Friday, February 1, 2013

Augustine and the Old Testament

I’ve been reading Augustine’s Confessions again for a seminary class – who knows how many times through this trip makes it. Perhaps it’s just a consequence of my particular interests in the Old Testament, but it seems to me that these scriptures constituted a major hurdle for Augustine’s complicated conversion to the catholic Christian faith. He – along with the Manichaeans and the educated pagans of his day – was scandalized by the crude folk-tales of the Old Testament (so Peter Brown, p. 48). The Bible’s inelegance was one thing: admittedly, in Augustine’s day, the prose of the available (pre-Vulgate) Latin translations was rather rough, but the coarseness of its style in comparison with the polish of the classical rhetors was bound, no matter how delicately rendered, to elicit Augustine’s disdain. And the behavior of the Old Testament heroes – their polygamy, murder, and animal sacrifice – further alienated him. But the worst, perhaps, was the view of God Augustine saw contained therein. Peter Brown writes about the moral or characterological aspect of Augustine’s theological problem:
Above all, as a serious and sensitive young man, Augustine could abandon the terrible father-figure of the Old Testament. The Manichaean system studiously avoided the acute ambivalence, that was later to be so important in the old Augustine’s image of his God – a Father, that is, one who could be, at one and the same time, a source of tender generosity, and of punishment, vengeance, and suffering. In Manichaeism, the stern Jehovah of the Jews was rejected as a malevolent demon; and the Patriarchs, as dirty old men (39).
Augustine would subsequently, of course, come to be able to swallow the Old Testament through the allegorizing efforts of Ambrose of Milan. In undergraduate I wrote a paper on the way in which, in fact, the story of Augustine’s change of heart with the regard to the Old Testament tracks with the larger trajectory of his ontological views: basically, Augustine later understood his inability to appreciate the Old Testament as one symptom of his broader pathology, namely, a toxic fixation on the temporal. Just as he treated all material realities as ends in themselves rather than with a love proportionate to their (low) place in the hierarchy of being, so he also read the Old Testament figures too literally – rather than with reference to the spiritual realities for which they stood as ciphers.

Regardless how satisfactory or not that solution is, I have been thinking afresh on this go through Confessions that Augustine’s doctrine of God collides even more basically with the Old Testament than I had heretofore realized – more basically than anything outlined above. Confessions is nothing if not the story of a man’s emergence from more circumscribed and material conceptions of God into a more completely timeless, incorrupt, and infinite one. Maybe I’m wrong, but divine simplicity, if not articulated as such, appears to me to be the saving grace, the deus ex machina in Confessions (puns fully intended; also, somebody correct me on this one?). I have a more developed and earnest historical consciousness to thank for the clarity with which I see this radically simple, a-temporal God conflicting with some biblical depictions. In fact, sometimes the substantial Manichaean views which Augustine is at pains to reject closely resemble views on offer in the Old Testament, if it be considered literally. Thus, from V.11: “When I tried to think of my God, I could think of him only as a bodily substance, because I could not conceive of the existence of anything else. This was the principle and almost the only cause of the error from which I could not escape.” Other lamentations later in VII.1 echo and develop this sentiment: “I could not free myself from the thought that you were some kind of bodily substance extended in space, either permeating the world or diffused in infinity beyond it.” Even more eerily, Augustine sometimes describes God’s body as “transplendent,” that is, shining and glorious (sound familiar? cf. the Pentateuch, Ezekiel, etc)! Indeed, Augustine even says that “I also thought of our Savior, your only Son, as somehow extended or projected for our salvation from the mass of your transplendent body, and I was so convinced of this that I could believe nothing about him except such futile dreams as I could picture to myself” (V.10). The unfortunate corollary of this belief for Augustine was that he could not affirm the Virgin Birth, since this luminous substance could hardly touch or get mixed up with the substance of evil (matter). However, other readings I’ve done recently show that the early church’s vocabulary for envisioning Jesus as the glory of God, a uniquely perduring divine hypostasis, probably genetically derives from earlier Hebrew perspectives on divine embodiment and multiplicity that would mostly accord with the materialistic views Augustine grew out of. That is: the Old Testament probably sometimes assumes a God with some sort of embodiment, whose various physical appearances to humans represent localized versions of the divine self but not transformations somehow running against God’s truer (immaterial) nature. In a recent anthology on theologies of embodiment in the Hebrew Bible (ed. S. Tamar Kamionkowski and Wonil Kim), biblical scholar Esther Hamori writes about ’ȋš (Hebrew: “man”) theophanies in Genesis: occasions when God comes to people in human form (rather than in some kind of angelic semi-divine avatar or in a dream). After setting forth this idea and carefully exploring its (limited) uses within Christian-Jewish dialogue, she says
The Christian doctrine of the incarnation should not affect our view of early Israelite religion…Recognition of the ’ȋš theophany should, however, affect our understanding of the New Testament picture of incarnation. The ’ȋš theophany is different from Canaanite and other Near Eastern material: it reflects an expression of a deity in anthropomorphically realistic form for the purpose of divine-human communication in a way that is unattested in the literature of Israel’s neighbors. The Christian concept of incarnation is a natural outgrowth of this Israelite idea. It is a picture of anthropomorphic realism to its fullest extent, encompassing the entire lifetime of a named character (181).
Benjamin Sommer writes in his book on divine bodies that “no Jew sensitive to Judaism’s own classical sources…can fault the theological model Christianity employs when it avows belief in a God who has an earthly body as well as a Holy Spirit and a heavenly manifestation” (135). That which Augustine theologically escaped from remains, in this regard, at least on the literal level, “on the books” for Christians.

What does this mean? I don’t know. But probably at very least the increased willingness of our theological age to think past and to think beyond the parameters of classical metaphysics means that we could approach the theological perspectives of the Old Testament with a fresh amenability to hearing in them a serious conversation partner for our own critical reflection on the being and action of God. If divine simplicity isn’t our holy grail anymore, then what have we to learn anew from reading the Bible as a means of finding out about God and God’s relation to humanity? To be sure, Augustine remains for me a theological hero, and someone whose thinking retains plenty of depth and vitality even beyond (or despite) his thoroughly Platonic conceptual scaffolding. But what if we don’t therapize these angular teachings of the Old Testament away, and consider the particular character of the Old Testament – all the deeds of its heroes, all its implicit assumptions and explicit assertions about God – as a range of voices commanding at least as much attention as some modern theologian or historic religious thinker? I think we’re only beginning to get round on an answer to these kinds of questions. Conversely, I wonder: what does it mean when our theologians speak but haltingly, awkwardly, and hesitantly of this whole portion of the Bible? If their fluency in the language of the Old Testament has atrophied and pidginized? In what ways do our theological discourses sit at some distance from whatever affirmations we make of the normativity of our two-testament canon? Can we get beyond Augustine's (later mollified) disdain for the religious primitivity and theological dubiousness of these writings? At any rate, I just wanted to point out the collision I have been seeing between Augustine and the Bible – a conflict he believed was surmountable, but which in the end I hold that he underestimated.                                     

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