Monday, November 3, 2008

Burning Burning Burning Burning

When I introduced myself to my students my first semester of teaching, I mentioned that one of my academic interests was Christian existentialism. Most of them looked back at me like groupers in tank (as freshmen are wont to do), but I had one student follow me out of the classroom. "Christian existentialism?" he said. "I thought that was an oxymoron."

It's a common opinion, I suppose, and an understandable one, given existentialism's close association with the atheists Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and Nietzsche. But it's (to say the least) a limited opinion, if not historically blind. Gabriel Marcel, a Catholic, gave the philosophical movement its name, and the philosophy itself is based heavily on the nonfiction of Soren Kierkegaard (a Lutheran) and the fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky (an Orthodox Christian).

But existentialism, as Walter Kaufmann suggests in his introduction to the anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, really stretches back to St. Augustine. I suppose this fact shouldn't be too surprising; existentialism developed out of theology, and there's no theological movement (at least in the Christian West) that hasn't been influenced by Augustine to some degree or another. But the prefiguring of the existentialists (Sartre in particular, but you hear Pascal, Heidegger, and Karl Barth, too) in Augustine is too frequent and too strong to ignore.

And so it is that Christian existentialism begins literally when the Confessions does, with Augustine's avowal of an emotional salvation. Here's the famous statement: "You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (I.i.1). That's the popular concept of the "God-shaped hole" in its infancy. Humanity, the theory says, has an inborn religious impulse, but Adam's breach of the covenant between himself and Jehovah messed it up. (Barth deals with this quite extensively.)

The end result of that sin is a three-fold alienation: from oneself ("my heart had become gross . . . and I had no clear vision even of my own self” [VII.i.2]); from others (“I therefore polluted the spring water of friendship with the filth of concupiscence” [III.i.1]); and ultimately from one's Creator, which is why that God-shaped hole exists at all.

Because of this alienation, we live in a world marked by what Heidegger will later call being-against-one-another and curiosity (a word that Augustine himself frequently uses, and I'm curious as to whether Heidegger took it from him). In other words, we're at odds with one another (and, Augustine would add, with ourselves and with God), and we fear stability--we hate and fear the very thing we need for salvation.

Another interesting aspect of Confessions is Augustine's theory of sin. His famous rejection of Manichaeism (which states that good and evil are equal and opposed forces in eternal combat) results in a theory of evil in which "evil has no existence except as a privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being" (III.vii.12). That sounds like a Christianized version of the Sartrean concept of being and nothingness, although of course it's more accurate to say that Sartre's philosophy is a de-Christianized version of Augustine's theology, at least on this point. Evil, strictly speaking, does not exist--it's a gaping hole of negation, something that threatens to suck us all into a black hole of nonexistence. Such are the pernicious effects of original sin and the alienation that follows it.

Augustine, however, offers us what Sartre, Heidegger, and even Kierkegaard do not: a solution to the problem of alienation, of angst, of the being-against-one-another. Filling that God-shaped hole--legitimately filling it, which is to say, with God and not with a Barthian Tower of Babel--heals us. Obviously, it allows for a renewed relationship with God, but it also allows genuine self-reflection (the kind it takes to write the world's first autobiography, for example), and it even allows for renewed relationships among human beings: "true friendship . . . is not possible unless you bond together those who cleave to one another by the love which is ‘poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us’ (Rom. 5:5)” (IV.iv.7).

There are many other prefigurings of existentialism in the Confessions (and I'm sure they're also present in Augustine's vast catalogue, none of which I've read)--his personalized hermeneutic, for example, or his rejection of the science of Genesis 1. But I think his treatment of the three kinds of alienation makes the strongest case for his status as the grandfather of existentialism. It's wild to think that one man essentially created philosophies as diverse as Catholicism, existentialism, and Calvinism. I suppose it helps to be a genius.


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

It's interesting that, a century or so after Augustine, Boethius couples Augustine's privative theory of evil with an unapologetic and thoroughgoing essentialism regarding human nature--although one could read reason in Boethius as a divine gift, nonetheless Lady Philosophy holds it up as something from which Boethius would never have been exiled except that he lost the desire to live reasonably.

Augustine's City of God expands nicely on the threefold alienation, pointing to moments of prodigous harmony between will and body as signs of in-breaking divine grace. His sections on people who can lift heavy weights with the motion of their ears and the man in India who can fart intelligible tunes are especially nice.

Michial said...

I need you to explain what your first paragraph means, I'm afraid.

I should look at "City of God" before I start writing my thesis, in that case. I've heard it's very interesting, but its immense size has always scared me off.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

As we discussed over lunch today, Boethius writes that a human being, through an exertion of a common reasonable nature, can restore the soul to its desire for heavenly things. I would think that existentialists would balk at the common nature and that Augustine would balk at the power of individual effort.

City of God is one of those wonderful books about which I could talk for ages. It does take some hours to surmount, but he's at the height of his theological powers in that book, and it's worth the journey. Its section on the will and grace is quite clearly the basis for Luther's and Calvin's theologies of sin.