve already sold you up for, there’s no way to ask questions. The answers online use the same obscure lexicon. So this year I had to do probably the most adult thing I’ve ever done. I got an accountant.

Setting up the appointment for after work, it was a matter of looking at dates both my wife and I, and more importantly, the accountant, had free. It was only as judgment day dawned that I realized it was Good Friday (for some). Arranging to work from home that day so I could get to the office before the buses rumble out of New York, I ran into a traffic jam. No doubt people out to do their last minute Good Friday shopping. We were meeting the accountant for the first time, and I wanted to make a good impression. Be punctual. I had neglected to coordinate the two cities on my calendar. The accountant was understanding. He commented on how easy our taxes were, compared to many. Turns out TurboTax had been closing off many perfectly legal options and charging us for the privilege. So now it’s Easter. Taxes are due in a couple of weeks. There are two cities, and if either is neglected there’ll be Hell to pay in the end.

Augustine’s Secret Sin

I’m curious: what do you think of Augustine? Augustine of Hippo was an odd blend of saint and sinner. I don’t mean “saint” in the sense of being so designated by the Roman Catholic Church, but in the sense of having reputable and progressive ideas. For example, Augustine argued that science, such as it existed in his day, had to be taken into account when understanding Christianity. If the Bible’s account of creation didn’t match what we knew of the world, then literalism had to go—that kind of thing. This was quite liberal for someone in the fourth-to-fifth centuries. He believed in reason, to an extent. The sinner side of the equation goes beyond his Manichean days, however. The sins I’m referring to are his dangerous and long-lasting theological assumptions that’ve helped to hold back civilization throughout history.

It was Augustine, for example, who gave us the idea of original sin being involved in sexual reproduction. The church has always been cagey on why we should reproduce when the second coming is right around the corner, but Augustine declared that from our very conception (which he couldn’t understand scientifically) we were tainted with sin. But that’s not the particular sin to which I’m referring. Augustine also spread the persistent idea that curiosity itself was a sin. Christianity, in his view, was a “need to know” religion, and curiosity about the natural world could lead to uncomfortable answers. He held this in tension with his belief that we should accept what science teaches, but there were many questions, he decided, we simply shouldn’t ask.

Religions have often come to this crux. Science has a strong explanatory track record. Religion is frequently based on old texts, written in an age when science was but an infant. As the power of rationality grew, the role of miracles shrank. Over time the proof of theological structures began to crumble. And since life was all about correct theology, those edifices had to be shored up against the onslaughts of reason. If this sounds hopelessly outdated, I’ll have to confess that many of my students at Nashotah House believed reason was tainted by original sin. Augustine had the answers they believed; somehow rationality had stopped with him. Human curiosity, Augustine felt, was a sin. All questions should’ve ended with his arguments. It’s this kind of theological bravado that gets us into the mess we find ourselves in today. Voting blocs that never question what their religious leader tells them. Never curious enough to ask “Why?” Augustine was a brilliant man, in many respects. He was also a sinner of the highest degree.

Devil of the Time

There can be little doubt that evil prospers. We’ve suffered through a year of an evil administration and we’ve seen the government increase the suffering of its own people in deference to the wealthy. And ours is only a mild case of evil. Jeffrey Burton Russell, over the course of some years, wrote three sequential books about evil. The first, The Devil, I reviewed last year. Having just finished the second, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, it has to be said that the concept definitely evolves. The period between the New Testament and the fifth century was a rich one for diabolism. The writers of this period became increasingly theological in their efforts to make sense of what is obviously an unjust situation created by a theologically good God. These were inventive writers, if somehow less than convincing.

Russell is a careful explainer. He summarizes the views of the “church fathers,” pointing out where their logic fails. This isn’t some liberal trying to dis the Devil, however. Russell acknowledges that he believes a Devil of some kind must exist. Reason, however, must also be applied. It’s difficult to believe that people in the early Christian centuries were willing to take such leaps of logic. Of course, they didn’t have many options for opting out. God was the great explanation for so much of their world. Fitting an all-powerful deity into logic when there’s abundant suffering in the world requires a certain flair for casuistry. No matter how the equations work out, an all-powerful God can’t be all good, not in this universe. Speculation about the Devil, or Satan, ran logic through its courses. Who was this being, and how did he get to be the way he is?

The theologians argued without any glint of irony. This was serious stuff. The Bible, famously, has little to say on the matter. Early thinkers such as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine had volumes to say on the subject. None of them came up with a workable solution. Logic and the Devil just don’t fit. Theology is always a struggle since it deals with intangibles. Laws of logic sometimes simply don’t apply. If the feeble human imagination can conjure a good world without needless suffering, one has to wonder, why can’t an almighty deity do the same? Is this a god of limited imagination or, as the classic theological chestnut puts it, one who sees more than humans do? You can ask, but you won’t receive an answer. The Devil, it seems, really is in the details.

Christian Story

The problem with the Bible is anybody can “interpret” it. As a book of unrivaled status in the American imagination, it can be tapped for anything from advertising to justifying pedophilia. So when stories of Roy Moore’s sexual dalliances with minors emerged, Alabama’s state auditor, Jim Zeigler drew the comparison with Mary and Joseph from his half-hearted knowledge of the Bible. There is no auditor for Bible interpretations. It’s the ultimate free market. Many, including evangelical clergy, were quick to jump on the inappropriateness of the analogy. What they didn’t see is that the Bible can justify just about anything. Despite what it says. That’s the problem with worshipping a holy book.

What the Good Book says about Mary and Joseph is very, very little. We do not know their ages—they are never mentioned in the Bible. The tradition about Joseph being older seems to go back to having to explain his continence to preserve Mary’s perpetual virginity—also not in the Bible. The church, in the early days, had issues with ideas such as “original sin.” When Augustine suggested it passed, along with bodily fluids, during sex, it became clear that Mary could have none of that. Even if she was a virgin by misquoting Isaiah, then she still had original sin from her parents. So Mary had to have been immaculately conceived. The Bible, of course, knows of none of this. Anybody can interpret it. And what senator-to-be wants to be bothered with consulting a Bible scholar? They’re hard to find. And besides, they might not interpret it the way you want it.

GOPolitics have sunk so low as to pressgang the Bible into justifying pedophilia. What’s more, the faithful don’t seem to mind. The Bible’s big enough that you can find just about anything in there. Except morality, apparently. You’d think that anyone running for public office would examine his—and it’s usually a guy problem—life pretty closely for possible scandals. We’ve lived to see the radical right, diligently groomed and oh-so-righteous, go after anyone who can spout insanity and be counted on to vote against women’s rights. You can be sure Roy Moore will be forgiven—already has been by many—because the Bible swings that way. We’ve already seen what happens when people like Moore take public office. They make America grope again. For the Bible tells them so.

The Problem with Love

As far as we can tell, historically there is no Saint Valentine that is particularly connected to February 14. Even if there were, it is difficult to imagine a saint promoting what we know as love. Love is a slippery topic. The ancient Greeks (who did not marry for love) were so perplexed that they came up with three different words for it, and the nascent Christian community tended to prefer agape-type love. Love that expresses well-being for the community and has little to do with the physical attraction that people everywhere find so compelling. It is safe to say that Christianity has always been uncomfortable with the kind of love that Valentines Day celebrates. The holiday, because of its associations, has often been removed from the liturgical calendar a time or two. People are already prone to express their biological urges, so it is best not to give them an excuse, sanctioned by the church.

This is an odd situation, thinking love is wrong, or at best, tolerated. As far as we can tell, the earliest Christians had no particular concerns in this way. We can’t measure, of course, how people loved their spouses, but there was nothing inherent in the new religion to suggest physical attraction was bad. By the time Paul of Tarsus started writing his letters a couple of decades after Jesus’ life, at the earliest, some doubts had crept in. They seem to have been largely personal. We know little of Paul’s life, but we are aware that he saw the kind of love known as eros to be a problem. Concession had to be made to those who couldn’t control themselves, but otherwise, in good stoic fashion, love was to be ignored. By the time of Augustine of Hippo, some three centuries later, sex passed on original sin and love had become decidedly dark.

St-Valentine-Kneeling-In-Supplication

Attitudes change with time, of course. After two millennia a certain practicality sets in. We have moved through the troubadours and courtly love to psychology and deep human needs. Arranged marriages are, for the most part, considered like shackles from the past. And love, that feeling that we never completely outgrow, is believed to be a positive thing. Saint Valentine (and there were at least two of them) would likely have disagreed. While the Romans celebrated sexuality, they also believed in restraint most of the time. Valentines Day, however, still has something to teach us. Despite the commercialization of the holiday, in a world with a surplus of hatred, any kind of love is, as long as it’s mutual, is worth celebrating.

Somewhere, Out There

With Pope Francis’s impending visit, the New York-Philadelphia corridor is abuzz with discussions of traffic and commuting disruptions. From a little further away, Irish Central is reporting that the Vatican chief astronomer has gone onto record stating that he believes in extraterrestrial life. (Despite the headline, the article doesn’t say anything about UFOs, and the astronomer, Fr. Funes, is noted as saying that he doesn’t believe extraterrestrials are flying here.) The real issue, however, is metaphysical, rather than physical. How would life elsewhere impact theology? Long ago the Vatican expressed some comfort with the idea of evolution. As early as Augustine of Hippo, thinkers have noted that reason cannot contradict truth and still be convincing. The evidence for evolution, overwhelming as it is, falls under that rubric. Life in space, at least according to orthodox science, is more a matter of mathematical certainty rather than experiential. And like any scientific idea, not all scientists agree with the astronomical odds in favor of life in space.

Funes, according to the article by Frances Mulraney, believes that aliens are not fallen races in need of salvation. The grand master plan laid out in the Bible was unique to this world only. Human beings sinned, we required divine intervention, and, as you’d expect from a Christian source, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God’s only son. It does raise interesting questions about what the aliens might think of a chosen race. How could you not think yourself superior if you had no need of God’s special attention? One can only hope that ET isn’t the jealous sort.

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

For years those who speculate about non-earth-based life have argued over how religions would handle the news that humanity isn’t alone. Would religious observance increase or decrease? It might depend on what our fellow universalists have to tell us. This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of ancient religions. Founded when worldviews were pre-scientific, back when the earth was the center of everything, they didn’t add an infinite universe into the equation. And infinity always complicates things. Fr. Funes says the Bible isn’t a science book, and indeed, biblical scholars have long known that to be the case. It’s the contingencies outside the ordinary of two millennia ago that are most worrying to literalists. Even with all we have learned of science, we have a great deal yet to comprehend. Religion is a uniquely human response to an uncertain universe. And since ours is apparently infinite and expanding, religion may very well be something we’ll need to take with us to the stars.

My Beloved Monsters

OurOldMonsters copyOnce upon a time I felt radical in claiming that monsters and religion shared a pedigree. Having grown up fascinated by Universal, as well as much cheaper and more tawdry, monster movies, I always experienced a twinge of guilt. My family was very religious, and these monsters were, well, evil, weren’t they? Yet I couldn’t let them go. Although college, seminary, and graduate school each took their toll on this early fascination as I was restructured as a more rational man, the monsters always lurked. In college a friend and I named an invented monster “the lurking.” In seminary and graduate school, demons and ghosts still captured my imagination. Brenda S. Gardenour Walter has, quite unintentionally, vindicated my outlook. Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema just about says it all. Not limiting herself to witches, werewolves, and vampires, Gardenour Walter has given us a novel thesis: monsters come from theology.

Well, not exactly. Medieval theology, as many of us learned in seminary, continued the ancient Greek practice of dividing the universe into four substances: air, fire, water, and earth. Each was associated with a humor in the human body: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. Keeping these humors in balance led to healthy bodies. Gardenour Walter, who teaches history in a Pharmacology school, shows how monsters were often viewed against this paradigm. As she notes, this Weltanschauung was not friendly to women. Seeing man as the perfect, rational being, women were considered less rational and more controled by their base urges, leading to the concept of witches. Witches were also associated with demons at a later time, and there is a considerable discussion of that transition.

Vampires were often associated with black bile. Although there are vampiric beliefs going back to very ancient times, Gardenour Walter shows how the modern vampire indeed derives from medieval theology as eastern ideas met western. Unfortunately, in unenlightened times, the concepts were anti-semitically applied, with unwonted liberality. Werewolves were generally dismissed as illusions wrought by demons, although, there always remained an ambiguity. I have to admit not having known that even Augustine discussed werewolves in The City of God, which, it comes to mind, would make an excellent horror movie. The book brings each of these medieval monsters up to the silver screen and considers how their theological pedigree plays out in modern times. This is a book I would have enjoyed as a college student, but maybe, secretly, enjoy even more now as an adult.