Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Friday, August 28, 2009

St. Augustine's Day

Today the Episcopal Church commemorates St. Augustine of Hippo, the learned, disputacious, and ultimately very human "Doctor of the Church." His Confessions tells the story of his coming to faith, and sketch out his theology; his City of God goes further in, and sketches the respective roles of Caesar (who reigns over the City of Man) and Christ (who reigns over the City of God). But Augustine did not preach American-style separation of Church and State, although separation can be found in City of God.

He came to eschew many human goods for fear of diverting his attention from the love of God, and lived a life of denial that, to many modern eyes is excessive. And yet, he knew his own teperament, his sensuality and emotionally labile nature. Augustine could love easily, and could even--as his charitable remarks regarding Faustus, the greatest Manichean disputant, and one fervently opposed by Augustine, show:
he might still have held the truth of piety, had he not been a Manich├Žan. For their books are full of lengthy fables concerning the heaven and stars, the sun and moon, and I had ceased to think him able to decide in a satisfactory manner what I ardently desired—whether, on comparing these things with the calculations I had read elsewhere, the explanations contained in the works of Manich├Žus were preferable, or at any rate equally sound? But when I proposed that these subjects should be deliberated upon and reasoned out, he very modestly did not dare to endure the burden. For he was aware that he had no knowledge of these things, and was not ashamed to confess it. For he was not one of those loquacious persons, many of whom I had been troubled with, who covenanted to teach me these things, and said nothing; but this man possessed a heart, which, though not right towards You, yet was not altogether false towards himself. For he was not altogether ignorant of his own ignorance, nor would he without due consideration be inveigled in a controversy, from which he could neither draw back nor extricate himself fairly. And for that I was even more pleased with him, for more beautiful is the modesty of an ingenuous mind than the acquisition of the knowledge I desired—and such I found him to be in all the more abstruse and subtle questions.
(Conf. Bk. V, ch. 7 v. 12).

This is pretty fair-minded, considering the virulence of Augustine's campaign against the Manichees (who were so completely suppressed that, until CRC Allberry's translation of a part of a psalm book in 1938--a rarity, and about the only one I own--almost all that was known of them was Augustine's own broadsides against them. More background here. If CP Snow's fictionalized depiction of Allberry, his close friend, as Roy Calvert in The Light and the Dark is accurate on this point, Allberry had a personal devotion to Augustine, whose faith he could not share, but whose honesty he respected profoundly).

Augustine was one of the first advocates of religious tolerance by Christians as opposed to religious tolerance for Christians. Alas, as the Western Roman Empire fell, and the candle of civilization seemed to be in danger of going out, Augustine became an increasingly strident advocate of coercion of heretics. Still, by the standards of his day, and in view of his cultural context--look how belief in free speech radically diminished after 9/11 before you judge Augustine too harshly!--he was a deep thinker, a lover of truth and of reason as a guide to finding truth.

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