The following two passages can be found within about two pages of each other in Augustine’s Confessions, Book VII.
“I saw, then, for it was made clear to me, that you have made all good things, and that there are absolutely no substances that you have not made. I saw too that you have not made all things equal. They all exist because they are severally good but collectively very good, for our God has made all things exceedingly good. For you evil has no being at all, and this is true not of yourself only but of everything you have created.”
“I was drawn toward you by your beauty but swiftly dragged away from you by my own weight, swept back headlong and groaning onto these things below myself; and this weight was carnal habit. Nonetheless the memory of you strayed with me, and I had no doubt whatever whom I ought to cling to, though I knew that I was not yet capable of clinging, because the perishable body weights down the soul, and its earthly habitation oppresses a mind teeming with thoughts.”
It came as a revelation to me when, in my freshman-level History of Ethics course at Seattle Pacific University, Dr. Phillip Neal Goggans scrawled on the board “being = goodness” as Augustine’s core doctrine, and really the bedrock idea of all of medieval ethical thought. To be is to be good. Everything that exists (even Satan) is good insofar as it exists. Further, there are degrees of being and hence of goodness. A contingent thing is inferior to a necessary thing an a dependent thing is inferior to an independent thing. So God is both the best thing and the most real thing. Thirdly, when a thing is perfected, it becomes more fully what it is. A good man is truly a man; a degenerate man is less real than a perfected man. And inasmuch as things are perfected by being in proximity to God, there they become most fully what they are.
So much good theology flows out of these thoughts. All that God creates is good, so nothing can be totally depraved. The world is God’s good world, to be enjoyed and to be studied on its own terms. Art, science, culture, recreation and bodily pleasure are all parts of God’s good world. Anti-intellectualism, insularity and austerity are all un-Christian because they are rejections of God’s good creation—they declare wicked or unclean what God has called good (Genesis 1) and made clean (Acts 10).
Further: as a thing departs from the presence of God, it becomes less real. Hence there is a logical connection between hell and the rejection of God. It is not as though God is jealous and vengeful and feels the need to inflict misery on those who reject him. Instead, to reject God is to reject our true selves. Sin is disordered being, and hell is non-being. The rewards for seeking God and the punishments for rejecting God are intrinsic consequences of those choices.
As the source of these thoughts that are central to the way I understand my faith, Augustine has become my most important Christian teacher. But recently, his name has been slandered by a lot of folks. They say that he is the father of the doctrine of original sin, in its ugliest form: Adam sinned, and God holds all subsequent human generations guilty for his sin. Baptism washes away this guilt that we inherit simply by being born, but infants who die prior to receiving the sacrament are justly sentenced to hell. They say he is the father of Christians’ disdain of sex: propensity to sin is actually passed from father to offspring via the penis, he held. And they say that he is the father, or at least one of them, of the treatment of women as second-class citizens. I have read that he taught that women were not full bearers of imago dei.
How could the man who taught me to embrace God’s good world and to find the fullness of my being in God be the same man who treated aspects of God’s good world—children, sex, women—as so contemptuous? I don’t know—but he was. Augustine held a love of God’s world and a disgust for God’s world in each of his two hands, as it were—as expressed in the two quotes above. He is the father, then, of some of the best and some of the worst of Christendom’s children. For this reason, many of my eastern Orthodox friends and my liberal Protestant friends have come to think of Augustinian thought as the foremost disease that has infected Christianity and from which it must be cured if it is to survive.
I find Augustine’s views on children, sex and women—if they really are his views—deplorable. But the reason that I cannot set him aside is that—paradoxically—it’s his own thought that shows me why those views are deplorable. We need Augustine to rescue us from Augustine.
Recently I have gained what I think is a still wider perspective on the matter. There is a reason that Augustine’s affirmation of God’s world as good was so refreshing to me: the broadly Evangelical tradition in which I was raised has not been particularly good at affirming God’s world. Regarding its relations with the culture at large, Evangelicalism of the last century has largely emphasized resistance, purity, distinctness, rather than engagement, participation, belonging. Among the results has been some pretty bad PR: Evangelicals are weirdly uncomfortable with sex, especially as it relates to marginalized groups such as homosexuals; they have been hesitant to learn from the feminist movement; they have rejected a lot of good science; when they have made art it has been pretty wretched. Now, all of this has been in the name of faithfulness, not raw stubbornness or stupidity or mean-spiritedness. But the plain fact is that the Church has plenty to learn from the world, because—per Augustine—there is no definite line between God’s people and everybody else. It is not as though the Church is a haven of righteousness and the world is a den of sin. No, the world is God’s good world, bursting with beauty and wisdom and creativity. So it’s time for a corrective: it’s time to open the gates of the Church and experience some discourse with the wider world. So much was canonized in SPU’s slogan, “Engaging the culture, changing the world,” and I ate it up as a student there.
But that’s not the end of the matter. There was something right about the Church’s insularity and defensiveness in the last century. Those who believe in the Gospel believe that there’s something wrong with God’s good world. It’s a delicate discernment process to figure out what’s healthy and what’s not in the world, and there’s plenty at stake in diagnosing things wrongly, either way: it’s very destructive to reject as unclean what God has made clean, but it’s also dangerous to affirm that which is a weak, broken, undeveloped version of God’s vision for redeemed Creation.
I think that Augustine did not succeed in this discernment processes, but neither do I think that there is something essentially contradictory in the process, either. Rather, it’s imperative that our affirmation of the world and our distrust of it play out alongside each other. The two sides of Augustine’s ambivalent relationship to the world must be the two sides of any Christian’s relationship to the world—perhaps with a bit more fear and trembling added to the mix.