The Feast of Augustine

Today is the Feast of Augustine of Hippo, who died on this date in 430.  Perhaps the most influential theologian in Western Christianity, his legacy is much debated and often decried. He is regarded as the inventor of the notion of original sin, and especially that original sin passes to us through our parents’ sexual act. He does have a robust notion of original sin, that human beings are fallen creatures, turned inward on ourselves and away from our proper end, which is the enjoyment of God. But his understanding of original undergoes considerable development throughout the course of his lengthy career and in response to increasingly acrimonious controversies with the Pelagians.

Contemporary Christians and many contemporary theologians have reduced him to something of a caricature–a bitter old man who struggled throughout his life with his sexuality. There is some truth in that caricature, but only some. Augustine wrote millions of words, many of them in the heat of conflict, but many others as he struggled to understand himself, his God, and the world in which he lived. His late treatise On the Trinity is one of the great masterpieces of Christian theology–ridiculously difficult to make sense of, but enormously rewarding. For all of his negative understanding of humanity, and of the gulf between us and God, central to his argument in On the Trinity is that we are created in the image of God, that the image of God in us is an image of the Trinity, and that we can, with our own reason and love, begin to understand the Trinity through our own mental faculties.

Augustine was also a theologian of love. The sexual desire that he sought to suppress and eventually came to control was for him only a physical manifestation of a deeper desire, or love that should always be directed toward God. There are moving passages throughout his work that express his experience of God–the love he had for God, and the love of God that he experienced. Confessions, which is often described as a spiritual autobiography, is much more than that. It is a dialogue between Augustine and God, as Augustine reads and writes his experience with God, and comes through that writing to a deeper understanding of God. While most readers give up after Book IX, which is the end of his story, there are three more books that are something of a riff on Genesis 1, showing Augustine at his most creative theologically and exegetically, and full of deep meditation on the nature of the world, himself, and God.

A famous quotation, from Pusey’s translation of Confessions, I believe of a passage from Book XII:

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new; late have I loved you.  And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made.  You were with me; and I was not with you.  The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all.  You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness.  You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness.  You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you.  I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you.  You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” xxvii. 38

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