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Augustine's Idea of God

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Augustine's Idea of God

Best to begin by hearing Augustine call on his God.

quid es ergo, deus meus?

summe, optime,

potentissime, omnipotentissime,

misericordissime et iustissime,

secretissime et praesentissime,

pulcherrime et fortissime,

stabilis et incomprehensibilis,

immutabilis mutans omnia,

numquam novus numquam vetus,

semper agens semper quietus,

conligens et non egens,

portans et implens et protegens,

creans et nutriens et perficiens,

quaerens cum nihil desit tibi.

et quid diximus, deus meus, vita mea, dulcedo mea sancta,

aut quid dicit aliquis cum de te dicit?

et vae tacentibus de te, quoniam loquaces muti sunt.[[1]]

The wordplay, the assonance, the alliteration, all disappear in translation.

What art Thou then, my God?

Most highest, most good,

most potent, most omnipotent;

most merciful and most just;

most hidden and most present;

most beautiful and most strong,

standing firm and elusive,

unchangeable and all-changing;

never new, never old;

ever working, ever at rest;

gathering in and [yet] lacking nothing;

supporting, filling, and sheltering;

creating, nourishing, and maturing;

seeking and [yet] having all things.

And what have I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy?

or what says any man when he speaks of Thee?

And woe to him who keeps silent about you,

since many babble on and say nothing.[[2]]

The limitations of human language are displayed by the paradoxes in which the divine nature compels Augustine to speak.[[3]] Not yet for Augustine the mannered style of an Eriugena, for whom God is good, but God is also not good (not good in the human way, at any rate), and God is finally "super-good" (i.e., good in a way that lies beyond the human category of goodness), but some of the same impulse is there. Human words used by humans fail in the presence of the divine, and whatever can be said is only approximation, and most human discourse fails to say anything of God at all, despite endless loquacious efforts.

Now for a rhetorician as polished as Augustine to admit failure in a matter of rhetoric is a striking thing (more than a rhetorical device here), and not without significance, as most experienced readers of Augustine will always have felt. For all the clarity and definition that Augustine can give to his writing elsewhere, it cannot be without significance that at the center of his concerns lies this finally unsayable Other, who eludes all his attempts to define and delimit. My theme in this essay is that Augustine's elusive God needs to be taken seriously, for all His elusiveness, in order to do justice to the things that Augustine says about other things, particularly those things that seem to use moderns in one way or another perplexing or rebarbative. I am fond of saying that whenever Augustine is saying something that moderns find troubling, the best first resort for an interpreter is to look closely to see what text it is of scripture -- not infrequently of Paul -- that is on the table before him and virtually forcing him - - by Augustine's lights -- to say what he says. That technique is often powerfully effective, and needs to be employed with circumspection when looking at Augustine's views on grace and free will, for example, or on sexuality.[[4]]

But I find it equally important, time after time in reading Augustine, to remind myself that nothing Augustine writes is intelligible apart from his own experience of God, not only in the pages of scripture, but also in his own life. If we take the trouble to think our way into Augustine's most fundamental religious awe, we will often see a consistency and a clarity in his thought that would otherwise elude us.

What I propose to outline here is not systematic. A whole book could and should be written on this theme. These remarks are rather heuristic and occasional, the fruit of spending my adult life reading and rereading Augustine, trying to do justice to him. Isidore of Seville said that the man who claims to have read all of Augustine is a liar and now, having indeed turned over all those pages and passed my eyes over all those words, I know and feel the truth of that more than ever.

It is useful to begin by looking at the narrative Augustine gives in the Confessions of his discovery of his God.[[5]] The sequence emerges if we look carefully at the way he reports the attraction the Manichees had for him and the way he resisted it. The questions the Manichees pressed hardest and with best effect on the adolescent Augustine were these:[[6]] where does evil come from (in other words, is God good)? does God have a body? how do we understand the seeming inconsistency between Old and New Testament versions of divine justice (in other words, is God just at all)? The short answers to these questions were simple: God is good, God is spirit, God is just.

But to find those answers took Augustine a decade's weary searching that only bore fruit after he came to Milan. Ambrose's sermons, with their emphasis on the Pauline distinction of letter and spirit as a means of interpreting the chasm between the Old and New Testament,[[7]] rescued God's justice. The first encounter with the books of the Platonists,[[8]] revealed to him a God who was not like the all-penetrating sea soaking into the sponge of material creation, but instead a spirit. The final stage in that revelation came on second



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