Monday, June 18, 2012

Augustine and Passive Religion

I was sitting in class last winter and stumbled on this passage from Augustine's Confessions. It speaks to a certain attitude to religion that, while it's not mine, I find extremely compelling. Let me try to explain why.

I loved you late! O beauty so ancient and so new, I loved you late! for when you were within I was in the open, and there I sought you. ... You were with me, but I was not with you...
You called and cried, and broke my deafness: you were scintillating and resplendent, and put my blindness to flight. You were fragrant, and I breathed in and pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst for you; you touched me, and I burn for your peace.
(Confessions, Book X, my translation.)

What strikes me most here is Augustine's passivity. Augustine does not strain to hear God's voice: it overwhelms him. He does not look for God's peace on his own: God inflames him first and makes him long for it. In short, Augustine had no influence in his own conversion: it was all the result of God's grace, not his own free choice.

(To give some context, in his work On Grace and Free Will Augustine contends that free will cannot redeem mankind. God's grace is not the result of any merit in mankind, and to deny that is to fall into the Pelagian Heresy.)

I reject Augustine's passivity as a general philosophy of religion, because it makes more sense to describe most religious experience as conscious striving. I don't know what it would be like to be continually compelled to be a religious person, and I also doubt that most religious people interpret their day-to-day experiences the same way that Augustine does. A person doesn't get up at six thirty every morning to pray because God fills him with ardor and forces him to. He does it because he grits his teeth and commits himself to it.

On the other hand, Augustine's passivity is an example of religion in its purest and most radical form. The most vivid religious experiences do feel utterly passive, because they're based on transcendent experiences that have nothing to do with us as individuals. Was Moses prepared to see the burning bush? Does Levin gain insight because he strives for it? When I see a starry night over a lake, I don't pretend to create the sense of awe that I feel. Creation is intrinsically wonderful, and there's nothing we can do to stop ourselves from being struck with awe when we encounter it.

So in their day-to-day lives, religious people make the choice to be religious. In that respect religion is like most other aspects of our lives; morality, for example, is also the result of conscious choice. But our purest experiences of the divine, as Augustine suggests, are passive.

(Another thing that strikes me about this passage is the eroticism of Augustine's experience of God. Augustine renounces women and physical pleasure, and takes God's love as his substitute. As a replacement, it gets framed in the same terms as his old love.)


themerelyreal said...

Are there ways that we can prime ourselves better to be overwhelmed? As a mutual friend of ours pointed out recently, the mikveh is a frequently uninspiring experience, though it carries the weight of assumption that it will be simply and easily magnificent. Another friend responded that there were ways to make the inspiration come more easily and more frequently. Do you agree? And is that an appropriate goal of a religious person?

Jonathan Katz said...

Great post! Thoughts:

1. I think you might like reading Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man (if you haven't already).

2. I think Augustine's philosophy, rather than being passive, requires being actively aware - if not active in terms of action itself. One could possibly experience (although I, ever the ardent believer, doubt this idea) this sort of awakening, divine love and divine pleasure without realizing that this is a desire to connect with and pursue G-d and his path...the awareness that this is a religious experience in and of itself requires active construction of that idea.

3. In response to the priming comment: I think we cannot say that religious people's goals are "appropriate" per se, if the belief is generally sincere. I think as far as priming goes, it could work to an extent - but this sort of overwhelming feeling could really happen anywhere, anytime (I had one during a most decidedly secular moment last week). It's not something to necessarily be the only goal though: religion is also about order in this, the tangible world.

Thomas Ryan Ward said...
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Thomas Ryan Ward said...
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Thomas Ryan Ward said...

As someone who loved City of God as a teenager (as a companion bedtime text to Brave New World) and who has many conversations with people who have altered their lives for the better due to some inexplicable experience/vision of God's presence, I believe you are correct about Augustine's passivity - but I am certain it didn't, initially, come easily for him.

To be one living a life of sin and then have the hand of God tap your shoulder and say,"Hey, kiddo, you know you're being kind of a douchebag" must be surely overpowering and humbling. "Me? You care about me enough to tell me I'm wrong and worthy of saving?" That's pretty powerful stuff – a situation, I am certain, that no one could take lightly.