Q: In Chapter 10, Augustine writes of his friend Alypius’ great “integrity that was a source of wonder to his colleagues.” He writes about how Alypius would always reject bribes from wealthy and powerful senators. Though he would be threatened with harm, that did not deter him from acting with integrity. Is it better to be morally good or to be an opportunist and look after your own self-interest? Why are qualities like honesty and selflessness hard to find in areas of public and civic service? Would Christian, or religious, politicians necessarily make better or more honest public servants in governments and business? Would they be better at handling greed or resisting temptation than someone who was not religious? Why or why not?
Do we need an angry Daddy up there to keep us honest? Could human morality ever get to the point where we don’t need the fear of punishment? Or are we just one bad day away from completely caving in, seeing the benefit of self interest and the pointlessness of selflessness. Do we always wait on a red light? Or after seeing numerous people running ahead of us make it tempting to run it yourself. If you’re the only one obeying the rules, what good are they?
Humans have a bad tendency to cheat, especially when the reward is high and the risk of being caught is low. Any system where it’s deliberately complex and confusing is probably cheating in some way, such as stock markets, utility bills, taxes or finances.
As from the lecture last week regarding the Silk Road it was important to have a religion in order to trade. It didn’t matter what it was, but that you had a morality system and a fear of divine retribution. If you had no fear of heaven, how could you be trusted not to cheat? You may be able to fool man, but God sees all.
I don’t know if the Eliot Spitzers of the world got into politics for self-gain or if they initially wanted to make the world a better place. After working so hard for the people, did he feel that he deserved a respite? Did he feel that as long as he wouldn’t get caught, he’d be okay?
Can atheists be trusted? If there is no power greater than yourself, what prevents you from doing wrong when no one is looking? Only the fear of being caught? Can personal pride to do the right thing be equal to fear of a divine Daddy? Is it self interest that our current modern society only functions if we all agree to abide by its rules, otherwise it would collapse and anarchy reigns?
In the past, with no modern hotel or motel system, ancient societies developed guest rights. People would stay with strangers and it was understood that they were safe with each other. Various religions had believed that guests could be the gods or angels in disguise, so guests were to be protected. This tradition declined in the modern world, until Airbnb. The business model started with a nearby convention when hostels had been sold out. Entrepreneurs rented out an air mattress with breakfast included. The idea of renting out or staying with strangers is scary. Instead of divine judgment, we have internet reputation ratings.
We tend to hold authority to a higher standard since we recognize that they have so much power that can be abused. The US government was designed to be inefficient with checks on each branch to prevent any from becoming too powerful. DAs have an enormous amount of power. If a prosecutor simply does not like you, you’re pretty much screwed regardless of guilt or innocence. Some have admirably tried to instill some respect for the power they wield to serve the people instructing young lawyers starting out, “Your job is not get convictions, but to dispense justice.”
Q: In Chapter 15, Augustine writes about the hard decision to part away from his mistress of so many years, as he had been promised to marry another person through the arrangement of his mother. Since he couldn’t wait two years until his bride-to-be came of age, he took a mistress to fill the time and satiate his sexual desires. Do you believe that sex is more sanctified by marriage? Why or why not? Why is the Church so obsessed with its congregants from not having premarital sex? Is it proscribed in the Old Testament? Why do you think love is more passionate and intriguing at times when it’s found in a forbidden or taboo state?
The Church has determined a number of things that involve the possibility for loss of self-control to be threatening, and in the process has reached extremes that have turned self-control into a religion in and of itself. Whether it’s sex, alcohol, dancing, interacting with people who don’t fit some prescribed standard, eating certain foods, and an endless list of things, depending on which denomination one looks to, are sure to be scrutinized and not entrusted to the individual. There are valid reasons for bringing anything that could turn into a vice under a microscope, as the Church does have the obligation to guide the moral compass of its followers. But whenever anything gets elevated to the level of theology, and the prohibition against premarital sex has been–without any real Biblical basis, it ignores the fundamental message of the Bible: love God and love your neighbor. That is because the focus is instead put on the self and the ability to restrain oneself, and the obsession with a notion of “purity”, sexual or otherwise, ends up elevating the self above God. In other words, self-righteousness takes priority, way before love, compassion, understanding, etc. It also makes it too easy to judge those who do not do the same.
I do believe that sex within marriage is sanctified in the sense that it is meant to be exclusive to the married partners, and there are plenty of prohibitions in the NT against spoiling the marriage bed. The OT deals with plenty of sex, and the OT’s rules of marriage come with the expectation of brides’ virginity. But women were also treated as property in the ancient world. Later, an easy case can be made that the Church’s historical prohibitions have as much to do with control over its flock, and consequently its hold on power, as they do with anything else. As it does with so many other things, the contemporary American Church loses sight of nuance as it expands a terrible amount of energy propagating unrealistic ideals that can easily end up hurting lives, while forgetting to investigate the reasons behind rules or making up reasons that have little basis in reality. I have heard too many youth pastors wax poetic about the virtues of married sex and the benefits of “waiting.” I have heard almost none talk about the realities of marriage or adulthood in any genuine way. Some were clearly clueless and inexperienced, and daydreaming. Others were old enough to know better, and obviously disingenuous. The result is often that men in the church end up being held to different standards than women. The other result is that anything elevated to the level of taboo is going to be found intriguing by some section of the population. The obsession with sex and prohibitions on it serves well to push some in that very direction. Same is true with all the other taboos that the Church deals with without an honest consideration of reality.
Q: In Chapter 16, Augustine writes about discussing the philosophy of Epicurus with his friends Alypius and Nebridius. Who was Epicurus and what was his philosophy about? What problems did Augustine have with Epicurus’ philosophy? Augustine writes that “Epicurus would have won all the honours, were it not that I believed that the soul lived on after death and received the reward or punishment which it deserved. Epicurus had refused to believe this.” Is fear of divine punishment and retribution after death a good deterrent to committing more sins? Is there any truth to that? But what about one based purely on love instead? Is offering forgiveness too easy? Is grace too easy that it seems ‘unjust’ at times? Is universalism (the belief that all persons will go to heaven or enjoy eternity with God in eternal bliss in the afterlife) a possibility? Can God’s love be so expansive and so inclusive that hell or everlasting damnation is not an option? Is it possible that Jesus’ atonement on the cross accomplished salvation for literally everyone who has lived or ever will live? Or was it always active even before Jesus’ sacrifice?
In the beginning of Chapter 16, Augustine laments what he discussed in the previous chapter where he describes his reluctance to give up his lustful ways. It was also during this time that he also went through a period of great reflection on the meaning of life. He often discussed differing philosophies with his two friends Alypius and Nebridius. One of the philosophers that they discussed was the 3rd century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC).
For Epicurus, the purpose of life was to attain a happy, tranquil life that was to be characterized by “ataraxia”, a state of peace and freedom from fear and an absence of pain. He taught that pleasure and pain were measures of what is good and evil and that death was the end for both body and soul, so therefore, death was something that should not be feared. The measure for what was good was that which causes pleasure and anything that caused pain was considered to be bad. Furthermore, the gods, if they existed, neither reward nor punish human actions so there was no need for a final judgment after death. The universe was infinite and eternal and events in the world were ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving through empty space. It should be noted that he did not necessarily advocate a hedonistic lifestyle, rather it was more about avoiding pain and suffering, both physical and mental, and reach a state of tranquility where one did not have to fear death or the wrath of gods.
Though he was initially impressed with Epicurus’ philosophy, Augustine’s major gripe with him was regarding the immortality of the soul and the need for reward or punishment after death. Furthermore, he writes, “However great my indulgence in sensual pleasure, I could not find happiness.” So in a certain way, Augustine did want to follow Epicurus’ teachings of living a happy, tranquil life that would hopefully be free of pain and suffering, he couldn’t find the happiness that he was looking for. However, one area that he found in common with Epicurus’ philosophy was that some form of happiness can be attained by the accompaniment of friends – that was something Augustine had and greatly cherished.
In a certain way, for most average people, especially younger and more impressionable people, a fear of divine or eternal punishment would be effective, but I think that such feelings would abate as he or she grew older. Fear of the law is a more practical deterrent, yet people break man-made laws all the time. Regardless, people sin and do wrong even with the belief in divine punishment.
Now love, especially kenotic, self-sacrificial love, is something that I believe would be more effective in changing a person’s heart or mind. True forgiveness is something rare for the most part, so it’s something that would last longer emotionally and spiritually within a person. It would be more memorable. Grace and forgiveness are both qualities we think we know and experience well, but we really don’t. That’s why pastors have to repeat it over and over again that God’s grace, love, and mercy should dominate our way of thinking and radically reinterpret the way we see and react to the world. True forgiveness and true grace is not easy. If someone has hurt you or wronged you really bad, it hurts both physically and mentally. It’s not easy to forgive persons. We should not think that God’s grace is like Him sprinkling fairy dust on people and saying “All is forgiven so go and live the rest of your life happily.” No. Throughout Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, God is portrayed as suffering when people sin against him again and again. A blood sacrifice is performed as a reminder that there is a cost, a painful cost reflected in the suffering of an animal, in order to receive God’s blessing and forgiveness. Grace and forgiveness involve a necessary type of pain, but one that reaps great dividends in the end and are mutually beneficial to one another.
Universalism is a controversial belief. It sounds great, where God loves everyone and everyone gets to spend eternity in bliss in heaven forever, but the discomfort comes when issues of divine justice come about. Shouldn’t unrepentant sinners be punished in some way? How would you feel if a rapist or murderer went to court and escaped punishment? One would feel great anger and feel as if the justice system was broken. Wouldn’t we consider God to be unjust if he did the same? Or perhaps we still yet don’t understand what divine grace and love mean. In the Bible it states, “The Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matt. 18: 22) Something that will always haunt me is visualizing Jesus having nails painfully driven into his hands and feet and still saying to his enemies, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” But then again, Jesus does talk about judgment in the End Times as well, “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 13:49-50)
There is an ongoing debate among theologians and biblical scholars on whether or not Jesus’ atonement was for everyone for all time. There are verses for and against each side and I won’t presume to know which side is right. It’s a guessing game. I also think it would be presumptuous to assume there was no concept of salvation or forgiveness and absolution of sin before Jesus’ sacrifice. God has been and presumably always be in the business of forgiveness of sins as long as mankind first developed the ability to worship God. Notions about divine judgment and forgiveness are vast topics that we should be humble about when thinking and meditating upon them.
Q: In Chapter 12 (and the end of Chapter 11), Augustine writes about one of the roadblocks to his conversion was that he was not yet ready to become a celibate and forsake the pleasures of sex. He marveled at Alypius’ self-control over his sexual desires. Are sexual pleasure and pursuit of God mutually exclusive? Must you rid yourself of all sexual or lustful thoughts in order to become holy and pursue after God? Or does biology always trump spirituality? Can a Christian be open about his or her sexual life, engage in casual sex for pleasure, with multiple partners, and be honestly spiritual and loving of God at the same time? Or must a Christian truly be disciplined to control his or her lustful urges? Does the Church’s suppression of sexual desires, or making human sexuality taboo, cause more harm than good?
Perhaps one of the most fundamental passions that transcend human culture and ethnography is the pursuit of sexual pleasure in life. Simply peer into any ancient texts of various civilizations and you’re bound to encounter images and/or descriptions of human copulation, some of it actually quite graphic. They have been created by nearly every civilization, ancient and modern. Early cultures often associated the sexual act with supernatural forces and thus their religion is intertwined with such depictions. In Asian countries such as India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Japan and China, representations of sex and erotic art have specific spiritual meanings within native religions. Likewise, the Greeks and Romans produced much art and decoration of an erotic nature, much of it integrated with their religious beliefs and cultural practices. Great examples of this in the Bible are the descriptions of temple prostitutes in the New Testament that the Apostle Paul warned his congregants and other believers to stay away from. In more recent times, as communication technologies evolved each new technique such as photography, printing, motion pictures and computers has been adapted to display and disseminate these depictions (i.e., internet porn).
So historically the pursuit of God or the divine and the pursuit of sexual pleasure have been intertwined rather than mutually exclusive. It’s worth pointing out both in the Old and New Testament the Bible never explicitly states that you need to rid yourself of all sexual or lustful thoughts in order to be holy or commune with God, but rather human sexuality ought to be treated as a great gift from God. So who says biology and spirituality need to be exclusive?
Sexual intercourse between a woman and a man on a terra cotta plaque from Mesopotamia, early 2nd millennium BCE [Credit: The Israel Museum]
Typical heterosexual Roman painting found in Pompeii.
Well, the short answer to that deals with the Church or at least the historical Church (this includes both the Western Latin Church and Eastern Orthodox branches). Part of this has to do with the misinterpretation of Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians and Galatians where he pleads his audience for sexual integrity and purity. Just from an observational standpoint, one of the main problems with uncontrolled sexual lust is debased human behavior that can lead to physical and/or emotional abuse of the receiving partner (often female). Paul most likely understood this, which may explain why he so passionately railed against the worship of prostitutes at the pagan temples in the cities he visited in Asia Minor. But the bigger issue for Paul and perhaps for other Biblical writers is that uncontrolled sexual lust can detract a believer from his connection to God in worship and praise. Excessive engagement in casual sex can be spiritually destructive as drug addiction, alcohol abuse, gluttony and other vices whose primary root is tied to the worship of one’s self, often referred to as pride. Sexual copulation is more than just a physical act, but also an emotional one that binds two opposite people together in an expression of love. You could argue that having sex with multiple partners can be an expression of love with multiple people as polygamists may argue, or you can buy into the Biblical argument that sex exclusively appropriated in a heterosexual monogamous marriage is a metaphorical reflection of God’s love with his church, but reality is a bit more complicated.
Personally, I will not argue for or against either expression of human sexuality, but rather leave it to each individual to make a reasonable judgment as long as no forms of abuse is applied. The Bible does indeed call for sexual purity and rather than suppressing one’s desires, sexuality should be enjoyed between two loving partners because it’s the ultimate expression of love that God bestowed upon us. While I don’t believe human sexuality should be made taboo, over indulgence in sex and lust can lead to addiction, which then leads down to other problems or issues. I strongly believe the Church should take a more balanced and nuanced view of this subject rather than suppress it as it has done in the past only because as a collective community can we learn the benefits as well as the dangers of sex and lust.
Q: In Chapter 11, Augustine muses about life after death. He writes that “Life is a misery and I do not know when death may come… Suppose death puts an end to all care. Suppose that it cuts it off together with the senses of the body.” He seems to have a hard time accepting the possibility that there is all that there is to life after death: “God would never have done so much, such wonderful things for us if the life of the soul came to an end with the death of the body.”
Do you agree with him here, that life would be a waste (for both God and humankind) without the promise of an afterlife?
Yes, I do. We are living an epic of cosmic proportions. Why would God sacrifice himself for us in order for us to become his adoptive children and inherit his kingdom?
Could you worship God wholeheartedly without a notion of an afterlife or heaven? Why or why not? Is your faith solely dependent upon a concept or promise of an afterlife?
The promise of after life and heaven can only take us so far if we don’t also ‘fall in love’ with God. As Augustine demonstrates, without the ‘leap’ of faith, rebirth and the work of sanctification through the Word and the Holy Spirit, I don’t think that the promise of afterlife can sustain us in this life. Until we find the peace and joy of knowing God and walking with him, through sadness and happiness, can we find the joy that will transcend this life.