Thursday, March 17, 2016

Against Augustine

After stumbling around, somewhat aimlessly, through various quotes and minor tributaries of traditions, I came face to face with Augustine. I discovered him in his Confessions and the work became an instant classic in my heart. I treasured all the insights he offered. I began to devour parts of Augustine, making his City of God a summer project, reading his minor works, reading multiple biographic accounts. I proceeded to even read additional uses of his legacies in interesting ways, from politics to philosophical concerns. He led me to understand biblical hermeneutics, Human psychology, predestination, sacramentology, ecclesiology, church politics etc etc. Augustine was a dear friend and my champion.

But of course, I was not a completely slavish follower. I found his treatment of the Donatists a shameful episode. I was embarrassed at his letter to Vicentius (I believe), where he convinced the conscience-racked soldier-magistrate to keep his governing position instead of fleeing to the desert as a monk. I was always a bit confused about Augustine's sex ethics, though I overwhelming affirmed his attention to the psychological aspect of sexuality.

All of this has led me through the years, but a nagging question of Augustine's popularity has attended me. Not that popularity, in itself, is a bad thing. Rather, it's the fact that Augustine is considered the fountainhead of Western Christianity, both Roman and Reformed. Of course there's heavy disagreement over who has stood true to his legacy, or which side has corrected deficiencies within Augustine's writings. Like any intellect, it's not exactly what he said but the structures, forms, paradigms that he deployed, and how to utilize them and redeploy them.

But as I've stumbled around with Augustine as my companion, I've realized that, as it stands, Augustine has been a bad guide and has left a legacy full of doom and dread over Western Christianity. That seems like a radically unstable complaint and I begin to sound like hyperbolic Anabaptists or Eastern Orthodox who repudiate Augustine as hesiarch and blame him for all ills. But despite their nasally whines, they are on to something despite their ignorance of the one they blame.

This is not to say Augustine is wholly in error, or that he is a hesiarch, or that he is a blackhat riding into town. While you may not know me, dear reader, I hope that my readings do not show me as petulant or as wildly uneducated in my assertions. I will continue with my frustration with Augustine and the Augustinian lineage unhindered by compliment.

But before that, let me lay out a general praise. Augustine was a flawed man, but strove to be a man for his people in Hippo. He was not a greedy ecclesiastic, suckling on the tit of the powers-that-be for wealth and glory. He tried to be a good pastor, as far as I know. He also had a very shrewd perspective on politics and his genealogy of Rome's pagan past, while misappropriated by the Radical Orthodox crowd to make fools of themselves, is genius.

Having said that, Augustine has also left a dark cloud. His reading of Romans 5, and the creation of a doctrine of Original Sin that is alien to the Bible has left the West in a confused and vicious circle of ignorance. This is not his fault, per se. He can't be blamed for having a faulty translation, though I am frustrated with his stubbornness in not learning Greek. This is not his fault, but his successors, who utilized Augustine's reading as an anti-Greek polemic, is such a thinly veiled power politics it should disgust any Christian of Latin inheritance.

Augustine's view of sex has left a crater of insanity, though thankfully this left most people alone. However it remained the religious standard of the West, which did not cause hypocrisy and depravity, only added fuel to the fire as making the "Christian" view the non-sensical and warped one. In full disclosure, I am more aware of his thought rather than how his view of sex successfully transferred. I do not think it was as influential as modern feminists and critics would make it. I used to find Augustine's view as psychologically compelling, even if disturbing, but as I've given more thought, meditation, and experience, Augustine is simply neurotic. Quite simply, the Scriptural witness rejects Augustine's Human psychology as one mutated from Manichaean sentiments, and the particular pressures of glory-hungry family (pace Monica) and the expectation of up and coming patricians.

Personally, without getting into details, Augustine's views of sex and sexuality have caused pain and frustration and left me swimming in a pool of my own filth. I don't mean to sound dramatic, but I really did try to take his insights seriously and it left me bereft. It's a view that needs not be recovered, and can be ejected for the immaturity that it contained. I have no more time to entertain it.

Augustine's views of predestination has left mass carnage through history, as faction rose up to dethrone the other as being insufficiently "Augustinian". But I can confidently say that the whole paradigm is fundamentally flawed from the get-go, and the question Augustine tried to address is a non-starter, rooted in neo-Platonic assumptions and a confusion between person and nature. Yes, Augustine was right to oppose Pelagius, but Augustine's solution was not much better in the long run. Predestination is not an singularly Christian doctrine, it requires no Christ, no grace, and can be a font of immoral moralism and absurd legalities.

And while the Confessions remains an interesting piece of literature, it's not something I'd recommend anymore. I don't care if it's enshrined in the Western literary/theological canon as something "must-read". Honestly, its perplexing form is enough to confuse most average readers. It's certainly not a "testimony" of conversion. Augustine's pear theft is no longer intriguing, irregardless of how many people point out parallels to a particular theology of Genesis. Augustine is a pussy for refusing to name the poor woman who served as his concubine, bearing him a son no-less, before he drops her over peer/mother-pressure. The three books of Genesis commentary serve to mystify and little more. I am being hostile in my evaluation, and I am not saying the Confessions is worthless by any stretch. However, what I am saying is that it no longer ranks as some pressing classic for all would be Christians. And this comes from someone who has bought multiple copies, researched translation, and has given them to friends as gifts.

Augustine has left a strong legacy, and for that alone it's perhaps worth investigating. But he is no hero or champion of the faith. His shadow looms large and causes all sorts of mayhem. Despite ignorant, anti-Western polemicals, the East has been wise to generally ignore him in doing confessional theology.

Consider these the words of a jaded ex-lover, so be it. These are not the only criticisms I could offer, I have more, but decided to leave off . Augustine's legacy has interesting points of intersection, most importantly in the politics of City of God, but he ought to be laid to rest. May Christians in the West find themselves free of his paradigms and move on.

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