Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Augustine and Living with Platonism

Augustine, of whom we owe much, whom greatly influenced Luther never overcame his neoplatonic past. Some attribute to Augstine the bringing of Hellenism to the west. Sin, for Augustine would not be “an innate disease, full of evil lust and inclination.” But rather as a more “inner disruption of man.” Some have suggested the word “orientation” to describe the way Augustine saw salvation and standing before God.


In a meditation on evil in his book, Confessions, Augustine writes, “I worked my mental vision up out of the depths, but was soon engulfed again. After each effort, I was again and again engulfed. What helped lift me up toward your light was a consciousness of myself in the act of choosing, as certain to me as the act of living.” The surrounding context about the revelation of evil is filled with personal and independent reflections regarding knowledge of evil. Misunderstandings, and personal failing and renewed discipline and striving are seen as catalysts wherby one is brought into closer communion with God.

There is therefore an upwards driving movement so that one might find his way home, to Godliness. Regarding salvation, Augstine writes, “You guiding, I entered my own recesses, though only you, helping me, made that possible. Entered there, I could see, so far as I could see anything with my poor soul’s vision, something beyond my soul’s vision, and beyond my mind, an always – unfailing light – not the light common to all our physical vision, nor simply like that but on a grander scale, as if it just got brighter and brighter, till nothing else could be seen. To know truth is to know this light, and to know this light is to know eternity. This is my God – eternal truth, and true love, and loved eternity, toward whom I ASPIRE night and day. In my early STAGE of knowing you, you LIFTED me far enough to see there is something to be seen. Your BRILLIANCE, striking my gaze, blinded its feebleness, and I shivered between affection and apprehension. I realized how far away I was, still, in the land of shadows. Yet from YOUR FAR HEIGHT I heard your call.”

This type of language calls to mind the a plethora of new-age religions foccued on “One” off away in the greater expanse of the universe and the human vessels floating around in outer space hoping to catch a jet stream to sail closer to God – an obsessiveness with proximity. Augustine’s language is centered around this understanding of proximity, of distance, great heights, and constant movement regarding one’s interaction with the Divine.

Thankfully with article 4, we do not have to live in this perpetual fear or uncertainty regarding our justification and standing before God. The funny thing with neo-Platonism is that immediate knowledge of the “absolute” or communion with “one” is not bound up with any particular discipline. So for Augustine his communion with the divine is through lofty thoughts, an orientation towards God, and movement of the human spirit through divine meditations that work their way up into the heavens. But for Goethe his divine communion is through nature whereby divine symbols are manifested and revealed by the beating of the human heart, the beauty of a rose petal, or other signs in nature which have an underlying intrinsic quality of divine revelation, shedding light on the universe and all things divine.

The neo-Platonism which we receive from Hegel suggests a movement toward the Divine by particular events in history which merge the Absolute with the individual consciousness.

I think it is worth noting these individuals because we live in a religious culture of neo-Platonism where Hegel, Kant, Schelling, Spinoza and others still hold a great influence over the church – even in Lutheran enclaves. It is here where the relationship of the soul and body has been wholly evisecerated. It is common for neo-protestants to deny the virgin birth and the bodily presence of Christ at the Lord’s supper.

This neo-platonism – with this separation of body and soul, I believe, contributes to how one might psychologically not object to abortion, euthanasia, adverse cosmetic surgeries and the other abhorrent abuses of the human form. The theology of the body and presence of Christ bodily as he comes to us today in the church is the only way to understand our own bodies as to how one lives out his life as both sinner and saint. That we assume heavenly yet physical bodies and eat in drink in paradise is supremely offensive to the modern mind. For them all things visible and tangible are seen as transitory and therefore of little concern while the soul is infinite and of divine value. This relationship is attributed to Christ as well. It is in this way that some might lock Christ up in heaven. The physical cannot be eternal and that which is eternal cannot be physical or assume a transitory form.

The church has been battling this faulty theological axiom for hundreds of years. That which is spiritual, and immaterial is good and holy while that which is of the earth, that which is from creation, that which is natural is ungodly, low, and inherently evil.

The great thing with the reformation and the confessions is that we do not have to deal with any of this mess. We have a firm foundation to confess and teach against a world that still thinks like drunken Greeks at their own symposiums. Furthermore, we hold to a set of confessions which rightly stands in direct contrast to the widely held and accepted conclusions of the enlightenment regarding this relationship between the body and the soul which is reconciled in the body of Christ. In this way justification is a matter within Himself - His very Body - in we are called by grace into.

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