Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Confessions – Book 3

These are my notes on the third book of Augustine’s Confessions, which our church Bible study is reading through this Fall.  As I’ve said before, don’t expect great writing – these are just notes, but could conceivably be helpful for folks.

Plays and Entertainment (3.2.2 – 3.2.4)

Augustine seems to deplore the stage plays that he enjoyed as a youth. As he asks, “Why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure?” The best answer he can come up with is that we enjoy the emotions we experience when watching a play because it is a shadow of something better. It is a good thing to feel mercy when someone is actually suffering, and indeed, we were likely intended to feel good when we show mercy, in the same way that we feel good when we fall in love. And the enjoyment we feel when watching tragedies unfold on the stage is a reflection or a shadow of this. Unfortunately, that’s all it is. It isn’t the same thing. It enjoys the same relationship to real mercy as masturbation does to marriage. In other words, Augustine says, the problem with plays is that we find ourselves falling in love with something that doesn’t exist. Indeed, this is such a problem, Augustine says, that we should beware of feeling any joy in compassion, lest we find ourselves rejoicing in others’ sorrows.

  • Do you agree with Augustine’s disparaging of secular entertainments?
  • We don’t tend to be as thrilled today by tragedies as Augustine was. Is there anything in his critique that is still relevant?

Cicero and Philosophy (3.4.7 – 3.4.8)

Cicero was a Roman philosopher and politician who lived from 106 BC to 43 BC. He was one of the first to introduce Roman audiences to the Greek philosophical treatises, along the way coining a number of critical Latin words. (He invented the Latin words which lie behind the English words “morals”, “property”, “individual”, “science”, “image”, “appetite”, and others.) Cicero subordinated philosophy to politics, and it is not surprising therefore that he primarily employed philosophy as a means to support politics – and thus found himself adopting tenets from a variety of different philosophical schools. Cicero was eventually assassinated/murdered/executed during the civil wars that ended the Republic and initiated the Empire.

The book which so affected Augustine, Cicero’s Hortensius, is now lost, and the only fragments which remain are found in Augustine’s own works. You get the impression from reading The Confessions that Augustine still found much to commend in this book, though he knew that Cicero was not a Christian. It urged a search for the truth qua truth, independent of any sect or viewpoint, and Augustine could no sooner have repudiated that exhortation than he could have repudiated the God who was Himself Truth. Certainly Augustine recognized that philosophy could be godless: he quotes Paul in 2 Col. 2:8-9 to this effect. But the root of philosophy, the “love of wisdom”, was very much a Biblical idea.

It is worth noting, however, that even the “pagan” Augustine here found himself unable to give complete allegiance to Cicero’s ideals. For some reason, likely because of his mother, he had a thirst for Christ (if not precisely for Christianity) that he knew secular philosophy could never slake.

  • Have you ever had a philosophy class or read a book on philosophy? What did you think? Did it help you understand your Christian faith any better?

The Bible

After reading Cicero, reading the Bible was a disappointing experience for Augustine. The mature, Christian Augustine of the Confessions looks at the Bible through much different eyes than the young, intellectual Augustine he remembers being. He alludes to these difficulties when he describes the allure that the Manichees held for him. He wholeheartedly agreed when the Manichees pointed out that the Bible often portrayed God as possessed of a body (not just in the New Testament, but also in the Old), and spoke of Him as consumed by jealousy and anger, all passions that Augustine himself had suffered from, but perhaps for that very reason scorned all the more. Especially telling was the fact that the Bible portrayed its heroes obeying a morality that was substantially different from that which Augustine himself (even at that time) believed was appropriate. (See my last point below.)

  • Augustine found it initially quite difficult to get anything out of the Bible. What has your experience been? Do you tend to agree more with the younger or with the more mature Augustine?

The Manichees (3.6.10-3.6.11)

The Manichees thrived largely between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD. It was based on the writings of a Persian prophet named Mani (216-276 AD), who taught that he was the Paraclete which Jesus had promised in the book of John. Manichaeism had adherents as far east as China and as far west as Italy and northern Africa. Like its successor, Islam, it claimed to be the fulfillment and complete version of other religions which had preceded it, which meant, in practice, that it adopted much of the terminology of the various religions with which it came in contact (including Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism).

Mani produced seven writings, most of which are lost, though fragments remain (i.e., are quoted in other books). A close analysis of these writings indicates that they are heavily influenced by intertestamental Jewish literature (such as the Aramaic Enoch, found in the Dead Sea Scrolls), as well as by 2nd century Gnosticism.

Manichaean theology taught a dualistic view of good and evil. A key belief in Manichaeism is that the powerful, though not omnipotent good power (God) was opposed by the semi-eternal evil power (Satan). This addresses a theoretical part of the problem of evil by denying the omnipotence of God and postulating two opposite powers. Humanity, the world and the soul are seen as the byproduct of the battle between God's proxy, Primal Man, and Satan. The human person is seen as a battleground for these powers: the soul defines the person, but it is under the influence of both light and dark. This contention plays out over the world as well as the human body—neither the Earth nor the flesh was seen as intrinsically evil, but rather possessed portions of both light and dark. Natural phenomena (such as rain) were seen as the physical manifestation of this spiritual contention. Therefore, the Manichaean worldview explained the existence of evil with a flawed creation God took no role in forming and was the result of Satan striking out against God.

Mircea Eliade, summarizing bar-Konai's Syriac narration, describes the Manichaean cosmogony in his A History of Religious Ideas:

In the beginning...the two "natures" or "substances", light and obscurity, good and evil, God and matter, coexisted, separated by a frontier. In the North reigned the Father of Greatness...in the South, the Prince of Darkness...the "disorderly motion" of matter drove the Prince of Darkness toward the upper frontier of his kingdom. Seeing the splendor of light, he is fired by the desire to conquer it. It is then that the Father decides that he will himself repulse the adversary. He...projects from himself, the Mother of Life, who...projects a new hypostasis, the Primordial Man...With his five sons, who are...his "soul" and "armor" made from five lights, the Primordial Man descends to the frontier. He challenges the darkness, but he is conquered, and his sons are devoured by the demons...This defeat marks the beginning of the cosmic "mixture", but at the same time it insures the final triumph of God. For obscurity (matter) now possesses a portion of light...and the Father, preparing its deliverance, at the same time arranges for his definitive victory against darkness. In a second Creation, the Father "evokes" the Living Spirit, which, descending toward obscurity, grasps the hand of the Primordial Man and raises him to his celestial homeland, the Paradise of Lights. Overwhelming the demonic Archontes, the Living Spirit fashions the heavens from their skins, the mountains from their bones, the earth from their flesh and their excrements...In addition, he achieves a first deliverance of light by creating the sun, the moon, and the stars from portions of it that had not suffered too much from contact with obscurity. Finally, the Father proceeds to a last evocation and projects by emanation the Third Messenger. The latter organizes the cosmos into a kind of machine to collect - and...to deliver - the still-captive particles of light. During the first two weeks of the month, the particles rise to the moon, which becomes a full moon; during the second two weeks, light is transferred from the moon to the sun and, finally, to its celestial homeland. But there were still the particles that had been swallowed by the demons. Then the messenger displays himself to the male demons in the form of a dazzling naked virgin, while the female demons see him as a handsome naked young man...fired by desire, the male demons...give forth their semen, and, with it, the light that they had swallowed. Fallen to the ground, their semen gives birth to all the vegetable species. As for the female devils who were already pregnant, at the sight of the handsome young man they give birth to abortions, which, cast onto the ground, eat the buds of trees, thus assimilating the light that they contained. Alarmed by the Third Messenger's tactics, matter, personified as Concupiscence, decides to create a stronger prison around the still-captive particles of light. Two demons, one male, the other female, devour all the abortions in order to absorb the totality of light, and they then couple. Thus Adam and Eve were engendered.

It’s difficult to see how an intelligent man like Augustine could have been taken in by stuff that sounds like such complete nonsense to us; it’s less difficult to see why he detested it so much once he had left it. “The heresies men leave are hated most.”

Augustine picks out one particular Manichaean doctrine for particular ridicule in 3.10.18, when he makes reference to the teaching of the Manichees that:

  • It was bad to pick a fig, because it made the tree “weep”.
  • If that fig was eaten by one of the “elect”, it would be digested and release the particles of light within it, after which they could return to God.
  • If that fig was eaten by anyone else, the particles of light would be condemned to continued existence in the material world.

You can see how this is similar to the tactics Mani describes in the war between the forces of light and darkness.

  • Does this description of Manichaeism remind you of any modern religions? How do modern (non-Christian) religions tend to be similar or to differ from Manichaeism?

Changing Mores (3.7.12 - 3.9.17)

One of the critiques of the Manicheans against the Bible was that it portrayed its heroes doing things which good, modern Romans would find repugnant, such as marrying multiple wives, or participating in the slaughter of men or animals. Augustine’s mature response to this is unflinching: God commands different things at different times. For Augustine, God was no mere abstract ideal of justice: He was a King, and a King could do whatever arbitrary thing he desired. So it was nothing odd for a King to declare that members of one town could arm and defend themselves, while declaring that members of another town should submit to the army coming against them. In the same way, it might have been a legitimate application of God’s moral law for Joshua to commit genocide against the Canaanites, even if it would be a terrible violation of that law if we were to do the same thing.

“Is justice, then, variable and changeable? No, but the times over which she presides are not all alike because they are different times.” (3.7.13)

No Christian really disputes this today. The question is where you draw the line, i.e., which practices are always and inherently against God’s moral law, and which are merely cultural applications of that law? So, for instance, where does homosexuality or premarital sex fall on this continuum? Many Christians, including our representatives at the Presbyterian General Assembly, have concluded that the Biblical prohibitions against these acts should be received in much the same way as the Biblical acceptance of slavery, or prohibitions against women with short hair (or men with long).

Others point out that the Bible tells us more about gender relations than just “Do this” or “Don’t do that”. The Bible portrays our gender identities as being, in some mysterious way, a part of the imago dei, an inherent part of the Creation itself. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and the two of them will be one flesh: what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” The Bible has a specific ideal for marriage that involves one man and one woman, however honored more in the breach than in the observance. Moreover, on many issues, the Bible has multiple perspectives. Joshua may be seen as encouraging genocide: Jesus pretty clearly forbids it. Jacob had two wives: Deuteronomy prohibits even the king from multiple marriages. In 1 Corinthians, Paul forbids women to speak in church, then describes how they should do it.  However, the Bible never speaks from two different perspectives about homosexuality. Everywhere it is mentioned, it is clearly and specifically condemned. If it is the case (as some argue) that God is asking us to adopt a different standard on homosexuality, the Bible gives us no encouragement or preparation that He might be doing so.

And of course, this is precisely the view which Augustine himself takes on the matter:

Offenses against nature are everywhere and at all times to be held in detestation and should be punished. Such offenses, for example, were those of the Sodomites; and, even if all nations should commit them, they would all be judged guilty of the same crime by the divine law, which has not made men so that they should ever abuse one another in that way. For the fellowship that should be between God and us is violated whenever that nature of which he is the author is polluted by perverted lust. (3.8.15)

  • Presbyterians are in the middle of a number of controversies regarding changing cultural standards. What is your take on issues like homosexuality or sexual activity outside marriage?

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