In Chapter 10, Augustine writes about the transience of things in life, especially material things. What does excessive materialism or love of objects besides God lead to emptiness in the end? Or is he being too pious and unrealistic here? What are the benefits of materialism or at the very least, enjoying the ‘finer’ things in life? If we were to become billionaires, wouldn’t we all indulge in bigger houses, mansions, estates, cars, yachts, etc., not matter how God-fearing we are? Is it inherently wrong to go on an excessive shopping spree so if you have all this material wealth at your fingertips- esp. if you are a Christian? Or are we to view material wealth differently here as Christians? Do you become less spiritual the more materially wealthy you become?
Honestly, most of us aren’t living up to the Biblical call to sell our possessions for the poor to have riches in heaven. Reportedly, not even the early Christians did either, Ananias and Sapphira from Acts who lied about the money selling their land. As much as we give, it’s not enough.
We tend to devote our free time and money on what is valuable to us. We sometimes prefer to spend it on nice things for ourselves than on the needy. Material things and wealth can be our gods. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. (Mark 10:25) The sudden influx of unlimited money could be catastrophic to me as I would drown in my own gluttony having lost any sense of self-control. Rock- star syndrome where rock stars do atrocious things such as trash hotel rooms, because they are so rich and beloved by fans they have no self limits. We all have this jerk inside us, but we learn to suppress it otherwise we could not function in society where we need other people.
The idea of a tithe is attractive since it forces some self-accountability on the minimum of what we should give to God or the poor. We should be more like actual people who find joy in simply helping the needy and who finds celebrity life in the spotlight dehumanizing.
In Chapter 16, he ‘humbly’ boasts that he was able to master the philosophy behind Aristotle’s “Ten Categories.” But then he has a change of heart and asks, “What profit did this study bring me? None.” He says that even with all this learning, he still held views of God that were misguided. What made him think that Aristotle’s work as a system was not applicable to God? Do you see this in other intellectuals (or even in yourself), where their great learning obscures or over-complicates, or gives a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of God? Does a ‘true’ understanding of God require some form of divine revelation or not? Do you agree with his assessment that one can still be in the dark about spiritual things no matter how educated you are? Does one need to be ‘born again’ to truly become a Christian and that one cannot gradually ‘become’ or educate him or herself to gain true spiritual insight about God?
For most of its two millennia of existence, the mainstream Church has been extremely suspicious of knowledge, and has even engaged in persecution of intellectuals and scientists whose views it did not consider godly (I say “mainstream Church” specifically because throughout history there have been Gnostic societies, usually secret, that have engaged in some sort of scientific or mystic research). There are a few reasons for this suspicion, first and foremost being literal readings of the Bible that have led to simplistic notions of what was originally intended as symbolic language. When read in the correct context, it can reveal very deep truths, but when read literally it can sound like children’s stories. Therefore, a false dichotomy between science and religion has thrived along human history. But if we believe God to be the creator of the universe, we should be able to confront the fact that He is also the creator of all the physical laws that keep the universe going, even as He is free to transcend them as their master.
The Church’s rebuttal of scientific (sometimes even biblical) knowledge is a terrible human failure of understanding, which has led to unnecessary suffering, and, perhaps worse, the reduction of God to often infantile notions. This is especially tragic as most of the books that constitute the Bible are, after all, books of knowledge. They were written for a variety of audiences and by a variety of authors who used language and imagery appropriate to their motives, but the Church often forgets that fact and lumps them together. In fact, Jesus Himself came to spread knowledge to every level of society, from rabbis and learned Pharisees, to His disciples, and to the masses, always mindful of his audience and crafting the message appropriately. He never shied away from teaching, though he did caution not to waste precious resources on unreceptive or undeserving ears. He also spent a substantial amount of time teaching people (including women!) one-on-one, thus being able to be more candid and direct. To the masses, which were mostly illiterate in the first century AD, He used stories that resonated with their lives rather than obscure concepts and big language. In the temple at the age of 12, he amazed the rabbis with his knowledge of the Torah. With knowledge comes understanding, and though this is not the only way God reveals Himself, He has always revealed Himself through knowledge.
There is, of course, a danger that comes with the acquiring of knowledge, and that is pride and contempt for the less educated, along with unnecessary postulating over high-minded things that have little contact with reality. This was one of the problems that Jesus had with the Pharisees. The Bible makes frequent mention to God knowing what is in “men’s hearts:” motives matter, including for learning. As Paul eloquently states, if I can speak the languages of men and angels (aka, have a great deal of knowledge) but have no love, I am but a clinging cymbal. (1 Cor. 13:1)
Certainly, knowledge does not have to reveal God—most contemporary scientists are atheist. But I strongly believe that God will reveal Himself to those who seek Him out. I was recently listening to a fascinating interview with theoretical physicist, leading expert on particle physics and cosmology, author of multiple books, and Harvard professor, Lisa Randall. Besides being the first to clarify for me the concept of black matter (by referring to it as “transparent matter”—eureka!), Ms. Randall made the intriguing claim, one which is becoming increasingly clear with advances in all sorts of knowledge, that our universe is an extremely complex place, unnecessarily so. For example, our perception of reality is limited because there are probably an endless number of dimensions and realities; and, in her words, no one actually understands time—it’s simply a convention that we have collectively agreed to follow. As far as I am concerned, the more I learn about the complexity of our world, the more the existence of an almighty God becomes evident, but I have conditioned myself to think that way. Because of this, her next assertion caught my ear: she confessed to being fully atheistic, but that the complexity of the universe marvels her and studying it is the closest this hyper-intelligent/accomplished woman comes to feeling some sort of spiritual reality. To this, the NPR interviewer brought up a nun-turned-scientist who made the statement that for her, studying the universe and its secrets means worshiping God.
What Augustine is lamenting is knowledge without the background of God. He is writing of deeply personal convictions found at the end of a long and rich life. The conclusions that he has reached could not have been reached without living life to the fullest. So his problem with Aristotle’s Ten Categories cannot be a problem with the possession of that knowledge. Rather, it is an introspective reflection upon his own shortcomings in incorporating God into every aspect of his life.
As to the question of being born again in order to become Christian, I am not entirely sure what that means. However, I do think that one has to have some personal introspection into who God is in order to truly be a Christian. One can spend a lifetime studying spiritual things in a detached way that will never affect him/her, and that person is likely not a Christian. Reversely, one can have extremely limited knowledge of the scientific sort and know God very intimately. The Bible does give credence to these kinds of people. And that’s the awesomeness of our God—He is truly accessible to anyone, and we can know Him in very different, but strikingly amazing ways.
In Chapter 12, he writes: “Tell them ‘He is the one we should love. He made the world and he stays close to it.’ For when he made the world he did not go away and leave it. By him it was created and in him it exists. Wherever we taste truth, God is there. He is in our very inmost hearts…” What are your thoughts on the imminence of God? Do you have any problems sensing God’s closeness or presence to you? Does it come easily for you? Is it a ‘gift’ from people who claim to feel his presence intimately on an almost daily basis? Or is it a discipline to be learned and honed to sense God’s presence daily? Or is this all in one’s imagination? Just how ‘close’ do you believe God to be with you and with the world? Or is he far and distant, almost unconcerned with us and his creation? Why or why not?
In Chapter 12 of Book IV, Augustine begins by telling the reader (or his own soul) that anything that produces delight in oneself, you must always give thanks (or at least) acknowledge that all those things come from God. In that way, the object, objects, or persons do not become the ultimate source of your happiness and fulfillment – things that only God can provide. If you love other souls (i.e. persons), then love them ‘in’ God and share this bit of truth with them to get the best of your relations with them. He goes on that you should share with them an understanding of God’s closeness or immanence He has with them. He writes, “[God] is in our very inmost hearts, but our hearts have strayed from him” and that we must trust and stand firm with Him. If not, then things will go bitter for you when you start to spurn or forget Him.
In Daniel Miglior’s book, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (2nd Ed.), he defines God’s “immanence” as follows:
From the Latin immanere, ‘remaining within’ or ‘indwelling.’ God’s immanence is God’s nearness to and indwelling of all created beings (Ps. 139). Although often understood to be in opposition to the transcendence of God, God’s immanence is properly understood as God’s intimacy and closeness to all creatures yet without ceasing to be the free and sovereign Lord of all. The various mystical traditions characteristically emphasize the immanence of God over against views of God’s otherness as alienated transcendence – mere opposition to and separation from creatures. (p. 413)
The last sentence of Migliore’s sentence strikes me, where we often view God’s grander definitions of his transcendence as ‘alienated transcendence,’ in that we emphasize God’s ‘otherness’ so much to the point that we lose his closeness and intimacy with others and his creation. Rightly so, Migliore also references the mystical traditions who wrote extensively about their intimate (often seemingly erotic) encounters with divinity – such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross in traditional Catholic mysticism.
Personally, God’s immanence has always been elusive to me. There were times in my past, when I used to attend an Assemblies of God Church that was Pentecostal, where I experienced moments of God’s presence as real, intimate, and sometimes intense. I think it helped out that the Church greatly emphasized one’s “personal relationship with Christ” first and foremost, and many of the congregants and pastors participated in creating this atmosphere. Nowadays, for different reasons over the years, these ‘religious’ moments are very rare, or hardly occur at all. I sometimes find myself questioning whether or not those experiences were real, especially having had come in contact with the advances in neuroscience. Our brains have powerful mechanisms for creating intense memories which have the ability to grossly aggrandize events that happened or even planting false memories as well. I cannot be 100% certain (scientifically) that those ‘close contacts’ with God were real or not. And of course, we know of many cases where people with mental conditions often claim to hear or see visions of God.
I think that reading Augustine’s Confessions gives me a glimpse that experiencing God’s immanence is more of a daily discipline than something one experiences in a supernatural manner. Of course, most people would prefer the latter, but Augustine shows that experiencing God’s presence doesn’t have to be dramatic. It can be cerebral and quiet for the most part, but he makes it into a daily habit and part of his routine spiritual life. Perhaps this was the secret to the early church fathers, monastics, and mystics where they cultivated God’s presence, or at the very least, became attuned or more sensitive to God’s presence. Perhaps the day-to-day struggles of modern life, jobs, relationships, entertainment, technology, world events, etc. get in the way of people (even Christians) from making God a true priority in their lives.
Personally, I seem to lean closer to the view that God’s action in this world is non-interventionist, meaning that He will rarely (if ever) interfere with the lives and outcomes of this world or his creation. I think discoveries in science, the movements within history, and even personal events in life bear the mark that God does not interfere in the general course of events within his creation, or not as much as we think he does. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a ‘closet’ deist at times. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure.
I have no problems with God using our brains or our imaginations to indicate or generate his presence to us. Everything gets filtered through our brains, so God would naturally use the faculties of the brain to indicate his presence. Whether or not these ideas of Him are truly generated by God are beyond the realm of science to measure or determine I believe. Perhaps God speaks to us everyday and at every second, but we all suffer from a form of ‘spiritual autism’ and are unable to recognize His imminence at each and every moment. Perhaps certain people do truly possess a certain ‘gift’ or the rigid discipline to ‘break through’ the veil, if you will, and experience God in a true and real manner. I hope this happens again in my lifetime or in the near future.