Love and St. Augustine’s Weight Problem

“My weight is my love.” (Pondus meum amor meus.) ~ Confessions 13.9.10
 “You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (Fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te.) ~ Confessions 1.1

Love is, quite literally, the burning heart of Augustinian theology. Love determines all of our human existence and is the greatest of the gifts of the Spirit. Augustine speaks of love as a kind of “weight,” a metaphor that is easily lost on a contemporary reader. In order to understand it, one needs a bit of knowledge about the pre-Newtonian concept of “gravity” (our very word comes from the Latin gravitas, “weight”).

Ancients knew that some things, such as rocks, tend to fall down, and that other things, such as smoke, tend to rise. They explained this in terms of the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. All objects are made up of some combination of these four elements, a solution not entirely unlike our modern atomic theory, except that we have many more elements. However, they also believed that each element had a proper realm. The air realm was the highest, the earth realm the lowest, and the other two intermediary. Thus, in this theory, every object has a proper place, depending on its elemental makeup, and will strive to come to that place. When it succeeds, it is at rest and will remain there until disturbed by some other force. That’s why rocks fall when dropped and smoke rises unless trapped. “Weight,” then, is the place something naturally occupies in the cosmos.

Augustine applies this concept not to the human body, but to the soul. What makes the difference between higher (better) and lower (worse) souls? What is the elemental composition of a soul? Here enters Augustine’s dictum, “My weight is my love.” The human being is uniquely capable of loving different things. Some love honor, some money, some pleasure. But, and this is Augustine’s point, the soul does not remain unaffected by its love. It is transformed into what it loves. A soul that loves transitory, insubstantial things becomes merely a shadow. A soul that loves heavenly things becomes heavenly itself.

Now enters the second quote from Confessions. Augustine realizes that there is a difference between the soul’s weight, based on its current love, and its true weight, engraved by the design of the Creator. That is, a soul may be being pulled down by base loves, and yet, even as it descends, it does not reach the repose that objects attain when they reach their place. Our created purpose, to love God alone for his own sake and other things for God’s sake, still retains a pull on us, even as we reject it. Thus, the way to find repose, to reach one’s place, is to love God. As one loves God, one’s soul becomes godlike (in a human way). The path of righteousness is the path to God is the path to rest.

How does one come to love God? By being first loved by God. Jesus, the Word who was with God and was God, came from his place to our place. He showed us the way of righteousness, the way of humility. On the cross, he bore our hate to heal our love. For all those who come  in faith, the waters of baptism are the font of the Spirit, who sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:1). By living the Jesus-like life in faith, hope, and love, the soul ascends to God, where it attains its true weight and finds repose.

Published in: on February 17, 2012 at 11:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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On Christian Teaching: Book 1

[For other articles on OCT, click here.]

Note: The translation is by R. P. H. Green, and the numbering follows the CSEL edition.

Having discussed the background and preface of On Christian Teaching, I move to an analysis of book 1. OCT is one of the more readable of Augustine’s works, because his common practice is to outline the forthcoming section and define his terms at the beginning. We see this immediately: “There are two things on which all interpretation of scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt” (1). The first three books deal with discovering, the last with presenting.

Soon we come to another distinction. “All teaching is teaching of either things or signs, but things are learnt through signs” (4). Now, the word “thing” (res) technically encompasses everything that exists. However, Augustine is using it to mean things that are things only, that do not also serve as signs. “Signs” (signa) is a broad category as well; it encompasses any thing that serves to signify something else. Words are the preeminent signs; they serve no purpose other than to signify things. (Thus, Augustine would be skeptical of some modern linguistic theories that make words merely signs of other signs.)

Some things can, at certain times, also be used as signs. Augustine gives a log as an example. Now, normally, a log is just a log. However, the log Moses threw into the bitter waters was a sign. Throughout Scripture, ordinary things often become signs. Though Augustine does not say so here in OCT, I think it is accurate to say that his views of mystical ascent from created things to eternal things render the whole creation a sign, at least for those who have the spiritual eyes to envision it so.

But Augustine treats of things first, and again we encounter a division. “There are some things which are to be enjoyed (frui), some which are to be used (uti), and some whose function is both to enjoy and use” (7). “To enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake. To use something is to apply whatever it may be to the purpose of obtaining what you love” (8). This distinction serves not only as an introduction to Augustine’s method of interpretation, but also as a description of the Christian life. Augustine often uses the metaphor of a journey to explain this distinction. A group of travellers, seeking their homeland, become enthralled with travelling and forget their purpose. Likewise, the great danger Christians face is becoming enmeshed with things that ought to be used, so that they captivate us and draw us from our true source of blessedness.

“The things which are to be enjoyed, then, are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity comprised by them” (10). The Trinity is the highest, the greatest, the most desirable of all things. Yet, people do not recognize him as such. They cling to lesser things. What is reason for this? Sin is a pollutant to our souls. “Our minds must be purified so that they are able to perceive that light and then hold fast to it” (22). Since we are humans, our purification consists of wisdom (Christ) adapting itself to our human condition, to repair it and lead it back to God. “So although it is actually  our homeland, it has also made itself the road to our homeland” (23). The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ furnishes believers with not only faith, but also hope, and he now binds his church “in a bond of unity and love like a healing bandage” (33).

Augustine encounters a particular thorny problem, the status of human beings in the scheme of use and enjoyment. “We have been commanded to love one another, but the question is whether one person should be loved by another on his own account or for some other reason. If on his own account, we enjoy him; if for another reason, we use him” (40). Stipulating that what we enjoy constitutes our blessedness, Augustine concludes we cannot enjoy others, or even ourselves. Rather, we love all people for God’s sake.

Of all the things to be used, “there are four things that are to be loved—one, that which is above us; two, that which we are, three, that which is close to us; four, that which is beneath us” (33). The four are God, ourselves, our neighbors, and our bodies. We all naturally love ourselves and our own bodies, so Scripture’s great commandments concern “a double love of God and of one’s neighbor” (37).

A perhaps even more sensitive question arises. “God loves us … but in what way does he love us—so as to use us or to enjoy us” (73)? Something we enjoy is something we need to be happy. God needs nothing, so he uses rather than enjoys us. But, since we use things to get what makes us happy, he cannot use us in the way that we use things. (One wonders if Augustine’s options are really useful in speaking about God’s love.) “So the kind of use attributed to God, that by which he uses us, is related not to his own advantage, but solely to his goodness” (76). He, having everything he needs and wants, is free to “use” us unto our own happiness.

The purpose of this discussion is to establish that the “just and holy life” (59) is one of ordered loves. He loves what ought to be loved, and prioritizes his loves appropriately. God is loved most, then souls, then bodies. Angels too count as our neighbors (71). Only God is loved for his own sake. All other loves flow like a river toward God; sin is the diverting of some love from its proper end. God arranged “the whole temporal dispensation … for our salvation” (85), but we must use it as a road rather than a destination.

The one who understands the scriptures understands that their chief goal is “to build up this double love of God and neighbour” (86). If someone accomplishes this,  he is not a liar, even if his interpretation diverges from the author’s intent. Yet, he ought to be better instructed so that he does not swerve from the truth permanently. “So there are three things which all knowledge and prophecy serve: faith, hope, and love” (90). Right interpretation relates the scripture to these three.

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Confessions Book 1

[For links to the rest of this series, click here.]

Introductory Note: All English quotations are from the Chadwick translation. I am removing the parenthetical Bible references, though, because they are not original to the text. My quotes will not use the page numbering, but the section/paragraph numbering (vi.7) so that people using other editions can follow along.

Augustine knows how to penetrate to the heart of an issue; rather, he knows how to unravel an issue to reveal the human heart. I was repeatedly struck by the profundity of his analysis, and I find it all the more remarkable because he is accusing himself. It is usually in conjuring defenses that we become the most rational and eloquent. Book 1 raises a number of issues that I won’t expound in this post, but I hope someone in the discussion probes them:

  • the appropriateness of immoral behavior in educational literature (xv.24-xviii.28)
  • the proper attitude of a Christian spouse toward his or her non-Christian partner (xi.17)
  • the moral significance of infant actions (vi.8; vii.11-12)
  • the omnipresence (iii.3) and eternality (vi.10) of God

There are two concepts upon which I wish to focus. The first is Augustine’s habit of retrospectively seeing God acting for his good in the events of his youth, even and perhaps especially through other people’s sin. He calls God the “orderer and creator of all things in nature, but of sinners only the orderer” (x.16). In some contexts this may seem like a subtle argument crafted to absolve God from the presence of evil, but here it functions to highlight God’s active involvement in shaping even sinful actions for the good of his children.

As a mature theologian, Augustine disagrees with his mother’s decision to delay his baptism, but he nevertheless acknowledges the success of his mother’s plan (xi.18). His teacher was a hypocrite when he beat Augustine (x.15), and the method of instruction was “rigorous coercion” (xiv.23), but Augustine as an adult realizes that such discipline gave him the verbal skills that he uses for God (xv.24). We might inquire how God can use sin without being responsible for it, but Augustine merely declares, “You made [man] and did not make sin in him” (vii.11).

This retrospective examination produces an ambiguity in Confessions. Augustine knows that he was converted as an adult, yet he cannot help seeing that he belonged to God since his began to exist. It was God who gave him milk as an infant (vi.7), who bestowed on him the gift of language (viii.13), who oversaw his growth (xx.31), and who guarded him through an alarming illness (xi.17). In fact, because of Monica’s teaching, he can even describe himself as “already a believer” (xi.17). Yet, at the same time Augustine laments his boyhood waywardness. Perhaps all of us, whether or not we were raised in Christian households, ought to consider more deeply the ordering of God in our lives before we came to faith.

The second concept is Augustine’s distinction between higher and lower loves. He makes the interesting comment, “I was disobedient not because I had chosen higher things, but from love of sport” (x.16). Love is, for Augustine, a necessary component of virtue, leading him to conclude, “No one is doing right if he is acting against his will, even when what he is doing is good” (xii.19). In Augustine’s theology, the heart of piety is to order our love properly, so that God is loved most of all, and all lower things are loved for the sake of higher loves, terminating in God. In his De Doctrina Christiana, he gives an analogy for sin. Wanderers are traveling through a strange country seeking their homeland. Yet, they become so caught up in the enjoyment of travel and the charm of exploring that they wander endlessly, forgetting their original purpose and the rest that awaits at home. Such is everyone suffering from disordered love.

So, this doctrine is why Augustine remonstrates his child self for choosing entertaining stories over the basic blocks of grammar (xiii.20-22). It is the basis for his vilification of deeds done to secure man’s praise or avoid his shame, either by himself (xvii.27) or his mentors (xviii.28). It exposes the absurdity of mourning for Dido rather than his lost condition (xiii.21) or of fearing a verbal barbarism more than barbaric actions (xviii.28). Augustine is always principally concerned with love, both what we love and in what relation to other things we love it. In so doing, he contradicts a mere notional Christianity, in which assent to orthodox truths passes for a vital relationship with God.

Published in: on September 26, 2010 at 9:24 pm  Comments (5)  
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