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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  January 2002

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION January 2002

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Subject:

Re: hermeneutics of suspicion, deferral to the end of time

From:

Dennis Martin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 29 Jan 2002 09:58:45 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

You limit your horizon to the saeculum, the fallen world.  But the two cities run through the heart of every man and thus the city of God is alive in germ but really so in this fallen world, not visible in this or that concrete structure but no less real and transforming.  The Ecclesia is the downpayment on that city of God, shadowy, incomplete, corpus mixtum that it is, but real.  Augustine is as much concerned about those who would turn the saeculum, this fallen world, into an idol and mistake it for the city of God, who would naively Christianize Rome as he is with those who would give up completely on the possibility of a society of Christians within whose lives truly Christian actions of caritas not only are possible but real.

You are inflamed by my language; can you not see that "where do you find augustine arguing that any of god's justice or will is evident in the saeculum." is the sort of sweeping statement you so object to when I make such statements?  But then I am merely "terminally naive" and "foolish" in my view of humans made for trust and love.  This is not the first time I've been called a fool so I'll not be inflamed by it.

Why is my use of the term "dehumanizing" inflammatory, given the understanding of human nature I hold?  I think you may actually be objecting more to the standard of human nature I hold--as being impossibly and unfairly high--than to my use of "dehumanizing."  Fine.  That is your privilege.  I respect your different definition of what it means to be human even as I disagree with it and consider it incorrect.  But given my definition, why is "dehumanizing" inappropriate?  What really offends you seems to be my claim that humans are made for caritas and anything less than caritas is less than human.  I recognize that you do not believe this to be true.  But I do and I don't think that makes me naive or foolish.

I did not ask you or anyone else to accept my understanding of what it means to be human.  I merely proposed that Augustine did believe that humans were made for love and trust, that he shared such a radically high view of human nature and thus his treatment of the effects of sin and the fall is equally radical.  To you it will seem terribly dark and pessimistic and unfair to humanity as you understand humanity.

It seems to me that you are the one who has insisted that your pessimistic reading of Augustine is the only realistic one, to the degree that you consider those who do not share it to be naive and foolish.  I offered from the beginning a way out of that totalizing--by proposing that the differences in readings of Augustine stem from underlying philosophical and religious differences about God and human nature.  I also suggested that depending on one's view of God and human nature, one will operate from a hermeneutic relatively more suspicious or more trusting (taking at face value a historical author's self-presentation, barring contrary evidence).  You are the one who labeled that terminally naive, dangerous, foolish.

That all of us rarely live up to the very high standard of what it means to be human (made for caritas, agapic self-giving love), that most of us therefore frequently dehumanize ourselves and others in many ways, follows from my starting point but not from yours.  Augustine's massa damnata is a cruder way of saying the same thing.  You disagree with it,which is fine.  But could you not recognize that perhaps Augustine's view of the (unfallen) human person is also very high, hence is intense "pessimism" about the saeculum?

But reality is not limited to the saeculum.  Augustine's vision is not limited to the saeculum.  And the presence of divine and redemptive caritas is real within this dying and fallen saeculum, even if not visible.  You admit this but proceed to sarcastically describe those who might have been touched by this redemptive caritas as "lucky" and nonetheless hapless because they can't see it.  In the first place, I think you exaggerate the opaqueness, in the second place, "luck" is not an Augustinian category with regard to redemption and the inbreaking of caritas.

You are upset with Augustine because he did not hold out more optimism for a dying saeculum.  THe modern world has more optimism, you believe.  Frankly, I find the modern world's artists and intellectuals drowning in pessimism at least since WWI, when they are honest with themselves.  But that may be because we come at these matters from different starting points, which was the starting point of this thread.

If the saeculum is all there is, then Augustine's dark view of it based on his understanding of divine goodness and the starkness of sin, is pessimistic.  And a theodicy opaque (but real) for now and only fully unveiled at the end of time is no comfort.  Fine.  But your starting point is that the saeculum is all you will be concerned with.  (In your first responses you said "at least as far as politics or the politicall world is concerned"--I take your use of saeculum here to be equivalent.  Fine, but why must we restrict our assessment of Augustine to the saeculum?  That was my original point: the fallen world is dying but a new creation will emerge and that new creation has already begun in the hearts of those who are reborn in baptism into the very inner life of the Trinity.

I understand that you and many historians do not share this belief.  Fine.  All I have attempted to argue is that if one does not share that belief one will focus on the saeculum in Augustine and dismiss the rest as inconsequential.  But did Augustine belief in that caritas, Hope having broken in on time and history once for all in the Christ-event and forever changing human history or did he not?  If he did, then his teaching about the saeculum is only part and not even the most important part of his theology.

I recognize that his views on the saeculum are front and central for you.  Fine.  I challenged whether that was fair to Augustine.

As far as texts are concerned, as you define the question, reducing everything of importance to the fate of the saeculum, I will not be able to satisfy your request.  If however you were willing to admit that the "other stuff" is not inconsequential but even central, then the use/enjoyment principles of _De doctrina_ come into play, as a starting point.

But we will never see these matters the same way because we start from fundamentallly different assumptions about the centrality of the fallen world (perhaps even about whether it is a world fallen from something else or merely all that we ever have had or ever will have--I don't know--what I do know is that you place front and center what I, and I think Augustine, place in second place: a fallen saeculum is meaningful only if an unfallen saeculum once existed and the fate of that fallen saeculum depends on whether Someone or Something greater than it is in charge of history or not and whether that Someone or Something is merciful and loving or not).  Only then can one ask which of these elements Augustine believed in or did not.

In a victim culture that no longer believes in real human freewill but explains evil by "the devil _made_ me do it," demonizing someone else to preserve my own or my group's innocence, in a society that constantly shoves evil off on the other guy, on the Fascists or the Communists, on the "religious right" or the "godless liberals", in a society that no longer takes personal sin and its horrific ripple effect on society seriously, in a society that permits men and women of their mid-fifties in high office to act like adolescents and deny wrongdoing by demonizing those who point out the wrongdoing, it is quite understandable that Augustine's pointing out of the radical and utterly pervasively corrosivie effects of sin upon human society, upon the saeculum seems to be an utter and hopeless condemnation of the saeculum.  His positive vision of the Ecclesia as the foretaste, despite its corpus mixtum reality, of the City of God here and now, will seem like chump change, hardly worth bothering with,especially since it is in the monastic society that that foretaste, such as it is, becomes visible on earth and even that monastic society is riddled with hypocrites and stained by cupiditas.  Yes, the re-formatio is largely a personal re-formatio but it is not strictly individualistic.  It does have a social dimension here and now.  The monastic communities lead the way but the rest of the Ecclesia is not entirely left out.  Small potatoes?  I think it is the glass half-empty, glass half-full conundrum again.  You begin with a different view both of the natural condition of man and of the possibilities of the saeculum and you find Augustine's view unacceptably dark and opaque.  Ladner, Elshtain, I and others begin with another understanding of human nature (as made for communion with the absolutely transcendent Creator), which requires a very dark understanding of the effects of sin (because it cuts off from that communion), but also a hopeful understanding of the re-creation and re-formation already accomplished yet not yet in Christ, the union of Creator and creature.  This was my point at the outset of this thread: one's presuppositions make all the difference in how one reads texts.  Any set of texts I cite will fail to satisfy you because you read them through different eyes.  The prior question is one's view of man, God, creation, fate, determinism etc.

Yes, I have read Robert Markus.  I've also read Gerhart Ladner, Gerald Bonner, Peter Brown, John Burnaby and others.  Is it possible that you read even Markus more darkly than Markus himself?  Not everyone is focused solely on the saeculum in Augustine and not everyone reads it quite so opaquely as you do.  Ladner reads Augustine in a more positive light than you do.  Elshtain does an interesting reading of Markus and Milbank in juxtaposition and concludes that Augustine remains a lover of ths doomed and passing world through all the opacity and complexity (citing _De Civ. Dei._ X.14, for example), concludes that for him the world is a "compressed pile of blessings" (she does not give her source for this).  Or Robert O'Connell on _Art and the Christian Intelligence in Augustine_, emphasizing that the world is a "forest of [sacramental] signs" permitting communion with God.  Or Book X of the _Confessions_ in which all of nature both cries out that it is not God but that God made it.  All of this is terribly deformed by sin but the de-formation of sin does not destroy, it covers over, hides (hence your opacity) something terrifyingly beautiful.  It is a mask, but the nature of mask is to dis-guise.  Take away the mask and the real face appears.  And that re-velation, that un-masking, that un-veiling has already begun, indeed, began already immediately after the Fall (Gen. 3:15) but, as Time reaches its End, the veiling, the opacity grows, yet without destroying Truth.  In the end Truth will re-create a new heaven and a new earth.  This saeculum will be destroyed by fire but not to put an end to creation but to re-create it.  Is this pessimistic?  Only if the saeculum is all there is.  But even the fallen saeculum is God's creation, which human and angelic sin has marred, marred to the point that it must die and pass away, but that does not put an End-End to God's creation, does not reduce it to evil.  Instead it requires God to respond, felix culpa, in redemptive, costly re-creation.

You asked for texts: I'll refer you to the texts cited copiously in Ladner's footnotes in _Idea of Reform_ 222-283; the re-formation has begun during the 6th Age, even if it is scarcely visible.  But scarcely visible, opaque is not not invisible in any absolute sense.  Therein, I think, lies the difference between our readings.  For you that slimness of visiblity, that tiny hope, is, because next-to-nothing, for all practical purposes, nothing.  For me it is Everything because it is the inbreaking of the Incarnate Christ into history, forever altering the course of history, really.

May we agree to disagree about presuppositions and thereby agree to disagree about Augustine?

Dennis Martin


>>> [log in to unmask] 01/28/02 06:20PM >>>
At 05:19 PM 1/28/02 -0600, you wrote:
>medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture
>
>I must add that I think it a calumny on Augustine to claim that he
>deferred any theodicy to the end of time.

don't you think that some of your language is a bit
inflammatory?  dehumanizing, calumny.  why can't it just be a
misunderstanding?  where do you find augustine arguing that any of god's
justice or will is evident in the saeculum.

>That the fallen world would endure to the end of time and be reborn and
>recreated of course--that's the New Testament claim.

no it isn't.  or it isn't the only possible reading.  but never mind.  and
the fallen world, acc to augustine would not be recreated at the end of
time.  resurrection of the dead, perhaps, but no redeemed/reborn saeculum.

>But the possibility of individual conversion and re-creation, or
>re-formation of the deformed imago Dei, going even beyond the original
>state of paradaisiacal innocence, and of doing so in societies of
>individuals, indeed in Christian societies, mixed as they were with
>hypocrites and secret sinners, that he believed all that was possible is
>evident.

possible, but invisible, even to those who were so lucky as to be so
transformed.  societies were not, nor cd be, transformed, no matter how xn,
out of their opaque state of a corpus permixtum.  if i'm wrong here, please
cite the passages you have in mind.

>Would everyone be converted and society be totally perfect before the
>Eschaton? Of course not.  But is a Christian society impossible for
>Augustine?  Certainly not--why did he bother with writing the _City of
>God_ if he thought it impossible until the end of time?

to make that precise point, to wean his contemporaries of their ("now"
evidently) disastrous belief that the xn roman empire had made/should make
things better.  have you read robert markus, saeculum?  the saeculum is
opaque.  one cannot even speak of relative "improvement."  the earthly city
is precisely where one cannot discern with any consistency or pattern what
the will of god (ie theodicy) is.

>The consummation and perfection awaits the end of time, yes, but what can
>be accomplished and built in the intervening time, long or short though it
>may be, is not insignificant for Augustine--he devoted his life to it's
>furtherance.

please cite me some passages here.  this sounds more like orosius.

>Perhaps you assimilate Augustine to Hobbes because you read him through
>Hobbeseian (and Calvinist and Jansenist) eyes--you will, of course, insist
>they are Landesian eyes and of course they are.

i actually read and digested augustine before i read and digested hobbes,
who has never appealed to me even as a high schooler.  (he defines a smile
as a grimace.)

>But there are "pessimistic" and "optimistic" readings of Augustine
>throughout the centuries.   Which of them  is the most accurate one?

well, i think arquillere wrote a book on "augustinisme politique" which he
argued was a systematic (and optimistic) misreading of augustine to say
that the heavenly city can be brought to earth.  obviously someone whose
work is a large and complex and in many ways unsystematic (cf aquinas) as
augustine's permits later thinkers to draw on those passages that permit
them to express an optimism that may or may not be there.  and one wd
expect such readings in a world where as much "progress" has been made in
cleaning up the behavior of authoritarian elites.  but augustine lived in a
pretty nasty world and engaged in some pretty nasty politics which he
justified with a pretty pessimistic theology of original sin.  i don't have
a need to see augustine as a socio-political pessimist (just as i don't
have a problem seeing orosius as an optimist).

>  Calvin's reading of Augustine or Jansenius's or Hobbes's or Landes's may
> indeed be more accurate than Martin's.   Is one forbidden to argue that
> one or these is superior without being accused of thinking all others
> "invalid"?

well, if you really hold that perspective, you wdn't accuse me of calumny
for my reading, no?

>I do believe that a "hope-filled" reading of Augustine is more valid than
>a "pessimistic" one.

it's certainly more "hope-filled".  and it's certainly better as a theology
for today.  but one of my gripes with medievalists is that they too often
read augustine as theologians than as historians (eg he carried the day
among contemporaries when he argued that the sack of rome was not the end
of the world).

>But I do not assume that my views invalidate all others when I propose as
>more accurate this reading.  I assume that anyone who proposes readings of
>historical characters or movements on this list proposes them as superior
>without assuming they invalidate all others.  This was Augustine's point
>in Book VII of the Confessions: that merely establishing that some things
>are better and some worse, some higher and some lower does not
>"invalidate" anything.   When we propose a way of understanding someone
>from the past we implicitly claim it is superior to other ways, for,
>otherwise, why propose it for consideration by others?

how about maybe it's more accurate.

>Why would I hold a view, an interpretation if I did not believe it
>superior in interpreting the evidence than other views are, at least in
>some degree?   Why would Richard Landes hold a view and set it forth and
>seek to convince me of its truth unless he thought it a more true
>interpretation of Augustine than mine?

to find out if there's something i've overlooked, to find out if my reading
of augustine/markus has major flaws?  i actually think that, esp on issues
of optimism and pessimism (which are primarily emotional stances), people
change.  there may be earlier (i don't think later) augustines that are
more optimistic.  in fact from pastoral perspective, your reading of
augustine is probably "better" than mine (i'd certainly want to use it if
my tradition revered his writings and i wanted to invoke him to help
people).  i think from an historical perspective mine's more accurate.  but
i'm not an augustine expert and i am willing to receive instruction.

>Let a thousand views be set forth.

and only really bad and negative ones that distort the evidence be called
calumnies.

>But don't ask me to accept them all and please don't say that if I choose
>not to be persuaded by them and set forth another I am assuming them all
>invalid, unless by "invalid" one means in the root sense of the word,
>"weak" or "weaker."   But of course, we all believe that the
>interpretations we arrive at by our examination of evidence, to the degree
>we hold them to be stronger than the alternatives, are stronger and the
>others weaker.  And if we truly aren't sure whether view X is stronger
>than view Y, then we would say so to ourselves and refrain from putting it
>forward for the convincing of others.

the definition of an intellectual is someone who can be convinced by
evidence and argument to change his opinion.  let's engage in these matters
as intellectuals.  what passages do you have in mind to support an
optimistic augustine about the improvability of xn society?

richard

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