Q: 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?
As I understand it, the Neoplatonic idea that the heavenly divine is good while we are corrupted and weighed down by the material world is similar to the Christian idea of focusing on God storing treasures in heaven instead of earthy pleasures of the flesh. I do believe that contemplating higher things versus the material leads one’s soul close to God. Reason is used to convince ourselves that the higher things are better for us in the long run than the material world.
I don’t believe that humans are the only beings on earth capable of reason. Although, for the most part, animals are ruled more than humans by the immediate stimuli and need such things as food and mating, but there are many examples and stories where they showed intelligence. Not only from cunning in hunting, but also the more mundane. The documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” has an amusing clip where the Chinese artist humbly reflects that life can be unexpectedly surprising. He was surprised that his cat wanting to go outside had learned how to open a door.
The bigger issue for me is that although humans can use reason, we are not creatures of reason. We are ruled by emotion and passion. Augustine wrote that he did not persist in the enjoyment of God, but was dragged away. Eventual contemplation and meditation on good and spiritual matters brought him back to God.
Too many people do things that are bad for them even though they know they are bad. Cigarette smokers know smoking is harmful, yet they do it anyway. Reason alone is not enough to override our strong desires, but reason is an excellent tool to override or desires and rewrite them for the better. I’ve seen an amusing video from a satire news the Onion regarding the problem of teen smoking. They realized previous advertisements of health hazards had no effect on teenagers who think themselves immortal, so instead, they focused on an ad campaign of shaming smokers implying that people would assume that they were gay. One hilarious video testimony had one kid admit he used to smoke, but didn’t want people to think he was a “homo” so he stopped.
In many ways trying to use limited willpower to stop sinful urges is only partially successful. A better way may be to mentally associate the wrong acts with negative aspects of our lives and associate positive, holy things with the love of God. An example is one of eating healthier. Mentally associate a pile of mashed potatoes with the blood sugar crash of eating such a high carbohydrate so when you see it you can’t get out of your head how crappy you’ll feel after an hour of eating it. In contrast, associate steamed broccoli with all the boundless energy you’ll get to do everything you want. This is similar to prayer, meditation and reflection on the holy love of God for the sacrifice of dying for our sins. In a way, reprogramming our minds to stop lusting after sin, but fall in love with God.
Q: 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?
Interestingly enough, when I began reading this passage my eyes started skipping over because it sounded like so many church sermons I’ve heard my entire life. Of course, at the time that Augustine wrote these words, they wouldn’t have been tainted by overuse. These were likely fresh thoughts, perhaps even insights not available to every believer at the time.
I have long ago abandoned the notion that Christianity is the only path to God. I have seen godliness in too many forms, sincere seeking after the truth in too many religions, and found insights far from the orbits of Christian pulpits—too many to ever make a U-turn back to the idea of revelation made available to humans under one unique form. Still, I wouldn’t go so far as to eliminate the importance of Christ as described by Augustine. Christ as intermediary between God and humans is perhaps a privilege available to Christians: a God who can relate fully with our human needs because he has spent a life living in a body susceptible to all our pains and disappointments.
Augustine was embracing Neoplatonic ideals at the time of these thoughts, and was living in the glow of some big epiphanies as to the nature of God, but was having trouble staying connected to God. He had been finally able to abandon the idea of God’s person as a body; to de-tangle his understating of God’s presence and connection to His creation; to see God as He Who Is. Augustine’s Neoplatonic mind then arranged his insights into the hierarchy of Neoplatonism: God’s presence, immutable and constant, at the top of the pyramid, and “the things of this world” at the bottom—and to these he kept getting “plunged.” In-between, his soul—“which perceives things through the senses of the body, and then the soul’s inner power, to which the bodily senses communicate external facts.” Then, “the next stage”—“the power of reason, to which the facts communicated by the bodily senses are submitted for judgement.”
The problem that he identifies in his inability to stay connected to God is the human reason’s liability to change. Because Augustine proclaims God as not subject to change, interaction then becomes difficult. So despite all his insights into the nature of God and some possibly mystical experiences, many quite wonderful, Augustine feels the pull of his temporal existence away from God and is deeply troubled.
This is where Christ as intermediary steps in. In this context, it makes sense that Augustine would find an intermediary comforting. While Neoplatonic thought allows for humans having the tools to reach the One/God, it requires a high level of self-discipline and a lifetime devoted to acquiring knowledge. Jesus, with his twofold nature, divine and human, bridges that divide.
Q: 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?
In Chapter 12, Augustine establishes that evil is not a substance so therefore, it’s something that is not created by God. In other words, evil is not some force independent of existing things. He equated substance as having the quality of being good. Furthermore, “God [had] made his whole creation very good.”
He opens Chapter 13 with the statement, “For you evil does not exist… because there is nothing outside it which could not invade it and break down the order which you have imposed upon it.” Evil only exists or arises at the creaturely level, so God cannot be blamed for it. To Augustine, God exists as a spiritual substance of unchanging goodness and being; but his creation and the beings that populate it are capable of change – something that was created comes about in the first place by a change from non-existence. So this reasoning is his response against the Manichean need for a separate evil substance responsible for evil in creation or a conflict between a Good and Evil opposed to each other in conflict. His conclusion is that evil must be chalked up to the will of humans and other spiritual creatures (i.e. angels, demons, etc.).
Drawing further into Augustine’s use and adjustments of neoplatonic philosophy combined with Christian theology, he saw a sharp distinction between creation and Creator. Only God can be fully divine, anything else cannot be divine- that quality belongs to God alone and exclusively. Augustine rejects Plotinus’ placement of humanity as being on the lower end of Mind, but instead places humanity as being created in the divine image of God. (Though it should be noted that he does not give humans a quality equal to divinity.) However, due to our own free will, we have corrupted our nature and thereby separated ourselves from God. Plotinus believed that humanity could restore our divine status through knowledge and deep philosophical contemplation, but according to Augustine, it is only by God’s grace that we are able to draw close to Him – no amount of knowledge or sheer will can enable us to do that. On our own, because of our sinful nature, we do not have the ability or will to draw close to God. It is only through God’s grace alone.
As you can see by the end of this chapter, he has a high view of creation of both the earth and the heavens, but they must all bow down to the glory of their Creator. At the end of the chapter he accepts creation as is. The spiritual things may be better than the material things, but he sees a majesty in the unity of all creation. He accepts the separation between creation and the Creator and sees the beauty in that.
This chapter helped me see that God is his own being. Though he is the source of being and everything in it, he has a unique and exclusive substance that is separate and not dependent upon creation. I think that is one of his qualities of being sovereign. God is God and we aren’t. However, we are created in the image of God. That is a vast topic to discuss to dig into the deeper meaning of what that all entails, but it entails a “privileged” status I believe than any other creature – yet we still remain creatures and we must recognize that. Once we forget that, sin works its way when we believe that we can be independent or autonomous from him and believe that we can become godlike or divine through our own abilities, cleverness, technology, or abilities. Evil arises not as an external force. Augustine curiously doesn’t even mention Satan or the Devil here in his discussions about evil. Instead, he traces the source by having us look within ourselves. Though I disagree the popular interpretation of his “fall” of mankind, I do see a beauty in his belief that everything God had created was good and everything in creation has its place and we should give praise to God just for the fact that something exists rather than there being nothing. The very fact that you and I exist should cause us to praise God. As Augustine writes by quoting Psalm 148: 7-13, “For all things give praise to the Lord on earth, monsters of the sea… fire and hail, snow and mist… mountains and hills… wild beasts and cattle… all you kings and peoples of the world… old men and boys together; let them all give praise to the Lord’s name.”
Q: 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?
The Greek philosophers Plato and Socrates taught that the knowledge is virtue and good depends on the extent of one’s knowledge. Hence, the teaching of knowledge is the teaching of virtue. The teaching of the New Testament is that God is Spirit, and as such, He is known by revelation (spiritual insight) to one’s human spirit. Reason and intellect can cause us to know about God and they help us to communicate what we know. In short, extensive Bible knowledge, a high-powered intellect and razor-sharp reasoning skills will help us know God more deeply, which Augustine most likely believed in. Herein lies the root and stem of contemporary Christian education.
In the minds of most Christians, formal education qualifies a person to do the Lord’s work. Unless a Christian has graduated from Bible college or seminary, he or she is viewed as being a “para”-minister. A pseudo Christian worker who cannot preach, teach, baptize, or administer the Lord’s Supper since he or she has not been formally trained to do such things, right? The idea that a Christian worker must attend Bible college or seminary to be legitimate is deeply ingrained, so much so that when people feel a “call” of God on their lives, they are conditioned to being hunting for a Bible college or seminary to attend.
The origins of theological education is beyond the scope of this essay, but much of it can be traced to the Eastern church fathers in the third century who were steeped in Platonic thought and formed the monastic schools that were tied to the ascetic and mystical life. They held the misguided view that Plato and Aristotle were schoolmasters whose techniques could be used to bring men to Christ. Though they did not intend to lead people astray, their heavy reliance on these pagan philosophers severely diluted the Christian faith. Without a doubt Augustine was himself heavily influenced by the Greek philosophers particularly with his encounter with the books he read.
Many of the church fathers in the first few centuries were pagan philosophers in training and orators prior to their conversions. Over time, the Christian faith began to take on a philosophical bent and in Alexandria, the intellectual capital of the Christian world during Augustine’s time, a special school was formed to teach the essentials of Christian doctrine. It is here where Origen, one of the school’s early and most influential teachers, became deeply influenced by pagan philosophy. He was a colleague of Plotinus, the father of Neoplatonism, and drew much from his teaching. According to Neoplatonic thought, an individual must ascend through different stages of purification in order to attain oneness with God. Origen was the first to organize key theological concepts into a systematic theology.
Contemporary Christian theology, both Catholic and Protestant, cut its teeth on the abstractions of Greek philosophy. Augustine adopted an Aristotelian model of thinking that centered on rational knowledge and logic. The dominating drive in scholastic theology was the assimilation and communication of knowledge, which partly explains why the Western mind has always been fond of creedal formulations, doctrinal statements, and other bloodless abstractions. Neoplatonic thought was clearly in Augustine’s bloodstream as it was in Clement of Alexandria and Pseudo-Dionysius. Therein lies the great flaw.
The dependence on pagan philosophy to understand God is built on the assumption that knowledge is the equivalent of moral character. But knowledge falls short in giving us spiritual revelation. The intellect is not the gateway for knowing the Lord deeply and neither are emotions. In the words of A.W. Tozer: “Divine truth is of the nature of spirit and for that reason can be received by spiritual revelation….God’s thoughts belong to the world of spirit, man’s to the world of intellect, and while spirit can embrace intellect, the human intellect can never comprehend spirit….Man by reason cannot know God; he can only know about God….Man’s reason is a fine instrument and useful within its field. It was not given as an organ by which to know God.”
In other words, having a strong intellect will not automatically produce spiritual men and women who know Jesus Christ profoundly and who can impart a life-giving revelation of Him to others. For this reason alone, the knowledge of God is not only restricted to the 66 books of the Bible, but by definition it cannot be restricted to the texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Confucianism and the Ancient Near Eastern religions either. Based on Augustine’s writings he appears to have struggled with this dilemma and given his geohistorical background his paths to knowing God was heavily dependent on his understanding the existing philosophies of his time. Therefore, it would be wrong to fault him or his contemporaries on their reliance on Neoplatonic thought as a tool to distill the revelations of God.
The tragedy of contemporary Christian education, whether it be seminarian or Bible school, is that it continues to be reliant on Aristotle’s method of logic chopping on expounding holy writ. Contemporary theological training and learning is essentially data-transfer education. It moves from notebook to notebook and we pry open people’s heads, pour in a cup or two of information and mistakenly conclude that the job is done. In the process, theology rarely goes below the neck and it does not properly prepare a person for ministry. To be sure it does not mean knowledge of the world, history, theology, philosophy and science are without merit, but is not central to the Christian witness.
In fact, formal theological training does not equip people for many of the challenges of ministry. In a landmark study by the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut titled “Faith Communities Today” (FACT), clergymen, pastors, and priests with advanced degrees scored lower both in their ability to deal with conflict and in demonstrating a clear sense of purpose than did the non-seminary graduates. The survey revealed that clergy with no ministerial education or formal certificate program scored the highest on tests that revealed how well one deals with conflict and stress while Bible college graduates score slightly lower and seminary graduates scored the lowest!!!
All of this indicates that a person who matriculates from the theory-laden seminary or Bible college has been given little to no hands-on experience in the crucible of everyday life. I will personally argue that studying other religious texts and world philosophies will do no better in giving the average Christian a clarity of purpose nor the ability to resolve the daily conflicts and stress of life. The Bible can serve as a useful guide book as well as the other religious texts, but they should all be read with a critical eye in regards to understanding the nature of God.