Monday, December 03, 2007

A little Augustine on Pantheism, Evil, and Platonism

Before Augustine became a Christian he had to overcome some serious intellectual problems. One of Augustine’s problems was his material conception of God. Even though Augustine did not conceive of God in the shape of human body he imagined him as something pervading all physical space of the world and continuing infinitely outside the world. Peter Kreeft calls this the ‘blob god’ because it envisions God as some sort of cosmic blob that encompasses everything. Augustine’s understanding of the real was limited to the external world of space and time, materialism, by which anything beyond lacked real existence. This hypothesis created a pantheism by which the more matter something contained, the more God it contained. Thus an elephant contained more God than the sparrow.

Since Augustine envisioned God surrounding and permeating all real and imagined bodies yet infinite in all directions, Augustine struggled to understand how evil originated. The second problem Augustine faced, the existence of evil, challenged him to question the corruptibility of God and/or creation. Influenced by Manichaeism, Augustine fought the idea that evil substances exist parallel to the existence good substances, and our souls suffer evil by becoming enslaved in flesh. This dualism made “it more acceptable to say your substance suffers evil than that their own substance actively does evil.” (Confessions).

Augustine dealt with the problem of evil and his sponge theory of God by reexamining the nature of God and creation. Based off the premise that God is the highest good and the incorruptible is better than the corruptible, Augustine concludes that God is incorruptible, immaterial, immutable, and evil cannot originate in God. God as the supreme Good makes all creation good, but created beings are lesser goods in comparison to God. Furthermore, neither evil nor matter could pre-exist God because this would make him less omnipotent by his reliance on something co-eternal to himself. God would no longer be the supreme Good.

Influenced by platonic philosophy and through a process of inspection, Augustine turned inward to his own mind. He went from external bodies to inward perceptions next ascending to his power of reasoning. In his reason he saw the power of judging values and discerned the immutable light, God, which transcended his mind and made his knowledge possible. In the hierarchy of being Augustine imagined God as the supreme good, man as a lesser good which could have immaterial ideas, and the rest of material creation as a lesser good but without immaterial ideas. God did not make all things equal, but he did make them all good. God is not infinite in the physical sense, but he holds all creation in existence by his power. Nor does He suffer the evil that creation does.

Evil is not a substance in itself but a corruption of something created good. Augustine links evil to a perversion of the will. All created things are good by the nature of their existence. Wickedness is “a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, …God, towards inferior things” (Confessions). Evil is choosing lower goods over the greatest good, God, by which the will orients itself towards nothingness.

The intellectual conversion of Augustine came when he started to focus inward rather than towards the external and temporal world of space and time. Platonic books and philosophy helped him make this transition. In fact, platonic philosophy gave him a perspective and context by which he could understand God’s transcendence; of course Augustine would not inherit the pagan beliefs of the Greeks. With other Church Fathers, like Irenaeus, Augustine was willing to accept truth wherever it was to be found, even in pagan texts, but not to the exclusion of true belief in Christianity and God. In a way, Christianity gave Augustine the content of his thought and platonic philosophy gave him a way to think about it. But philosophy itself cannot provide the fundamental truths about God nor provide the grace and humility that one needs to understand these truths.

1 comment:

Paul Cat said...


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