Part II: Western Theology–Augustine

This strain of theology will be more familiar, given that it forms the backbone not only of the common Western Christian Churches (Roman Catholic and Protestants) but also of the secular Western world, as I will argue.

So, the ancient view of the Church held in both the Eastern and Western Churches for the first four hundred years or so. It should be noted that all of the great doctrinal statements of Christianity: Trinity, One Person/Dual Nature of Christ, etc. were all formulated in the Greek-speaking world, written in Greek, with Greek philosophical vocabulary.

The man who is opens the door to the Western world is . There were previews to Augustine in Church Fathers like the North African Tertullian (2nd century) and Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (4th century), but Augustine would inaugurate the Western tradition like no other.

For background on the basic outline of this argument see Philip Cary’s wonderful book Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self.

In that work, Cary reads Augustine as the “inventor” of the inner self sense (subjective ego) that would become so dominant in the Western world from the modern period to today. Augustine, according to this line of thinking lays the seed for the Western world–both the Roman Catholic, Protestant, and secular versions thereof.


The thesis goes (roughly) as follows:

Augustine reads Plotinus, the great Neoplatonic Nondualist. Contrary to a belief common in certain circles, Eastern Orthodox Theology-Mysticism is only occassionaly influenced by Neoplatonic influence. Most obvious is Dionysius who was influenced more by Proclus than Plotinus–for you nerds that does make a difference. But either way, the connection is mostly in terms of Greek Orthodox using Platonic terminology to their own ends.

Augustine, however, is deeply influenced by Plotinus, and this right away sets him in distinction from the Greek heritage.

Plotinus gave a much more direct and experiential version of Platonic Nondualism. For Plato, the truths of Nonduality (his own awakening in other words) were hidden among much more metaphoric narrative: like prisoners in Caves escaping to see the Sun.

Plotinus is much less literary and more to the point. Plotinus spells out his injunction for awakening quite simply:

1.Turn the mind, which is otherwise whirling about and focused outwardly within. i.e. Turn the mind in on itself.
2.Let this attention come to rest deeply without judgement of any mental-emotional-spiritual phenoman.
3.(Eventually), you will continue to go “in” until there is no more “in” to go into, and you will realize that you are One with the Divine.

Now, as Cary notes, Augustine does an interesting thing. He follows Plotinus’ injunction, but since he is worried that say there will be a total unity between the Soul and God, he carries a different interpretative structure than Plotinus.

Augustine therefore ends up adding his own step to Plotinus’ injunction.

Instead of going within and realizing oneness, Augustine says go within and then go “up”. God is located in this interior “above” space. The space fro which the individual looks up, which is not inherently Divine (ala Plotinus) is in fact the inner self–the created self.

Augustine has thereby “invented” the sense of who a person is being an inner subjective self-sense, behind the eyes.

This is a profound change. Augustine re-reads the Bible, particularly the Letters of St. Paul through this new “subjectivist” lens. For the ancient Greek-speakers, including the Greek Jew Paul, there was not much emphasis placed on inner subjectivity. Not in Plato, Plotinus, nowhere. There is deep emphasis on placing one’s own awarness “within” and realizing the connection between the inner and outer, but that is not the same as defining oneself primarily (or even exclusively) in relation to this “inner space.” Nor it is the same as putting serious value into the interpretation of one’s inner experience. Plotinus for example rarely references his own experiences, mystical or otherwise. Paul makes oblique reference to himself in the third person concerning his own mystical experience (“I knew a man once who whether in the body or out of it, I do not know, rose to the third heaven and heard things which are unable to be spoken of….”—Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, the man in question being Paul himself). I don’t recall Plato EVER referencing his own mystical experience explicitly.

So Augustine begins a path of overly subjective focus and reading of Christian theology, the Bible, and the spiritual path.

[Again–by analogy, think of the Eastern Hindu-Buddhist Traditions which have amazing focus on inner consciousness but never develop a sense of the inner self (egoically) like in the West. It is the same with the Eastern Orthodox Christian Tradition.]

So back to Augustine’s image of God being “in and up”. A couple of points to note:

1.This created self is “open” on the top, like a skylight. This inner aperture allows for God’s light to come streaming in. Augustine called this Illuminationism. God illuminates the mind to see truth.

The modern secular world is created by taking this inner space and closing off the skylight, making it a boxed-in non-transcendent room. See John Locke’s image of the self as a camera for proof. Recall also that Descartes famous “I am conscious, therefore I am (Cogito, ergo sum)” was a riff off Augustine (1,000 yrs+ earlier), “I doubt, therefore I exist.”

2.The inherent relationity of this image. This “inner self” always exist in relation to God, a relation of transcendence no doubt, but a relation nonetheless.

Which leads to point number 3:
Augustine, by delineating the lines of the inner conscious self, thereby opened the door for focus on the unconscious.

It is a well known fact that Augustine “discovered” the unconscious about 1500 years before Freud. Think for example of who is the most famoulsy “psychoanalyzed” figure in history? Augustine. Not Jesus, not Moses, but Augustine.

Who wrote arguably the first and easily the most influential-famous autobiography in the world, Western or otherwise? A: Augustine in The Confessions.

Because Augustine “invented” this inner self and gave it such credence, he therefore felt so compelled to “confess” to its maker (inherently related) this inner world.

And in this confession, he notes a part of himself that is in rebellion against himself. This rebellion is his unconscious. Not suprisingly this rebellion is often focused on unwanted sexual and aggressive libido.

As he to God prayed, “Give me chastity but not yet….”

Augustine, sadly, did not “discover” a way to heal this unconscious. It was Freud’s genius to unlock the genius of temporary de-repression and the therapeudic injunction.

Augustine in the Confessions mentions that following Plotinus’ injunction (Within and Oneness) he began to see the “Light” but fell away from this experience. He had a temporary experience of Nonduality–he apparently had at least a few of them. In one of his writings, Augustine says:

There is One Christ loving himself in all his members. (Unum Christum Amans…)

The reader might be more familiar with Ramana Maharshi’s version of that realization:

There is Only Brahma,
Brahma is the World.

The word “unum” in Latin has the force of not only “one” but also “only”. There is “only” Christ….

But generally Augustine “fell away” from this Nonduality and could not permanently maintain it. He blamed (interpreted) this fall on his own inner dis-ease, that is on the inner rebellion.

It was here that Augustine made a crazy (I believe) move. He interpreted this inner rebellion as the product of his (and all human) LITERAL participation in the Fall.

The Eastern Orthodox recall believed that the Cosmos was Fallen, in the sense that dis-unity, non-being, and death had entered, but that Christ’s Death had sent the momentum back towards eventual re-unification. An individual is born in this incomplete and sinful world and will participate in it and add his/her own sin as well as virtue, but the individual is not born in Guilt.

This notion of a Literal Participation in an otherwise mythic truth is known as Original Sin–only found in Western Theology. Every soul is born in guilt for it has literally participated in the Primeval Event of Rebellion–the turning away from God to reliance on the self.

The history of the Gentile Western world (secular and religious) is rife with the Fallout of Original Sin. Its effects are beyond description. Augustine left a wisted warped structure with this insight. He opened up the possibility for a modern, phenomenological theological turn, with my metaphoric reading of the text with his understanding of the unconscious, but instead without an injunction to heal the inner rebellion, he simply resorted to a newly entrenched dogmatism and belief that the Christ’s Revelation Alone mediated by the Church could help us out of this fallen mess.

By focusing so much on the inner self and its redemption, Augustine left the Western churches minus the great Orthodox insight of the recapitulation of all things in Christ and the Cosmic Redemption of the Universe. Western spirituality was more concerned with individual salvation, ethic legalism, and apocalypse (the end of the world, not is recapitulation-redemption). The Rapture craze is only the latest manifestation of that trend–the Rapture being about individual souls getted taken up into heaven because they are righteous, not again the Redemption of the Cosmos itself into God.

Since the self is created inherently in relation, then sin is to break relationship. To sin is to become turned back in on oneself. The self is in relation to God, to itself, to the Church (if baptized), to the created world, and to the human race at large.

Augustine later wrote The City of God which is in terms of history-society what Confessions is to autobiography-private journaling-introspection. In that sense, since only a modern world can go “postmodern” and only once there has been an overly isolated self-sense can a countermovement towards realizing the way selves come inmeshed in political-social-linguistic-intellectual circles, Augustine should be considered the great-grandfather of postmodernism. In a weird way.

But notice what Augustine was absolutely dead on the money about–this inner rebellion is nothing but self-centered turning in on oneself. It is the refusal of the shadow to come into relationship with the larger momentum of the conscious psyche.

Now, Eastern Orthodox theology was predicated on practices of the mythic structure-stage (blue meme) with a heavy emphasis on cosmic redemption and the state-stages of gross, subtle, and causal.

A key insight in Integral thought is that one can realize the state-stages at any level of consciousness. Also just practicing higher states technologies will not cure the shadow, repressed unconscious, pathologies and so on.

Eastern Orthodox Theology-Mysticism, with the practice and teaching of Divinization, has no insight and therefore no solutions to the unconscious.

This is absolutely crucial if we are to re-unite these two theological strains (which is my intended aim at the end of this journey).

Augustine’s “in and up” is a classic subtle-level practice. God is “up” in illuminations and visions.

Divinization (Jesus Prayer) focuses “down” in the central heart channel and is Causal-aiming.

Western theology-mysticism, as McGinn notes, does not have a word for “union” (i.e. causal) until the 12th century!!!

Augustine had subtle mixed with hints of the Nondual, but no Causal.

But more importantly, Augustine came to question the synergistic model of grace and free will intrinsic to the Orthodox mystical praxis.

Augustine is famous, among many many things, for his battle royale with Pelagius, the Irish monk. Pelagius argued that one could achieve salvation by one’s own ethical strength. Augustine, in contradistinction, said that Grace must be irresistible.

Pelagius in essence was on the extreme edge of the Free Will side (Free Will Alone) and Augustine was on the extreme edge of the Grace Side (Grace Alone). The traditional-middle of the road Orthodox teaching (Grace and Free Will) was lost.

Augustine’s theology prevailed. After the Reformation, both classic Protestant and Tridentine (CounterReformation) Catholic Theology accepted Augustine’s basic premise.

The key argument for Augustine is this. The Eastern Orthodox model is based on the assumption that the human will can freely choose to either accept or deny God’s grace. But Augustine discovered aspect’s of the self that are not free to “consciously” choose.

They are by definition “unconscious.”

So these aspects of the self that are unable to freely say yes to God dilute the conscious aspects that can in fact choose yes.

So Augustine, in his battle with Pelagius coins a new phrase: prevenient grace–the grace that comes before (pre-venient).

This “prevenient” grace comes “before” one can even accept God’s offer (through grace) of salvation. To that Augustine latter appendixed a notion of “subsequent” grace–grace that must come subsequently to maintain one in the lifelong choice of saying yes.

So grace-before, grace-grace, and grace-after.

The tortured logic of which becomes pretty far out.

Logically the implication is clear. If someone is damned, its God’s fault. If it takes God’s grace to enable one even to say yes to God’s (freely given) offer of salvation, then literally it is all completely out of your hands.

Augustine seemed “fine”, if that is the right word with this outcome. He believed the mass of humanity was to be damned–massa damnata. That God condemned these is his “justice”, that God chooses (randomly?) to save some is his “mercy.”

Both Catholic and Protestant churches would try to tone down some of the rough edges of Augustine’s demanding vision. Augustine, to his credit, believed that no one in this life could know of their own salvation. Sorry Born-Agains. [More on that point for a later post].

As much as there are defenses from traditional RC and Prot. circles that this teaching does not blame God for the damnation of the Soul, I see no way around it.

Augustine because of this extreme-grace view, separated grace from nature. For the Orthodox they were different but connected. Each had its sphere of influence, but they both existed at every level–particularly in the journey of the higher stage-stages of mysticism.

For Augustine, nature and grace were always existentially linked, but they were ontologically separate. They did not go together, linking at each level, they were of different orders entirely.

That break eventually will lead to secularization, both positive and negative. Once nature is ontologically separated from grace, then it is free to develop in its own way. Separation of church/state being only the most famous example in the US of this trend—-again, once grace alone is accepted, an individual’s free will is separate from the Divine Realm.

In the next post, I will cover the Western Christian version of the three-fold mystical path (gross, subtle, and causal) and show how the Augustinian framework/interpretation molds and shapes the Christian contemplative journey.

Published in: on February 15, 2006 at 9:28 am  Leave a Comment  

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