Q: In Chapter 11, he writes: “I was held back by mere trifles, the most paltry inanities, all my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, ‘Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again… Habit was too strong for me when it asked ‘Do you think you can live without these things?’” One of the things that Augustine was so fearful about conversion was that all his worldly pleasures would have to be put away once he became a Christian. Does conversion limit your options or increase them? Or do they remain the same? In conversion, must you give up your earthly desires for more spiritual desires? If so, then why are spiritual desires better than earthly desires?
In a way, conversion both limits options and increases them. With knowledge and transformative love, our perspective changes and things we disliked are now liked and vice versa. More information and maturity of processing information affect our desires.
Ignorance is bliss. I like shrimp, and at a work lunch a coworker saw me eating chilled shrimp and warned me regarding the black line running through it informing me that it was poop. The caterer didn’t bother to clean and de-vein the shrimp. Most high end reputable places do, but not everyone. They just cook the shrimp whole and serve. Most food poisoning involve seafood of some sort. I still have the option to eat the shrimp, but knowledge has limited my options.
A friend of mine was getting married and her childhood dream was to have a horse drawn carriage. Her fiancé researched renting horses and discovered that most of the carriage horses were mistreated and abused. With this knowledge, the thought of a wedding carriage ride was repulsive. Knowledge and wanting to be a good person limited her options for an ideal wedding.
Is being faithful to your significant other limiting? Yes, you are limited when missing out on random hookups on Tinder, but you gain an exclusive intimate relationship with your special someone. You get to experience love. As a Christian, we choose to limit our material and worldly assets, but in return we get God’s love and fellowship from believers. Which is better? Which is more fulfilling? We each need to answer that for ourselves.
Same question as above.
There are two ways that this question can be answered.
The first is regarding the number of freely available options as a result of voluntary self-limiting behavior. Self-limitation closes one off from certain freedoms but in turn allows for new possibilities. For example, the richness of the game of chess would not be possibly unless the game rules were voluntarily obeyed. So it may be a wash in terms of net gain or loss.
But the second moves beyond just the raw number of options that can be freely chosen. Augustine also talks about wanting to obey the law but not having the power to do so. And so perhaps conversion increases options because it brings divine power to fulfill desires that are freely chosen but are not freely executed.
“The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed. The mind commands itself and meets resistance” [VIII.9 (21)]. And so giving himself to God gives him to power to, say, be Continent. “Make the leap without anxiety; he will catch you and heal you” [VIII.11 (27)].
Regarding the necessity of giving up earthly for spiritual desires in conversion, it does seem like Augustine posits such a dualism between “earthly desires” of sex and fame and “heavenly desires” of communion with God, a beatific vision.
Perhaps the spiritual desires, are deemed better because they correspond to the unchanging Eternal, in contrast to mutable matter that is “passing away”. This would match Augustine’s geohistorical context and personal influences.
Same question as above.
Perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks for newly converted Christians is whether to decide they should give up worldly pleasures such sex, drugs, gambling, pornography, alcohol, dancing, etc. It certainly was one my struggles in my early days as a Christian and undoubtedly many of my fellow Christians in grad school had their own struggles with lust and addiction. The Bible is clearly littered with references to the “new” life in which one imitates the likeness of Jesus Christ as he lived on Earth two thousand years ago and this obviously includes sexual purity and soberness along with a purity of heart. In Chapter 11 Augustine is coming to grips with the consequences of his decision to convert and he does a great job of articulating the fears that engulf most newly converted Christians both now and in the past.
At the heart of this conflict is what we as individuals want for our lives versus what God wants us to pursue, which is worship and reverence. For many of us in the modern West the biggest stumbling block for Christians is the subject of premarital or casual sex followed by homosexuality. Curiously enough we as Christians don’t get too worked up about greed and money even though Jesus himself spent more time warning his listeners about the dangers of greed than the depravities of sexual immorality. A quick glance of the Old and New Testament you will see that there lies seven deadly sins or thoughts that are indeed condemned and in no explicit order they are; pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed. The seeking of worldly pleasure and self-fulfillment are not sinful in of themselves, but if uncontrolled a person can be quickly consumed by these “sinful” elements, which then can lead to harmful outcomes.
As you read the Gospels there is an underlying theme throughout Jesus’s ministry that addresses the fundamental roots of sin, and it’s not the conduct or execution of an immoral act but the thoughts lie behind them that arise in the first place. Jesus makes a defining statement about the heart of an unconverted man in Matthew 15:17-20 (ESV), “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Here he addresses the Pharisees and scribes who take umbrage with his disciples for breaking with ancient Jewish tradition, and Jesus repudiates what we as humans define religion, which is a set of laws and decrees that need to be obeyed at all costs.
If we as Christians are asking if we need to rid ourselves of worldly pleasure then perhaps we are asking the wrong question. After all who would seriously consider murder, theft, anger, dishonesty, adultery, violence and strife as desirable things in this world. The Bible does not explicitly condemn sex, drugs, alcohol, and other earthly pleasures such as food and secular music nor does it even condemn gambling!! What the Bible and Jesus in particular condemn explicitly is hypocrisy, self-righteousness and pride. You see this all over the Gospels when Jesus confronts the religious leaders of his time for abandoning the two greatest commandments as stated in Matthew 22:37-40, “And he said to him, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Ultimately Augustine in his struggles was coming to grips with his own infirmities and moral failings as he realized how vulnerable he was to the negative forces that have engulfed humanity since the beginning of their existence. We as Christians should be mindful of the fact without discipline and self-awareness, our yearning for worldly pleasure can lead to depraved thoughts without us realizing it and as a result our minds will no longer become focused on worshiping the God who gave us the wonderful gifts of this world.
Q: In Chapter 9, he wonders: “O Lord in your mercy give me light to see, for it may be that the answer to my question lies in the secret punishment of man in the penitence which casts a deep shadow on the sons of Adam…The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted.” Here, he may be hinting at “Original Sin”. Was the human will or mind corrupted or limited by the effects of the “Fall”? Do you really believe that humans were without sin at a moment in time in the distant past, but then because of the rebellion and sin of one man against God this “sin nature” gets passed down to every single human being from then on? How is this sin passed down from one generation to generation? Is it a genetic problem that is passed down? If so, then is it something that can be treated medically? Or is this strictly a spiritual problem? If so, how is it just for God to pass this punishment of Adam’s sin to all his descendants when his unborn descendants had nothing to do with his decision to disobey God? Wouldn’t it be more just to punish Adam (and Eve) only, instead of cursing the whole earth and all of creation – i.e. subject it to evil, hardship, disease, death, etc.? (In the words of one skeptic: “Why did God have to punish all the innocent bunny rabbits? What did bunny rabbits have to do with Adam’s sin?”) Or must this longstanding doctrine of original sin be done away with? If so, what are the implications with the church moving forward?
I was raised firmly within the tradition of Original Sin, with Adam and Eve at the top of an unhappy pyramid. Thankfully, my understanding of this issue has become more sophisticated. While I don’t believe the notion of sin transmittal through the generations to be one of simple damnation of all humanity due to Adam, I do believe that the Bible has a much bigger truth to state that gets missed every time a preacher discusses original sin.
Like we should with other biblical things that have been interpreted in strict terms and have therefore turned dogmatic, we can approach a more natural explanation of the biblical notion of sin being passed down through generations and see if it still holds. This will help move the message to a more universal one, one that doesn’t take being raised in a church to untangle.
Under that approach, using universally verifiable knowledge of life, “sin” becomes a euphemism for the laws of genetics. It is the reality that people will pass down, through generations, everything from diseases to predispositions to liking or disliking milk. This also includes predilections for certain behaviors. In a time before genetics existed, observing similarities between parents and offspring was certainly possible. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine that the writers of the Bible books would have discussed the reality that parents pass stuff down, much of it not necessarily good. If a parent’s bad behavior manifests itself in a child, that could be a “sin”. The same can be said of a disease. This can flip into positive outcomes, too. Finding explanations for various outcomes, before genetics, was the work of philosophers and theologians.
Humans are creations of their predecessors, but not fully beholden to them. Augustine struggles with reconciling these two seemingly opposing notions, but his inherent view of life in dualistic terms limits him to seeing alternatives rather than ranges of options. He of course refutes the stricter Manichean notions of duality, but, I would argue, is still fairly close to them in his understanding of God and God’s requirements in his conversion. His views on the lower self v. the higher self lend themselves readily to understanding New Testamental discussions of Adam as the seed of all evil (lower selves) on the earth.
I would argue that we can, and should, reconsider the idea of “Original Sin” (a term that does not actually exist in the Bible).
Q: In Chapter 7, describe why Augustine was so filled with anxiety to convert. Why did he fight back these convictions in his consciousness? What main fears or anxieties did he have about converting? Are they legitimate concerns? What is the role of shame in conversion, if any? Does everyone go through an inner conflict prior to conversion?
Augustine’s anxieties at converting stemmed from his desire to continue in his “lust for sexual pleasure” [VI.12 (22)], “the embraces of a woman” [VI.11 (20)]. He also cites “ambition for success in this world [VIII.12 (30)].”
Evaluating the legitimacy of his anxieties depends on the criteria used. My limited understanding of Augustine’s geohistory indicates to me that his anxieties were appropriate within his context, but may not be appropriate for norms of present-day Christianity.
One influence on both him and the wider culture was Manichaeism, which deemed matter (including creation and the body) as bad in contrast to the immaterial spirit. Another influence was Neoplatonism, where disruptive bodily desire was bad in contrast to contemplation of the Eternal via mind.
Both of these worldviews exhibit dualistic tendencies, between matter/mutability and spirit/immutability. But so had been Christianity, and for some time too.
“Lady Continence” as Augustine puts it [VIII.11 (26)] was already held in high standing for Christians at that point. My understanding is that this stemmed from Christians grasping for the world to come by resisting the Roman societal order as expressed in norms of marriage and family.
This rejection is somewhat at odds with the various Christianities of today. For example, Protestants generally approve of married couples delighting in sexual intercourse. Catholics also view married sex positively, with the “cultural mandate” as the end goal. That being said, celibate life is still valued higher than married life in Catholic and Orthodox circles – for their priests, bishops, and religious orders.
For Augustine shame functioned as prods for repentance, “verbal rods” to “scourge my soul so that it would follow me in my attempt to go after you” [VIII.7(18)]. That being said, Augustine himself did not convert via shame but through an experience of the promise of divine assistance. And so I’m not quite sure if shame has to play a role in conversion.
And though inner conflict is implied by the doctrine of total depravity, I don’t think it’s universal or required. I know of a few Christians who converted through recognizing their powerlessness and gladly welcomed God.
Q: In Chapter 12, he writes about how God had led him to Romans 13:13-14. After reading it he writes, “I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” In many ways, he believes that this is how people are converted: by hearing the word of God, the way God speaks. Does God’s “voice” or “word” truly reside in the Bible? Does the Bible have “miraculous” (i.e. “magical”) abilities? Or does it become the Word of God as we read, interpret and engage with it? Does the Bible become revelation at the time or moment someone is reading it? Is divine inspiration of the Bible an ongoing process? (This is known as the “Encounter View” or “Neo-Orthodox” or “Barthian” view of Scripture, after the Swiss theologian Karl Barth.)
Many Christians, especially those in the evangelical camp, honor, cherish, and wholeheartedly believe that the Bible is the very literal “Word of God.” I’ve personally heard many sermons, attended many church seminars, and even taught at one point in my life that God’s “breath” or voice resided in the words of the Holy Bible. In the past, I’ve had Christian friends tell me that they would often carry the Bible with them while riding the subway late at night so that no harm would come to them – they believed that the Bible was the “sword of God” as stated in Ephesians 6:17 and Hebrews 4:12 – able to fend off any harm or attacks of Satan that would come their way. I must confess that I myself would quote some form of Scripture whenever I’d get stomach cramps or abdominal pains here and then so that God would stop them. Yes, like many other Christians, I believed that reading the Bible was really an encounter with the living God and Jesus, and the words of love he spoke in the Bible (that is, ONLY the nice words that He would say– I was being very selective), he was saying it to me directly and personally. (And yes, there were times the words of the Bible would convict me of my sins, of course.)
This belief or conviction that the Bible is the very Word of God has somewhat negative ramifications to personal faith I believe. Many people elevate the Bible so high that it has become higher than God himself in many respects. Many equate attacking the Bible as an attack upon God himself. For instance, many creationists believe that those who do not believe in the literal interpretation of the first two chapters of the book of Genesis is tantamount to an entire full-front attack on God and Christianity itself. This, in my opinion, is a case of bibliolatry – worship of the Bible or making the Bible into an idol.
The neo-orthodox or Barthian view on the inspiration of Scripture offers a viable alternative to the literal reading of the Bible as the Word of God, and can act as a phylactic against bibliolatry. The Swiss-born Karl Barth (1886-1968) was one of the leading and most influential theologians of the 20th century. Barth viewed Scripture as a “witness to revelation” and only becomes God’s Word through a personal encounter (thus the “encounter view” of Scripture). Scripture is viewed as a work composed by humans and is thus fallible, but it “becomes” God’s Word to us through the power of the Holy Spirit (Church Dogmatics, I/2:502-514). In other words, the Holy Spirit enables the reader to encounter God as he or she reads (or engages) the Bible. Divine inspiration is an ongoing process since God continues to reveal His truth to anyone who reads the Bible. Consequently, the Bible becomes revelation at the time the person or church is reading it. So it is dependent upon a subjective religious experience. To Barth, not only can the Bible err in terms of history but also with religious and theological content. It was recorded that Barth himself disdained evangelicals who took the Bible to be infallible.
One of the main criticisms against this view is that this view erodes or entirely negates biblical authority. Not only that, the “encounter view” strongly suggests that the Bible contains myths and allegories as well as historical errors – views that most evangelicals, especially Christian conservatives, would vehemently object to. One of the implications of this view, evangelicals argue, is that one need not view Christ’s resurrection as being a real historical event. The important thing is the divine encounter with God that is possible when one reads about the risen Christ. The Resurrection of Christ being just an inspirational story rather than a real historical event would be a huge “no-no” for many Christians in general. Furthermore, many arguments against this view state that it places the Bible as not being special and is at the same level as any other book.
I find the “encounter” view of Scripture to be intriguing. Of course it is much more detailed and nuanced than my severely abridged description above, and Barth’s theology is quite heavy and dense, so any interpretation of his theology is prone to be misinterpreted. I agree with Barth in that the Bible is a fallible work and contains myths and legends when describing God’s work and relationship with the ancient Hebrews/Israelites and early Christians. However, the way in which the Bible becomes the Word of God to you through the Holy Spirit borders on a certain kind of “magic” that happens. Instead of the Bible being a magical book, it transfers the supernatural or magical quality upon the person’s reading of the biblical text. This might be problematic in multiple angles. However, it is an intriguing notion that God will meet or “encounter” you within the words of Scripture itself and that it can become a highly intimate experience for the reader. But I understand where this view is coming from in that an unbeliever and a believer will have a different encounter or experience when reading, engaging, or interpreting the biblical text.
In summary, I do find many aspects of Barth’s view to be correct and it prevents the problems of a literal reading of the Bible, as well as falling into bibliolatry. I agree with Barth’s view of the Bible as a “witness to revelation” and that the true Word of God is to be found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Instead of making the Bible the end and be all of the entirety of the Christian faith, as many believers do, Barth’s view of Scripture places Jesus Christ at the forefront of Christian faith. Therefore, Jesus is above and beyond the Bible. This might seem quite confusing and maybe even contradictory to many conservative believers as they equate Jesus with the Bible. But I think that they are missing the point. Many believers defend the Bible as being infallible in every aspect and dismiss any evidence pointing to the contrary. They are defending the wrong object. The Bible is just a pointer or witness to Jesus, not the end unto itself. To many, the Bible itself has become a barrier to a faithful understanding and or relationship with God himself and Jesus Christ who gives the fullest revelation about God. You cannot limit or box-in God to 66 or so books of the Bible. The Bible is but one of the many ways God can or will reveal himself. It is not so much a question of whether or not reading the Bible is an ongoing inspiration and process, but more so that God’s revelation in general is multifaceted, ongoing, dynamic, creative, and processional. God can choose to reveal himself in the Bible if he wants to, but he can also reveal himself in nature, science, art, poetry, music, etc. One can argue that the Bible will provide the true path to God and Jesus, but again, that’s putting the cart before the horse. It is God who saves, not the Bible. Again, I think many churchgoers have a hard time distinguishing between the two, which causes a lot of confusion when engaging with the world.