Monday, May 08, 2006

St. Augustine and the Sack of Rome

I said in an earlier post that there have been quite a few examples of theologically creative periods during times of decline, and I mentioned St. Augustine as an example. Of course I could also have mentioned the Old and the New testament. But I’m doing a little reading on St. Augustine at the moment, for a forthcoming Swedish translation of some of his letters I’m working on. I found an interesting chapter in Peter Browns excellent biography on how Augustine reacted to the news of the Sack of Rome in 410 (a typos of September 11th, maybe?).

Augustine is the one of his contemporaries that really reacts to this event in a series of sermons and letters and of course the City of God. It seems Augustine’s general advice was to turn one’s gaze inwards, not in attempt to ignore the political turmoil around him, but to be able to handle it. He likened the pressure of the events to the pressure in a olive press that served to produce a pure oil. He did not se it as a punishment for any particular sin, but he did connect it to general guilt of humanity.

For Augustine this meant that Christians should not try to avoid the suffering by trying to escape it. Instead he promoted activity in face of decline. He looked towards the future, rather than the past, and painted vivid pictures of the heavenly Jerusalem in the minds of his listeners. By living under the intense pressure of this world, the Christians were preparing for the coming world.

Augustine felt he lived in an old world, a world that was no longer at the height of its strengths. This was not something one should be surprised at: the world followed the same pattern as everything living. Instead one should look to Christ: “Do not hold on to the old man, the world; do not refuse to regain your youth in Christ, who says to you: “The world is passing away, the world is losing its grip, the world is short of breath. Do not fear, Thy youth shall be renewed as an eagle” (Sermon 81, 8.)

As I said in an earlier post, eschatological speculation is something that tends to arise in times of crisis. This can be destructive if it serves to build up the esteem of a closed community by distancing oneself from the rest of society. But eschatology can be a lot more than this. It is one of the most effective forms of social critique for theologians. By saying something about the coming world one is implicitly saying something about what is wrong in this one. And by establishing a sense of belonging to the coming world one enables a life in this world that is not stuck in the “system” of this world.


James said...

For me, it's always seemed like "eschatology" denoted a sense of conrete time. Even Jesus, an apocalyptic teacher, taught that eschatological worldviews denoted an over-arching sense of time. Human time? God's time? Human history as a whole? How do you define such a term? I find it rather silly to think that God's "time" (if we can even call it that) is the same as humanity's "time." Rather, if by eschatological you mean, perhaps, the completion of humanity through God's divine plan, then I would be in agreement with your reading of Augustine. How do you think Augustine saw this same point?

Patrik said...

Augustine was the first one to make clear that God existed outside of time as we know it, IIRC. Eschatology to me is two things: It is the belief that history will make sense from the point of view of its compeletion; and it is the formulation of a world that is not based on the weaknesses of this world. Any speculation about the future world obviously do not have that much to do with what life after death will actually be like. I doubt human beings can even imagine an existance without time. Yet it is interesting to see what areas of life are usually pointed at when humans want to describe the coming world. Time is one such thing. Our bodies is another one. Then there are loads of social imagery. And the idea of perfect knowledge.

Skoegahom said...

I can relate to crisis theology as I am all too aware of it now. It's difficult to keep your eyes on Jesus and to keep the Blessed Hope in mind when you're feeling pain. Pain makes you beautiful, so claimed the Judybats. I'm somewhat concerned how much pain I can tolerate before I too am beautiful... Rob Bell claims in Velvet Elvis that we should be attempting to bring heaven to earth. Now that's going to take a lot of pain!

Patrik said...

Yeah, the idea of suffering as a method of improvement of character is problematical. First of all one should always be aware that it is way of interpreting pain, not an explanation of it. In other words, I think it is wrong to think of pain as something that God in general sends people for some higher cause that we can't see. However the ability to after the fact see that the pain one has suffered has proven to be something that makes wiser, humbler, or gives a possibility to closer identify with other peoples pain is invaluable, and the faith that this is the case with the pain one is feeling can be a source of strength.

But what one should avoid is to try to explain radical evil as the Holocaust or the Hiroshima bomb in terms of what good sideeffects they could possibly have is horrible. These events and other like them in our recent history really is something that the people in the ancient world, including those that wrote the bible, had not experienced, and this makes some of their ideas on evil problematical in our time.

drebro said...

Thank you for your profound thoughts on theology in our declining age, and for relating Radiohead's pessimistic brilliance to these ideas.
You said that the ancients and the biblical authors did not face evil and calamity like we have in the 20th century. That brought to my mind what Jesus said about the fall of Jerusalem (?) (and the end of the world-?), "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be." I think it is usually understood that Jesus is here speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and of the end of the age. If he is speaking of AD 70, it seems he is saying that event will be unparalleled by anything in history, even in the 20th century. In any case, I agree that there have been destructive events in recent history on a greater scale than in the ancient world, but I don't think that necessitates disregarding their ideas on the problem of evil. There is "nothing new under the sun," as Ecclesiastes says. Thanks again for your thoughts.

guillermo c said...

i'm taking a subject on western history and this insight was very helpful for an essay that i'm working on