Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Question of Dualism

Not too long ago, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete was walking on the avenue by the United Nations building. There happened to be several protests going on at the U.N. that day. A woman reporter with a microphone came up to him on the sidewalk and said, “Sir, are you here to protest something?”

He looked her in the eye and deadpanned, "I’m protesting dualism.” She ran away.

Fr. Julian Carron says that dualism leads to nihilism. I think that what he is getting at is that dualism denies the religious sense. By religious sense, I mean the seeming innate ability for human being to sense the existence of a higher power. And, by dualism, I understand that Fr. Carron means the post-Cartesian, post-modern dualism.

Let’s first put this in perspective. Most of the thought of Western civilization is dualistic. Platonism and neo-Platonism are very dualistic. The Manicheans were notoriously dualistic, far more than the Greeks. As a matter of fact, in definitions of dualism in various encyclopedias and websites, the example often given is Manichaeanism.

Although Augustine vigorously rejected all of the Manichaean doctrines, he retained a latent-Manichaean and strongly dualistic perspective on reality.

I saw the History channel documentary titled Sex and the Bible. A surprise to me, I thought it was very good—informative and thought provoking, with seemingly no ideological agenda. The commentators were all women seminary or college professors. They were respectful of Augustine but gently and firmly critical of his dualism. One said that the extreme dualism between body and soul found in Augustine is not Biblically justified. I am unaware of any reason to disagree. It goes without saying that Christians should be as Biblically grounded as possible and that is something that Augustine himself would agree with whole-heartedly.

Another perspective on this is that some of the Greek Bishops and thinkers that were contemporary with the converted Augustine considered him to be not much more than a Manichaean in Christian clothing. To be fair, I think some of this attitude was simply based on suspicion from his Manichaean days, as much as anything else. Also, to be fair and balanced, it should be pointed out that throughout his service as a bishop, Augustine was continually fighting major heresies; yet, he never once got into a conflict over doctrine with his Greek contemporaries.

One Orthodox person today expressed it to me that they do not consider Augustine’s conversion to have been complete. Of course they accept Augustine’s confession, experience of being born again, profession of faith and Baptism as valid. Their complaint is that he did not fully purge himself of his extremely dualistic worldview. One might discount some of this attitude as resulting from cultural differences and associated overtones of suspicion and paranoia between the Latin and Greek Church. However, the Greek speaking Christian thinkers had previously had to deal with the issue of dualism coming from Greek philosophy. I have been told they rejected the dualism from Greek philosophy that was not consistent with Christianity. I take it on face value that the Greeks know non-Christian dualism when they see it. I have the great respect for Orthodox thought, and in this case I side with the Orthodox in their indictment of Augustine’s dualism.

I hope, and prefer to think, that the attitudes and beliefs expressed by Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete and Fr. Julian Carron represent the trend of orthodox, contemporary Roman Catholic thought. Thankfully, it does appear that Roman Catholic thought today is more grounded in the Bible than ever before.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Understanding the Confessions of Saint Augustine

Augustine is resented for many reasons, most prominent among them, his emphasis on chastity. Indeed, to read the Confessions is to experience a very bracing moral boot camp. However, I think that many Catholics who resent Augustine overlook the fact that the Confessions are primarily about Augustine’s relationship to God. This is so pervasive that it is easy to overlook, like not seeing the forest for the trees.

The Confessions are Augustine's testimony of his conversion and redemption. Many of us Catholics, especially us older ones who were raised in the faith from birth often do not think of our religion firstly in terms of a relationship with God. We tend to focus on morality primarily, sometimes even exclusively. With Augustine, as with all true religion, worship--the relationship to God--comes first. With Augustine, morality is derived from his worship and relationship with God, as ours should be also (emphasized by Fr. John Oldfield O.A.R.).

When many Catholics read the Confessions, they hear the moral strictures loud and clear, but either fail to appreciate, or are uncomfortable with, the personal witnessing. They are less able to relate Augustine’s story to their own lives and experiences.

We all know that Augustine is one of the intellectual giants of Western Civilization. Unfortunately however, that makes it easy to overlook the fact that it was always the prompting of Augustine’s heart which drove him. My impression of Catholic teaching, preaching, and liturgical life in the Unites States is that too little of it reaches the heart, although I think that has been changing too. Without the heart, it is much more difficult to have a relationship or any deep relationship at all. Worship and liturgy become a mere going through the motions. I think that it is this failure to touch the heart is one of the causes of so many shallow, fallen-away and lukewarm Catholics.

To illustrate some of these points, look at the Gospel passage where Jesus is questioned by a wealthy official, in Luke 18:18-27:

An official asked him this question, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother.'"

And he replied, "All of these I have observed from my youth."

When Jesus heard this he said to him, "There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." But when he heard this he became quite sad, for he was very rich.

Jesus looked at him (now sad) and said, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."

Those who heard this said, "Then who can be saved?"

And he said, "What is impossible for human beings is possible for God."

Jesus had read the man’s heart and saw that he was attached to his wealth. The moral of the story is not that we should get rid of all that we own, but, rather, that we get rid of our attachments, that is, whatever which gets in the way of loving others (this insight is from Fr. John Oldfield O.A.R.). The official had not given his heart to God.

(Note Jesus' clever rhetorical method. Almost non-chalantly, he first walked the man through the Judaic moral strictures, seeming to be leading to an easy conclusion that the man will indeed have eternal life. The effect was to dramatically highight the reversal of attitude in the man's response to Jesus' final, climactic question.)

The preceding section of Luke 18, ending in verse 17, brings the issue into further relief:

“Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it." Unlike the rich official who approached God and the law like an accountant keeping a set of books, God wants us to approach him with the heart of a child.

In the case of Augustine, he understood that his unwholesome attachment to sex was what prevented him from loving God and his fellow human beings fully. Especially note the end of the above gospel passage, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.” In Luke, this is emphasized further by the very next section of chapter 18 where Jesus, after healing a blind man who had called out to him in desperation but in belief, said, "Have sight; your faith has saved you." In the Confessions, man’s complete dependence on God’s grace is one of the major themes.

In trying to cultivate my own relationship with God, I must search my heart and ask myself what is it that prevents me from loving God and my fellow human beings? I must confess my sinful condition, my unholy loves and attachments, and ask for God’s grace.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

So How Was It That Augustine Came To Be Born Again?

Augustine’s conversion to Christianity was profoundly emotional but strongly informed by his intellect. He was influenced by numerous experiences and encounters with exemplary Christians, philosophy and the Bible.

As an intelligent, educated young man, Augustine had first sought answers to life’s questions from among the (non-Christian) Manicheans, but they were never able to completely satisfy him. His commitment to their doctrines was always tentative. After much disappointment and disillusionment, he gave up on them.

The earliest, most persistent, and long-lasting influence on Augustine was the lifelong witness of his mother, Monica, including her prayers for his conversion.

Augustine’s thinking and method prior to his conversion was informed by Cicero, Platonism, the Skeptics, and Neo-Platonism. Augustine gradually came to an intellectual assent to Christianity but strongly resisted taking on a life of chastity.

At Milan, Augustine came under the influence of the great Bishop Ambrose, who was instrumental in his conversion. Simplicianus, instructed Augustine in the faith and directed him in the Christian use and understanding of philosophy. Augustine knew of and was influenced by the stories about Antony and the desert monks; the Roman teacher of rhetoric, Victorinus; the members of the Roman Court who resigned to become monks; the members of Ambrose’s church, and by others. Obviously, the Bible, especially the writing of St. Paul, and especially his letter to the Romans, was a significant and decisive factor.

During the time leading up to the moment of his conversion, Augustine endured intense storms of anxiety and conflict, and the moment of conversion was emotionally convulsive. With the Tolle Lege incident, Augustine was "broken" by God. His conversion first was intellectual, then spiritual.

Of course guiding all of the above was the hand of God.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Book VIII, Chapter 12 -- Tolle Lege

Here we have the climax of the Confessions, when Augustine gave his heart to Christ and was born again. I have no comments to make except to summarize.

Augustine is crying and in complete turmoil. He throws himself on the grounds and begs for God’s assistance. In a state of weeping, bitter contrition Augustine hears a child’s voice from a nearby house say, in a sing-song way, “Take it and Read it. Take it and read it.” Augustine, taking it as a sign, opens the nearest book, which was Paul’s letter to the Romans and reads, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in concupiscence.” (Romans 13:13) Says Augustine, “it was as though my heart was filled with a light of confidence and all the shadows of my doubt were swept away.”

Of note, a conversion had been going on within Alypius as well. After Augustine read the text from Romans above, he showed it to Alypius, who also read it, but Alypius went further and read the words, “He that is weak in the faith receive.” Alypius applied these words to himself and chose to be born again as well.

Augustine states that God converted him in a way that he no longer sought a wife or any worldly hope. This is actually exactly what Augustine had been striving for.

The chapter ends with Monica’s expression of joy.