Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dr. Strangelove (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and "Enjoy" Augustine)

I have had a nearly infamous love-hate relationship with Augustine of Hippo: I love hating on him. I will not pass up an opportunity to make a snide comment about Augustine and if his name is mentioned, I cannot help making a sour face. This is because I have a long and injurious history with doctrines of predestination and I think some of his ideas (like the "will" and his Modalist Trinity analogy and his traducian doctrine of Original Sin) are just silly or bad or both. So I like to give Augustine a hard time and make my opinion known, and the rest of this very Occidentally inclined Divinity School like to give me a hard time about not liking Augustine. It's a bit of a meme; it works for me.

But today I was forced to admit that I'm coming to love Augustine. A little bit. With reservations and qualifications. But, yeah... OK. He's kinda cool.

Of course, I couldn't manage to finally be "in" with the Augustine-loving crowd as I was converted to Augustine-fandom; rather, I realized the depths of my feelings for Augustine when the rest of my seminar on Theology and Language united in the first time in DDS history to attack what they judged the most horrific doctrine Augustine has ever advanced. And I -- I who had reviled him so oft -- was now the chivalrous defender of the bishop betrayed by his erstwhile devotees. It got heated. People were making all kinds of personal attacks on poor Augustine in absentia; if he'd been there, they might have tarred and feathered him and run him out of the Div School on a rail. It was a little intense.

You might be wondering what Augustine said that so outraged everyone but which inspired me to defend the theologian I love to hate.

This was it: We should use people rather than enjoying them for their own sakes. (De Doctrina Christiana, book 1)

Everyone hated this. Here is a compilation of the conversation.

Augustine-Attacker #1: We can all see how obviously bad this argument is. How can we love our neighbor if we're supposed to not love them for themselves? I mean, he just puts this out there without even backing up this argument. Then he starts equating "use" with "love".

Jen: Well, we've got a lot of baggage with the word "use" such that it means "objectify" or "abuse". Latin wasn't like that. The difference is that it implies instrumentality whereas "enjoy" implies that something is ultimately sufficient for enjoyment in itself. Since God's immaterial and self-existent, people get their goodness *from* God. So they are proximate and contingent goods. But God is the ultimate and non-contingent good. See? It's a language thing.

Attacker #1: It's just not loving someone if you're using them -- even if you're using them to get to God somehow or to enjoy God through them.

Jen: No, no! It would be bad if you "enjoyed" people. It's not like "use" is totally devoid of any delight or relishing or what we would call "enjoyment". For Augustine, "enjoy" is where you stop -- what in itself is ultimate and sufficient. People aren't that. Only God is that. People are finite and material and created.

Attacker #2: Nobody can call themselves a Christian if we act like this today. We're supposed to love each other. Augustine even goes so far as to say that we only love the human part of Jesus as a means to an end -- to the immaterial God part! We don't love Jesus for his humanity and his body! I mean, we can all see how bad that idea is. It's just... gnostic!

Jen: No... there's context here... it's sort of given that immaterial and eternal is good and transient and finite is less-good. It's culturally assumed... but maybe, you know, it's also actually faithful and stuff, to the Bible and who God is... right, guys?

Attacker #3: Yeah, we have to remember the historical context. I mean, Augustine wasn't so great in the whole marriage department. He had all those relationship problems and sent his baby-momma away and all that.

Jen: He was trying to be chaste!

Attacker #3: And he never did get married after that, so obviously he had some deficiencies when it came to loving and relating to people. He was nasty to the Donatists, too. So, we probably shouldn't pay too much attention when he talks about love and using people.

Attacker #4: Yeah, like, are you going to tell your wife that you're only loving them as a way of loving God? You enjoy them, but only by themselves, only in some relation to God?

Jen: (is thinking deeply about her own singleness with lots of shame and embarassment). Yes! I mean... even married people, you don't stop and just say, "You're all I need; I'm just going to enjoy you and not keep moving toward God" because that's idolatry!

Attacker #4: No, not idolatry -- it's like, people get married and they can practice enjoying God so that then in the eschaton they know how to enjoy God for real.

Jen: !?!?!?!?!?! (struggling not to have fit of apoplexy)

Geoffrey Wainwright: We'd better take a break and then we can move on to discuss Athanasius.

Seriously: "practice"?! Why? Because we can't start working on enjoying God now? We have to wait God's not available yet?And what is this "enjoying God for real" that we have to practice with spouses? I'm having Cappadocians sexchaton debate flashbacks and lots of uh-oh feelings here...

I need to wear a sign that says, "Before you say, 'Of course, today, we don't believe x,' when we're reading the Fathers, there's something you should know : I'm a Platonist, too." (Will someone make me a sign?)

So Augustine and I have made it up. And I've decided that if I ever get married, I want it written into the vows that we promise only to "use" and not "enjoy" each other. It would totally scandalize just about everyone in attendance, but hey -- you can't please all the people all the time.