Tag Archives: Augustine of Hippo

Christian asceticism (spiritual disciplines, self-denial): What’s up with that?


So . . . many . . . temptations . . .

So . . . many . . . temptations . . .

In this second post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we come to the “inner logic” of asceticism. What is it about our experience as human beings that requires us to engage in “askesis,” which means “training,” in order to live well with and for God?

In the last post I reminded us of what we already know–that the desires and goods of our embodied lives are also so darn distracting. They so easily lure us in with the siren song that, after all, our real fulfillment lies in them and not in God.

Now I want to add that this fact about us explains the behavioral strictures that modern American holiness and fundamentalist believers have insisted upon: no dancing, drinking, movies, and so forth. These have been misunderstood by critics as “legalism,” a term with Lutheran roots that means the attempt to earn God’s favor through rule-following (the sort of thing that Jesus scorned in the Pharisees). Rather, they have a singular purpose: Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – Gregory the Great


English: Jerome & Gregory.

English: Jerome & Gregory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the second part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine:

We have seen already a bit of how the hugely influential Christian philosopher/educator Boethius Anicius developed that theme of earthly and heavenly desire in his allegory of Lady Philosophy. Now we turn to arguably the most influential Father for the medieval period after Augustine: Gregory the Great. Jean LeClercq, modern author of The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, has called Gregory “the Doctor of Desire.” Carole Straw calls his popular writings “an encyclopedia of spiritual experience.”[1]

Gregory’s chief contribution to the tradition of heart religion was his formulation of the virtue of compunctio (“compunction”).[2] Often thought of as a kind of godly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10-11), the Latin word literally means “piercing.” It is rooted in Acts 2:37, which tells how Peter’s hearers at Pentecost were “pierced to the heart.” Cassian, Benedict, and others had followed up this clue by closely associating compunction with conversion, but it was Gregory who made it a central value in Western spirituality. Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – early church: Origen & Augustine


Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Saint Augustine of Hippo, playing hot potato with his heart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following introductory material from C S Lewis herehere, and here, the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis opens its tour of medieval heart religion with a peek into Origen, Augustine, and other early Church Fathers:

Origen, early fathers

Although affective piety was “a mood and form of expression which advanced over all of Europe between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries,” (ATK: 130-131), the writers of that period, from Anselm to Bernard to Julian to Dante, were merely passing on a tendency from the early church, described by Robert Wilken: “Nothing is more characteristic of the Christian intellectual tradition than its fondness for the language of the heart.” Even in the most detailed theologizing of the early and medieval fathers, “The goal was not only understanding but love.”[1]

The very first systematic commentator on Scripture, Origen of Alexandria (185-254), interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory of the believer’s relationship with God—erotic emotions and all. In Origen’s reading, the song’s male lover is God or Christ and its female lover is Israel, the church, or the believer. Augustine, Gregory the Great, and a long line of medieval interpreters would pick up Origen’s approach to the Song of Songs, using similar sexual language of our desire for God. As Gregory mused, “‘what force of love exists in the bedchamber of the Bridegroom.’” Continue reading

The principle that enchanted everyday life for the medievals (including the arts and sciences)


The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci

In my last post, I asked, “What separates Protestants from Catholics on the matter of the arts? Why have Protestants done so poorly compared with Catholics?” I hinted that the answer lies in a certain aspect of the medieval heritage – which rightly belongs to all Western Christians today, but which the Catholics have retained and Protestants largely discarded.

What, then, did the medieval church have, theologically, that the Reformation church seems to have lost? What was the bridge from the material to the spiritual world that avoided both Gnosticism and materialism—and fostered the arts as well?

This missing links turns out to be one of the most central theological ideas of the Middle Ages:  the idea of sacramentality. Sacramentality is the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, sacraments can be God’s love made visible.

Or to turn it around, sacramentality is the belief that transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator, that God is present in and through the world. A correlative of this is that religion is not separated from, or compartmentalized from, the rest of life. It’s not something left for Sunday morning. God can and does manifest himself in and through the creation that he’s made. Continue reading

Reason: one use of it builds faith–the other creates heresy; the early and medieval church knew the difference


ecumenical-council

Having looked, in the “theology chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, first at our evangelical problem with Truth, then at the medieval scholastics’ way of understanding and teaching Truth, we now come to the central storyline of medieval theology: its unique attempt to hold faith and reason together.

I start my discussion of this heroic attempt with a brief account of where the early church thought heresy came from (surprisingly: an over-active use of reason) and how early theologians and councils acted to preserve the integrity of the apostolic faith.

The next post will show what medieval thinkers did with this early precedent when it came time to re-explain the mysteries of the faith for new socio-cultural realities.

When I say that medieval thinkers held reason and faith in a delicate balance, I am thinking of their ability to use reasoned understanding and argument not to erase mystery, but to carefully couch and protect it. This was a premodern trait. The modern tendency – let us say, post-Enlightenment – has been to put our trust in what Stanley Grenz called the “omnicompetence” of reason–its supposed ability to fix all humans problems and solve all conundrums. The postmodern tendency, on the other hand, is to point to the man behind the curtain, or the emperor who has no clothes–to assume that anybody who claims to have figured things out via reason is actually making a power grab, disguising baser motives.

I would argue that the postmoderns are now where the nominalists were at the end of the medieval period. They have looked cynically behind the claims that we may know truth, at least partially, via reason, and they have lost faith in our ability to see any truth beside the one each of us makes for ourselves. Conservatives today may even be tempted to identify postmoderns as those who, in the Dantean phrase, have “lost the good of the intellect”—they can no longer access moral truth. But that’s too easy: the fundamental insight of postmodernism is hard to argue with: people do in fact often claim to be following the direct dictates of reason when in fact their motives have little to do with reasoned understanding. (Nor is this even intentional much of the time!)[1]

But when we go back to a brilliant premodern Christian thinker such as the proto-scholastic Augustine of Hippo, we find a different process: Instead of claiming that “reason solves all,” he frequently looks up from an argument he’s just presented (say, on the nature of the Trinity), and he says:  “I didn’t say you had to like it.” Continue reading

A little guide to Augustine’s thought on sin, freedom, and grace


TolleLege

"Tolle Lege" - Augustine's famous garden conversion, in a later, fanciful rendering

Following up on a previous post, this is something I cooked up while working as a “preceptor” at Duke–that is, leading seminars for students taking a course (in this case Dr. David Steinmetz’s CH13: Church History to the Reformation), in which we interacted in more depth with the primary documents.

This one’s on that Great Brain of the early church, Augustine of Hippo. It includes a few “notes to myself” about how to lead such a seminar, since as a doctoral student I was still wet behind the ears on this important matter of pedagogy. I wish I could remember which sourcebook we were using for the Augustine quotations. I could go try to figure it out from old syllabi, if anyone’s interested:

A pronunciation suggestion

One of the first and most basic problems we have to deal with when we talk about this great North African theologian is this:  [write on board]  Is it AUG-us-teen or au-GUS-tin?  It makes no difference to me which we say, but somewhere along the way, I was told that if you want to make it at a party with a bunch of church historians, you need to use au-GUS-tin for this man from Hippo, and reserve AUG-us-teen for the archbishop installed in England by the Pope around the year 600, who tried to bring the Celtic [or is that SSSeltic?] church into line.

In any case, it doesn’t matter to me how we pronounce it today.  Saying AUG-us-teen won’t lower your grade…much.

Getting into Augustine’s thought:

1.  Write on the board:  “posse non peccare,” “non posse non peccare,” “non posse peccare.”

2.  Start with the background from Latourette, to put Augustine in context with (1) the E/W distinctions S. has made, (2) some other “fathers,” (3) Augustine’s own personal history.

3.  Deal with quoted sections from Augustine, below, one by one, allowing conversation to develop as it will.  If this serves to jumpstart the process of “dealing with Augustine on freedom,” well and good.  I needn’t return to the quotations.  If things slow down, however, I can reopen with, “what about this statement: [quotation].  What is Augustine saying here and what do we think about it?”

4.  Throughout the process, resist going too far off into either what we think about Augustine (though that’s inevitable) or, especially, whether Wesley (Calvin, Luther, Joe Blow) would have agreed with Augustine.  It is OK to do this now and again, but as in a Bible study, let’s return to the text.  We need to discipline ourselves to do that because it is often so much easier to talk about our own opinions or those of our church traditions, than to confront and work through the thought of the person we are studying.

5.  For the second half (or third, or quarter, or last five minutes) of the class, survey Augustine’s thought on (1) the status, (2) person, (3) and work of Christ, as well as (4) the Holy Spirit, (5) the Trinity, (6) the Church, (7) the Sacraments, and (8) the Last Things. Continue reading

A little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners


Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon representing the Council of Nicea

Back in the late 1990s, when I was a doctoral student at Duke, they used to give us PhD hopefuls “preceptorials.” That meant you helped a senior professor in their courses, as a teaching assistant. The professor did the lectures, and you led discussion in weekly seminar sessions for the same course.

Digging through some old files the other day, I found this little talk I gave to a group taking Dr. David Steinmetz’s CH13: Church History to the Reformation, on the day of their first seminar session. Dr. Steinmetz taught in the mode of “intellectual history”: opening up to his students some of the more important, and often difficult, theological discussions that engaged the great minds of the early church.

This talk of mine is intended to give students who didn’t necessarily have any background in historical or theological studies some strategies to get through the experience of the course, and to learn and grow along the way. Part of it is in “talking ‘em off the ledge” mode, recognizing that the study of early Christian theology can look pretty arcane and intimidating. And part of it suggests some intellectual and practical strategies to get the most out of their studies. 

If I had to do the talk today, I’d make some changes–and indeed I do cover some of these things in my courses now. But other things I had forgotten, and will be reviving in my courses. So here it is: a “little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners”: Continue reading

Religion of the heart – part II


Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Augustine: a pioneer of heart religion

This is continued from Religion of the heart – part I:

Heart religion is also rooted deeply in almost every stream of historical Christianity

Now by starting from today in this brief talk, and then moving quickly back to the 17th and 18th centuries, I don’t want to overlook another important fact: critics of heart religion are, let’s say, “historically outnumbered” in the church. In other words, heart religion is rooted deeply in historical Christianity. Let’s consider for a moment the early church:

Wilken: history of Christian thought cannot be told without the history of Christian love.

We often teach the early history of our faith as if nothing but the intellectual development of doctrine mattered. It’s nothing but a litany of heresies, apologists, and church councils. And while these things are important, they are in some respects only the surface of the story. People don’t get upset about heresies and arguments unless these are about something that matters to their lives. And so I was delighted a few years ago to read the wonderful book by the University of Virginia’s Robert Louis Wilken called The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. This is the history of Christian thought done right—done with a full awareness of the heart of the matter, if you’ll excuse the expression. So, here’s Wilken, introducing his book by talking about what the early Christians were doing when they had all of those theological debates I mentioned: Continue reading

Religion of the heart – part I


Augustine and his symbol of a heart, in a Victorian stained glass window

What is “the religion of the heart”? Where did it come from among Christians? And why have there been Christians of this sort ever since the earliest days of the church? 

I had the pleasure this past weekend of talking about this topic with a group of senior saints who are committed to the history of the Swedish Baptist Pietists; this is the denomination of my seminary, Bethel, in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you’re interested in the role of emotion in spirituality or have wondered about this pre-evangelical movement of “Pietists” that began during the period of the Enlightenment, then you may enjoy these remarks. Here’s part I:

Some remarks on Pietism and Heart Religion, in a historical key

The modern critique of heart religion

The first thing to say, perhaps, about heart religion, is that just as it got a bad rap in the 1600s, when Pietism was born, it still does today. Now, decades after the heyday of the charismatic movement brought heart religion to Main Street, the vaguely disreputable aura of an emotionally expressive religion lingers. Emotional commitment to, and expression of, one’s religion still seems, even to many evangelicals, somewhat uneducated and ‘un-necessary.’ Continue reading

Glimpses of “Culture of Narcissism” author Christopher Lasch


Eric Miller’s biography of American social historian Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time, examines how Lasch came to his penetrating analyses of America through his own alienation. Wikipedia sums up his career:

Christopher (Kit) Lasch (June 1, 1932, Omaha, Nebraska – February 14, 1994, Pittsford, New York) was a well-known American historian, moralist, and social critic. Mentored by William Leuchtenburg at Columbia University, Lasch was a professor at the University of Rochester , who used history as a tool to awaken American society to the pervasiveness of consumer culture. Rather than invoke nostalgia, Lasch sought to create a historically informed social criticism that could teach Americans how to deal with rampant consumerism, proletarianization, and the culture of narcissism. His books, including The New Radicalism in America (1965), Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The True and Only Heaven (1991), became best-sellers. Lasch was always a critic of liberalism, and a historian of liberalism’s discontents. His political perspective shifted from being an outspoken leftist critic of Cold War liberalism to a self-styled populist moralist, denounced by feminists for his defense of the traditional family[1] and hailed by conservatives.[2]

What this doesn’t say, and what Miller reveals in the biography, is that Lasch, the child of two politically progressive atheists, encountered the writings of Augustine and other Christian thinkers in university. This altered his perspectives on a lot of things, though it did not convert him to orthodox Christianity. His creed became a sort of “secular Calvinism,” to use Miller’s phrase. Continue reading