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Augustine, Desert Fathers-What is required to be a good Christian?
Such strong language seems to indicate a rejection of the body, of human relationships, of human reason, or any good which is not God. Is such a rejection required if one is to be a true Christian?
Human relationships, the body, and human reason are presupposed to be good in Ms. Kreis’s statement. Although Saint Augustine, the author of Confessions, would not consider those to be of the highest good (God), he would be hard-pressed to deny that each does not maintain some degree of good. Sin is defined as a lack of good by Augustine; when someone abandons the highest good for a lower good, he/she is sinning. A lower good is any good that is not God (i.e. consumerism, science, astronomy, sex, fashion, societal recognition, pride and prestige, etc.). An inordinate fixation on or passion for a lower good quickly develops into a distraction from the highest good when left unchecked. If one does not control the proclivity to indulge in lower goods, they become habits or dispositions, which then become a way of life. Religion is a way of life. Christianity is dedicated to the praise and worship of God. The true, consummate Christian recognizes man is weak, hence, lives a life separate from human relationships, the body, and human reason. One cannot live a life for God alone when sidetracked by other lesser goods. Living one lifestyle fully and correctly is difficult, if not impossible; therefore, convoluting one lifestyle with another whilst trying to live out each fully is quixotic.
According to Augustine, the potential to be a true Christian is present in everyone; however, succumbing to the highest good is very challenging. Being a true Christian is chimerical for most people because man is prone to three types of wickedness: lust for flesh, lust of the eyes, and lust for domination. Lust of flesh is an obsession with sensuality and the erotic (the lowest part of the soul); the solution is to regulate one’s libidinal urges. The thymotic part of the soul, which represents a burning desire to be respected and honored, is called a lust for domination; one should not desire to be in the right relationship with man but rather with God. Lust of the eyes is an inordinate fixation on intellectual and rational thought; God cannot be described via human reason so the solution is one must understand Him through the eyes of one’s soul. All of these disorders require order so as to thrust one forward on the path to the right relationship with God. Augustine explains doxologically in his thesis, “To praise you (God) is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” He believes the plight of humanity is a constant state of restlessness. Until one finds God, one’s soul will not be at ease. By the end of the book he purges his soul of sin, thereby effacing his former restlessness. His life was a tiresome marathon to overcome three ever-pervasive disorders. For Augustine, lust for flesh was the most difficult of the disorders to order.
Augustine lacked the self-control necessary to repress his high sex drive. This was evident in Book II where he revealed that his erotic temptation “obscured him.” Led entirely by his senses, he felt marriage was the only solution. Marriage would normally be commended in Christianity; but Augustine chose to get married for the wrong reason. Instead of marriage being a sacred bond between two lovers, he simply saw it as mechanism for satisfying his sexual desires. He was totally enraptured by the corporal part of himself, he “bubbled with desire.” The maxim that best describes him is being in love with being in love. This constant cultivation of the erotic part of himself caused his “soul” to be “in rotten health.”
Experiencing joy (transient pleasures) with no rest or completion made him feel like a “runaway slave”, free but always hiding. In order to be in the right relationship with God and at rest he would have to excoriate his sexual self and seek the highest good.
One of the desert fathers’ sayings was “The body kills me, so I will kill the body!” They, too, suffered from the same disorder as Augustine and believed the body was an impediment on the path to God. The desert fathers strived to be free of the body because they believed in the dualistic form of the body, which defines humans as being partially of the body and partially of the soul. The desert fathers wanted the soul to take precedence over the erotic and thymotic (the lower) parts of themselves. Similarly, Augustine believed striving for the highest good as opposed to lower goods like erotic (disorder of lust), thymotic (disorder of pride/honor), and reasonable (disorder of the eyes) parts of oneself was most important.
The rituals and traditions of Christianity delineate a strict code of behavior that includes liturgy and prayer; these customs must be done with faith or according to Augustine, with the highest good in mind. Augustine went to church to lust for women. Going to church was the correct idea; but, his insatiable sex drive distracted him from the highest good.
Augustine’s human relationships stoked his lust for flesh. His friends encouraged his “perverse” behavior. Augustine employed the “pear tree” analogy to describe the peer pressure he felt. The pear tree represents his sexuality. He and his friends stole pears at night for the sake of having fun; but he would not have done so had he not been with his friends. He used his sexuality in the wrong way; he took pears and “threw them to the pigs.” Sexuality was made to fulfill him as a person but he wallowed in its badness and enjoyed it; thus, he abandoned the highest good for a lower good.
Mark Miller speaks to human relationships with regard to God, “Faith is the eyes of being in love.” Augustine would agree. To wholeheartedly believe is faith. Faith is characterized by a blind, unconditional trust or confidence in something, whether it is inanimate or animate, abstract or concrete, physical or spiritual. When in love, everything looks different. Thus being outside of a faith (not in love) induces a lack of understanding. Having faith in Christianity means one’s heart (love) is entirely given to Christ; this relationship is characterized by monogamy. Jesus once said, “Anyone who comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life, too, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).” In spite of this, Christ encourages family life and love of other humans. If one loves another human, than he/she has faith in someone else besides God. Having a family and raising children influences one’s behavior. Thus family and even friends can be distractions if that relationship does not bring one closer to God. Unless one has immense self-control, marital and familial ties will steer one away from God because the dispersion of one’s love through other relationships (not to do with the highest good) likens to infidelity in one’s monogamous relationship with God.
God had many mediators that aided Augustine in his conversion to Christianity. Ambrose was the first to impregnate Augustine’s secular self with spirituality. After Augustine lost his concubine, he had several affairs. As his sexual habits became worse, so did the “great weight” upon his soul. While he became overburdened by the disorder of his soul, he sampled many different philosophies (Manichaeism and Platonism) in an attempt to find one that allowed his heart to rest but he was searching in the wrong places for the highest good.
From “The Fall of Man” precipitated a disruption of the soul. Humanity lost focus of the highest good and henceforth, indulged in a proclivity for lower goods because they supplied instant gratification. This gave man a false sense of control of his destiny. Placing all one’s faith in God entails delayed gratification in heaven rather than instant gratification on Earth; this practice instills reverence, humility, and a sense of helplessness in man. What helplessness? Man is continually changing his environment. Manifest Destiny, a word that resounds in the ear of humankind, embodies the idea that nothing is beyond mans’ reach given time. Man has been placed upon a pedestal in society like God. There is more faith in the potential of man than in God. In fact, there is more faith in television and the information it spews out than God. Humanity only trusts what can be seen through the eyes. If God is above man, the power to change one’s fate is limited because man is subject to Gods judgment.
Ascension to the highest good cannot be attained by way of human reason or man-made things. On the contrary, for a true Christian one is no longer a product of man’s intellect and innovation; instead, a product of God’s generative love. When Tertullian had asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Augustine’s answer would have been similar to that of Justin Martyr, a philosopher and Apologist. Martyr stated, Christianity is the “true philosophy.” Human reason and God cannot coexist in the same psyche. God is indemonstrable via logic, reason, and images. He is too abstract to be encapsulated by human logic.
Dissecting his beliefs via prolonged inflection freed his mind, allowing him to see through the eyes of his soul. Yet, he was still “ensnared by the chain of his lust.” His carnal and spiritual will were pulling him in opposite directions. The discord of the two wills denied him completion/rest. He thought he would be forced to reevaluate his life, if he did not control or repress his carnal desires. So, he was powerless to free himself; he needed someone to free him. The mediation of God through his friends which was basically anyone who helped him on his path to the highest good facilitated him in making the final conversion. The stories of Victorimus, Anthony in the desert, and Paul acted in unison to open his heart to the love of Christ. God had now replaced his pleasures.
Augustine and all mankind are born in iniquity; this is called “original sin.” People are not responsible for ‘original sin’ because the “Fall of Man” imposed this state upon us. However, “actual sin” which encompasses all sinful deeds done in this state is well within the realm of man’s responsibilities. Maximus Decimus Meridius, otherwise known as “The Spaniard” from Gladiator states, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” We must change during our lives, so we are not in a state of restlessness forever. To avoid restlessness and become a true Christian one must reject the body, human relationships, and human reason for ultimately God is the means to an end.
“Thy faith hath made thee whole (94:27).”1 Religion is the enactment of one’s faith and Christianity involves a uniformity of faith in all aspects of one’s life, both physical and mental.
1Knowles, Elizabeth.. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.