What are we to think of a man who tells God, “I defied you, even so far as to relish the thought of lust, and to gratify it, too—within the walls of your church, during the celebration of your mysteries”?
He was a daring, in-your-face iconoclast. A wild fornicator, he had many mistresses and a bastard son. A self-confessed thief who declared “the evil in me was foul, but I loved it.” How’s that for modern liberation?
Those words were written in A.D. 398 by the man who became Saint Augustine, one of the fullest sinners and greatest saints in all Christendom, in his “Confessions,” a book that is a joy to read, and read again, especially during the Christmas holiday season.
So I opened it recently and the thought arose that the power and the beauty of Augustine’s physical and spiritual struggles are still, in microcosm, the ongoing and unsettled struggles of our anti-spiritual time.
In the churches of our secular lands, we see mostly sparse congregations, gray hair, and lots of women. Our spiritually hungry youth, seeking fire, discover mostly boredom and ashes there. And yet, the greatest surprise in reading Augustine isn’t preachiness, not scolding analysis, but fire—his overwhelming passion and his burning emotional, sensual, and intellectual fervor.
His struggles centered on three main problems: the flesh, good and evil, and the cosmos.
As a youth, he traveled to Carthage to study, where, he writes, “I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.” Sounds like a modern university.
There, he says, he twisted in the chains of pleasure, and loved “wallowing in filth and scratching the itching sore of lust.” But he soon felt submerged by pleasure, locked in a mortal struggle with his own appetites, beyond which he saw nothing. So, one day, he cried out half-hearted for relief, begging God, “Give me chastity and continence—but not yet.” He was still a young dealmaker.
And where are we today, but drowning in sensuality, submerged in it as a people. Our gigantic shopping malls post 50-foot posters of near-naked, voluptuous women leering seductively above throngs of shoppers and children. The #MeToo movement needs to ponder such blatant public efforts to saturate society with sexuality. We live in a time when mainstream newspapers can’t be left open on the kitchen table for young eyes, as they are filled with embarrassingly raw language and discussions and depictions of sex, and the fawning promotion of what Augustine deplored as the “sin of Sodom.”
Augustine struggled against his own sensual suffocation while in search of a higher truth. His resolution was to argue that if there was a God, then He himself must be the highest, most perfect love, downward from which other forms of love flowed, to the basest loves of our most beastly and binding appetites. Therefore, it’s imperative for us not only to distinguish and rank the forms of love, but to actively repudiate the worst and seek the best: to discriminate.
Thus, having freed himself from the fetters of mere passion, Augustine helped shape the moral hierarchies of the Western world, thereby freeing it to pursue—or not—a higher ground in morality, law-making, the arts and sciences, and so much more. But we live in a world now busily repudiating his lesson in the name of egalitarian pluralism and diversity, a postmodern world that says there is nothing higher. Everything is a personal narrative constructed by hegemonic will, and there are no facts, only interpretations (Nietzsche). So back into the chains we go.
Having solved the question of what is good, Augustine then agonized over how it is possible to have a good God and a bad world. For 10 years, he argued—mistakenly, he came to say—that both good and evil were substances, like things, or forces, and just as his own spirit struggled with his flesh, the good and evil that God allowed on Earth are locked in perpetual struggle.
He freed himself from this idea when he further reasoned that if God was good, his whole cosmos must be good. Therefore, evil is not a thing, or a force. It arises from the absence of the good. This conclusion, too, has shaped our moral life and our whole body of law, because it conceives of humans as moral agents, capable of good or evil by use of our will in pursuit of good.
If we repudiate the good, evil will fill the vacuum. But this legacy has been corrupted. In modern Western society, our schools and courts are more likely to teach us that all bad behavior is a result of low income, or socialization, or abuse of some kind; that crime is not our fault, but the fault of our environment. We are back to the notion that evil springs from things.
Augustine’s last struggle in “Confessions,” like that of any youth straining to understand the stars, was with the existence of the cosmos itself. He undertakes an acute analysis of the nature of time as a response to the ancient question: If God made the universe, what existed before what we call the Big Bang?”
His answer is that time is simply a function of how we measure the relative movements and positions of things, such as planets and people. The world rotates once, we call it a day. One orbit of the sun, we call a year. But in itself, time doesn’t exist. It is not a thing. Because the future is only what is not yet, and the past is only what has been, but is no longer. There is only the ongoing present: eternity. Just what was here when the universe in time was created. That was, and still is, an extraordinary notion.
Our way of undertaking the same interrogation was to send the $5 billion Hubble telescope into space to peer into the infinite, only to hear the late Stephen Hawking, the most fashionable cosmologist of recent times, concluding rather surprisingly—on behalf of the secular science of physics—that to know the answers to these questions will be “to know the mind of God.”
William Gairdner is an author living near Toronto. His latest book is “The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree” (2015). His website is WilliamGairdner.ca
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.