While camping recently with my wife and daughter in the redwoods near Santa Cruz, I spent some time with an enlightening and very readable book.
Christopher Hall in Learning Theology With the Church Fathers does a good job of summarizing St. Augustine’s notion of the fallen nature of humanity. St. Augustine is convinced that something went terribly wrong when Adam ate the forbidden fruit so that we are not capable of really loving and knowing the good until we are redeemed in Baptism. Of course this led not only to the notion of infant baptism but also to the notion that unbaptized infants would suffer the wrath of God in eternal punishment. It is logically consistent but it seems to be extreme and never became as much of a prominent idea in the Orthodox East as it did in the Catholic and Protestant West.
This doesn’t square with the Black civil rights assertion of human dignity: “God don’t make no trash!” In fact, it seems at odds with the fundamental goodness of creation which St. Augustine upheld in the face the Gnostic conception that creation was a mistake by a lesser god and matter is evil.
Today we might explain these things as laziness, psychological conflicts, compulsions, addictions, or unhealthy repression.
In St. Augustine’s defense, we should remember that he is also considered one of the founders of psychology. His concepts of memory, will, and understanding as the core of individual identity still hold up in the face of contemporary neuroscience. It seems that the key problem he wrestled with from his own experience and that of people he observed was our ability to know what is good and not to be drawn to it in a way that compels our will. In other words, we know the right thing to do and we do the opposite.
For Augustine, the arena of sexual behavior was particularly problematic. Unfortunately, for example, he didn’t have our understanding of human sexual anatomy and physiology and he felt that what we would call involuntary responses were a sign of lack of control and the conquest of the will. His promiscuous sexual behavior prior to his conversion appears to us post-moderns as bordering on addiction. Today, in contrast, we might view orgasm as something healthy and transformative. In fact, we have made it something holy at the core of the sacrament of matrimony. However, the momentary obliteration of memory, understanding, and will made it highly suspect for an upper class Roman like St. Augustine living during the decline and fall of the empire.
Relaxing in the redwoods enjoying creation seems an awful lot like a certain lost garden. Does God really need to be appeased or does he just continue to reach out to us in love – the beautiful love of creation? Are we only saved in Christ if we are baptized? Is salvation questionable outside the community of the baptized faithful? The traditional and orthodox answers are yes. Is everything else outside the assembly’s official teaching false? The official answer is yes.
What about the Spirit hovering over the abyss? About the eruption of God in space-time? Is our teaching about faith or about certainty? The church fathers sought revelation in the written books and the book of nature. Does not all creation shout the glory of God? Did not Jesus put all things right? Would a God of love do it for just a few?
Would a father or mother provide for only some of their children and leave the rest in eternal darkness? “Evil as you are would any of you give your son a scorpion when he asked for bread…” Would a father or mother require death by hideous torture of a beloved son?
In terms of making some sense of the death of Jesus in a culture in which thousands of animals were sacrificed each day as part of official worship, the notion of Christ as the final and only suitable victim is comprehensible. His final and complete sacrifice also explain the loss of the Temple and the genocide of a people lost in hopeless insurrection. How else could the death of God’s son make any sense? Yet once we begin this paternal projection and anthropomorphism of the One God, our words and images fall on hard ground.
Per usual, I have begun at the end, since Learning Theology With the Church Fathers actually begins with wonderful treatments of what we used to call De Deo Uno (the one God) and De Deo Trino (the triune God). Hall takes the wise course of not trying to explain the indescribable but begins by the efforts of the early Hellenistic church trying somehow to grasp the reality behind the hymns of praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the one God and to Jesus as the Eternal Word.
How can this be? Yes, that is the question, whether one is caught up in the majesty of the redwoods or the radiant light from light, begotten not made causing them to break forth into the Song beyond all hearing that is Music, Word, and Divine Rhythm.
St. Augustine’s famous Chapter 10 of The Confessions says it much better than I could.
Late have I loved you,
O Beauty ever ancient, ever new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.