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Saint Augustine of Hippo

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Saint Augustin et Sainte Monique

Saint Augustin et Sainte Monique (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

St. Augustine is an influential figure in Christian history, especially Christian theology. He is also one of the four Latin Doctors of the Catholic Church. Another theological luminary, St. Thomas Aquinas, makes frequent reference to Augustine.

What makes Augustine special for many Christians is the fact that he converted to the faith, leaving behind a life of hedonism and soul searching. In his Confessions Augustine says that before he converted to Christianity he was a libertine, flatterer, hedonist and dabbler in just about every philosophy known to man during the early years of Christianity.

Before converting he was a prominent scholar and teacher. He had read Plato and Cicero, and became especially fond of Manichaeism.

In 372 he had a son out of wedlock, Adeonatus.

The story has it that Augustine’s saintly mother, Monica (now Saint Monica), prayed for his conversion for many years until he finally “saw the light.” He says a passage from the New Testament hit him hard and he quickly embraced his new faith. Adeonatus followed.

English: augustine at the school of tagaste

Augustine at the school of tagaste (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Already a big shot, Augustine was ordained in 391 and leveled an attack on the non-Christian religions of his day, especially Roman paganism. In The City of God (413-426) he asks the valid question: If the Roman gods are so powerful, why did they allow Rome to fall? In that book he writes of two cities, one ruled by God and inhabited by the chosen people, the other ruled by the Devil and inhabited by those lost to darkness.

Augustine also refuted the Christian heresies of Donatism and Pelegianism.

His understanding of time is sometimes likened to that of Albert Einstein, Carl Jung and New Age thinking, but this is arguably a mistake. Augustine’s view of time seems more rooted in a simpler kind of old-world thinking. In a nutshell, Augustine believes that God exists above and beyond creation in an eternal present. But this does not mean that the past and future somehow exist within creation, as some New Age and New Physics thinkers suggest. Instead, time for Augustine is a subjective experience discerned through motion and change.

If the past and future do exist…they are not there as future of past, but as present.” He continues “…it is only possible to see something which exists. So when we speak of foreseeing the future, we do not see things which are not yet in being, that is, things which are future, but it may be that we see their causes or signs, which are already in being.” From this he concludes, “…it is abundantly clear that neither the future nor the past exist, and therefore it is not strictly correct to say that there are three times, past, present, and future. It might be correct to say that there a that there are three times, a present of past things, a present of present things, and a present of future things.¹

c. 1480

c. 1480 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Augustine, God knows every event that has happened, is happening now, and which will happen, not because God is all events and time but because God creates and exists above and beyond all events and time. God, therefore, has perfect knowledge of past, present and future. Along these lines, some writers say that all knowledge about creation exists “in the mind of God.”²

Again, this is an important distinction often left unexamined. Augustine’s view of God differs from theorists who associate God with a so-called “world soul” (anima mundi) and from pantheistic thinkers claiming that Creator and Creation are identical or two interconnected phases of one unified process.

For many Christians and other monotheists, God is above and beyond but also immanent within creation. The idea of immanence presents a very different picture (with equally different ethical and possibly experiential implications) than merely seeing God as “All That Is” or “The Universe.”

On the issue of Free Will vs. Determinism, Augustine essentially says we are free to make personal choices but God knows in advance how we will choose.

Atheists find this standpoint unsatisfactory, while many who have taken a leap of faith do not. The former tend to want to understand everything with their intellects first. The latter believe that, through faith, they will be taught by God everything they need to know when the time is right.

It seems the two positions (atheism vs. faith-based) represent qualitatively different approaches to life. They arguably represent two different modes of being, experiencing and understanding. But this claim is complicated by the idea that atheism is, it could be said, founded on another type of belief and furthermore, that the word “faith” has different connotations among believers.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on the concept of just war (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Augustine is also remembered for articulating the idea of the Just War, a view which some Christians find appalling. In fact, some Christian opponents of the Just War doctrine see it as a Satanic distortion of Jesus’ message, perpetuated by man-made religious doctrines claiming to be divinely inspired. Others believe that because we are all imperfect, certain difficult decisions have to be made for the greater good. One of these difficult decisions involves entering (or not) into war with nations or groups whose ideologies and practices are so far off the mark that they pose a major threat to nations or groups whose ideologies and practices are better aligned with the will of God.

¹ Saint Augustine Of Hippo, Confessions. Trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1961. pp. 267-269.

² This may seem a trivial distinction to some but it has important implications for theories about memory, intuition, insight, premonition and precognition.

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