Monday

A Call for Reexamination of Augustine’s Theology

The sinfulness of Augustine’s adolescence heavily influenced his view of human nature; therefore, the Church needs to reexamine its position on issues like human depravity and celibacy. In his book Confessions, Augustine wrote about his struggle with lust and his desire to sin for sin’s sake, as shown in the event of the pear tree. Because of these issues and because of the influence of his environment, Augustine concluded that he was depraved in nature. From this view of his own character, Augustine developed a theology of human nature that continues to influence the world today. In this paper I will examine first who Augustine was, briefly explore his view of human nature, discuss his youth, and show how first harsh and subsequent lack of discipline, added to the abuse his mother suffered, may have helped lead him down the road toward base adolescent behavior. Finally, I will explore how Augustine’s view of human nature has affected the Church and will argue that a better, more positive, theology is needed.

At the time that Augustine wrote Confessions he was the Bishop of Hippo. Born in North Africa in 354, Augustine lived until 430 C. E. and is known for merging Greek Philosophical traditions with the “Judeo-Christian religious and scriptural traditions” (Mendelson). Augustine was born into a household in which his mother Monica was a faithful Catholic and his father, Patricius, was not a believer until much later. During his youth, Augustine was schooled in the art of rhetoric and later became a renowned teacher of the subject. His book Confessions centers on his experiences as a young man before coming to faith and tells how he finally came to rest in God: “Thou dost so excite him that to praise Thee is his joy. For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee” (Sheed, 3).

Augustine viewed human nature as depraved and capable of doing nothing good. Anything good comes from and through God: “For my good deeds are Your act and Your gift, my ill deeds are my own faults and Your punishments” (Sheed, 175). He believed, like Plato, that the flesh is wicked (Sheed, 24). He also believed that humanity was only in God’s image once men and women underwent spiritual birth. He did not believe that humanity was created in God’s image at creation. Added to this view of depravity, Augustine believed that God has to “break into” a human’s life in order to save him or her from depravity and despair. An example of Augustine’s thinking is Plato’s analogy of a cave. Human beings are prisoners to the world system (symbolized by the cave) and God must “break” into the cave to save them and bring them into the light. Once they are free, humans are told to return to the cave in order to give other prisoners a way out (Bankard). In Plato’s metaphor, the prisoners resist being taken into the light. They are chosen by their deliverer and have no choice in the matter. This reflects Augustine’s view that humans do not have free will and are predestined either to salvation or damnation.

In Confessions Augustine writes about his youth and through his writings we can see how Augustine may have been primed by his surroundings to head down a path toward base behavior. As a child, Augustine was subject to harsh discipline and did not have a strong male role model to follow. His life was to be filled with study and he was not allowed to play: “But in spite of my terrors I still did wrong, by writing or reading or studying less than my set tasks. It was not, Lord that I lacked mind or memory … but the one thing I reveled in was play; and for this I was punished by men who after all were doing exactly the same things themselves” (10). Like his teachers, Augustine’s father did not set a good example. Monica, his mother, was a victim of spousal abuse: “For she bore his acts of unfaithfulness quietly … he had a very hot temper…” (Sheed, 162). Augustine wrote that his mother told her friends when they complained about their own abusive husbands, that “from the day they heard the matrimonial contract read to them they should regard it as an instrument by which they became servants; and from that time they should be mindful of their condition and not set themselves up against their masters” (Sheed, 162).

In her book Secret Survivors, E. Sue Blume wrote that people who have survived abuse are often compelled to become sexually involved in order to receive love (Bryannon). In Confessions, Augustine writes that his “one delight was to love and to be loved” and that “the muddy concupiscence of the flesh and the hot imagination of puberty steamed up to becloud and darken my heart so that I could not distinguish … love from … lust” (Sheed, 23). Augustine reports that his father did not care about his sexual practices or his relationship with God as long as he “grew in eloquence” (Sheed, 25). Because his family lacked the financial resources to send him to school one year, Augustine spent that year at home. During that year he robbed a pear tree with a group of friends and threw the pears to the hogs. “The malice of the act was base and I loved it,” he wrote (Sheed, 27). Later on after his conversion, Augustine became celibate and tried to free himself from the demands of his body in pursuit of spirituality and even saw sexual relations as evil. This is also common among people who have suffered abuse (Bryannon).

It is clear from reading about Augustine’s life that his theology is heavily influenced by the negative experiences of his childhood and adolescence. His writings have influenced the Church for centuries. Because of his influence, a large portion of the Church believes that humans are depraved and that they are predestined either for heaven or hell. Another portion of the Church believes that higher spirituality is attained through celibacy. I am not saying that the latter is a completely negative because the apostle Paul wrote about the advantages of celibacy in Scripture. However, the regard to celibacy as a higher spiritual goal has led to the neglect of teaching about joyful sexual behavior within the bonds of marriage to our young people because deep within we believe that sexual behavior is embarrassing and crude. Because of these results, it is my suggestion that the Church reexamine some of its positions. This is not to say that we should forget Augustine’s writings completely, because in doing so we would throw out his positive contributions. However, if one’s theological viewpoints are based on abnormal behavior, or if one’s theological influence is causing negative or sinful behavior in others we should reexamine our position.

In light of this, the Church should examine and consider Eastern Orthodox positions on Scripture like John Wesley did. The Church should emphasize the role of free will and should concentrate on practices for spiritual formation. Before it can do this, however, our concept of human nature should emphasize that humanity is created in the image of God and that what God created is good. Christ’s death and resurrection gives humans hope and the power to become more God like in our behavior. Through this, we will then be able to offer a salvation and spiritual experience that humanity craves.


Sources

Bankard, Joseph, Lecture on Augustine. Accessed during the week of September 7, 2008.

Bryannon, Laura, Dancing in the Shadows,
(http://homestar.org/bryannan/checklst.html), accessed Sept. 13, 2008.

Mendelson, Michael, "Saint Augustine", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall
2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =
.

Sheed, F. J. Translator, Confessions (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hacket Publishing Company,
Inc.) 1993).