Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Deficiency in Western Christendom : A perspective on Augustine's Confessions

In the beginning was Homer, and the words were with Homer, and Homer’s words were gods.

Perhaps a sacrilegious perversion of the Biblical introduction to the Testament of John, such a statement may be a far more honest adaptation illustrating the lineage of western thought than common perception would assert. Specifically, the works of St. Augustine of Hippo—himself, a true child of Greek thought and the father of modern Christian doctrine—epitomize a revolution of spiritual thought in the West and affront as the vanguard for modern Christianity. Notably, rarely would philosophers or theologians dispute such doctrinal origins; yet interestingly, the implications of this connection appear heedlessly neglected. Undeniably, Augustine approaches knowledge and truth under the influence of his Greek forbearers of wisdom. With fervent affinity in his younger years to Virgil—specifically the myth of Dido, Augustine pursues a separation from his former affection, hoping to usher in the opportunity to engage the God of the Orient. Yet, unbeknownst to Augustine and overlooked by his patronage, the intended separation results unsuccessfully—a divorce between man and his experience has yet to succeed. As a result, Augustine explores God and His narrative Text with a latent deficiency that ultimately accrues renowned acceptance and approval because of its brilliance and appeal. Ironically, the heritage Augustine swears off in his conversion to Christianity continues to guide him in his exploration; and on account of his denial, Augustine derives a faulty theology that fronts as truth, creating a chronic rift between intention and interpretation.

Though such a separation remains largely unexplored, modern spiritual thought could be traced to the first western work attempting to illustrate the transient nature of humanity’s relationship to the cosmos. In Homer’s Iliad—the fount from which subsequent philosophy springs forth—immortality, heroism and conquest embody the struggle of man to discover the eternal. Virtues prevalent in Greek mythology impose a system of values and a construct framework for society in the Greco world. Drawn from Homer’s classic orations, a powerful identity and lineage of thought develop among the ancient western world. From the development of Plato’s just city to the voyages imagined by Virgil in the Aeneid, the Greco-worldview emerges from the inexorable influence of the Homeric tradition—a focus that breeds Hellenism, academia, and Neo-Platonism. Fast-forward to the close of the first-century. Homer’s offspring, infatuated with knowledge and individualism, encounter the mystic Judeo-Christianity of the East; and in this confrontation, the God of Israel undergoes a renaissance. His new audience asks different questions, requires modified answers and seeks a distinct relationship. As a prodigy of the Western quest to meet the Hebrew God, Augustine redirects the trajectory of subsequent religious belief—a projection, of which, pilots the course of modern theology.

Admittedly, a clear detour may not exist in considering the precise divergence of the Hebrew religion; however, manifest departures significantly illustrate several dogmatic misconceptions accepted by modern theology. As perhaps the most influential philosopher to engage the adopted Eastern religion, Augustine’s logical Greek discourse in his Confessions establishes destructive conceptualizations of Man in relation to Creator. Because Augustine naively assumes the illusion of a renascent lens through which he can approach the Bible, his opinions lack discernment, yet retain authority. Furthermore, such a ruse disallows detection of the potential misinterpretation resulting from his alternative perspective. Because of Augustine’s brilliance, as well as his honest and revolutionary approach to spiritual thought, his works appeal to the Greek mind and become fundamental references as the church institutionalizes. Undeniably, essential tenets of modern Christian doctrine point directly to Augustine’s work. As a result, the source of much Christian doctrine circumvents the ancestry of Judaic faith; and instead, links to a worldview founded in the myths of Homer and the framework of Greek thought. Thus, neglecting the latent deficiency in Augustine’s analysis eventually results in the widespread adoption of doctrinal misconceptions of the Biblical narrative.

Admittedly, innumerable historical, geographical, and political factors contribute to the undeniable separation from the context of the Hebrew Scriptures; however, Augustine’s profound impact pervades the revision of Eastern thought by Western reason. Perhaps motive for Augustine’s disconnect lies in his assessment of the Greek Septuagint to be of equal divine inspiration as the Judaic oral tradition or earlier manuscripts in Aramaic or Hebrew. Such valuation immediately separates Augustine from the culture of the document, and leaves him without necessity to learn Hebrew. Without judgment of his conclusion, minimally—Augustine’s disregard for the source of the Eastern text, the constitution of his approach to truth, compromises his capacity to access the intended truths of the Bible. However, key to such an argument is the recognition of the Bible as a Hebraic text—written by Easterners, about Easterners and for Easterners—all whom embraced a realm of thought and language of expression in stark contrast to that of the West. With this presupposition, a two-fold fallacy presumes Augustine’s work. Firstly, a misevaluation of his own cultural persuasion distorts Augustine’s capacity for understanding; and secondly, the disregard for the Eastern culture’s inextricable presence within the Hebrew Text handicaps his access to the text.

However, criticism of Augustine’s reasoning yields little benefit if only resulting in his indictment. To profit from such discourse requires shrewd consideration to the progeny of Augustine’s interpretations and the potential injury of such beliefs in the adoption of opinion as eternal truth. Yet, investigating such error exposes two possible points of departure from the intended purposes of the sacred text—the original fallacies in Augustine’s conclusions and the later misapplication of his work in the canonizing of Orthodox Christianity. However, casualty in either divergence originates in the neglected disparity between the fundamental ideologies of the East and West.

Thus, comparative assessment of Oriental and Occidental goals of philosophy precedes the detection of such theological misapplication. Beginning with the more familiar of the two, the Western world could be generalized by a quest for truth, logical certainty, and the eternal good. Such valuation follows the order of its Greek predecessors from Plato to present. In search of truth, westerners stress observation, inference and analysis of experience. Notably, the second desire of the western thinker seems to undermine the first when rational certainty and truth possesses equal appeal. For in a world of uncertainty and endless unknowns, the assertion of logical correctness satisfies the appetite of desired truth. Yet, necessary certainty, subject to relational presuppositions, potentially assumes fallacy. And although an undesirable result—the greatest detriment of such conflict of interest arises when logical certainty masquerades as reality or truth, the fatal compromise of western ideology. Furthermore, as evidenced in the classic works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and the lineage of Greek thought, the most intense desire of the west remains with the constitution of the good—immutable permanence and perfection. Resulting from this fixation, a personal ascension towards ascertained knowledge of the eternal reality—the ultimate sanctification and salvation of the westerner—becomes the internal drive of Occidental thought, but a motivation perhaps fundamentally compromised by conflicting interests.

Conversely, Oriental goals of philosophy maintain an entirely different focus from the West, and such desire produces a distinguished framework for exploration. Above all, the supreme impulse of the East hopes for an experience of truth—not a rational understanding of truth as in the West, but a perceptive experience of liberation. Consequently, the ordinary physical experience reduces to a differentiated variety of occasion, subordinate to the transcendent experience—a method of realization presupposing a divine being. Therefore, the arbitrary truths of the physical world are contingent upon the realizations of spiritual awakening. Where westerners apply observations of the physical world to inform of the ultimate reality, the easterner accepts the realizations of the divine experience and engages the physical realm with these predetermined convictions. And although both East and West consider absolute truth to be of ultimate desire, the western approach renders this goal unattainable, inversely contrasted by eastern ideology assuming western “impossibility.”

Moving from the foundational analysis of eastern and western thought returns the investigation to the problematic circumstances of Augustine’s theology. As an Occidental and a child of classic Greek thought, Augustine’s application of his inbred point of exploration defaults to an investigation of spiritual truths realized through his experience in the physical world. Fundamentally, Augustine approaches the text, formulated in an alternate frame of existence, and imposes contradictory logic to instruct his analysis. Notably, complete dismissal of the empirical method by no means characterizes the intentions of such an observation; yet, attentive notation proves imperative in discerning possible misassumptions within Augustinian theology—and moreover, modern misunderstandings within the inherited error of his doctrine.

Perhaps the most familiar adoption of Augustinian principles, subsists in concept of Original Sin. Of all doctrine in the modern church, this concept may represent the most detrimental misapplication of Augustine’s work. Briefly summarized, the doctrine of Original Sin holds that man is depraved and sinful, even from birth (a current point of contention within the church), and redeemed on through the atonement of a perfect savior. For Augustine, this ideas originated in his observation of his actions—in his own natural tendency towards evil, but also in the selfish nature of babies. Notably, such conclusion comes from the analysis of sensory perception and moves towards a reality of truth. He finds his support for such consideration in the Book of Genesis, which outlines the Fall of Man. Undeniably, the biblical narrative acknowledges the consequences on mankind resulting from the moral decision of Adam, yet these consequences do not explicitly support Original Sin in the context embraced by modern church. Conversely, traditional rabbinic Judaic thought finds this doctrine perverse and a result of necessary rationalization. Of note, the Hebrew Bible ends in awaited expectation of a messiah, whereas the Christian Bible concludes its narrative with the awaited return of Messiah Jesus Christ. Yet, the unsettling events of the Christian redemptive account engender conflicting responses, thus imploring believers to justify the necessity of the Christ’s subjection to depravity. Such rationalization, combined with the Augustinian wretchedness of man, results in a creation of such depravation that only a savior as perfect as Jesus Christ and a sacrifice as horrific as the cross could redeem humanity. Unfortunately, this degenerate outlook of mankind has eliminated the hope and partnership in redemption held by Judaic thought, a mystic religion embedded with Eastern ideology.

A central point of contention in Christian belief, most vigorously expressed in secular consideration, struggles with the concept of an immutable, benevolent God. A belief in a good God brings rise to the problem of evil and human suffering—unifying dilemma throughout time and across cultures. Augustine’s development of this conviction emerges from his conflict with the Manichees and their perception of God, as well as his discovery of Platonism in Milan [Conf. 7.1]. In Augustine’s citation of John 1.1, “the Word of God is One, by whom all things were made;” his interpretation confines God to a synchronism that would eliminate the possibly of the simultaneous existence of good and evil in light of eternal significance. Significantly, this understanding conflicts with the realm of experience of human perception, as well as the God presented in the biblical narrative, specifically in the Torah. Eastern Judaic thought, however, confronts such conflict from a more cosmic perspective. Instead of first considering sensory experiences and then identifying ideas with the reality of God, the easterner experiences the reality of God first, and views the cosmos in relation to divine realization. Therefore, the resemblance of the cosmic process to the eternal being becomes a process of salvation. Such allowance, embedded in the tradition of the Jewish faith, liberates apparent irreconcilable contradictions—detrimentally misapplied, rationalized, or ignored—deficient in the context of a western interpretation.

Despite the fundamental deficiency and unfortunate use of Augustine’s Confessions, the direction and depth of his spiritual considerations remain nothing short of brilliant and revolutionary. In his attempt to apply the methodology of Greek thought as an approach to understanding the Christian Bible, Augustine instituted an entirely new possibility for interacting with the Eastern text. And notably, the culpability of such deficiency does not exclusively fall upon the shoulders of Augustine; although perhaps mislead or misinformed, his conclusions were only the ideas of man. The greater fault ends with the generations of believer and their indiscriminant acceptance of doctrine. For just as in any piece of literature, understanding the context, author, and audience of the text enhances the experience and accesses greater understanding within the work.

Admittedly, the proposed method of doctrinal re-assessment will not absolve each controversy presented by the Bible, nor will such exercise necessarily convince or uphold. However, a self-awareness of susceptibility to cultural and experiential influences in any discovery should be goals of the philosopher—evermore when the investigation is of eternal significance. Maintaining this position, the western approach should, by no means, be rendered useless—Greek ideas and methods of interpretation have historically produced profound connections with both the Bible and avenues of spirituality.

Yet as a chute of the Judaic vine, modern Christianity has experienced a severance from the branch of its nourishment. Resulting from early anti-Semitism, the church’s separation from its Judaic roots led to the adoption of Greek thought in place of—and without mind to—the role of an eastern identity within its Holy Book. An ignorance of such significance has set the modern church in a world of contradiction without any vision or explanation for its deficiency. Although the perception of modern religious doctrine seems to possess little hope for recovery, in reassessing the source of belief and traditions of truth, divergences—like the trajectory of Augustine’s work—may be discovered. And in re-investigating the true benefit of Augustine’s work, an opportunity for renewed appreciation may surface. Perhaps the greater profit of Augustinian theology does not exist in his conclusions, but in observing his model of thought. If this end had been the perceived gift of Augustine’s work initially, such misconception and misapplication could have been avoided at the forefront.

Ironically, postmodern theism embodies a culture with an insatiable desire for experiential truth and understanding. As accepted by previous religious generations, the inconsistencies written-off, rationalized or ignored will no longer suffice. Thus, when the modern theist’s journey leads them to the Bible, the ancient text often falls powerless in their hands. Without asserting the absolute truth or historical accuracy of the Bible, following a narrative of creation and a people’s struggle to find identity, illuminates the universal and timeless goal within every philosopher. For, the painful contractions between the reality of physical existence and the compulsion for inner goodness requires an act of faith, regardless the conclusion. In the clash of an ancient eastern text with a western devotion to truth, an honest awareness of such circumstance offers a renewed hope for humanity, a possibility to reconcile what we cannot know.

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