St. Augustin was not all about sex

augustin-baptism-card-front

Saint Card from my son’s baptism

I named my son “Augustin.” I chose it because I admire the life and writings of Aurelius Augustinus (St. Augustine of Hippo, a Doctor of the Catholic Church). Most of those who have heard of him have also heard a sadly inadequate version of his theology. He’s blamed for making Original Sin all about sex; indeed, for making religion all about sex.

It’s true that Augustin got bogged down in a decade-long argument with other Christian leaders in the 5th century AD. The argument started with discussions of heresies and history but narrowed down more-and-more to “How does the ordinary person live the Christian life?” That argument came to focus on having a right relationship with sex, whether to remain a virgin (unmarried and ascetic) or to marry and have a family.

Augustin said sex is a good creation, given to us by God. And sex was not the result of sin nor the cause of the first sin. But sin caused us to lose our right relationship with sex, so that it too often becomes mere lust for the flesh rather than a binding act of love. So the first sin corrupted sex along with all our other actions. We are incapable of free will now. We are forced to sin…unless we receive Grace.

The argument went off the rails due to Augustin’s attackers trying to pin the label of Manichaen on him. He fought viciously because he had a lot to lose — but also because he was a passionate fighter for truth. He had begun his adulthood as an adherent of the faith of Mani which saw the material world as the creation of a evil spirit and the spiritual realm the creation of the good — a dualist theology. Mani thought that matter, that flesh, was evil, and we are trapped spirits needing to be free of it. But Augustin’s long life of intensive research and reflection changed him in many ways.

He was the ultimate critical thinker and not one debilitated by self deception.

We owe Augustin a great debt. Like George Washington, who single-handedly saved the American experiment when he said “no” to despotic power and stepped down from the presidency, Augustin absolutely saved Christianity from becoming merely another form of Greek elitist philosophy.

Those theologians Augustin argued with were trying to make Christianity a religion with two classes of people: the spiritual elite capable of great feats of self-denial, saved by their own deeds, versus the common sinners who could only hope for Grace because they were weak and incapable of perfection as they lived average lives.

Other theologians (especially Pelagius) lauded the ascetic monks and those who renounced the pleasures of the world. These people were better Christians and worked their way to heaven. But Augustin disagreed. No one can do good without Grace. If a man does a moral act, it is because Grace suppressed his sinful inclination, not because that man is especially dedicated. What the good man does is the reflection of Grace running through him not a reflection of his own effort. Man does not even have free will unless Grace removes his sinful inclination first. You see? For Augustin, Grace GIVES us free will. We do not have it naturally.

It’s an elegant argument. It changed Christianity into a religion of sinners, invalids dependent on God. Every religion and philosophy, even today, has its spiritual elite: those who are better people or more favored by God because of their actions. But Christianity is not like that — at least not in its essential theology. The saved and unsaved are mixed together in the church and on earth, and only God knows which is which. We cannot know, not even by our actions.

Of course many people and many denominations tell us we can work our way into heaven. They even think they can tell us who is going to hell. They also see spiritual leaders like monks or priests as elite castes, as special to God. These ideas are decidedly not in the Bible. These thoughts are an infection from human sin, our competitive desire for hierarchies.

This is why I love Augustin: he alone fought for the equality of all by embracing human mediocrity. He said we’re all equal in our weakness…and in our strength, as well, because our strength is from God. None of us can look upon another with judgment.

 

 

You do not love Jesus

crucifix-silhouetteYou live a moral life. You follow the Bible’s commandments as told to you through your church. You turn to your family and friends and your city and tell everyone they should be living like you. You say it’s not because YOU say this, but because God does, because Jesus does, because it is Truth. You are living as Jesus wants, and you will try to make everyone live as He wants.

Then years pass and the leaders of your church begin to speak differently. They say that the things you do are not the best. Things others are doing are better. They say Jesus has been misused and that He really wants you to change what you’re doing.

Do you change what you are doing to conform or do you turn away and condemn this church?

Oh, I know quite well that you picked this church in the first place simply because it supported what you already believed. You picked a church that made you feel all right with your bigotry: the church once told you it was righteous for you to use politics to prevent people from loving who they wanted and to control women’s sexuality and their bodies and their power. But you didn’t admit this made the homophobia and sexism you already harbored easier. You didn’t care this made you drunk with power and anger and required no conversion of the heart.

Now that the church that once interpreted the world in a way that made you comfortable, requires you to change, you turn away and condemn it.

Welcome to the Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis, a man who lives the spirit of Jesus, exhorting us to put aside politics and help the poor, comfort refugees, love the outcasts. But it’s so hard! It’s so HARD to love those Jesus called us to love while scheming to stack the Supreme Court at the expense of an administration that helps the rich and takes away all support for the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

You do not love Jesus.