Augustine and the Wisdom of the West

As we experience a rebirth of the wisdom tradition of Christianity, it is natural to want to know the story of that tradition and of its strange fate (virtual extinction) in the West. We cannot understand the history which has led us into this sapiential desert of the modern West, however, without interrogating St. Augustine. Sometimes it seems as if, all by himself, he knotted with his muscular mind the central tensions and polarities which have become the warp and the woof of our western history. Like Walt Whitman—perhaps a distant, paradoxical descendant—Augustine might reply to his questioner,

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself.

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

St. Augustine Hippo

To approach this massive progenitor is a personal challenge today. He can call up a wide range of emotions in us, because of our intimate—though mostly unconscious—relation with him. That is, because of the overwhelming influence which he exerted upon the development of western Christianity—whether Catholic or Protestant—and because it has been during the past half-century—the time of Vatican II—that this influence has been critically reassessed and that modern Christians have begun to get ‘out from under’ Augustine. Long before Aquinas, Augustine had become nearly the sole patristic authority for the western churches, the singular ‘father of western Christianity.’

The unreflective images called up by his name may include a fortress church, City of God filled with all the divine Truth and all the divine Goodness, beaming complacent on its mountain far above the murky stew of this world and its doomed masses, or a small human figure groveling, helpless, beneath the omnipotent will and the sovereign grace of God. Our relationship with Augustine is a quasi-Freudian tangle, and while passionately denouncing one of his positions we are very likely standing in another one.

Augustine (354-430) was a whole-hearted seeker for Wisdom, a Christian jnani if ever there was one, but not in the tradition of the “East,” whether Greek Christian, Hindu or Buddhist. In his search for divine Wisdom he set a new course which became definitive for the sapiential theology—and in great measure for the spirituality—of the West until our time. Phillip Cary, in his lucid study, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self (Oxford, 2000) describes Augustine’s response to his reading of the works of Plotinus. What we observe here (ch 3) is the encounter of Augustine, the Christian theologian, with ‘identity,’ that is, nonduality. Plotinus teaches that a person must turn inward to find God, who is identical with the inner reality of the soul. The soul, at its core, is divine. Augustine, despite his deep and lasting love for the wisdom of Plotinus, turns back at this point; he finds himself compelled by his Christian belief to insist upon the distance between the Creator and the creature. God is to be found not simply by turning inward to the center of the soul but, further, by turning upward. (Confessions, Bk. 7) According to Cary, Augustine “invents” the private, inner space of the soul, where this upward movement takes place. This step will have lasting consequences for the West and not only the Christian West. Philip Sherrard has written that the separation of God and the human person—so that God is no longer understood as the ontological core of the person—is the fateful Augustinian step which has separated the anthropology of western Christianity from that of the (thoroughly Platonist) Christian East.

A second characteristic orientation of Augustine which will prove momentous for the future is his conviction that God is intelligible rather than incomprehensible.

This commitment to the intelligibility of God is Augustine’s great idiosyncrasy, setting him apart from the rest of the Nicene or orthodox traditions, which unanimously affirm the incomprehensibility of the divine nature, participation in which is mediated to us only by the flesh of Christ. (Cary, p. 45)

Augustine turns away, then, both from the apophatic ‘way of unknowing’ and from the language of identity or nonduality. Indeed, according to Bernard McGinn, Augustine does not write of divine union.

Before the twelfth century in the West, union was not the basic category for the description of the experience of the presence of God in this life. Augustine, despite his dependence upon Plotinus, knows nothing of union. This well may hint at a polemic reaction of the Christian mystic to the pagan one. The African doctor speaks of “touching Eternal Wisdom,”, or “beholding Eternal Wisdom,” or “cleaving to [divine] unity” in this life, but not of union itself. (“Mystical Union in the Western Christian Tradition,” in Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ed. Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn, 61-62.)

According to Louis Bouyer, Augustine also left behind the gnosis of the Greek Fathers: their participative but objective understanding of the mystery of Christ. In its place, he initiated the more subjective or personal tradition of spirituality which would predominate in the West.

Augustinian wisdom, in spite of certain affinities, is something other than the gnosis of the Greek Fathers. It is distinguished particularly by its psychological, reflexive orientation: it is not the mystery of God in Christ that it has directly in view, but the mystery of ourselves, which God, which Christ, help us to unravel…An element, we should not say precisely of subjectivism, or of immanentism C this would be to force things unduly, but certainly of anthropocentrism and…of psychocentrism has been introduced. Its emergence, perhaps, will trace out the main line of the alienation of the Latin West with regard to the ancient tradition C that is, what we call the Eastern tradition. (The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, 493)

The consequences of this turn, as well, will reach far.

It would be foolish to make Augustine either into a Protestant or a modern Idealist in advance. It remains true that neither Protestantism nor the idealistic religious philosophies would have been conceivable in a world in which the influence of St. Augustine had not been practically predominant. (Bouyer, ibid, 493)

Augustine’s way to God is the way of the intellect (not a merely rational or conceptual mind but the higher, contemplative mind). The light in which the intellect knows spiritual realities, or ‘ideas,’ is God. Instead of a union with God in the darkness, Augustine envisions a participation in God through the knowledge of the ‘intelligibilia’ or eternal truths. Yet this is a knowledge in which the divine Light itself may occasionally be seen in itself—an experience of contemplation which is the highest human fulfillment.

It is as if in this orientation of Augustine we behold in its beginning a fundamental option of the western Christian tradition: away from the incomprehensible, toward the intelligible; away from mystery, toward the mind; away from the nondual, toward that which can be understood and, perhaps, rationalized, structured, administered, controlled; the fateful movement forward from the eastern balance between ‘formlessness’ and ‘form.’

At the same time, in Augustine’s view of the participation of the human intellect in the divine Light itself—in God as Light—there is implicit a profound Christian wisdom, open at once to a direct experience of the “One who Is” and to a knowledge of all creation in the divine Light. In this ‘Illumination’ theology of Augustine, perhaps we can even see the beginning of an incarnational Christianity in which the human person naturally, actively and freely, constitutes the presence and the creative activity of God in the world. Here in seed is the liberating vision of a Thomas Aquinas and a Karl Rahner. In leaving behind him the (Eastern) vision of an original unity, Augustine initiates the journey toward a personal and active participation in which the divine Unity is realized creatively in this world. But this is a step in which we also leave behind us, eventually to be forgotten, a spiritual Paradise. It is like a second, historical, Fall, in which we gradually learn to adapt ourselves to a world of darkness, of existential nakedness, a “land of unlikeness.” In the midst of the dark turbulence of our contemporary history, we have desperate need to recover the interior light of that lost kingdom, of which the New Testament tells us that we are rightful citizens.

Augustine’s ‘faculty psychology’ (or anthropology) generated a spiritual theology in the West which was structured in terms of memory, intellect and will, and in which the person or self as a unity appeared infrequently, at certain peak moments of union with God. The spiritual life was conceived as a relation of the conscious mind and heart with God, but consciousness itself, in its simplicity and unity, was seldom considered. The tendency was towards rationalization, analysis, and towards an intentional relationship with God as Other. The principle of relationship predominated over the principle of identity (or baptismal deification in Christ) completely in the West, with very few exceptions, until the time of the Beguines and of Meister Eckhart. The seed of an active participation in the divine Being remained dormant, apparently, until the time of the Scholastics.

The Christian theologian Augustine’s ambivalent encounter with Plotinus—the pre-eminent exponent of explicit nonduality in the West—anticipates the East-West dialogue (and particularly the Hindu-Christian dialogue) of our own time, when once again we encounter explicit nonduality and the conception of a Self which is one with the Absolute. Bede Griffiths has pointed again and again to this teaching of the realization of the Atman at the heart of India’s mysticism. Once again we experience the encounter of two worlds: the world of the divine One and the world of the Personal God or, on our own level, the meeting of the unitive Self and the individuated person-in-the-world. This time, the western partner belongs to a modern world in which the process initiated by Augustine has been carried to a precarious extreme. The individual person and its creative potential have been highly developed while the original unity has been totally eclipsed. It seems truly a meeting of opposites, yet we know that this polar difference is a sign of the magnitude— the height and depth, length and breadth, as Paul might say—of the human person growing in God.

This time around we have an opportunity to get behind the limiting presuppositions of Plotinus and of Augustine and allow the New Testament to open itself from within in the light of its own intrinsic nonduality (most apparent in the Gospel and First Letter of John). And today we experience within ourselves both the creative ferment of the Spirit and the convergent momentum of history.

Certainly it is time for Christian scribes—or jnanis—to awaken and bring forth from their treasury, as Jesus says, at once things old and things new. The Christ-event is freshly manifested today as the person that we are awakens to its East and its West: to its deepest identity in the divine ground and to its embodied, historical actuality in this world, on the way to realizing one Humanity, the “Cosmic Person” which emerged finally as the center of Bede Griffiths’ vision.

By Bruno Barnhart, OSB Cam


This article is borrowed from The Bede Griffiths Trust.

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