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Augustine on the Monsters among Us

Different is dangerous. If you don’t look like me or act like me, there must be something wrong with you. You’re odd, deviant, abnormal…broken.

Maybe you’re not even human.

People have always had categories for understanding those who weren’t like them. In the ancient world, you had three standard options: (1) you’re a human like me and are part of my community; (2) you’re a human like me even though you’re a part of that weird community over there; and (3) even though you have human characteristics, you’re not actually human at all.

It’s the third category that I find fascinating. This is where ancient thinkers would often place anyone with a significant deformity. The ancient world was rife with stories of babies born with two heads, people who were neither male nor female (i.e. hermaphrodites), and one-eyed giants, among other things. Such creatures are too human to be mere animals, but not human enough to be human. They’re something else.

They’re monsters.

We’re so much more enlightened now. As modern science developed, we came to realize that these “monsters” were really just humans with physical peculiarities. There was no reason to believe that they constituted some qualitatively distinct kind of being.

So we dropped “monster” and came up with other ways of excluding people. The literature and rhetoric of “race” of the years has been filled with language implying or simply stating that other races are “subhuman” in some way. Sure they’re human, but they’re not “fully” human. Today you’ll hear similar language used to describe the severely handicapped, the unborn, and even the elderly. And for many, “alien” serves much the same function. Sure they’d never come right out and say that the illegal alien on the corner is subhuman, but they’ll certainly think and act in such a way that suggests this is what they believe deep down.

Monsters. Aliens. Subhumans. Others.

That’s the kind of thinking Augustine addresses in City of God when he talks about whether those who don’t look like us should be regarded as monsters or as humans:

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended. For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth:  others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies.”…But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.

The same account which is given of monstrous births in individual cases can be given of monstrous races.  For God, the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created, because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole. But he who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part, because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs….But who could enumerate all the human births that have differed widely from their ascertained parents?  As, therefore, no one will deny that these are all descended from that one man, so all the races which are reported to have diverged in bodily appearance from the usual course which nature generally or almost universally preserves, if they are embraced in that definition of man as rational and mortal animals, unquestionably trace their pedigree to that one first father of all.  (City of God 4.16.8)

Augustine’s answer may not be the surprising to us today, but it was remarkable for his time. No matter how different in appearance, a being that descends from humans is human. And no matter how great the deformity, in their uniqueness and peculiarity, that person contributes to “the beauty of the whole.”

That’s an important word for us today. We tell ourselves that we don’t believe in monsters, yet we often treat those different from us as though they were precisely that, failing to see in our blindness the many ways that they contribute to the beauty of the whole.

What should you do with my dead body?

photo credit: 18thC tombstone, Ecclesmachan - Kim Traynor

No, I’m not dying. Well, actually I am, but I’m not dying any faster than the rest of you. Of course, maybe I am and I just don’t realize it. But that’s a topic for a different post. To the best of my knowledge, you won’t need to figure out what to do with my dead body any time soon. But, I want to ask the question anyway.

“I don’t care what you do with my body. It’s not me. Just throw it away.”

I’ve heard that sentiment many times from Christians. And, it worries me.

We should all affirm that “the story of me” does not end with the death of my physical body. Or, better said: “the story of me” continues because it has been drawn into the story of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. So, whatever I believe about what comprises a human person (one part, two parts, thirty-nine parts, whatever), we should affirm that physical death does bring the story to an end.

But, that’s not the same as saying that my body is extraneous and irrelevant. God created me with a body. And, in the end, he will raise me to live again as an embodied being. That should lead to the conclusion that my body is an important part of who I am. It’s not an annoyance that I just put up with for a time. It’s how God created me. And, I fear that the “just do whatever you want with that dead hunk of meat” stems from (and contributes to) a persistent failure to appreciate this fact.

Augustine wrestled with this very issue in City of God 1.13. In the previous chapter, he assured Christians that even if they were martyred and had their bodies torn apart or burned, they didn’t need to fear what would happen in the resurrection. God knows how to handle things, and he’ll get it all straightened out in the end. But, he didn’t want anyone to draw the conclusion that this means we can just do whatever we want with people’s bodies after they died.

This does not mean that the bodies of the departed are to be scorned and cast away, particularly not the bodies of the righteous and faithful, of which the Spirit has made holy use as instruments for good works of every kind. For if such things as a father’s clothes, and his ring, are dear to their children in proportion to their affection for their parents, then the actual bodies are certainly not to be treated with contempt, since we wear them in a much closer and more intimate way than any clothing. A man’s body is no mere adornment, or external convenience; it belongs to his very nature as a man….The Lord himself also, who was to rise again on the third day, proclaimed, and commanded that it should be proclaimed, that the pious woman had done ‘a good deed’, because she had poured costly ointment over his limbs, and had done this for his burial; and it is related in the Gospel, as a praiseworthy act, that those who received his body from the cross were careful to clothe it and bury it with all honour.

These authorities are not instructing us that dead bodies have any feeling; they are pointing out that the providence of God, who approves such acts of duty and piety, is concerned with the bodies of the dead, so as to promote faith in the resurrection. There is a further saving lesson to be learnt here – how great a reward there may be for alms which we give to those who live and feel, if any care and service we render to men’s lifeless bodies is not lost in the sight of God.

So, Augustine wants to walk the line between two false ideas:

  1. Our story is entirely wrapped up in our physical bodies.
  2. Our story has nothing to do with our physical bodies.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. And, he thinks that how we treat people’s bodies after they’ve died has significance for life and ministry today. We should treat people’s dead bodies in a way that respects the person, honors God’s grand purposes for the physical world, and manifests faith in the resurrection. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily lead to any definite conclusions regarding specific burial practices (e.g. cremation), but it does provide a wise set of ideas to keep in mind when dealing with the issue.

Slave owners, sex addicts, and anti-semites: how do you talk about flawed heroes?

Jonathan Edwards? Yeah, I know him. He’s the guy who owned slaves, right?

Flawed Heroes (Will Smith from "Hancock")

I can’t tell you how many times I received a comment like this while I was teaching my Edwards seminar this summer. They came in through the blog, Facebook, Twitter, and email. Despite the fact that Edwards was one of America’s greatest theological minds, apparently the one fact that many Americans have retained about him is the fact that he owned slaves.

Oh yeah, and he talked about hell a lot.

Then I thought about it a bit more, and I realized that Edwards’ isn’t alone. Many people remember some of the great figures in church history primarily by a few of their less attractive qualities.

For example, here’s how many people remember…

  • Jonathan Edwards: slave owner who preached scary sermons about hell
  • John Calvin: intolerant control freak who burned Servetus at the stake
  • Martin Luther: anti-semite who drank too much and insulted people
  • Augustine: woman hater and/or sex-addict who was obsessed with sin

I could probably go on if I got creative. (If you have suggestions for people from church history known primarily by some negative attribute(s), let me know in the comments.) It seems that if you’re a key figure in church history you’re doomed to one of two fates: either most people won’t even know who you are or a lot of people will remember you but think you were a jerk.

I think what bothers me the most is that these comments usually come from Christians. I could understand it if a non-Christian wanted to paint a particularly negative portrait of some Christian leader. But, why are we Christians so obsessed with doing it? Can’t we recognize that our heroes were flawed without focusing exclusively on the negative and caricaturing our own people?

Our theological heroes were flawed and broken human beings just like the rest of us. But, let’s cut them some slack. I wouldn’t want to be known by my least attractive attributes. (Please don’t point out my least attractive attributes in the comments. I’m feeling fragile today, and that would be bad for my self-esteem.) And, I’m sure you wouldn’t either.

So, let’s try this. Extend the same grace to believers from the past that you would extend to the believer sitting next to you in church. The people next to you are flawed too, but you probably don’t point that out every time you talk about them. At least, I hope you don’t.

Who is this God I worship?

Since I’m teaching on Augustine’s Confessions tomorrow, I thought I’d post one of my favorite pieces from Book 1. Confessions opens with Augustine praising this amazing God who has pursued him so graciously and transformed his life so completely. And, here is where he just breaks out in stunned admiration of God’s incomprehensible perfection.

“You, my God, are supreme, utmost in goodness, mightiest and all-powerful, most merciful and most just. You are the most hidden from us and yet the most present amongst us, the most beautiful and yet the most strong, ever enduring and yet we cannot comprehend you. You are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are never new, never old, and yet all things have new life from you. You are the unseen power that brings decline upon the proud. You are ever active, yet always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. You support, you fill, and you protect all things. You create them nourish them, and bring them to perfection. You seek to make them your own, though you lack for nothing. You love your creatures, but with a gentle love. You treasure them, but without apprehension. You grieve for wrong, but suffer no pain. You can be angry and yet serene. Your works are varied, but your purpose is one and the same. You welcome all who come to you, though you never lost them. You are never in need yet are glad to gain, never covetous yet you exact a return for your gifts.” (Confessions 1.4).

Chasing after the Wind

[This is a guest post by Michael Fletcher. Michael is a Th.M.  student at Western Seminary  and is participating in this semester’s seminar on Augustine. He also blogs at the3inone.]

While reading Augustine’s work Of True Religion, I was reminded once again of how vain I can be at times and how my vanity dulls my vision of true beauty. “If you take away vain persons who pursue that which is last as if it were first, matter will not be vanity but will show its own beauty in its own way, a low type of beauty, of course, but not deceptive.”

So often I pursue that which is last as if it were first. How many times have I decided to go mountain biking or grab a coffee or watch a manly movie without first considering God and asking him what his will is? These things are so trivial, yet I pursue the like with such fervor. “It is very easy to execrate the flesh, but very difficult not to be carnally minded.” Or as St. Paul says, “I don’t do that which I want to do, but I do the very thing which I hate.” It is such a difficult thing living as a Christian in the world. There are so many temptations, Lord I pray that you delivery me from these and every other unseemly thing.

“Life which delights in material joys and neglects God tends to nothingness…” Do I really believe this? Of course I do! The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed system order always leads to disorder unless energy is added. When I pursue material joys I am not allowing the energy of the Spirit to enter my life, and when no energy is added, I tend toward disorder and ultimately nothingness. (Yes, I just used physics to defend a theological position…I am a geek.)

Back to the original quote, Augustine was also hinting at something else: beauty. He was saying that created matter is beautiful. He is continually urging us to understand that creation is not evil in and of itself. By our idolatry we create a dualistic belief. We call matter evil, even if not blatantly. We say don’t eat this, don’t drink that, don’t have sex, et al. These things are not bad or evil, if we pursue them as though they are first it has disrupted the beauty and goodness but only because of our vanity. Why do we chase after the wind? We have promoted an idea that the material world is evil and this has caused us to not recognize the beautiful. The beautiful is all around us and all beauty points towards the ultimate beauty, the One Beauty, the 3 in One – glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Now comes the question of True Religion: how do we recognize and enjoy the beauty yet not chase after the wind in vain?

The best Augustine websites

We’re still celebrating Augustine week around here, so here are some links to the best Augustine websites around the internet. These should be your starting point if you’re looking for Augustine’s works online, lists of good books and articles about Augustine, or links to other resources. I couldn’t find any good lists of  lectures, which is why I compiled my own list of free audio resources yesterday.

Here are what I have found to be the best and most helpful Augustine websites on the internet (ranked by how useful they’ve been for me):

1. Augnet: an excellent resource that should be your starting point; particularly good for its biographical information on Augustine and introductions/summaries of many of his works.

2. Patristics Bibliobraphy #7: your one stop shopping center for bibliographic information on works about Augustine in 15 categories.

3. James O’Donnel: one of the best resources out there, but make sure you use this link since many of the others on the web point to an older (and unused) website.

4. Sant’ Agostino: the “works” link on this site offers a great list of works available online in English.

5. Ad Limina Apostolorum: a great (and easy to use) list of Augustine resources, though many of the links are dated.

6. Dave Armstrong: this link will take you to an archived version of the website (all I could find) with a nice list of online articles.

And, of course, you can’t neglect other websites devoted to patristics or church history in general. The following are among the better of those:

If you know of a really good website devoted to Augustine that you think is at least as good as the six I listed above, please let me know so I can check it out.

A Smorgacopia of Augustine Lectures Online

Which is bigger: a smorgasbord or a cornucopia? I couldn’t decide, so I just smushed them together into one word. Either way, here’s a list of free, online lectures on various aspects of Augustine and his theology. I really haven’t listened to any of these, though I sampled a few, so I can’t guarantee their quality. But, they are from reputable sources.  So they should be good resources for anyone wanting to get more familiar with Augustine.

We’re celebrating Augustine week this week. So, if you know of any online lectures that need to be added to the list, please let us know in the comments.

Here are some individual lectures:

And, the Augustinian Institute from Villanova University offers some great resources on iTunes including:

  • The Darkest Enigma: Reconsidering the Self in Augustine’s Thought
  • The Hymn to the One in Augustine’s De Trinitate IV
  • Facing Wealth and Poverty: Defining Augustine’s Social Doctrine
  • Confession and the Contemplative Self in Augustine’s Early Works
  • Augustine, Exegesis, and Controversy
  • Giving Wings to Nicea: Olivier Du Roy and the Origins of Augustine’s Trinitarian Theology
  • Augustine on the Divided Self
  • The God of Augustine’s Anti-Manichean Works
  • Augustine and the Appeal to ‘Popular Belief’ in Theological Controversies
  • Augustine on the Incarnation as Criterion for Orthodoxy
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Augustine works that no one reads

I know that some of you who read this blog are big Augustine fans. So, I’m calling you out. Help us celebrate Augustine week.

We all know about the normal Augustine books that everyone reads: ConfessionsCity of GodOn the Trinity, On Free Will, etc. But, I want to dig deeper. What are those books Augustine wrote that lie a little off the beaten path? The man wrote enough to fill a library. Surely there are a few gems that people seldom consider.

So, anyone out there who likes Augustine, or even if you don’t, what would you recommend? What are the Augustine works that no one ever reads, but they should? You can recommend letters, sermons, manuscripts, whatever. We’re not picky. What are your favorites?

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It’s Augustine week!

I love my job. I spent the summer reading and discussing Jonathan Edwards. Now I get to spend the fall reading and discussing Augustine. Does it get any better?

Last spring, as I was getting the Edwards class ready to go, I decided that we needed to celebrate Jonathan Edwards week. That was a great way to get the class started well. So, I’m going to follow suit by declaring this to be Augustine week. I realize that I’m a bit behind, but that’s okay. They used a different calendar back then anyway.

So, for the rest of the week, I’m going to post something on Augustine each day. If you know of any particularly good resources on Augustine, please let me know.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/27)

Though most churches have a website, there is a divide between congregations that use their sites only for one-way communication and those that maximize their online presence with interactive technology.

Joel Osteen found himself forced to answer a question that every Christian — and certainly every Christian leader — will be forced to answer. When that moment comes, and come it will, those who express confidence in the Bible’s teaching that homosexuality is a sin will find themselves facing the same shock and censure from the very same quarters.

The 14 year old is ripe for the picking in terms of Augustine’s discussions of sin, God, prayer, etc. The narrative and reflective style of the book is perfect for having Socratic and mind-blowing moments with 8th graders.

  • And, the Old Spice Guy is back.