Today is the feast of St. Augustine the greatest thinker of the Western Church. Over the years I have read much of his work.
Augustine and Limited Salvation
Two themes have always struck me. First of all, he always interprets Scripture to make salvation as narrow as possible. “God wills all men to be saved” is for Augustine a tautology: God wills all to be saved whom he wills to be saved, which is a small, very small portion of the human race: those who are members of the Catholic Church and remain in grace at the end of their lives. The rest of mankind is a “massa damnationis.”
On one hand this has given the Western Church a zeal for conversion, but this conversion has frequently used means that have tarnished the Gospel. On the other hand it has given the Western Church a narrow, dark character that ends in sectarianisms, Calvinism, Jansenism, and a hardness of heart, In discussions of the possibility of universal salvation, it is clear that many Christians would be sorely disappointed if everyone were saved. They take as their model the Elder Brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Augustine and Time
But what fascinates me most about Augustine is his thoughts on time. A few years ago the Scientific American devoted an entire issue to time; is it real? Illusory? What is it? Does is always move in only one direction? Or can it move in the other direction? If not, why not? The issue concluded that the most profound thought on the nature of time was Augustine’s, and he regarded time as a mystery.
Does the past exist? But everything we know is in the past. Even the sensations of our own body take time to reach our brains. Light from the planets takes minutes to reach us, from the stars years, from the galaxies millions or billions of years. They all could have ceased to exist a million years ago, and we would not know it. If the past does not exist, then we know nothing of the present.
Time and space a creatures of God. Are their properties absolute? Can they, will they, be changed? Open theology fails to see that time exists in God, not God in time.
Can God change the past? What would that mean? He has promised to make all things new. Does that include space and time? Can he, will he, change the past? What would be the meaning of the struggles and sorrows of creation?
Reading Augustine forces one to struggle with some of the profoundest themes of theology and philosophy. It is Cross Fitness Training for the mind.
Augustine and Anglicanism
Augustine is many-sided; and two of those sides may be of special interest to those who worship in the Anglican tradition.
Augustine was above all the Doctor of Love. He examined the human heart and saw that disordered love was the cause of our alienation from God. We do not love as we ought, and therefore our lives are not what they should be.
A moment’s refection should convince us that our loves are disordered. We desire food: but how many of us struggle to eat only what and how much we should; and a handful (anorexics) do not eat enough. Our sexual desires are disordered; we desire those whom we should not desire, or do not desire our spouses enough and in the right way or desire pleasure detached from personal communion in holy matrimony. Wealth, reputation, comfort, knowledge – all good things in themselves – we desire in the wrong way.
And so the priest prays:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name.
What should we desire above all else? “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until we rest in Thee.”
And what does God command us:
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith.
THOU shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
So love is the center of God’s revelation.
Those who love are filled with unspeakable sorrow if they have injured the one they love. What must a parent feel, if he has even by accident killed his child!
And so our hearts are burdened by the thought that we have sought to injure the One who loves us, that indeed we have crucified Him.
ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life.
Therefore to my ear the Anglican use has an Augustinian flavor or emphasis; such things are not absent from the Ordinary Form of the Roman Liturgy, but the Anglican Use makes them more prominent.
PS. Someone just posted this quote from Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality:
“Grace to Augustine is that love which lies at the heart of his spirituality; it is that which, by its very nature, confers independence on the object of its love. It gives, compelling no return, it is the one force that cannot bargain, it is the opposite of irresistible passion, for it liberates rather than enslaves, creates not destroy, strengthens rather than weakens free volition: in more familiar language, ‘the service of God is perfect freedom.’ What Augustine is insisting upon is the first principle of all sound theology, that God acts first in both creation and redemption, and that his love is the force behind both. We are called to respond to that love, but because of frailty response is difficult, because of concupiscence we are drawn to other, unworthy objects of love. Therefore we need discipline, especially the disciplines of prayer: ascetical theology is the technique of loving God.”