Saturday, May 28, 2005

A Letter from Fr. Oldfield

The following is an extract of a letter I received from Fr. Jack (Fr. John Oldifeld, O.A.R.) in Madrid, sent in response to a letter from myself.

April had been an extraordinary month with the death of John Paul and the election of Benedict XVI. I was elated by the results and do feel that the Church will be on steady course with this man who is a foremost theologian and a friend of St. Augustine since his graduate studies of many years ago. Augustine had been the object of much criticism during the past few decades. Matthew Fox, the former Dominican, wrote several books about creation in which he lists St. Augustine as the “bad guy”, responsible for original sin, and a negative concept of man. The feminists have blamed him for centuries of discrimination and the neo-Pelagians have been revived by various historians and philosophers. And, of course, his closeness to Neo-Platonism has been held responsible for Hellenizing Christianity. In spite of all, Augustine not only survives but has been sparking a revival of what is called Orthodox Christianity among Anglican intellectuals and has been championed by U.S. Calvinists as a “must” for sound theology.

When Augustine looks at humanity, and his own included, he sees a flawed nature, not a bad nature, but a nature wounded by something which Sacred Scripture identifies as “sin”, a sin which is somehow historical and transmitted. There would be no “sin” in humanity if humanity did not have the high calling which God has given it. The flip side of a sinful humanity is a humanity called to “rest in God”. Throughout the Confessions, Augustine engages in dialogue with the God Whom he seeks to know and to love. Love is what moves the human being because Divine Love has made a creature whose ultimate destiny is Love Itself. The contrast between the Augustine “in love with love”, the teen aged rebel, and Augustine the intellectual probing the inner life of the Trinity is not so great. His very sins were a twisted attempt to discover love. And so it is with us; we are the “restless hearts” of Book I of the Confessions striving, often unconsciously, for that “Beauty ever ancient, ever new” which breaks through the crust of Augustine’s pride and reveals the beauty of the humble Jesus. Augustine’s God is the God of intimacy.

One of the problems of Augustine’s theology and spirituality is that it is God-centered. He is the anti-thesis of the dominant secular humanism, the “dictatorship of relativism” as identified by Benedict XVI. There were and are strains of thought following Vatican II which might be summed up in the rather universal acceptance of “I’m O.K., you’re O.K.” as the basic anthropology. A lot of pampered egos have justified modes of behavior which have become destructive of marriage, family, priesthood, religious life, and any commitment which might require self-sacrifice.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Book V

I found Book V, to be one of the most interesting Books of the Confessions so far.

Book V takes place when Augustine is twenty-nine years of age and just beginning a career as a professor of rhetoric. It covers the time period from when he started to have serious doubts about the Manicheans to when he started to study Roman Catholicism. During this time, he moved from Carthage, to Rome, and then to Milan.

Prior to this point, Augustine had started to have doubts about the Manicheans. He had read much of philosophy and admitted that philosophy seemed to be a much better explanation of the truths of existence. The pivotal event occurs when Augustine finally gets to meet the famed Manichean bishop, Faustus, who he then found to be a major disappointment. Augustine had had many serious questions about Manichaeism, of which he was not able to get satisfactory answers, or any answers at all, from the various Manichean elect and hearers that he knew. They always told to wait until he meets the famed Faustus, that Faustus would be able to answer all his questions (sounds like the play Waiting for Godot or a scene from The Iceman Cometh!). Augustine found Faustus’ personality, character, and oratorical skills to be exemplary, but that Faustus’ knowledge was entirely lacking. He could no more explain the Manichean doctrines than anyone else.

In Milan of course, Augustine meets the great Bishop, Ambrose. Augustine listens to his sermons to observe Ambrose’s oratorical skills. Augustine admits that, at least initially, he had no interest in the sermon’s content. (Note the comparison to Faustus of whom Augustine was only interested in his knowledge and had no interest whatsoever in his oratorical skills or rhetoric,)

One of the schools of philosophy which Augustine had read which had a significant influence on him was called the Academics. The Academics held that everything could be considered doubtful and that no absolute truths could be comprehended by man. At this point in his life, Augustine was full of doubt. I believe the influence of the Academics helped to further reinforce his doubt about the Manicheans and allowed him to take-up the study of Christianity, without having to commit himself as a true believer. I also suspect that Academic philosophy caused Augustine to have less anxiety about both.

In this book, we see Augustine the seeker, and I am tempted to say desperate seeker. We clearly see Augustine’s passion for the truth. He loves the truth more than himself, as Luigi Giussani puts it. He seeks the truth without prejudice or preconception (another Giussani phrase). I also note that in Chapter 3, we see Augustine’s explicit exercise of reason over blind faith.

In Chapter 9, when Augustine talks about the love his mother has for him, it did remind me of St. Therese of Lisieux who felt so loved by her family and father.

The first paragraph of Chapter 10 describes a Manichaen doctrine. My reaction upon reading it was that by comparison the Christian view has so much more responsibility and freedom.

While Augustine had stated that in Carthage, he had heard Manichean criticisms of Christian Scripture and felt that they were unanswerable. Yet now as a young bishop (when he wrote the Confessions), he recalls that there was one man, named Elpidius, who spoke and argued openly against the Manicheans and of whom the Manicheans avoided and did not respond to. Who was this man Elpidius? I did some Google searches, and it seems that Christian history remembers the names of a few Elpidius, but I do not think that any of them are this one. This may be his only mention in history.

In this Book we see the not yet Christian Augustine state his confusion, as he has elsewhere, over the metaphysics of the Christian God, if metaphysics is the proper term.

Again in this chapter, as in so many others, we see the saintliness and saintly passion of Monica.

I am grateful that the Microsoft Word Spell Checker includes the word Manichean!

An Introduction and Overview to the Confessions, Life, Thought, and Influence of Augustine

I recently found the very illuminative URL above, from a Fordam University site.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Book IV

Book IV is a confessional decription by Augustine of his lifestyle, including non-Christian activities and general sins, from age nineteen to twenty-eight. He is a budding member of the intelligentsia and has an active faith in Manichaeism. His life seems no different than that of privileged young people today: high and low entertainment, keen interest in the fashionable beliefs of the day, combined with an active libido. He reads every book on the subject of the liberal arts that he can get his hands on. He does show common sense and an ability to adapt and mature. He acts with backbone only when it suits his ego. But how bizarre Manichaeism seems to us today!

Beginning in Chapter 4, Augustine writes a meditation on friendship that extends into a discussion of the nature of the soul. His starting point is that upon finishing his education and returning to his home town of Tagaste to teach, Augustine resumes a friendship with someone from his childhood. The friend became critically ill, was baptized while unconscious, recovered and was a radically changed person for a few days before having a relapse and finally dying. This event triggered profound and painful mourning in Augustine that ultimately forced him to move from Tagaste back to Carthage. One cannot read this vivid and evocative passage without being moved by Augustine’s pain and loss. From these emotions Augustine meditation on friendship move into a meditation on the nature of the soul—our soul’s wounded-ness, its restlessness, separation from God, its relationship to our bodies and to the meaning of life and the Incarnation.

In Chapter 2, A. says something about marriage, but it is not clear to me. He states that he is monogamous with his mistress at this point. It sounds like he is saying that from this mere monogamy he has had an insight into the value of marriage. If this is his point, it is weak because he is not married. He has not experienced what he is purporting to write of.

The Book is littered with Neo-platonic language and concepts: Aristotle, Plato’s Cave, forms, souls as the permanent part of the self, the body as corrupt and temporal. “…yet not it let be stuck and glued to close to them in love through the senses of the body.” (Yes, this is NOT a Theology of the Body!) I’m sure someone more educated than myself will see even more instances of Neo-Platonism than I. Augustine talks about the beauty of bodies, but I don’t know what his point is. I assume his aesthetic is purely neo-platonic as well. I think that I dwell on Neo-Platonism, because, the first time I read Plato, I was positively shocked too see how much of Christian thought and language was based on the Greek concepts and language. It gives great pause to make one think how much of one’s religious education is truly rooted in the Word of God. However, I should mention that mixed in with all the Neo-Platonism and Manichaeism are many quotes from the Bible, especially the Psalms.

And last but not least, Augustine continues to freely make metaphors of lust and adultery with many other sins: “A soul that pants for such figments of the imagination is surely committing fornication against you,” and “…prostituting desires…”