Academic journal article Theological Studies

Augustine on Marriage, Monasticism, and the Community of the Church

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Augustine on Marriage, Monasticism, and the Community of the Church

Article excerpt

When today's professional theologians find themselves turning to Augustine of Hippo, they do so most likely because he is a central figure in the history of Christianity. Whatever contemporary cause may have sufficiently captured their interest to point them back to Augustine, it is this central role which more often than not determines how he is remembered: as a Father of the Church and a saint. Yet this saintly image seems clearly at odds with how the historical Augustine regarded himself. For there can be little doubt that, if given the choice, he would have preferred the epithet of sinner to that of saint. For Augustine, sin is that which has stained the human race ever since Adam and Eve were forced to leave paradise. In fact, sin is what got them ejected in the first place. There is little need for further details, since nobody ever returned to paradise. Because it is thus a defining aspect of the human condition, the notion of sin naturally permeates all Augustine's theological statements. In his view, life on earth is marked by a tragic sense of falling short, expressed most poignantly by the inability of humans to be fully in touch with themselves, let alone with God. For a statement of this one does best to turn to the famous statement from the opening paragraph of the Confessions, "our heart is restless until it rests in you."(1)

The inability of the human heart at present to find rest in God is a fact of crucial theological importance because it colors how Augustine comes to interpret many symbols of the Christian faith. Whatever the specific aim of individual treatises, he is always ready to warn Christians against a false sense of complacency. Although Christians have direct access to divine revelation in Scripture which contains the record of how Christ preached salvation, for Augustine all human attempts to turn the word of God from thought into action are inevitably bound to fail. Its theoretical hold on perfection notwithstanding, it is as a practical religion that Christianity contains the principles of its own undoing. Thus one may summarize the status of Christians in society as "possessing everything, yet not having anything." For while it is indeed true that, in the gospel of Christ's Resurrection, Christians possess the highest good, it is no less true that what they collectively strive for--eternal rest in God--continues to elude them.

AUGUSTINE ON SIN AND SEXUALITY

If we step back from our reflections on sin as a general sense of human failure associated with Adam's exile from paradise, we can embark on an analysis of the Confessions as a text that contains the most intimate self-portrait of Augustine the sinner. We quickly notice how throughout his captivating autobiography Augustine evokes a suggestive link between the general experience of human life as sinful and his own personal experiences of sexual love. Thus in the Confessions he tells us that he was "in love with being in love." It is clear that his women partners are regarded more as objects of erotic passion than as persons whose self-worth needed to be treasured.(2) A similar conflicted attachment to, if not dependence on, physical and sexual love may also explain his reluctance to become a full-blown Manichee instead of a mere auditor, as the status of the elect required celibacy. He claimed sincerely to have loved his concubine, the mother of his son, Adeodatus, but he omitted her name altogether from his account. When he finally gave in to his mother's matchmaking and became engaged, he had no choice but to dismiss his former partner.(3) Still, his dependence on sexual relationships was such that he took up life with another concubine until his betrothed came of age.(4) Only after his conversion to Christianity did he feel either confident enough or sufficiently compelled to renounce his sexual activities once and for all.

If we read the narrative of the Confessions as I have just illustrated, emphasizing how Augustine seemed addicted to sexual love until his conversion to Christianity, we get the picture of a man unable to resist his physical impulses until his mind finally got the better of him. …

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