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“Confessions” Book VII – Chapters 11 – 21

Plotinus with his disciples. Looks like an early Christian relief doesn't it?

Plotinus with his disciples.

 

We will finish Book VIIChapters: 11 – 21 for this week.

Please read an outline of Neoplatonic philosophy here and some of the videos here on the impact of neoplatonic thought on Augustine.

Please write on one of the following topics:

  1. In Chapter 11, what are some Neoplatonic themes that you spot here? What does he mean when he states that anything other than God is “of a lower order than yourself, and … have not absolute being in themselves, nor are they entirely without being”?  What constitutes something to have and remain in “being”?
  2. In Chapter 12, describe his concept of “corruption”. In this chapter, he comes up with a solution to the problem of evil in the universe.  Describe it, how does evil come about or where does it originate according to Augustine?  Do you agree with his assessment?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of his argument for the problem of evil?
  3. In Chapter 13, how does God relate to evil according to Augustine? How does he view the cosmos in light of God now as opposed to his previous beliefs in Manichaeism?  What conclusion does he come at the end of this chapter?
  4. In Chapter 16, describe his hierarchy of being in creatures. In your understanding, how would Augustine classify creatures like cockroaches and rats in terms of this hierarchy?  Where does he place the “wicked” in this hierarchy?  What is his explanation of why people like wickedness?  What is “wickedness” in terms of Augustine’s thought here?
  5. In Chapter 17, explain the relationship of the soul with material things. What Neoplatonic thoughts is he conveying here?  Do you think that contemplating “higher” (spiritual, metaphysical, etc.) things vs. “material” things (non-spiritual, fleshly, earthly, etc.) leads one’s soul closer to God or the truth?  What is the role of “reason” as he describes it here. Do you believe humans are the only beings on earth capable of reason?  Why or why not?  Do you think another creature or being could arise and have the capacity to reason if humans were not on earth?
  6. In Chapter 18 he writes, “I began to search for a means of gaining the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I could not find this means until I embraced the mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, who is a man, like them, and also rules as God over all things, blessed for ever.” Can one enjoy or know God without a mediator (i.e., a priest or Christ)?  Can a Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Mormon, or an ancient Egyptian who worshipped Aten as the supreme being worship and embrace God in a true manner?  Why or why not?  Do you believe Christianity has the fullest understanding or best way to follow God?
  7. In Chapter 19, he writes about his previous thoughts about who Jesus was. He writes, “I thought of Christ, my Lord, as no more than a man of extraordinary wisdom, whom none could equal.”  Why was Augustine so hesitant at following Christ in the beginning?  Can you worship a Jesus that was just a teacher or a philosopher?  Why or why not?  Is the Incarnation a non-negotiable belief or doctrine for one to be or remain a Christian?  Why or why not?  Does his (supernatural) Incarnation cause problems about him being fully human?  He’s not totally human in the “normal” sense is he?
  8. In Chapter 19, he writes, “From what the Scriptures record of him, that is, that he ate and drank, that he slept and walked, that he was sometimes happy, sometimes sad… he must also have taken a human soul and a human mind.” How does your view of God change if you know that Jesus experienced the same things as you did?  Do you see his human and divine natures as being separate aspects or substances within himself – meaning, could he “switch on and off” both natures at will or when necessary?  Do you agree with Augustine when he accepted “that Christ was [the] perfect man” and “did not think of him as having only the body of a man or man’s body and sensitive soul without his reasoning mind, but as a man complete”? If you believe in human evolution, was Jesus a part of the evolutionary development of the homo sapiens species?  Or was he a completely new thing to happen to human beings and was utterly unique and separate from creation or the evolutionary process of things?  What would it mean if Jesus was “created” in a separate manner than the rest of creation?
  9. Furthermore, he writes, “And I thought he was superior to other men, not because he was Truth in person, but because in him human nature had reached the highest point of excellence and he had a more perfect share of divine wisdom.” Do you think this is what it means to be “Christ-like” or “God-like”?  Is it possible or is it just a fantasy?  Pastors say this all the time in sermons, but what does it mean that Jesus “had reached the highest point of excellence”?  Does he mean this in an “evolutionary” way or just in a spiritual way?  Was he always perfect or did he have to learn (or even earn) his divinity?  Why or why not?
  10. In Chapter 19, he writes about his friend Alypius’ belief in Apollinarianism. Describe what that belief was.  Why was it considered a heresy?  Does it bring forth compelling arguments or questions about the nature of Jesus?  Are there elements of it that you agree with?
  11. In Chapter 20, he writes about his encounter with Neoplatonic books and while reading these works he had “caught sight of your invisible nature, as it is known through your creatures.” Is it possible to know or understand God through “pagan” sources like Greek philosophy?  Or is it solely through the Bible?  What about through other religious texts from Buddhism, Taoism, Muslim or Hindu texts?  If you say the Bible only, give your best reasons as to why you believe this to be so.  Is knowledge of God just restricted to the 66 (or so) books of the Bible?  Can these non-Christian sources be used by God as “preparation” for one to know the God of the Bible, as Augustine believed God was doing with him?
  12. Do you believe that the more abstract your thought gets (i.e. “catching sight of [God’s] invisible nature”] or the more metaphysical or spiritual your thoughts become, the closer you come to the Truth or God? Why or why not? Can God only be grasped through the Mind?  Or is there a different faculty in which one can draw closer or better grasp God? Do you believe that there is too much Platonism or Greek thought in Christian theology?  Should we dispense with all of that and just stick with the Bible?  Or has Christian theology and Greek thought been so intertwined that to separate both would cause chaos in our understanding of God or to church tradition?
  13. In Chapter 21, he writes about reading the works of the apostle Paul. He writes, “At one time it had seemed to me that he sometimes contradicted himself and that the purport of his words did not agree with the evidence of the law and the prophets.”  In your reading of Paul’s writings, have you encountered contradictions like Augustine did?  What are some difficult aspects of Paul’s writings that you have?  Are there things you flatly disagree with him on?  If so, what are they?  Can they be reconciled and justified in any way (with Jesus’ teachings)? Or do Paul’s teachings and Jesus’ teaching perfectly complement each other?
  14. In Chapter 21, he writes about some of the shortcomings of Platonic (or neoplatonic) thought in the writings as compared with Scripture. He writes, “None of this is contained in the Platonists’ books.” What were some of the things that he describes that were not in the Platonic writings?  Can the things of God be known through reason alone or do you need special or divine revelation to know God?  Can one come to God just by reason alone?  Why or why not?

 

We will discuss this coming Sunday.

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