Although I’ve browsed through ‘City of God’ and ‘On Christian Doctrine’, my main interaction with Augustine’s work centres on his ‘Confessions’. (A phenomenal read if you ever get the chance to dig into it.)
I like many of the things Augustine says and wrestle with some of his more introspective reflections.
One of those is his statement:
‘The appearance of what we do is often different from the intention with which we do it, and the circumstances at the time may not be clear’[i]
Augustine seems to be saying that what we intend is not always what we do. Circumstances pending, what we do is sometimes only for the sake of what we want others to see and therefore say about us.
Avarice overrides responsible action as pride corrupts intention. Thus leading us onto a path where we turn ‘the loss of confessing self in order to be for others, into an all consuming self, an expressivist exhibition’[ii]
The divide between appearances and intentions, then, forms the basis of his point. This existential division creates an ethical-theological tension perpetuated by the sometimes fog of circumstances.
This is identified by Jean Bethke Elshtain in ‘Augustine and the limits of politics’:
‘Augustine lays the miseries of human life at the doorstep of sin, our division (within selves and between self and others), our enthrallment to cupiditas[iii] and our all-too-frequent abandonment of caritas[iv]. We are, in other words, ignorant but it is ignorance of a particular kind, not innocent naiveté but prideful cognitive amputation.[v]’
What Elshtain means by ‘prideful cognitive amputation’ is ‘philosophical solipsism’ (extreme subjective idealism)[vi]; thoughtlessness (not to be confused with mindlessness), but understood as ‘the banality of evil.(Hannah Arendt’s controversial assessment of Adolf Eichmann) [vii]’
Elshtain, a feminist, presents her analysis of Augustine as an attempt at rescue. Saving Augustine from the ritualistic frown passed on to our forebears by the hubris and suspicion of post 60’s modernity.
For her, Augustine is relevant and worthy of a second look:
‘He confesses what he knows and what he does not know. He does know that the world isn’t boundlessly subjectivist; it does not revolve around the “me, myself and I”[viii]
Augustine himself thunders the point home:
‘I flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it so that you might bring healing to a soul that had sinned against you. I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner’[ix]
Elshtain brilliantly adds, ‘when we start to regard ourselves in our own light, our light dims’[x]
Reading this in the emerging light of advent we might be called back to Karl Barth’s assertion
‘To thank means to accept with confession,… to acknowledge the gift, the goodness and the kindness of the Giver’[xi]
God makes himself known in Jesus Christ, ‘the sign of all signs[xii]’
In Augustine’s sigh we hear that the heart has ears. Before the beauty of Christmas this can only mean an awakening to an awareness of our own need for grace; an acknowledgement that we are carried, firmly, lovingly held above the abyss.
Confronted by such a grace we learn that God is God and we are not. Yet, by Divine decision; a fierce and free decree. In Jesus Christ, we are spoken to, spoken for and therefore not given up on.
In His example we see in part, the point of Christmas. That the ‘principle of charity requires nothing less than to make one’s best effort.’[xiii]
Jesus is Victor!
[i] Augustine, St. Confessions Penguin Classics III/XIX 1961:67
[ii] Elshtain, J.B. 1995 ‘Augustine & The Limits of Politics’ p.6
[iii] Latin for desire, eagerness, enthusiasm; passion; lust; avarice; greed; ambition; partisanship (Source: Collins Latin Dictionary App)
[iv] Latin for charity, grace, dearness, high price; esteem, affection (Source: Collins Latin Dictionary App)
[v] Elshtain, J.B. 1995 ‘Augustine & The Limits of Politics’ p.37
[vi] Ibid, p.59
[viii] Ibid, p.5
[ix] Augustine, St. 1961 Confessions Penguin Classics V/X p.103
[x] Elshtain, ibid pp.11, 66 &62
[xi] Barth, K. 1940 The Limits of the Knowledge of God C.D II/I Hendrickson Publishers p.198
[xii] Ibid, p.199
[xiii] Elshtain, ibid p.55
*I’ve borrowed the second part of the title to this blog post from Elshtain, who uses it on page xiii in her introduction.
Image: Rembrandt, 1633 ‘Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee’
Originally published 14th December 2014