Friday, April 26, 2013

800 Words: St. Augustine - The Original Blogger?

There are large swaths of the Confessions of St. Augustine that are unreadable. I say this not as a Jew, but as a reader whom I’m sure would be equally bored with watching people kiss God’s ass if I pretended to believe in any other faith than the religion I choose to pretend to believe in. But for a few choice passages which I must find with a fine-toothed comb, The Confessions of St. Augustine sucks. There’s no promised place in heaven or hell which can make me finish this book.

But let’s be kind to poor Augustine. He was the pioneer of his genre, not the summit - though he was perhaps the summit of early Christian thought (and I’m far from qualified to pontificate in such matters). But as another overrated Christian writer once declared, “In my end is my beginning.” And T S Eliot’s maxim can apply, among many other things, to Early Christianity’s obliteration of paganism, and particularly of the material worldview which paganism provided - a materialism which probably ruled our species since the dawn of its sentience.

Augustine of Hippo was an almost exact contemporary of Emperor Theodosius, and converted to Christianity at precisely the same age that Theodosius was when he made Christianity the state-sponsored religion of the Roman Empire (incidentally, they were both 33... Christ’s age when he was put on the cross). Their generation was the founding generation of Christianity as the world’s dominant religion, the first generation for whom the entire world practiced Christianity with a universal standard as determined at the Council of Nicaea. And therefore, their perception of Christianity was unfettered from the existential threat which every previous generation of Christians lived with. The world they lived in was suddenly Christian, and because of that unfettered access to a world which shared their beliefs, Augustine was free to meditate upon existences’ mysteries in a manner which no Christian before him was able:

“And what is this? I asked the earth, and it answered me, "I am not He"; and whatsoever are in it confessed the same. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the living creeping things, and they answered, "We are not Your God, seek above us." I asked the moving air; and the whole air with his inhabitants answered, "Anaximenes was deceived, I am not God. " I asked the heavens, sun, moon, stars, "Nor (say they) are we the God whom You seek." And I replied unto all the things which encompass the door of my flesh: "Ye have told me of my God, that ye are not He; tell me something of Him." And they cried out with a loud voice, "He made us. " My questioning them, was my thoughts on them: and their form of beauty gave the answer. And I turned myself unto myself, and said to myself, "Who are You?" And I answered, "A man." And behold, in me there present themselves to me soul, and body, one without, the other within. By which of these ought I to seek my God? I had sought Him in the body from earth to heaven, so far as I could send messengers, the beams of mine eyes. But the better is the inner, for to it as presiding and judging, all the bodily messengers reported the answers of heaven and earth, and all things therein, who said, "We are not God, but He made us." These things did my inner man know by the ministry of the outer: I the inner knew them; I, the mind, through the senses of my body. I asked the whole frame of the world about my God; and it answered me, "I am not He, but He made me.”

(Book X)

This may seem like the most obvious Sunday School kindergarten pablum to us, but in the 4th century, this was absolutely revolutionary. The idea that not only is God invisible, but that he is also absolutely unknowable, is not a concept which comes from the Bible itself. The “Old Testament” abounds in passages full of divine intervention, and also of God as a character made flesh and blood. Read Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers; Yahweh is a character as real as every pagan god in Homer who presents himself in the lives of his subjects with the freest of hands. Ample evidence exists which even shows that the Israelites of the Davidic/Solomonic Court also worshipped a goddess whom they believed was Yahweh’s wife - Asherah, and that El is in fact not a second name for Yahweh but a god in his own right. It is only in the Seventh Century BC(E) in the era of the Prophets and Deuteronomy that monotheism became generally accepted as the correct interpretation -. Israel and Judea were not subjegated by Assyria and Babylon because Yahweh was a weaker God than Marduk or Ba’al, they were subjegated because the One True God used these Empires as a means to punish the Israelites for their iniquity. But even in the next millenium is full of examples of direct divine intervention - from the Book of Job to the Gospels themselves.

But it was only a thousand years after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (586 BC”E”), when Christianity finally became the religion which ruled the world, that Christians had to reconcile themselves to the fact that God does not appear to them, even if He appeared to generations past. The Christian “New Testament” would not be officially canonized for more than a century after Augustine’s death, but the New Testament’s contents were determined by meetings in Augustine’s hometown of Hippo which he himself attended called the Synod of Hippo Regius. Augustine embodied the moment when Christianity became itself.

With Augustine, we find the official end of the Age of Paganism, and with its completion, the end of belief in the divine as a substance of our own world. God may control the heavens, but human beings, finally, are masters of our own kingdom; and however trivial that kingdom seemed in relation to God’s kingdom, it was still a place ruled by an invisible force for which there was no definite accountability. Therefore Augustine signaled the dawn of individual as the world’s most important subject for study. Man was no longer the plaything of a god, he was his own master, an object worthy of his own study. It was a long-fought dawn for individualism, and the world of spirits and magic continued their influence over even the highest discourse until the High Renaissance and beyond. God may be in the heavens, but the remnants of his earthly kingdom cling resolutely to the ground.

And as the beginning of individualism as we today understand it, much of Augustine’s Confessions seem quite anti-individual, perhaps invidiously so. So much of the book is giving to “stirring” paeans to God that it’s very difficult to see the revolution taking place. But take place it does. Skip the Confessions themselves and go straight to Book X and Book XI of the Confessions, you immediately see a mention of the greatest problem of every generation that has occupied every great thinker from Augustine’s time to our own - memory.

Memory is the ultimate problem, and the ultimate definition, of the individual. And it’s difficult to believe that any writer has ever written more accurately of precisely what memory is than Augustine. And certainly no writer has been more hopelessly wrong at diagnosing what causes memory than he. Like all theologians, the end answer is simply God - a divine gift from a divine being, tied neatly in a bow and with no need for further examination. I can’t help but be reminded of Sarah Palin talking about her brother-in-law, saying that he’s an extremely knowledgeable amateur biologist who can tell all about the history of each species. I always imagined his conversations with Palin’s children going like this:

How old is this species?

Six Thousand Years Old.

How about this one?

Six Thousand Years Old.

And this one?

Six Thousand.

Augustine was the beginning of theology as we generally know it, but he was also the beginning of the mystery of the individual - a mystery that resounds through the ages in all sorts of soft sciences as to what makes each of us unique? The problem of the individual, and particularly of individual memory, is something which we gather from all sorts of pseudosciences: from theology, to phrenology, to theosophy and anthroposophy, to social Darwinism, to (yes) philosophy, and even to psychology. Psychology may yet be remembered as the final exhalation of the mystic, unknowable individual - the final ponderings an unknowable inner psyche which is not yet explained by carbon-fused wiring, and as crude a first attempt at a scientific explanation of the human mind as Augustine’s was a crude literary explanation. I wouldn’t bet on it, but perhaps we have, finally, moved past God, and investigations of the individual into a world of pure materialism in which all the world can be controlled by science and therefore we must have the added complex of analyzing ourselves as our own Gods. In the pagan era, we humans were merely the playthings of the world. In the monotheist era, we are the world’s inhabitants. In the scientific era, we are the world’s masters. Naturally, Augustine would warn against this advancement.

In using his personal self, his experience, and his observations, as the beginning of personal meditation, Augustine was the first memoirist. Does that therefore mean that he is also the beginning of the Blog? Well, if he is, then he’s not the Blog in the sense of Perez Hilton (though the earlier chapters are not as far off as you might imagine), but perhaps the blog as chronicler of history, of an era, of an ethos, of a culture, of a life, and of an eyewitness who attempts to view his own life with dispassionate equanimity. In all these regards, Augustine of Hippo was utterly without precedent, and therefore should probably be forgiven if he ended up viewing his life with the most messianic imaginable self-conceit.   

But we should cut him still more slack. Augustine’s chronicles were the first chapter in the book of an era that did not yet exist and an era that awaits - and has perhaps arrived at - its final chapter. It is the era into which you and I were born, and the era into which today’s children may not have been. It is the era of individual mystery. If science and DNA can eventually provide concrete explanations what makes individuals individual, then the mystery which Augustine presented is no longer a mystery at all. If personality one day becomes something with which we’re born, but something which we can change as we might a shirt, then how much less space will there be for personal observations?

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