What do you believe?

I’d been curious about Augustine’s Confessions since reading the argument for Augustine as the first self-aware/introspective author laid out in “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” He is self-reflective, but also so focused on identifying orthodoxy (and refuting paganism/other heresies) that even his autobiographical elements feel driven by an argument or agenda. It seems to me that there’s a further development in self-awareness that is driven by greater uncertainty. Augustine associated with Manichaeans in his youth, who believed in a dual infinite of both good and evil. Augustine (like Dionysius), rejects the existence of anything that is absolutely evil. He also provides a (simple but compelling) refutation of astrology, with the thought experiment of a servant and a noble born on the same day- one lives a life of luxury and opportunity, the other a life of drudgery, despite having the same signs. There’s a certain type of power studies that views religion as about power consolidation or protection. I don’t think one can read Augustine and genuinely believe that he was a priest seeking self-aggrandizement; he includes a discourse on the nature of time included in the midst of his metaphysics and autobiography. His conclusion that the past and future exist only as memory and expectation respectively can’t be tied to power interests (in fact, it seem disruptive to a corporate/economy-maximizing paradigm).

Augustine was pre-dated by about 50 years by Ephrem of Syria, whose writings Christine Shephardson translates in Anti-Judaism and Christian Orthodoxy. Ephrem wrote in the immediate post-Nicene era, and is very concerned with separating beliefs and peoples. It seems from his writing that not only were there numerous non-orthodox Christian sects, but there were practicing Christians who still attended Jewish services as well and participated in other Jewish rituals. This is particularly interesting in a contemporary context, as I recently received some proselytizing material from a group of Messianic Jews; they seem to be the ones most interested in blurring lines between Christianity and Judaism today, and though I tend to think of that as a new movement, they apparently have a lot in common with early Middle Eastern Christians. There’s a hymn that Ephrem wrote specifically about not being tempted by the matzoh; that it has become a drug of death, having been replaced by the Eucharist. My first reaction was to laugh, because I don’t know any practicing Jews who would have named matzoh as the prime temptation to be Jewish, but Ephrem may be right to worry about it, since Passover is the holiday that most explicitly celebrates not only Jewish survival, but the formation of the Jewish people. If he’s trying to carve out clear distinctions between Christians and Jews, he may have to start with Passover. It’s ironic, though, that he’s so caught up in preserving the distinction, when one of the orthodox positions that he takes is that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, that those two identities could co-exist in one person. I also learned about the existence of Helena of Adiabene in this book; she was a queen in the Armenian empire (North-west of Syria) who converted to Judaism around 30 A.D., indicating the prominence and sway that Judaism had in the area not long before Ephrem wrote.

I’m sure that there are religious communities today that are as focused on figuring out the questions of existence and theology as these early writers are, but there’s also a mindset shift that happens when we go from a search for the truth (e.g., these early theologians’ attempts to identify and articulate the essence of the Trinity or of God) to repeating what others have decided for us. I can relate to confusion and trying to figure it out, much more than I can to dogmaticism or to skepticism that takes the form “here’s a hard question without an obvious answer- if you can’t answer it, all your views are invalid.” I hope that by reading outside of what is useful or “my field” I will be less dependent on others’ judgments across a range of issues and topics. We label ourselves so frequently in the interests of finding friends and communicating where we stand, but it can lead to simplistic thinking. Even the difference between saying “I am a Democrat/Republican” and “I have always voted for Democratic/Republican candidates” feels important to me. Both Augustine and Ephrem could speak to what they believed, and not just say “I am a Christian.” At least to that extent, I can respect their philosophical projects and positions.

My wife and I saw a French production of Cyrano de Bergerac this week. From the first time I saw it (and read it) I’ve loved the play, and his unwillingness to alter his writing to gain a patron felt personally relevant this time. I’ve always struggled with even the idea of self-marketing, and am willing to accept the lack of readership/consequences that are likely to follow from that. Regardless of its appeal, over 50 books into this project, I feel even more confident that it is worth doing. I’ve read far more philosophy/theology than I would have been likely to otherwise, but also books on archaeology, sociology, and history that I never would have sought out independently. Education means “leading out”… this work continues to lead me out into new areas.

2 thoughts on “What do you believe?

  1. Pingback: Individualism and Community | Jacob K. Lehman

  2. Pingback: Growth and Reconciliation | Jacob K. Lehman

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