Saturday, January 12, 2019

Reflecting on Augustine's legacy to the Christian church



Words like accountability and transparency have become “de rigeur” in contemporary culture. Individuals are expected to perform, in their workplace, at a level that is both anatomized and monitored more deeply and persistently than at any time in history.

 The vestiges of scientific management, by which tasks are measured in time and productivity is assessed on every work shift, not only remain; they have been exacerbated through at least two primary forces. One force is the ubiquitous effort to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of every worker in order to reduce costs and maximize profit; another is the technological capacity to “monitor” (a polite word for “spy”) on workers, lest, God forbid, they might “goof off” and cost the employer a few pennies of wages.

In our shared obsession with individual behaviour, we have followed our power and control needs down the rabbit hole of micromanagement, often to the exclusion of very deep and seemingly permanent cultural, historical influences that may get a pass from our scrutiny.

One of the cultural forces that inhabits every breeze, tornado, tsunami, earthquake and volcano on every continent is the issue of sex. How “sex” informs our perceptions about gender relations, power symbols, cultural enlightenment, power politics, and even such intimate issues as self-esteem and self-image, is borne out in the literature of the centuries, the mores of each region, and the conception, gestation and birth of all forms of life of all flora and fauna including humans.

Central to this dynamic “energy force” is the theatre of the human being, both genders bring a sexual presence, identity, need and fantasy into each room we enter, at all ages, after puberty, in our lives.

And in those geographic regions colonized and inhabited by “Christian” missionaries, evangelists, ethicists, theologians and adherents to the Christian faith irrespective of the sect or denomination, a profound dependence (as opposed to debt) is due to the bishop of Hippo in North Africa, Augustine (354-430). Assessing that God was unknowable, Augustine wrote in the Confessions:

Late have I loved you Beauty, so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Behold you were within and I was without; and there I sought you, plunging unformed as I was into the fair things that you have formed and made. You were with me, and I was not with you, I was kept from you by the things that I would not have been, were they not in you. (Confessions, quoted in Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, 2009, p.119)
Augustine separates himself from God, and borrows a spiritual/ethical/moral insight from St. Paul, another Christian evangelist/founder, from Romans (7:15-20):

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law id good. As it is it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do. It is not longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

Augustine ‘claimed that the sin of Adam has condemned all his descendants to eternal damnation.’ (Armstrong, p.122) (Neither Jews nor Muslims accept this ultimately theological interpretation of the first two Chapters of Genesis which clearly sabotages humans from the start.) Needing that fatal flaw of original sin, Augustine offered that
“despite the salvation wrought by Christ, humanity was still weakened by what Augustine called “concupiscence,” the irrational desire to take pleasure in beings instead of God itself. It was experienced most acutely in the sexual act, when our reasoning powers are swamped by passion, God is forgotten and creatures revel shamelessly in one another…..Born in grief and fear this doctrine has left Western Christians with a difficulty legacy that linked sexuality indissolubly with sin and helped alienate men and women from their humanity. (Armstrong, p. 122) (Not to mention how it has alienated men and women from each other!)

And that legacy haunts every parish, mission and cathedral in every corner of the planet in which Christianity has planted its footprint. It is embedded in every legal code in western nations, and the courtrooms continue to be filled with a theological/ethical/moral pandemic virus that continues to serve as the definition of the moral character, how one behaves sexually. Young women, for example, are still raised on the cultural dichotomy of self-perception (as well as the social choice) as either a “virgin or a whore” (sometimes dubbed “angel or whore”)_ retaining a kind of depiction of reality that can only terrorize a pre-pubescent young girl. While there may be a modest “relaxing” of the most strict application of the sexual purity rules and expectations, nevertheless, the many instances of the Christian church are still living under the pervasive, dark, storm-threatening cultural cloud of shame and evil, around sexuality, for all who profess the Christian faith.

And the legacy, even if it were intellectually and spiritually appropriate back in the 4th century, has lost both its relevance and its foundational grounding in the nature on which so much of early church theology was alleged to have based; they called it natural law back then. In fact, many have written theological treatises denouncing Augustine’s narrow, frightened and life-defying heavy-handedness. So far from “not knowing the mind of God”, paradoxically, Augustine has openly and shamelessly pontificated what he believed was the sinister nature of all of the human creatures, “created in the image of God”.

The problem of sin, especially as it pertains to human sexuality, has plagued the Christian church from the 4th century, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the attitude, perception and critical parent factor in all bishops and church leaders. Seeking measures to secure and maintain control over members and adherents, the church abrogated the celebration of marriage to its purview, and to its parameters. Forbidding sexual relations in any relationships between men and women outside of marriage, the church effectively constructed a monstrous wall separating those who complied with their ruling and those who did not, for whatever reason, circumstance and motive. (Even in 2018, Trinity Western University in British Columbia has had to drop its previously announced requirement of all law students that they sign and commit to a covenant forbidding sexual relations outside of marriage, as a consequence of a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada.)

The fact that the impetus, urge, drive, fantasy for intimate sexual relations, not to mention the hard wiring to procreate in our DNA is incompatible with the “love of God for humanity” and the notion of humans being created in the image of God, twists both the mind and the spirit of anyone attempting to reconcile the two.
 Mentioned earlier in this space, Lionel Tiger, the American/Canadian anthropologist, writes in The Manufacture of Evil (1987), the following:

It is possible that we have been systematically misled about our morality from the beginning. Why should God have interfered with Eden as he did, evidently8 fort the dual offenses of sexual awareness and empirical scepticism, that forbidden fruit? And why blame poor Adam, whom after all God made? And why was what happened in Eden the “Fall”? And why were Adam and Eve so harshly and disproportionately ridiculed for their sexual frisson? Were not those perplexingly pleasurable nerve endings in their genitalia there for a purpose? Was orgasm an accidental spasm, which happened to be so mightily pleasing that, (later on, when churches got going) its occurrence or not could be held up as a measure of obedience to God?
This is mad. No wonder practitioners of the morality trades have so enthusiastically separated man from animal, culture from nature, devotion from innocence. If morality is natural, then you don’t need priests as much as you’re likely to enjoy being informed by scientists. If morality is a biological phenomenon, then it is mere insulting to harass mankind for its current condition because of an historic Fall in the past and a putative Heaven in the future. When spirituality became a special flavour and ceased being fun, when mystical congregation and speculation became instead a matter of bare knees on cold stone and varying renunciations: when involvement with the seasons and the other subtle rhythms of nature became formalized into arbitrary rituals governed by functionaries, then the classical impulse for moral affiliation became translated into something else: into a calculation of ethical profit and lose supervised by an accountant Church and a demanding God. A new tax was born. The Tithe. Ten percent for the first agents. (Tiger, p.32-33)

Many would argue that pitting Augustine and Tiger against one another on the same page is unfair, unwarranted and specious, given that there are some 1500 years of human history separating them, and that Tiger espouses his Jewish tribe, whereas Augustine was writing without the benefit of centuries of philosophy, theological insight and reflection, psychological consciousness and research, and scientific evidence. That argument has considerable merit, were it not for the fact that too many Christian churches continue to cling to the church’s regimen  that restricts sexual relations (between men and women) to the institution of marriage, especially performed by the church itself. Divorce, for example, continues to plague the British crown, likely to impede any attempt at coronation for the Prince of Wales.

Matthew Fox, in Original Blessing, has written that the teaching of original sin, has served empire-builders very well but that original blessing—the awareness of the goodness of creation must take precedence. The sacredness of creation, as the starting point of a new direction for Christian spirituality, for Fox, rendering all of us as mystics and prophets. Naturally, his perspective threatens the patriarchal corps of Christianity where anthropocentrism, control, pessimism and original sin ideology still hold sway.

Starting with Augustine’s negativity or with a problem, linked to a punitive, critical, exclusionary God, it would surprise no one that the crucifixion would be considered a “substitutionary atonement” in which Jesus takes the punishment that this angry God intended for humanity.

Imagine a twelve-year-old candidate for confirmation in a Christian church, wondering out loud if she is “good enough” to be confirmed by a visiting bishop! How incompatible is that insecurity and anxiety with the process of confirmation, the acceptance of that innocent young girl into the faith community of her parents’ and family church community! Imagine someone living outside of marriage, yet inside a common law union, because of any of a variety of reasons, (the church’s refusal to grant annulment, an unending divorce procedure etcetera) having a moment of epiphany that nudges him or her toward a conversation with a clergy, about the possibility of either or both a first or renewal of baptism, and then a confirmation. Without even picking up the phone, to make the call, that person feels the impulse of inadequacy and sinfulness, as the opening emotion, reflection and impediment to the proposition of making the call.

And then, pulling our camera lens back a little, to survey the landscape of a parish community on a Sunday morning just prior to an announced Eucharist… we see an individual clad in ripped pants, sole-less shoes, unshaven, with a tarpaulin-like worn winter coat clinging to his back and his unclean hair drooping over his coat collar…and then our camera pans across to the other side of the sanctuary, to a couple of women seated one in front of the other, heads locked in a private conversation, the occasional finger pointing toward the dishevelled man opposite.

It is not a stretch to almost hear the venom in the whisper:

“WHO is THAT? And WHAT is HE doing here? We simply cannot have that kind ruining the reputation of our little church! He obviously has nothing to contribute to our coffers!”

A few pews ahead of the two gossips, a young pregnant woman is listening to this diatribe, fully aware that her pregnancy is “out of wedlock” and she instantly grasps the kind of culture that pervades this parish. She was thinking before entering the church for the very first time, that maybe, just maybe, there might a sympathetic ear and shoulder in “God’s house” where she might be able to have her newborn baptized, in the hope that the father, who until now has shown no interest in his child, might wish to attend the ceremony. Perhaps, too, the ceremony might bring her parents around, both of whom are so far showing mere contempt for her irresponsibility in “getting pregnant” in the first place, that that “good-for-nothing-guy” caused.

It is in these rubber-meet-the-road situations that thousands of clergy are currently facing, even tomorrow morning across North America, Europe and parts of South America and Africa. And Augustine’s negative impact continues to ride roughshod over spiritual healing, family-relationship-rebuilding, parish development, and even the likely ignored aspect of addressing the bigotry, and the contempt of the two “sophisticates” on their rejection of the dishevelled man. After all, ranking the priorities in this single scenario demands a sensibility, a sensitivity and a maturity of judgement that has to include a consciousness that raising “cane” with the two gossips could result in their impulsive departure from the parish to the thunder of additional recriminations from the church “elders” and the termination of the regular cheques from those two women.

Nearly fifteen hundreds years have passed, and the length and breadth of millions of pages and gallons of ink have been committed to the perpetuation of the Augustine theology, itself a severe injustice not only to millions of men and women, but also to the prospect of a renewed Christian faith based on creation, beauty, love, co-creation and honest, forgiving acknowledgement of all the pain we each have caused and that has been meted out on us.

Tradition, stability, and permanence can and often are signs of evil begging for release, and new life.

Can and will that new life come within the walls of the Christian church? 

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