Q: In Chapter 9, how did Monica handle the abuses of her husband? Describe the role of husband and wife Augustine describes here that seemed to be the norm at that time and place. What is the biblical description of roles for a husband and wife, if any? Should old-fashioned or traditional roles be kept as is in the 21st century and onward? Should wives submit to their husbands as Ephesians 5:22 and Colossians 3:18 state? Are those verses “eternal” and something God decrees, or are those just Paul’s opinions and therefore conditional?
Two issues: are traditional gender roles from ancient times fixed to eternity and what were those gender roles really? Regarding traditional roles, the Bible was written at a particular time where those roles were what they were and that culture influenced the writings. This is the same old question when we decide how the biblical writings should be obeyed in our times on a myriad of issues.
Independent of my first point of applying the Bible to our lives in the modern world, biblical verses on traditional roles have been shortsightedly interpreted numerous times. Only particular verses that are pleasing are read up to and stopped before continuing the full message of God’s love and command to respect each other, especially the weaker of us.
Ephesians 5:22 says wives should submit to their husbands and most are happy to stop reading and see this as a pass to behave as king of the castle, but the passage continues with verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” or, in other words, sacrificed and died for the Church.
Colossians 3:18 continues to verse 22 with an admonishment to slaves to obey their earthy masters. We would be hard-pressed to find any modern Christian to support this endorsement of slavery. Colossians 3 ends with a warning that God will hold wrongdoers accountable.
The Bible is filled with verses that people like to take individually to support their own agenda. Colossians 3:20 tells children to obey their parents, but verse 21 balances with a warning to fathers not to embitter their children. We need to embrace the full message of the Bible to love and respect each other.
Q: In Chapter 7, Augustine describes the miraculous properties of holy relics as people reported of being healed of evil spirits and blindness. What is the role of holy relics? Why the attraction to them in some denominations such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and other eastern churches? Are they pagan in nature? Is the Protestant Church, for the most part, missing out, or are there parallelism in Protestant Churches in regards to relics? Does God actually use relics as a channel or vehicle for miracles? Or is it just in the person’s imagination?
I did a Google search of “history of holy relics” and the results were fascinating. This article, in particular, helps explain why the medieval church was so enamored with them. Like its author, the question of relics defied my understanding for much of my Christian existence. I grew up Protestant in an Eastern Orthodox country, and what that meant is that I was taught early on to mistrust any attachment to objects. We Protestants were above that, given our direct connection to God, and the Orthodox were superstitious and quite possibly pagan.
My brief Google search uncovered two very revealing facts:
- The history of the medieval church is rife with theft of holy relics—monks stealing objects from each other (including severed hands, heads, baby teeth belonging to Jesus, etc) because a church apparently wasn’t a church without a relic.
- According to the article above, the impetus for veneration of objects may have come in reaction to the gnostic belief that material life was irrelevant, as well as a desire to assert Jesus’ humanity.
#1 helped reinforce my Protestant convictions. #2 made me pause and think.
In at least one particularly difficult time in my life, the relief I obtained from ridding myself of objects of certain provenance has gained some legendary proportions in my personal history. Though this isn’t what I’m necessarily referring to, anyone who’s gone through a bad breakup and thrown the other person’s stuff out can attest to the power of material things. The potentially unhealthy hold that objects can have on humans, as evidenced by the open theft that the medieval church engaged in, makes the Protestant skepticism of relics rather healthy—humans are simply too susceptible to veneration of anything besides God. There’s a reason why the Torah prohibits idolatry. But like with everything else, knowing the history of something helps to give it nuance.
(Part of) God’s creation is material. Discounting the material world as simply the devil’s playground, as Protestants are eager to do, is a disservice to the majesty of creation. If the early church struggled to reconcile the dualistic tendencies inherited from Platonism, it makes sense that it would have latched on to “holy” objects for reinforcement of Christ’s identity as human. That it took it too far, that’s no dispute. But to call this unbiblical, as I was taught growing up, is also incorrect. When Christ ministered, people healed by merely touching his robe. Indeed, he healed with very physical acts such as mixing mud and spit and by touching. The need to touch is very basically human. Untouched babies grow up to be very disturbed adults. The article reminds Protestants that Moses took Joseph’s bones out of Egypt.
Does God actually use relics as vehicles for miracles? That I do not know, but apparently NT Wright seems to see value to that argument, in that saints’ remains contain God’s grace as manifested in the world. In Indonesia, I heard men who’d gone through war swear that a special necklace kept them safe from bullets. In Kauai I was warned not to take rocks from a beach that the locals consider the door to the otherworld. The human connection to the material world is undeniably strong, and that too is part of God’s design. Protestants have the correct fear of taking things too far, but maybe they’re also missing out.
Q: In Chapter 10, describe all the Neoplatonic imagery and philosophy he uses to describe the afterlife. Describe the hierarchal depiction of the cosmos and reality here. Do you agree with Augustine and Monica’s conclusion here “that no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even of mention, beside the happiness of life of the saints”? Near the end of the chapter he gives the climax of his vision with Monica where they had “reached out in thought and touched the eternal Wisdom which abides over all things… all other visions of things inferior were to be removed, so that this single vision entranced and absorbed the one who beheld it… as that instant of understanding for which we had longed so much.” Would this be a better description of the afterlife, rather than the popular depictions of heaven? Why or why not? Would a more contemplative and sublime experience of the afterlife or heaven be better or more realistic, than the popular versions of singing eternally in heaven, next to angels, loved ones, etc.? What does your preference or thoughts about this reveal about yourself and your beliefs?
In this chapter, Augustine recounts what is more or less his most detailed last impression of his beloved mother Monica. He fondly recounts a private moment with his mother while in their stay at Ostia as they waited to board a ship. In their conversation, they focused upon what “the eternal life of the saints” would be like. It seems as if both Augustine and Monica were both sensing her impending death. Their findings and their shared vision reflect many Neoplatonic ideals.
In Neoplatonic philosophy, according to Plotinus, whom Augustine read profusely before his conversion to Christianity, there are varying degrees of reality – the less unified something was, the less reality it contained. The highest principle or reality was the One which embodies the Good and is the unifying principle of all things. The One overflows itself to the rest of reality by descending level by level into the physical universe. Just as the image of the Sun radiates light, so does the One radiate realities onto the universe. The next level of reality the One radiates is the Mind, who’s activity is to contemplate the world of Forms and seeks to be united to the One, the Source of all things. The next level is that of the Soul which represents the intelligible world and desires to know. Unlike the Mind which can apprehend the Truth in one instance, the Soul can only grasp the Truth of the One in a procedural manner. Humanity is at the lowest of these three divine realms, that of the Soul. But the One and the Mind are always present to the Soul and humanity, but our capacities are only able to scrape the surface of the Mind. Humans have a “higher soul” that can contemplate the Mind through philosophy and discipline and a “lower soul” that is attached to the sensible world (which is seen as evil). We are caught between our higher souls and our lower souls. When we leave the sensible world, through the gaining of knowledge and philosophy, our higher souls will shed our lower souls and thus draw closer to the Mind and the One. We must direct and turn our attention upward, away from the needs and desires of our lower souls and discipline our higher souls to know the One through knowledge. To begin with, one must look inward into himself in order to draw closer to the Mind.
Augustine began to incorporate Neoplatonism into his Christian theology to gain a deeper understanding of God. To Augustine and other Christian Platonists, the Mind or Divine Wisdom is found in the person of Christ, through whom we gain knowledge of the Truth (i.e. God) in both spiritual and worldly matters. As he does throughout Confessions, he goes inward to probe his heart and soul to access genuine knowledge and to know God. This “inwardness” compels him to turn away from the external, material world (full of temptations and evil) and concentrate on God and the soul. This is what leads him, in his conversation with his mother, to conclude that “no bodily pleasure… was worthy of comparison … [to] the happiness of the life of the saints.” That is why their contemplation “raised us higher towards the eternal God, our thoughts ranged over the whole compass of material things in their various degrees, up to the heavens themselves…” And then, “At length we came to our own souls and passed beyond them to that place of everlasting plenty… There life is that Wisdom by which all these things that we know are made, all things that ever have been and all that will be.” Thus one can see the Neoplatonic hierarchical degrees or levels of reality in Augustine’s words – the more spiritual your thoughts are (or as you level-up your thoughts from material things to more spiritual things), the closer you are to God.
Their vision or epiphany reaches a climax, as he envisions a time and place where the very voice of God would speak to him in silence personally. And “just as in that brief moment my mother and I had reached out in thought and touched the eternal Wisdom which abides over all things.” He then extends the thought a bit further and contemplates what it would be like for this state of being, knowledge, and understanding were to continue indefinitely, and how this vision of being in the presence of God “enveloped him in inward joys.”
For some reason, I was very moved and taken aback from this description of, perhaps not heaven in the way we normally or popularly know it to be, the afterlife. Here, he seems to say that the greatest level a person can achieve is union with God through an increasing knowledge of God. As many Christian Platonists believe, when we increase our knowledge of Christ, who is the Wisdom of God, we grow and become more and more like him until we reach the final goal of deification or henosis– that is, a (mystical) “oneness,” “union” or “unity” with God. In this state, we do not become God (that would be impossible), but have such a likeness to Christ as a human that we are united with the Trinity as well. We share and participate in God’s divine life, and thus fulfill the purpose of our creation – union with God. Though this seems way more abstract and intangible in many ways to our more traditional thoughts about heaven, heavenly rewards, pearly gates of heaven, etc., I find this more preferable because it dispenses with our constant fixation with material things. Many believe that God will reward people in heaven with crowns of gold and precious diamonds and even great big mansions floating in the sky somewhere. I find such thoughts to be juvenile, petty, and materialistic. Though I personally am agnostic to the notion of there being an afterlife, I always prefer more abstract and philosophical (even mathematical) explanations of reality, rather than colloquial or even cartoony depictions of heaven. Perhaps I am a Platonist or Neoplatonist at heart, as my mind is stimulated by its thoughts about God, as I find myself feeling closest to God during times of private study and contemplation. If there is life after death, and we come face-to-face with God (aka the One or Ultimate Reality/Being), then our experience of Him at the end, I believe, would be overwhelming to say the least- transcending way beyond all our petty levels or categories of things. I like the notion of heaven not being the final reward, but that the final reward is God himself in all his glory.