Wednesday, July 27, 2011

St. Augustine on the Nature of Time

When was the last time you heard a modern objection to belief in God answered by an ancient Christian? It doesn't happen often. In fact, it happens so rarely we sometimes mistakenly think we're the only Christians bombarded by puzzling objections to the Christian faith. The truth is, however, Christians have from the beginning provided answers to the deeper questions of faith. I don't think the question St. Augustine will answer for us today ever puzzled me because I believe in an eternal God, but it might trouble those with a lower view of God. Therefore, it is for their sake primarily that I will quote St. Augustine on the nature of time. Some ask, "What was God doing before he created the world? Why did it take God so long to create the world? How and when did the idea come into God's mind?" Follow along with me as we find the answer to our question in St. Augustine's discussion on God and the nature of time. Speaking of what it will be like in heaven, Augustine writes,

"Then shall I 'stand firm in the Lord,' unshakable, 'in my likeness to your truth.' Then will I no longer be troubled by the gibes of men whose spiritual dropsy makes them thirst for more than they can carry, those who ask what God was doing before he made heaven and earth, or when the whim took him to make something after not having made anything for so long. Grant them, Lord, the gift of reflecting on what they say, to learn that one cannot claim God did not make anything for so long, when there was no time to be long in. To say God did not act for so long is to say that he did nothing for a long [time], but time only began when he did make something. Let them stop talking nonsense and be drawn forward to the prior things, understanding that you are before all times, are of all times the eternal creator, that no times, no creatures, can be eternal with you, even if there are creatures [angels] of a special time....[You are] in an eternity that does not suffer alteration, for you are the eternal creator of all minds. Just as your knowledge of what you would create existed at the origin without any stages of your thinking, so your enactment of what was at the origin, creating heaven and earth, was not distracted between successive stages of your action. May the one who knows this testify to who you are, and the one who does not know it testify as well" (Confessions, XI.V.40).

Let us remember that Augustine wrote these words of instruction in love, not to poke fun at unbelievers. Let us not mock because we know God is eternal and they don't. Let us rather in love help those with a weaker understanding. "And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in hope that God will grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On St. Augustine's "Confessions"

Are you going through hard times in life and don't know where to turn? Well, I'm a 20 year old university history student fascinated by the history of my Faith. Ever since I began studying the history of Christianity, my heart has been filled with increasing wonder at God's amazing work in healing hearts throughout the centuries. When I was hit by the weight of 2000 years of Christianity, I realized what I hope you will too: we do not stand alone in the faith. We come from a long line of the Christian faithful who walked with God through the same pains, struggles, and turmoils we experience daily. When we feel hopeless, we should never lose sight of the faithful who came before us. Whenever we feel lonely or depressed, we have 2000 years of Christianity to lean on, two thousand years of peoples and faces to learn and read about, 2000 years to wonder at God's compassion and grace to the lowly human race. I learn from early Christians because they inspire me to live in my day like they did in theirs. If there was one biblical passage I could apply to the study of the church fathers, it would be Hebrews 13:7, which says, "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith." Therefore, let us, too, remember our leaders by studying the life of one prominent ancient Christian, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), African bishop and arguably the greatest and most influential of Western church fathers to ever walk this earth. The faith of this man screams off every word he ever wrote, if you ever get a chance to read his works. Just to acquaint you with the life of this great man (made great not by his own works but by Christ's grace working within him) let me give you an excerpt from his most intimate work, "the Confessions," the longest literary prayer and personal testimony in our canon of great Christian writings (over 350 pages long). You have a lot to learn from this saint, faithful Christian. St. Augustine provides for us an example to imitate when he ends book 10 of his "Confessions" by bringing it all back to Christ, our healer in times of distress. The wounds we have in this life are nothing compared to the wounds our Christ bore for us; this is what Augustine saw, and this is what we too should see. This, above all, is why we should turn to Christ alone in times of distress. Please join me in an extended reading and be encouraged to run to Christ. Do you have doubts about life? Are you so confused that you don't know what's real anymore? Have you grown weary of the toil of this world? Well, speaking of how to find God in the greatest moments of doubt, Augustine saw the need for a mediator between God and man to break that dividing wall of hostility between us and God. The answer to our problems lies not within ourselves but within a mediator, one who can reconcile us men back to the holy God. This mediator is Jesus Christ, the only one who lift up our spirits and bring us back into a favorable relationship with God. Augustine writes, 

67. "Who will help me to rejoin you, God? Should I employ angelic agencies? If so, by what approach? What forms should I submit? Many, of whom I have heard reports, have tried this, who wanted to return to you but felt unable to do it themselves. Addicted to the lure of occult visions, they met only with delusion. Lifted up by pride in their learning, with swelled chest rather than humbly beaten breast, they fell in with comrades of a similar disposition, fellow conspirators in pride-- 'the masters of this lower air'-- who befuddled them with black arts in their quest for a purifying mediator, who was not to be found there. Their mediator was the devil, that 'changeling into an angel of light,' whose incorporeal state had a potent charm over their proud corporeality. They were mortal and sinning, where you, Lord, to whom they were haughtily seeking reunion, are immortal and sinless. A mediator between God and men should be in some way like God, in some way like men, lest in these two respects he should be similar to men but far from God, or similar to God and far from men, and fail to be their meeting point. That false mediator [the devil], whose pride was rightly misled by your hidden judgment, does have one thing in common with men--sin--and would like to be seen as having one thing, too, in common with God: he pretends to immortality because he is not clothed in mortal flesh. But since 'the wages paid for sinning is death,' he is like men in this as well, and is condemned to death.'

68. The true mediator, revealed to us only by the secret of your pity, and sent to teach us lowliness by example, is 'Christ Jesus, mediating between God and men'-- placed between mortal sinners and the immortal innocent, mortal with men, innocent with God. By the justice linking him to God, he can give to sinners, linked to him by redemption, a reprieve from death that he willingly shared with them, since the wage paid to innocence is life and peace. He was revealed to the holy men of antiquity, so that they could be saved by faith in his suffering to come, as we are redeemed by faith in his sufferings undergone. He is our mediator in terms of likeness as a man, but not as the Word of God, who is equal (not like) to God-- he is 'God in company with God,' though there is only one God. 

69. What love you bore us, best of fathers, in 'not sparing your only son, but giving him over for us, ' the sinful! What love you bore us, since for our sake, though ' he did not think equality with you a usurpation, he became obedient even to the point of dying on a cross.' As the only 'free man among mortals,' who had 'power to lay down his life and to lift it up again,' he became both victor and victim for us, victor because victim, both priest and sacrifice for us, priest because sacrifice, making your 'servants become sons,' because he is both son to you and servant to us. My hope in him is not empty, since you will 'heal all symptoms left by my sins,' through him 'who sits at your right hand' and interposes himself for us-- without whom I had despaired, since sin's symptoms in me are many, many and severe, but stronger is your medicine than they. We might have taken the word of God to be too far above us for any traffic with men, and been without hope for ourselves, had he not 'become flesh and taken up his dwelling with us.' 

70. Ground down by my sins and by the weight of my sorrow, I troubled my heart with thought of escape into the desert, but you forbade it and strengthened me by saying: 'This is the reason Christ died for all, that those who live should no longer live in themselves but in him who died for them.' So now, Lord, see how 'I throw all my worry over to you,' to 'live in wonder at your scripture.' My 'ignorance and sins you are familiar with,' but teach me and heal. It was your Only-Begotten Son who 'bought me with his blood,' and 'in him are secreted all riches of wisdom and knowledge.' Let no haughty ones crow over me, since I know 'at what cost I was purchased'-- I eat it, drink it, give it out, and want in my neediness to be filled with it, among those who 'eat and are filled,' since 'those in quest of the Lord shall praise him.'"

St. Augustine found the grace of God more than sufficient to deal with his sins, to heal his broken and troubled conscience. Let us, too, find freedom from the guilt of our sins in the grace of that mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus. Let us imitate Augustine's "Confessions" and let us likewise make the right confession by falling on our faces and confessing our own sins before the Lord. "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1).