Augustine’s Bad Rap

First, in the dream recollection department, I remember quite distinctly that my dream involved driving between my grandma Quick’s house and grandma Gilmour’s house. Of course, in the dream, that involved getting across a swamp, and that in turn involved getting the car into two foot deep swamp water. Of course, midway across, Dad dropped my brother Ryan and me off so that we could sneak into the back entrance of a giant underground shopping mall (in the middle of the swamp) and sneak through the physical plant to emerge in an expensive clothing shop. I still can’t remember why we wanted to do that. All I remember is that the physical plant featured giant, quasi-Gothic clock tower gears and security guards that asked Ryan and me not to tell anyone that they were stealing Gucci clothing.

In the waking world, I finished Augustine’s City of God yesterday, an undertaking that began two months and 1100 pages ago. As often happens when I read famous writers, I found that certain “Augustinian” stereotypes didn’t hold up. For instance,

  • Augustine respects Plato as the pagan philosopher closest to figuring things out (other than Plotinus), but he differs from both thinkers to a degree that makes the label “Neo-Platonist” a hair misleading. Moreover, his primary complaints involve the Platonists’ and Neo-Platonists’ not being Jewish enough. John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is far more a Neo-Platonist book than is Augustine’s City of God.
  • Augustine is not the despiser of the human body and matter that my medieval literature class made him out to be. One of his primary beefs with Plotinus is Plotinus’ denial that the body is good. God said material creation was good, so Augustine tends to agree. Moreover, postlapsarian sex is fallen in Augustine’s mind not because it involves pleasure (he’s no despiser of pleasure–just read his chapters on the resurrection) but because the male sexual apparatus functions apart from the will, rising at inopportune moments and refusing to rise when good moments arrive. In Paradise all parts of the body were, as they will be in the Resurrection, extensions (pun intended) of the human will. Resurrected bodies will need neither cold showers nor Viagra. Moreover, women in the resurrection will remain physically women; he counters vigorously that “perfection” of women will involve their turning into men.
  • He is not the humorless theologian of sin and doom that he’s sometimes made out to be. I suppose this stereotype better fits with Calvin’s reputation, but I’ve heard it nonetheless. Augustine has a vibrant sense of wonder, and on occasion he even cracks a joke.

If anyone reads this blog, I’d recommend to nearly anyone the two- or three-month investment in reading this book. No one section is impenetrable, and the lessons in ancient history, Christian theology, and bizarre modes of Scripture reading are worth the trip. Compared to Foucault’s philosophical histories, Augustine’s theological history is both entertaining and clear. And you’ll be able to say, as I’m now able to say, “I’ve finished Augustine’s City of God.”

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One response to “Augustine’s Bad Rap

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