This blog could have been called “Wisdom from the Ancients,” and be a first installment in a series of reflections on the topic, ‘how do we – from an earthen, naturalistic and poetic perspective – glean the glimmers and seeds of wisdom from ancient and mediaeval writers?’ Here, though, I want to start with a more focused, personal reflection, one that might illumine the wider subject. I don’t usually write personal process blogs, and I promise not to get too profusively subjective; I will try and address issues of interest to any reader who is on the way to wisdom—yet my experience with Augustine over the last 30 years is indicative of the kind of ‘reclaiming’ I would like to do in future blogs.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine have been a powerful touchstone in my spiritual life. I have read the text three times; once in college, once at age 30, when I was undergoing a conversion to the Catholic Church, and once in the late 90’s, at which time I was deeply immersed in the metaphors, myths and mysticism of Celtic spirituality. At each of these turnstile-like points in my walk, I was profoundly affected by reading The Confessions. For the last few years – since turning to a more naturalistic, ‘earthen’ approach to life and wisdom, I have wondered why that text affected me so, and why it remains something I remember fondly; even though I no longer frame my quest in religious metaphors and references.
Why did reading Augustine’s Confessions have such an impact on me?
I have recently been listening to a lecture course on The Confessions (published by The Teaching Company), and in these 24 lectures have found many things in Augustine worthy of reflection and even affirmation. My first impression of Augustine has been that he is a kindred spirit; he was a man much like myself; reflective, philosophical and always suspended between memory and anticipation—“on the way”—who at mid-life arrived at a place worth being. We are worlds apart in terms of our destinations in our wisdom’s quest; yet I still claim him as a kindred spirit; even – to use a Celtic term – an anamchara (“soul friend”).
Beyond a likeness in temperament and gifts, I’m somewhat struck by certain parallels between Augustine’s life and mine. We are both intellectuals, and we have both been on a journey for wisdom since we were very young. Augustine was initiated into the quest by reading Cicero when he was a teenager. I was initiated by an Introduction to Philosophy course I took in 1976, in my Freshman year in college. The whole thrust of that course circled around the dictum that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Though I’d been awakened, spiritually, at an even earlier age, and had begun to pursue wisdom through pagan myths and mysticism, Introduction to Philosophy that Fall brought the question of wisdom to the fore, and made me conscious of what I was seeking.
There s ia tendency for people who are seeking wisdom to get impatient with the quest; perhaps not even realizing that becoming wise requires a journey—and thus they latch onto anything that seems to offer ‘deep’ solutions or answers. Augustine went this way; moving from his initial enthusiasm for wisdom into Manichean philosophy and spirituality; I fell into Born-Again/Charismatic Christianity in the campus fellowships. Both of our moves stemmed from the desire for ‘answers’ to the ‘big questions’ and resulted from an impatience with the journey ahead. How can you know in your twenties how long it will take to become wise? We both wanted ‘answers now.’ We both wanted “wisdom now,’ which is the same thing as saying we wanted ‘wisdom without work;’ ‘wisdom without living.’ It was, in part, reading The Confessions that woke me out of my dogmatic slumbers at the end of the 1970’s and made me realize that the form of Christianity I’d fallen into was dogmatic, self-indulgent and completely superficial. Reading Augustine was like a breath of fresh air after all of the hyper-Christianity of the campus fellowships, and because of reading The Confessions I set out on a quest for a deeper faith, a more erudite Christianity; one that would ultimately satisfy my hunger for wisdom and also satisfy me intellectually. Before I got there, I declared ‘atheism;’ thereby divesting myself of the version of ‘God’ promoted by the leaders of the fellowships and early ‘Jesus festivals’ that we all attended.
Augustine and I both reached our more mature conversion to Christianity at age 30; I was reading The Confessions the summer I was sojourning near the Catholic Church. I was also reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain; a modern simile of The Confessions. I related to Augustine’s sense of ‘believing’ before he could accept the Gospel. Acceptance was blocked for both of us by intellectual conundrums. His were solved by embracing ‘the Platonists;’ mine by the tenets of the phenomenology and existentialism I’d begun to adopt in the early 1980’s, when first forging an understanding of the world through philosophy-without-religion. While there were sparks of wisdom in these philosophical ‘schools,’ both of them – by their emphasis on subjectivity and our ‘experience’ of the world (rather than what the world might objectively be like) – ultimately made me soft on ‘truth.’ I think, now, that I could never have completed my conversion to Catholicism without the philosophical self-justification that I found in phenomenology and existentialism.
I resonate – now as when I first read Augustine – with his desire to come to an intellectual approach to the Gospel; one that would stand up under scrutiny and would lead to a deeper adventure in faith than the crass “sign on the dotted line” Christianity of so many people in the pews. I identified with Augustine’s desire for the higher quest; the deeper journey—and ultimately for leaving ‘the world’ as soon as possible in order to come into union with ‘God.’ Like me, Augustine went through a monastic phase after his conversion at age 30. He lived with a group of like-minded converts until he was ready to walk out into the world again. I became a ‘secular’ monastic, doing the office, devoting myself in monastic ways to work and play, attending daily mass, going on monastic retreats, though I never had the privilege of actually joining a monastic community.
Like Augustine, I found Christ in myself and God in Creation at this stage of my life, and immersed myself in the Bible, in theology and in mystical experience. Unlike Augustine, however, after ten years of immersion I ‘woke up’ and walked away—owing to many factors, one of the main ones being the sense that the orthodox and even heterodox ‘Christian’ interpretations of ‘life’ based on ‘the Gospel’ did not stand up to close scrutiny. While a sophisticated, intellectual Christianity may have made more sense to an intellectually gifted person in the 4th century, a similarly sophisticated Christianity now falls short. There is so much that is lacking in even intelligent contemporary Christian theology. I’m not even going to start dealing with the religiosity of the masses; of born-agains and conservative prudes and the plethora of ‘individual believers’ and ‘faith warriors’ (“Just me and God against the world”) that you find everywhere you turn where I live. I’m considering here only the most sophisticated forms of theology and Christian self-expression – those you will find in the erudite volumes by Tillich, Barth, Bultmann, Moltmann, Schillebeeckx, and others. The reality they construct came to seem, to me, to be ‘unrealistic.’
While the most sophisticated Christians in Augustine’s day had incorporated the best of secular science, philosophy and experiential reflection into their thinking, piety and ultimately their ministry in the world, today the best and the most erudite among Christians seem to be just running in the rodent wheels of the mind-set formulated in the century before and after Augustine. There is little or no sense that these Christians can comprehend Christ in the presence of 3.8 billion years of evolving life on this planet; much less in the presence of a 13.75 billion year old universe. They still speak in the same cosmological and ontological terms and categories as the formulators of orthodoxy 1500 years ago!
In conclusion, I have to say that I still resonate with Augustine; we are a lot alike—but I have come to a very different place than he did. He ended up a bishop; sheperding many people. I walked through the static fields of theology and – after exploring them closely and deeply – found myself back ‘in’ Nature, studying the universe and contemplating human existence in terms that take me far beyond any organized religion. I still find the glimmers of wisdom in Augustine; insight into the way to wisdom—without accepting the place he arrived – and stayed – at.
This morning I finished the Augustine course, and am very contemplative in the wake of these 24 immersions in The Confessions! I’ve come away with a more balanced picture of Augustine, once again, and feel that I’ve reclaimed his human wisdom from the bathwater of religion. The last few lectures on Augustine’s conversion and his becoming a bishop once again resonated deeply with my own experience of the pathing of wisdom. The lectures on the books dealing with memory, time, biblical interpretation and the priestly account of creation (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4) made me realize once again just how much more sophisticated Augustine was than most Christians were then and are today.
I could not have listened to this course three or four years ago; I was too “one sided” into science and a naturalistic perspective; re-visioning myself. Now, however, I feel drawn toward reclaiming the wisdom from the great religious texts as I journey on down the road as a poetic naturalist. I am well beyond the seduction of religious belief, and felt no under-tow as I listened to these lectures. What I did find was a powerful pathos; in which I immersed myself—carrying me off into ventures in philosophical reclamation.
Yesterday I began to think of theology as a ‘signature’ of the human quest for transcendence. It is couched in language that is often as narrative as it is analytic; as psychological as it is poetic—the best of theology points away from the mundane and up toward the realm in which the human psyche can get lost in the ‘beyond’ that is not merely ‘here.’ Theology is a poetic, either fictional or philosophical – way of expressing the natural ability/tendency we have as human animals to move beyond ourselves—to go ‘out of the self’ in search of ‘the One’ that is Self and not-Self at once.
Given where I am, now, theology seems largely lame and as such would be unable to lift me once again into the heights_ yet I want to read a little, here and there, as I turn back toward science and mathematics in the coming weeks, and dabble in the language—to see what wisening embers might yet be encoded therein.