Q: In Chapter 14, Augustine describes how the Old Testament was “death” to him when he read them literally, but when Ambrose introduced to him to interpret the Scriptures in a more spiritual or allegorical way (in the same manner as Stoic philosophers had centuries before who were troubled by the way Homer had depicted the Greek gods acting in immoral ways), it liberated him and was a major breakthrough for him accepting the Christian faith. Identify a biblical passage that was “liberated” by a non-literal interpretation for you. In what grounds should we take the Bible literally and at other times non-literally? Or should we take the Bible literally all the time? Augustine also describes how, in light of the evidence growing before him, he moved away from Manichean philosophy. What belief system that you held in the past did you have to leave behind eventually in light of the evidence (scientific, philosophic, experiential, existential, etc.)?
My understanding of the Bible has changed quite a bit. I used to tell myself that I didn’t take it literally, but I did. Some of it was easy, for instance, with John 10:9 “I am the door”, of course, there was no doorknob on Jesus. Otherwise, I took the teachings to be literally the commands of God. Books of prophesy such as the Book of Revelation were to be taken as predictions. The fact that I wasn’t kosher didn’t bother me since Peter in Acts 10:13 gave us a pass. As I learned more about the Bible, there were contradictions that were glossed over and ignored even though at the back of my mind I was starting to get a bit nervous.
The point was introduced to me that perhaps the Bible was never meant to be historical or scientific, but rather, that it was a theological book meant to show us the relationship of God and man. Scientific and historical discrepancies therefore were not important since that was never the point. The parables of Jesus are true, but they were never meant to be historically accurate. Some of them were so ridiculous; for instance, in the extreme, the original audience would never have thought as true- no middle eastern patriarch would have behaved so kindly to the Prodigal Son or the Ten Thousand Talents the unforgiving servant owed was more money than in the entire region.
Another point that was brought up to me was that the Bible was NOT the holy word of God dropped out of heaven completely formed. The Bible itself says the Word of God is no material book, but rather, the living Jesus- John 1:1, “In the Beginning was the Word, the Word was with Gold and was God.” And John 1:14, “The Word became flesh.” Our Catholic brothers have no such illusions of the Bible since they believe the ultimate Authority is not the Bible, but the Pope.
Even the New Testament writers never intended the writings to be the [literal] Word of God. To them, they were simply writing to each other, answering questions and putting out theological fires that came up. Imagine, if in the future, pastors’ emails to one another were collected as holy scripture. This brings me up to homosexuality. I used to believer that being gay was pretty much a ticket to hell. Still, I was bothered by the hatred. It seemed to contradict the loving God. But given the many rules and commandments, we need to remember the greatest commandment that Jesus himself said: “Love the Lord and Love your neighbor.” Every other command must follow this.
I used to scoff at Christians who seemed to think the church would be overjoyed at the acceptance of homosexuality. One TV pundit I saw claimed that Saint Paul would be dancing down the aisles in support. I don’t believe he would, being a person of his time. But I feel that he would be heartbroken to see how his letter was used to justify cruelty.
Q: In Chapter 10, he began to dabble with a school of philosophers known as “Academics” who were Platonists who maintained that they were the true successors of Plato’s Academy in Athens. They claimed that true philosophy must follow Socrates’ way of philosophizing. Socrates was known for his skepticism and line of questioning, and therefore suspended the beliefs most common people held on to. They believed that “one ought to exercise doubt in all things and that nothing true can be definitively grasped by human beings” as Augustine described. Much of this aligned also with the writings of Cicero and Greek Stoic philosophers who believed that one had to live a life with dignity and integrity despite the absence of God or any assurance that life had meaning. The Stoics believed that one had to live a life without hope for reward, salvation or afterlife, and yet show a detached consideration, respect and selfless goodwill towards all creatures. What is the role of doubt or even skepticism in faith? Is there any room for them in faith? What are the strengths and weaknesses of incorporating doubt and skepticism into one’s belief system about God? Must a person remove all aspects of doubt to come to a point of absolute certainty and true faith in God? Is there an element of Stoic philosophy within Christianity? Could Christianity survive without a belief in eternal rewards or a blessed afterlife, and is its foundation based on it? In other words, is Christianity meaningless without a belief in an afterlife? If so, that begs the question as to people believe on the basis or hope for rewards or an afterlife rather than a true love or faith in God.
Whether or not Christianity is meaningless without a belief in afterlife is a question of opinion, but I do believe that afterlife, aka, the eternal nature of creation, is intrinsic to Christianity. To think of afterlife as reward is simplistic, but without the notion of eternity, Christianity would merely be a philosophy. For most Christians, afterlife means both heaven and hell, so it is either reward or fear of eternal pain that motivates many. Though living in either fear or hope of a reward is reductionist, it is hard to condemn those born under extremely difficult historical circumstances of persecution and death who are looking to afterlife as salvation from the hell on earth.
Doubt and skepticism are extremely important, even as the Church has feared them for most of its existence. They are the only tools that can develop a mature faith, one based on personal understanding rather than mere acceptance. But because of the very fact that they can lead to different conclusions than those endorsed by the Church, they pose a threat to that institution. The stoic aspect of much mainstream Christianity comes from the Church perpetuating the pro-faith messages in the Bible as acceptance of the Church’s teachings without question—make faith into a virtue, despite doubts that may be eating away at it. But a faith without question is shallow. Merely swallowing the fact that there is a God, without any sort of individual understanding, creates perplexing situations- either “real life” does not align with that knowledge, or fanaticism develops.
In Chapter 8, Augustine describes how his mother Monica would constantly pray for him, in this case, specifically not to go to Rome. He would tell her a white lie in order to get on a boat to Rome. How does Augustine interpret this scenario during this part of his life? How does he interpret God’s will for his life at this time? Does prayer really change things? What about prayers that don’t seem to get answered? There’s a strong theme of God’s divine Providence running throughout Augustine’s theology- that all that is happening is because of God unfolding a plan for his life. Do you believe that God has a specific plan for everyone’s life? Why or why not?
Augustine has made up his mind to go to Rome because he believes his life there will be more rewarding. His mother is overbearing and the only way he thinks he can get out of her clutches is to trick her. In retrospect, he believes that God was leading him to where He wanted Him to be but not for the reasons that motivated Augustine. I am not sure that prayer can change circumstances but I do think that prayer can change the way we perceive circumstances. God answers prayers in the way that is best and according to his purpose, if we knew all that He knows. Romans 8:28 states, “And we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” In the case of Augustine’s mother, God did answer her prayer but not in the way she had asked. Yes, I do think God has a plan for our life if we allow Him to guide us. We make our plans but He directs our steps (Proverbs 16:9 “In their hearts humans plan their course but the Lord establishes their steps.”)
In Chapter 9, upon arriving at Rome he fell ill in which he interpreted as being a punishment from God for his sin against lying to his mother. Here, he makes one of his first references to “original sin, by which we all have died with Adam” where he quotes from 1 Corinthians 15:22. What are your thoughts about original sin? Do you believe that people are born sinful, without a shot of believing God on his or her own will? Do you agree with his theology? Why or why not? If so, what about those born with mental/cognitive disabilities or serious genetic defects – those who may not have the cognitive capacity to understand God or the gospel message – are they doomed to go to hell?
I don’t believe God punishes us with sickness, cancer, etc. I rather think that God uses such circumstances to get our attention, teach and shape us. I think we are born with sin as the default mode. With our permission, God will reprogram us so that we are able to choose. A little simplistic I admit.
In Chapter 9, he credits the recovery of his illness through the faithfulness and ceaseless prayers of his mother. He says that it was because of her humility, gentleness, and chastity that God looked favorably to answer her prayers. Do you believe that one’s way of living, level of morality or spiritual obedience influences the effectiveness of getting prayers answered? Why or why not? What about the volume of prayers to God – does the amount of prayers you repeat or the multiple times you pray to him have an effect?
I believe that the sincerity with which we pray matters. I think spiritual obedience matters because sin separates us from God. We cannot ‘earn the ear of God’ through our morality. This is why we pray in name of our Lord Jesus because he is our mediator and through him we are without blemish and have our Father’s attention. The number of times we pray about a certain matter may or may not make a difference. If the number of times we make a petition is for superstitious reasons or is mechanical (not tied to the heart), I don’t think it influences the effectiveness. However, if it reflects the depth, fervor, and confidence with which we pray, it does matter.
Q: In Chapter 10, he describes how he once believed that God had a human body or the shape of a human body, following Manichean beliefs. When you envision God, do you ‘see’ God in human form? Does God have a physicality or physical substance to Him? Is the universe God’s body? In a similar way, Augustine believed that evil had a physical substance too, “a shapeless, hideous mass, which might be solid.” Is it wrong if a believer envisions God with a physical body? In essence, the general Manichean belief was that the physical universe was evil. How did Manicheans view Jesus? Could the Manichean belief of evil be equated with the Christian belief of a duality in the universe in regards to God vs. the Devil/Satan? Why or why not? Do you visualize evil in this manner? Is it an entity or a concept? How does it exist in the world? Can evil be applied to the natural world (i.e. with animals) itself, or is it applicable with humans only? Why or why not?
Years ago, during a Bible study after church service, the leader, who is also a friend, expressed how she believed that God had a human body, or more specifically, a male body. I was very taken aback by her response. I was very tempted to ask her, let’s just say, the need for specific male parts of the male body that God would have – for instance, did God have to urinate, did he have bowel movements, etc. If he had organs like you or me, that would mean he would have to eat to keep sustenance – was he a vegetarian (most likely not)? He would be carnivorous it seems like since he demanded so many burnt animal sacrifices so therefore he must be a fan of barbecues. But these questions, I felt, would’ve been too much for her to explain or justify, so I just let it go. (Also, it didn’t seem as if it bothered anyone else, so I didn’t press further.) I’ve heard other weird depictions from other past church members as well, as for instance, God has a long flowing grey beard (that’s a common depiction) and often wears Hawaiian shorts (that’s pretty uncommon I believe). That often begs the question whether or not God is created in the image of man and not the other way around. Many African-American persons depict God or Jesus as being of African descent (which offends a lot of persons), but then again, the most common depiction of Jesus of Nazareth is of a blue-eyed, light-skinned, handsome Caucasian man with perfectly combed long hair and an impeccable trimmed beard. I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to think that God has a physical body; I think it’s an unavoidable natural human tendency to view God in anthropomorphic imagery since we relate with humans in the most intimate of ways, so I can understand why people may come up with such imagery of God.
When I “envision” God personally, whether in prayer or reading or think about him, I see “nothing.” It’s kind of hard to explain. I don’t “see” Jesus when I close my eyes and pray generally, I just don’t see or visualize anything at all really. It’s kind of funny, because I think of myself as a visual person, but when it comes to metaphysical or spiritual things, the visual part of my brain seems to “shut off,” even though I know that’s not the case entirely. Just how do you visualize everything for that matter? There is a belief that God’s body is the universe; but that begs the question whether or not God’s “physicality” is made up of atoms or quarks or dark matter. Does God’s body contain virtual particles, dark energy, cosmic rays? Where is God when a massive star collapses and becomes a black hole? Does His body eat itself up? Did God’s body form simultaneously during the Big Bang or within its singularity, or did He have a physical body before the Big Bang? Evidence shows that the universe is expanding, so does that mean God is expanding and growing in size as well? Is He just pure thought or abstract information consisting of bits? These are tough, tough questions to answer, and I won’t attempt to give answers to them, but God having a body brings up more questions than it does answers, so I have a hard time saying that God has a physical property to Him; I’m not totally denying He has none whatsoever though – we just don’t know – it lies beyond the realm of measurable scientific technology currently and tests the limits of philosophy, reason, and theology altogether. It’s almost like asking a mathematician or regular person to imagine or envision the number infinity I presume.
The Manichees saw evil as “having its own mass, either foul, misshapen, and dense… which they imagine to be an evil mind creeping throughout the earth.” They equated evil with matter which led them (including the pre-convereted Augustine) to reject the notion that Christ could have been born of the Virgin Mary. If Jesus were to have been incorporated in the flesh that could only mean that he would’ve been contaminated by it. Neither Augustine nor his fellow Manichees would accept this, because in their view, Christ came down from the world of light to free mankind from the powers of darkness and the prison of the body. Here, one can see some parallels with Christianity, particularly in regards to the “flesh” – “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” (Gal. 5:17) In much of Christian rhetoric, there’s talk of fighting fleshly temptations by focusing on spiritual matters; however, there are verses that state: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12) So there is a dual battle between the spirit and the physical (desires) being played out throughout the New Testament, and this dual conflict has been magnified by the Manicheans. And even to this day, many Christians still believe in a literal cosmic, ongoing battle between Satan and God battling for mankind’s soul, so this dual, more or less Gnostic belief has evolved into the popular core of churchgoers today.
Augustine would later see evil as the absence, loss or corruption of the good. To him, evil was the product of a fallen humanity. I personally don’t believe what we call “evil” is a personal entity or personal ontological reality engaging with the world and causing havoc (i.e., something or someone like the Devil or Satan). Evil is real, but more of a description of the harmful tendencies humans are capable of inflicting on one another or the broader natural world. I don’t believe it to be a nebulous or mysterious “force” as well. It is the cumulative harmful actions humans can perpetrate against others, more or less caused by his or her free will choices and actions. It’s a broad and general personal definition of evil that of course doesn’t cover the many nuances and all the randomness experienced in everyday life. For instance, accidents do occur in life, like a small child playing with matches who accidently sets a house on fire, etc., but I wouldn’t necessarily call something like that “evil.” True that it does cause a form of suffering, and it is true that in almost all cases evil does cause suffering, but I think suffering is another category from evil though they are related. I believe evil exists only within the human context and condition because we are morally cognitive beings. I do not know if animals have the cognitive ability to distinguish something as being “evil” or “good.” For instance, if a male lion takes over a pride, he will kill all the cubs to make the females go into heat so that he will be able to mate with them and thereby extend his own genetic line. Though many humans will be appalled by such acts, I doubt many would call it an “evil” action. Cognitively “higher” or “advanced” animals such as chimpanzees and dolphins will act in violent ways (for instance, there have been cases where male dolphins will gang “rape” a female – it’s still contraversial), but I don’t know if biologists, naturalists, or even philosophers will universally claim that such animals are performing evil acts. However, if a human person were to rape, murder, sexually abuse a child, or torture animals, we would consider such acts or that person to be evil. We imply categories of “evil” to only human beings in that we generally regard humans as morally responsible beings or agents who can choose good or bad actions. Of course this is a large and complex topic within moral philosophy and philosophical theology (particularly when it involves neurological disorders that seemingly inhibit or effect normal moral cognitive functioning) and this is just the tip of a very, very large iceberg.