Friday, January 12, 2007

Augustine, Man and Creation

There's a patristic wind flowing through the blogosphere these days. Derek at Haligweorc posted a plan for reading the Fathers and it inspired Lee to inaugurate his new blog with a series on St. Augustine's Enchiridion. I meanwhile, had already been reading Thomas Martin's book on Augustinian spirituality, Our Restless Heart, and feeling prodded by Lee's work and a comment that Annie made on Derek's blog about "digested history", I decided to also pull my copy of the Enchiridion off the shelf and go ad fontes as they say.

St. Augustine gets a really bad rap in certain circles, and I think that many times it's because of what people think he says more so than because of what he actually says. A popular position is to be against traditional Christianity because its doctrine of Original Sin devalues human dignity. Semi-informed people know enough to pin the blame for this one on Augustine.

In this light, I was very pleased with the section of the Enchiridion I read today. In approaching the problem of evil in humans, Augustine formulates a position that looks a lot like the traditional Lutheran simul iustus et peccator, except the saint ascribes goodness to the human as human before their meeting Christ.
We find this to be true in many, indeed in almost all contraries, that they cannot coexist in one thing simultaneously. But while nobody doubts that good and evil are contraries, not only can they exist simultaneously, but evils cannot exist at all without goods, and they can only exist in goods, although goods can exist without evils.
This is all Augustine's doctrine of creation and of evil as corruption of good. What is created is good simply because it was created by the supremely good God. But listen to how he deals with the question of human evil.
But what is an evil man if not an evil being, since man is a being? Moreover, if man is something good because he is a being, what is an evil man but an evil good? But when we make a distinction we find that he is not an evil because he is a man, nor is he a good because he is wicked, but he is a good because he is a man and an evil because he is wicked.
List to that again, a wicked man "is a good because he is a man and an evil because he is wicked."

The humanists who grumble about the doctrine of Original Sin tend to have a sort of romantic notion of the inherent goodness of humans. We are good because of the great and noble things of which we are capable. There's a "spark" of goodness at the core of our being. Augustine, though he might recognize a partial truth in the "spark," locates our goodness in God. We are good, essentially good, because we are God's creation. As long as we exist, this goodness remains. And yet Augustine's view allows full responsibility for our actions. Though remaining always good, we are also evil when we behave wickedly.

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