When St. Augustine arrived in Milan in 384, he had grown dissatisfied with the Manichees, the gnostic sect with which he’d been affiliated for twelve years. On advice from friends, he began to read “certain books of the Platonists.” These helped him transcend his narrowly materialistic concepts to make room for a God who is not a thing, but is the source of the being of all things. This was an important step, but it brought its own dangers.
Striving to unite himself with the “things above” served, unfortunately, to puff him up with another form of arrogance. It gave him the illusion of having a privileged place outside the world from which to look down upon it. In looking for God “above,” Augustine forgot to look for God “below.” The Incarnate Christ – whose birth we celebrate in this Christmas Season – taught him to find God not only “up” but “down”: not only in the upper reaches of the mind, but in matter and the created realities of the world.
So although Augustine learned much from the “books of the Platonists,” equally interesting is what he says he did not find there. He found nothing about the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us; nothing about God emptying Himself and taking upon himself the form of a servant; nothing about Jesus humbling himself and becoming obedient unto death, even the death on the Cross. “Where was that love which builds upon the foundation of humility?” he wondered.
This was a humility based not on despising the body, but on loving it rightly; not dismissing one’s sins as “fleshy” but accepting full responsibility for them; not attempting to raise oneself up to the divine, but acknowledging one’s limitations and sins and the need for forgiveness and divine help.
And that was the second thing Augustine failed to find in the books of the Platonists: an account of God’s grace. This he found instead in the letters of St. Paul.
Soon, he would no longer seek to number himself among an elite group of philosophers who sought to arrive at the upper reaches of Plato’s “divided line” through their own intellectual efforts. He would henceforth, instead, place his faith in the “Creator of all things visible and invisible” who had plunged Himself down into the material fabric of His creation in love in order to raise it up in love.
For Augustine, the “divided line” was no longer simply a vertical ascent. “Salvation” was now “salvation history.” The line was turned on its side, as it were, and became the story of God’s entrance into history – His self-revelation and redemption of mankind realized in time and in the events of human history. On this understanding, humans must do their part, but their part was made possible by a divine love that existed beyond our merits and efforts. Thus to be raised up, one first had to become “like Christ” and embrace the lowly, the poor, the meek, and the humble. One had to unite oneself to His body and die to one’s own self (and selfishness) in order to be raised with Him into God’s eternal communion of love as the Son is united to the Father.
Forced to consider the significance of the Word becoming flesh, Augustine came to several important conclusions. The first was that matter is not evil or the source of evil. To think so is to mistake a cause with an effect. It’s not the woman’s body that causes the man to sin; it’s his inability to appreciate the beauty of the whole person: body, soul, spirit, and mind. Ironically, Augustine was never able to give up his addiction to sex while he was a member of the body-hating Manichees. This freedom was only granted him when he recognized that the body isn’t a prison, but a tool with which the soul expresses its selfless love for God and neighbor.
So too, with the rest of the material world: it isn’t a prison from which we must be liberated. With the Incarnation, it becomes the locus of our salvation. We’re not saved from the world; we’re saved in and with the world. We’re saved from a dysfunctional relationship with the world wherein we seek to use it for our own self-aggrandizement in an attempt at self-creation and self-deification.
God has given an order to Creation, and it’s important that we conform to that order. We do not achieve our flourishing by an escape into another world, or by forcing an alien order onto this world. We flourish, and the world flourishes with us, when we understand the order God intended and discipline ourselves to preserve and extend that order. And this new life, this access to a new order and harmony, isn’t something we create or attain ourselves; it’s something given to us from beyond the world, by a fundamental power of creative love, which transcends our own capacities.
Christian redemption, therefore, is a transformation of Creation and of the person, not an obliteration or a negation. We cannot destroy nature to realize our human destiny. Nor can we control nature completely and harness it to our own selfish ends without concern for the well-being of others. The Christian message is that we can only realize our human destiny when we live in accord with the natural order God created, understanding it “incarnationally” and treating it “sacramentally,” as an “instrument” and “embodiment” of God’s love.
It must have been quite something for a man with an intellect as sophisticated as Augustine’s to recognize that the entire conceptual world of ancient philosophy had been turned on its head by a single child in an animal feeding trough in Bethlehem – one who was, beyond all human expectations, the Word become flesh. It’s no easier today, although perhaps no more difficult. But if the story is true – and it is – it’s nothing less than the key to the meaning of all things.
*Image: St. Augustine Between Christ and the Virgin by Peter Paul Rubens, 1615 [Academy of Fine Arts, Madrid]
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