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Augustine: reading for love

February 24th, 2005 by isaac · No Comments

A friend commented on my post about St. Augustine and language:

I have been reading your postings over at the blip and i have to say that i agree with you on…Augustine’s comment about reading the bible through the lens of Christian charity. But the lens of Christian charity does not satisfy the hunger evangelicals (and often myself) have for knowing God’s will.

I definitely hear that issue. I know that I want to be sure about what God wants when I read the Bible and formulate truths. We want stability and certainity in a world where the earth beneath our feet—those foundations—are always shifting; just when we think we got it nailed down right and start to build confident towers of doctrinal formulations from which we can escape the floods of rival meanings and truth, we feel the floor rumble and our constructed certainty come crashing down. We are just like those pious folk who gathered at Babel and tried to escape our fragile human existence by building a tower that reached to heaven (Ex. 11).

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth saw in the Babel episode a story of a created people “who has become arrogant in its anxiety” (CD III/4, 317). I think this is the same sort of anxiety that my friend’s question brings to the surface. We want to grasp the sort of certainty and confidence about our knowing the truth that belongs to God alone. What I mean by that is that we want to escape the plasticity of knowledge that is definitively human and find that divine place above our particular handle on truth that slides and shifts as experience deepens our understanding of truth. Sure, we have access to the truth through Jesus Christ who is the “way, truth, and the life.” But I think we must remember that as Christians we talk about “truth” a bit differently than others (moderns and postmoderns alike). Our ‘truth’ is a person: Jesus Christ, the God-man. Since we confess that truth is this strangely divine and human person, our grasping of truth is a life-long journey, not a once-and-for-all clarity that calls for unwavering confidence in the midst of shifting sands of meaning.

Here is where I think St. Augustine has a lot to offer us today. He realizes the necessary ambiguity of language (both writen and spoken) but doesn’t let that stop us from communicating and learning truth from Scripture. Augustine walks between the poles of the silence that comes with the realization of the radical distance between us and Truth, and unrestrained certainty of supposed knowledge of the divine perspective. He writes,

Have we spoken or announced anthing worthy of God? Rather I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say. Whence do I know this, except because God is ineffable?... For God, although nothing worthy may be spoken at Him, has accepted the tribute of the human voice and wished us to take joy in praising Him with our words (De doctrina, 1.6.6).

Augustine realizes that as soon as he speaks he loses control of his words. He may try to communicate something, but he cannot control the way the other hears those words. At every point of communication misunderstanding is possible, maybe even probable depending on the difference between the two (or more) people engaged in the process. So, for Augustine, it is more important that we use our words to draw ourselves into a relationship with the divine than we are sure that we are right about what we say. Our speach about God to one another is offered up in hope that God will be pleased in what we say. But there is always a possibility that it might not—that we will be completely wrong in our understanding of the divine. That is the underside of hope that gives our prayers of hope significance.

Our language about the divine is not only to serve as praise to God, but it is also voiced for the sake of drawing us into a relationship with other people. For Augustine languge (Augustine calls langauge “signs”) is a gift from God that serves to draw us to Godself and to draw us to one another in the bond of love (“charity”). Communication is a chance to build a bridge to a stranger who may turn out to be a vehicle for God’s love. Augustine writes,

How would there be truth in what is said—”For the temple of God is holy, which you are” [I Cor. 3:17]—if God did not give responses from a human temple, but called out all that He wished to be taught to men from Heaven and through angels? For charity itself, which holds men together in a knot of unity, would not have a means of infusing souls and almost mixing them together if men could teach nothing to men (prologue 6).

In this remarkable passage Augustine tells us that God’s divine purpose for humanity is a unity of love that comes as a gift of the divine Word (the Logos) at work in our communication with one another. Our reading and learning from the Bible is not supposed to serve some private ends. Rather, we read the Bible in order to join ourselves to others in the dance of divine charity, the work of the Holy Spirit moving in our midst to draw us to each other and participate in the Truth—that is, Jesus Christ who is made available to us in his body, the gathered church wherever she may appear. As Augustine said, God could have chosen to instruct us in truth through angels, but instead chose to use our brothers and sisters so that we can tangibly taste and see the Son, the living witness of the Father’s love for us.

So, back to my friend’s concern with which I started. What do we do when the “lens of Christian charity does not satisfy” our (evangelicals and others) desire for “knowing God’s will”? Augustine, the great Father of the church, offers a great answer, I think. For Augustine the will of God is the twofold command: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself” (see De doctrina 1.26.27 where Augustine quotes Matt. 22:37-40). So, love-of-God-and-neighbor—this Spirit-infused bond of charity—is God’s will; this twofold command is God’s loving will for our livelihood. That’s why he says, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all” (1.36.40). Thus, understanding is a “personal knowledge” (Michael Polanyi) that we grow into as we follow the way of Truth with our friends who journey with us (Augustine’s talks about the human life as a “pilgrimage”). The dangers arise when we claim to come to an end of our journey where we can stand outside our changing knowledge, a moment of final clarity about the nature of things that we place above our commitment to each other. We are under constant temptation to control our ever-shifting world by offering formulations of “truth”—i.e., how we see the One who is Truth in relation to our experience of the world—that claim to set straight our messy existence. Another way of putting it may be to say that we have a tendency to try to escape our fragile human existence in all its contingency by escaping to the transcendent—a Edenic desire for the divine perspective.

St. Augustine can help us get our commitment to seeking truth (or the Truth) in order. On our pilgrimage here on earth we defend ourselves from the constant temptation of divine self-sufficiency (Augustine calls it “pride”)—that original temptation in Eden—by our commitment to the dependency that comes with a commitment to love of God and love of neighbor. This dance of charity made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit orders all readings of Scripture and doctrinal formulation. A true reading of the Word is determined by its service to the twofold command. The bond of charity should be placed above all other attempts at grasping the ineffable, divine Truth (who is a person of the Trinity, remember) with our formulations. As one theologian says in commenting on Augustine’s De doctrina, “learning from Scripture is a process—not a triumphant moment of penetration and mastery, but an extended play of invitation and exploration… The Christian life itself, as we have seen, is in constant danger of premature closure, the supposition that the end of desire has been reached and the ambiguities of history and language put behind us; and thus the difficulty of Scripture is itself a kind of parable of our condition.” Christian faithfulness is not determined by our ability to come to a position of confident mastery over the text. Rather, we must learn vulnerable openness to the text (and analogically, the people around us) that comes from a position of humility. As we talk with one another about the meaning of Scripture for our lives, our language must remain modest and exploratory. This is not a call to remain silent as we discover the hope the Word offers for our lives, but to offer readings of the text that take us out of “the old atmosphere of man to the open portals of a new world, the world of God,” exegesis that draws us into that “river in the Bible that carries us away, once we have entrusted our destiny to it—away from ourselves to the sea” (Karl Barth).

Tags: theology