Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hating the body

Recently some family members came across, in a Catholic circle (we'll leave it at that for the sake of anonymity), the idea that St Augustine is "anti-body," meaning he essentially espouses a "soul=good, body=bad" theology.

My family members were bothered. Isn't Augustine a doctor of the Church? they asked. How could he be so wrong on an essential teaching of the faith? Emails went back and forth, and I remained silent...until today! I finally weighed in on the matter. He's the effort, for what's it worth. Next time you hear someone trash-talk Augustine, remember this entry. I'll include the email to my family in it's original form.

Dear Fam,

I don’t know if you’re still thinking about the recent discussion over St Augustine. If you are, read on! I thought I’d make my own contribution to the discussion.

The basic question at stake, it seems, was whether St Augustine’s teaching is anti-body, perhaps tainted by the remnants of his former manicheism, whether implicitly or explicitly. Should we be suspicious of his teaching on the body?

It is good to remember that St Augustine wrote over a span of many decades, and in response to many different situations. But for my purpose here, I’m going to ignore the complexities of the development of his thought. It is true St Augustine was a disciple of the philosophy of manicheism before his conversion. This philosophy was strongly dualistic, meaning the universe was seen as divided into two great principles: light and dark, good and evil, spirit and body.

Later, Augustine was a disciple of Neo-Platonism, which saw the universe as a great chain of being, with the material reality of physical bodies being on the lower end of the chain. Death was an escape from the body, and entrance into the purely spiritual, and therefore better, realm.

But only a cursory reading of St Augustine’s Confessions, his autobiography, shows that he saw these philosophical forays as just that—dead-end paths from which he had been saved when he discovered Christ and the Church.

A theologian I once heard said, “Aquinas reads like a freeman; Augustine reads like a freed man.” Augustine was always conscious of his liberation from the bad tendencies. Still it is fair to ask if those tendencies (in this case, anti-body ones) remained in his thought despite himself, even into his years when he was a bishop.

As far as I can tell, Augustine’s teaching on the body reflects a nuanced and properly ordered understanding. He writes in his famous and fundamental Christian Doctrine:

“And when some people say that they would rather be without a body altogether, they entirely deceive themselves…For as, after the resurrection of the body, having become wholly subject to the spirit, will live in perfect peace to all eternity; even in this life we must make it an object to have the carnal habit changed for the better, so that its inordinate affections may not war against the soul.”

In writing this, Augustine draws claims that the body is in fact good, but unruly, inveterate. It is to submit to the spirit and so become what it is meant to be, which is fulfilled in the resurrection of the body. This whole section is set in the context of Augustine’s reflection on St Paul’s words, “No man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourishest and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church.” (Christian Dotrine, Chapter I, book 24).

Augustine teaches that we are to learn to “love the body”, provided it is in the proper way. He writes, “[Man] is to be taught, too, in what measure to love his body, so as to care for it wisely and within due limits.” (Christian Doctrine, Chapther I, book 25).

Augustine even sees the body as ingredient in the command to love God and neighbor “as thyself.” He writes, “Now, if you take yourself in your entirety—that is, soul and body together—and your neighbor in his entirety, soul and body together (for man is made up of soul and body), you will find that none of the classes of things that are to be loved is overlooked in these commandments….it is evident that our love for ourselves [including the body] has not been overlooked.” (Christian Doctrine, Chapter I, book 26).

From Augustine’s own words, it seems clear to me that his understanding of the body is consonant with the bulk of the great Christian tradition. The body is good, but not the highest good; it is an essential element of the human person, and destined for glory, albeit through the discipline of the cross.

From where comes the notion that St. Augustine is somehow anti-body?

I recently read an article from the scholar Eamon Duffy (in "Beyond the Prosaic", a collection of essays) in which he points out that much of the theology of the late 1960’s failed to understand Augustine’s very biblically rooted notion of the relationship between temporal and eternal things, between nature and grace. He claims that for these inadequate schools of theology any hint of ordering (or, God forbid, denying) the natural order of things or appetites to the supernatural, demands an automatic verdict of Manicheism. These strains of thought continue, no doubt, in thinkers today, including those within the Church.

Still, to be fair, the thought of St Augustine, though he is a doctor of the Church and a great saint, is not without some limitations. Joseph Ratzinger once wrote that Augustine did exhibit a tendency toward a “spiritualizing theology” which “caused him [St Augustine] great torment;” this spiritualizing, while in no way manicheism, prevented Augustine “from carrying their insights through consistently” (Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, 112).

In other words, the biblical principal that Catholic theology describes as “grace presupposes and perfects nature,” which runs like a thread from creation to incarnation to resurrection to the Church to the “new heavens and new earth,” deeply informs Augustine’s thought. We saw it above in his writings on the body. Still, he hesitates at times, and doesn’t carry this thread “all the way through” in some areas of thought. Ratzinger sees this inconsistency in Augustine’s thought, for example, evidenced in Augustine’s highly suspicious attitude toward music (and the senses) in Christian worship.

Nonetheless, this occasional “spiritualizing tendency” should not make us lose sight of the bulk of Augustine’s teaching on the body’s basic goodness and capacity for redemption and glorification.

Afterall, St Augustine is a saint and a doctor of the Church, meaning that he was a holy man and that his writings are trustworthy. We should trust his teachings, and not be dismayed by lesser theologians who can't understand him and presume to insult him. It is never a good idea to be suspicious of a doctor of the Church.

Augustine understood well the potential problems that his previous philosophical loyalties posed against the Christian faith, and, as a Bishop and a teacher, he sought diligently to always follow the Scriptures and the Church’s teaching, wherever a conflict arose.

I hope this “paper” helps to rehabilitate the great Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, if his name was besmirched in any way in our little circle.

Monday, September 6, 2010

why do you believe?

Pope Benedict XVI released a special message for the young people of the world, with an eye to the upcoming World Youth Day in Spain. Filled with beautiful truth and pastoral wisdom, there is one theme that particularly struck me:

How can faith in Jesus Christ become mature, "grown-up," authentic?

I recently visited a univerisity campus in which a speaker asked a group of Catholic students if they believed that Jesus Christ is God. They all said yes.

But then he asked why they believed this, and no hands went up. A few feeble attempts to defend their belief (e.g., "the Bible says so..."; "My parents told me..."; etc.) and the speaker effortlessly swatted away the responses like flies.

He concluded: "Most of you believe because your mommy and daddy told you to." The room was silent. These students, mostly college freshmen, realized how truly immature their faith was. It demonstrated how and why so many young Catholics weakly surrender their tradition and feebly acquiesce to whatever ideology the herd happens to be feeding on at the moment.

The Holy Father knows this grave situation among many of our young people, and offers us young people a real solution: because faith is knowledge of God, we must come to real and personal knowledge of God. This is how faith becomes mature.

Pope Benedict says as much, in his Aug 6, 2010 letter to youth:

Enter into a personal dialogue with Jesus Christ and cultivate it in faith. Get to know him better by reading the Gospels and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Converse with him in prayer, and place your trust in him. He will never betray that trust! “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 150).

The Holy Father knows how dangerous and ultimately fruitless childish faith is, and how as we reach a certain age, we cannot believe because "our mommy and daddy told us." By personally encountering Jesus Christ in prayer, the Gospels, and in the teaching of the Church, an immature faith--which fails so many high school and university students today--becomes mature and true. The Pope writes:

Thus you will acquire a mature and solid faith, one which will not be based simply on religious sentiment or on a vague memory of the catechism you studied as a child. You will come to know God and to live authentically in union with him, like the Apostle Thomas who showed his firm faith in Jesus in the words: “My Lord and my God!”.

This is no abstract theory for the Holy Father. He himself knows the great interior struggle that this poses for young people, but also that it is a hopeful struggle. He describes this with respect to his discernment as a young man about whether God was really calling him to be a priest or not. The Pope writes:

Here, once more, I think of my own youth. I was somehow aware quite early on that the Lord wanted me to be a priest. Then later, after the war, when I was in the seminary and at university on the way towards that goal, I had to recapture that certainty. I had to ask myself: is this really the path I was meant to take? Is this really God’s will for me? Will I be able to remain faithful to him and completely at his service? A decision like this demands a certain struggle. It cannot be otherwise. But then came the certainty: this is the right thing! Yes, the Lord wants me, and he will give me strength. If I listen to him and walk with him, I become truly myself.

Faith is a kind of certainty, although because it deals with knowledge of God, it is different from the empirical or mathematical certainty that serves us in other areas of knowing. This is why access to prayer, divine Revelation, and the tangible gifts of the Church and the Sacraments are essential components.

When high school or college students come to me, their priest, and confess that they are "losing their faith," or "having doubts," I respond without any surprise; in fact, I try to reflect a fatherly hope that their faith is ready for new maturity.

Like a child bursting out of his toddler pants, they know something doesn't fit. Their pants are fine; they are just too small, suitable for a younger sibling. Often, though, they are uncertain that more age-appropriate faith is either real or accessible to them.

So I encourage them to describe their faith, and almost every time we discover together that is nothing wrong with their faith. It's just that their faith is appropriate for a nine year-old. It lacks intellectual content, a capacity to be rationally defended, a clear connection to action and values, and has little motivational power in their daily life.

Losing that faith is, in a certain sense, a necessity--provided that the young person is ready to embark on the struggle involved when God calls faith to mature.