Sunday, February 24, 2008

Origins

"For Aristotle, ethics is essentially the art of living well. This can only be achieved by those who have friends, because friendship provides the ideal conditions for the successful pursuit of excellence."1"


'The only joy to be attained had the fragile brilliance of glass, a joy outweighed by the fear that it may be shattered in a moment."
--Augustine of Hippo on Original Sin
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I just read an excellent article on Original Sin written by Gerald Schlabac which appeared in the December 1992 issue of Augustinian Studies titled:
Friendship as Adultery: Social Reality and Sexual Metaphor in Augustine's Doctrine of Original Sin. Schlabac's analysis of the influence of Augustine's existential crises (specifically, as covered in Confessions IV-VI) on his theological outlook, as well as his association of friendship and sexuality with finitude, Schlabac writes, "Just as Augustine would later say of the lust that Adam's sin had imposed on human sexuality, friendship in book 4 of the Confessions was self-punishing. For in fact, the fable of human society, the illusion of self-transcendence, "is what we love in our friends" (4.9.14). And so, our consciences condemn us not only when we refuse to return the love of another, but even when we reciprocate. For at some level of consciousness, we know we are false; it is not really the friend we care most about, but rather, it is the friendship that pleases us and the friend is the instrument we need to enjoy it. Sin taints even the best of human friendships, therefore, because each violates the other with mutually instrumental treatment.1."

The article feels kind of like a formal documentation of an affiliation I did not know I had committed myself. Like when Grandpa Simpson is going through his wallet to give Homer his Stonecutters membership card and finds a card for the Communist Party: it confirms my suspicion that I was an Augustinian, or at least had adopted the mind of Augustine before I had even known him, and long before I was a Christian. From his constant and acute cognizance of the finitude of human existence to the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" ethics of participation in the "goodness of creation" (which includes friendships, as well as the enjoyment of sexual pleasure, and any other kind of participation in illusion of a permanent refuge and happiness outside of the Infinite), the theological developments and dogmatic formulations that came in a more spiritually mature Augustine were grown from this damp compost of his personal experience with death and loss, and is almost inability to fully grasp or accept that we cannot live as human beings in anything but a finite existence. Augustine's ideas on Original Sin came from his attempt to make sense of this reality through reliance on biblical exegesis, a literal reading of the book of Genesis, which resulted in the need to explain how the effects of that 'original sin' were transmitted from generation to generation. Augustine's "sex-ed" deduced from this that the only way this infection could have be transmitted from the first parents was through sexual intercourse. Just as when Augustine's best friend died and from that point on he was blinded to anything but the finitude of human society and thus unable to fully "love another person the way they aught to be loved," it became an impossibility not to sin, since were were always failing to love the other as we aught, because as he lamented to God in Confessions: "I loved what I loved in place of you. This was a huge fable and a long-drawn out lie, and by its adulterous fondling, our soul, itching in its ears, was corrupted. But that fable did not die for me, even when one of my friends would die." Schlabac quotes Reinhold Niebuhr from a half century ago: "Contemporary history is filled with manifestations of man's hysterias and furies; with evidences of his dæmonic capacity and inclination to break the harmonies of nature and defy the prudent canons of rational restraint. Yet no cumulation of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man's good opinion of himself."5

That sense of betrayal when anything is preferred to God--the conscience tightly strung and attuned to violations of the most important commandment of the Law, to "Love thy God with thy whole heart, mind, and strength"--and the recognition that it is virtually impossible to fufill this commandment (or it's kin, "to love they neighbor as yourself") , thus keeping us in a kind of "bondage to sin"--is enough to keep Augustine from any kind of restful sleep in the world. The sirens of Pelagius whisper in his ear at night, offering the peace that comes from acceptance of a doctrine that says that a force of will is sufficient to reduce such ideations toward the demonic. This would at least free Augustine from the nagging feeling of powerlessness that comes when one feels fully entrapped by the incredible power and draw of sin, the riptide that pulls men to their death. No one likes to feel trapped, or that they don't have a choice or say in their "lives." That kind of swift kick to the ribs knocks the wind out of the Ego. (It's only a matter of time, however, before it gets up and makes a new story for itself to hide out in.)


[to be continued}

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