Popular Cultures Religious Vitality Augustine

While he lived there about 150 years after Tertullian had died, Saint Augustine was familiar with Carthage. In his Confessions he recalls this city where he was sent to be educated at the age of sixteen, and where he spent most of the decade of his twenties, first as a student, later as a teacher: "I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust." As the largest cosmopolitan city in the Roman territory of Africa, Carthage was an epicenter of popular entertainment in the empire, famous for its circus, amphitheater and gladiatorial shows - a fourth-century Las Vegas. As a libidinous teenager, Augustine's particular weakness was for the theater, he tells us, "because the plays reflected my own unhappy plight and were tinder to my fire." He was a fan of romantic tragedies, and the more the actors moved him to pity, the more delight he derived. The uniting and then distressing separation of lovers was an exquisite pleasure to witness, he admits, although he had "no wish to endure the sufferings which I only saw on the stage."24 But the sweet tears these imaginary fictions brought to his eyes absorbed him and strangely ramped up from friendly feelings toward the victims of love, he confides, into full-force torrents of lust.

While not much of a fan of gladiators himself, Augustine describes at length the experience of his close friend, Alypius, who was "caught in the whirl of easy morals at Carthage, with its continual round of futile entertainments, and had lost his heart and his head to the games in the amphitheater." For a time Alypius was able to overcome his craving for the games, but then on a trip to Rome he set out to prove his mastery of his former obsession by accompanying friends to the arena for a gladiatorial show, determined to keep his eyes clamped shut and thus serve as a model of virtue to his companions. In a gripping passage, Augustine describes the scene:

An incident in the fight drew a great roar from the crowd, and this thrilled him so deeply that he could not contain his curiosity. ... So he opened his eyes____When he saw the blood, it was as though he had drunk a deep draught of savage passion. Instead of turning away, he fixed his eyes upon the scene and drank in all its frenzy, unaware of what he was doing. He reveled in the wickedness of the fighting and was drunk with the fascination of bloodshed. He was no longer the man who had come to the arena, but simply one of the crowd which he had joined [W]hen he left the arena, he carried with him a diseased mind which would leave him no peace until he came back again.25

From these accounts, we get a sense for the perverse appeal Augustine finds in the popular forms of entertainment of his day. It is an appeal he knows first-hand; when one succumbs, the will is overcome with a craving that cannot be controlled. Although Augustine's reservations about the spectacles did have something to do with their pagan elements and with the work of demons for whom they offered cover, criticisms he shared with Tertullian, they had even more to do with their irresistible attractiveness to human cupidity - to our proclivity to surrender our will to unrestrained cravings for objects that are less than God.

It is worth noting that much had changed in the Roman Empire in the years that separated Augustine from Tertullian. After Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 312 ce, pagan society had begun feeling pressure from edicts granting greater tolerance for the Church and less tolerance for pagan religion. During Augustine's life, laws were issued by Emperor Theodosius I directing local officials to remove idols and altars from pagan temples and to destroy them, to confiscate property on which pagan rites were performed, to prohibit visits to pagan temples, and to exclude pagans from imperial employment. Because the Roman senate and army remained largely pagan, these laws were resisted by local officials, but intense and violent pressure from bands of Christian vigilantes such as the Circumcellions in Egypt was very effective in curbing the open practice of pagan religion. Still, the games held on; they had a firm grasp on the popular imagination - for both pagans and Christians.

Given the ebb and flow of pagan devotion in the late fourth century, the time was ripe for someone to discern what this meant. Augustine stepped up to the challenge. In his Confessions, On Christian Doctrine, and his monumental City of God, he marked the passing of pagan culture by distinguishing between pagan poetry, temple cult, and philosophy. For the most part, he favored its philosophy but wrote abusively about its poetry, myth, and cult. The philosophers, and particularly the Platonists, he wrote in On Christian Doctrine, "have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith."26 In the City of God, he lays down a sweeping criticism of the work of the poets and their stories of the gods - stories frequently performed at the theater - insisting that these stories are "foolish things" that cannot be rendered into real wisdom with any amount of interpretation.

But as is often the case with Augustine, these declarations do not tell the whole story. On the opening page of the City of God he transcribes a stanza from the pagan poet Virgil - the author of the epic poems about the ancient gods that became primary source material for the dramas upon which Augustine heaped so much scorn - to summarize the basic dialectic of his own argument in two brief lines:

Show pity to the humbled soul,

And crush the sons of pride.

In these two lines of poetry Augustine draws on the authority of the pagan Virgil to introduce his Christian argument about the city of God (the humbled soul) and the earthly city (the sons of pride). In fact, the City of God contains frequent transcriptions of Virgil, accompanied by such endorsements as "the most famous poet speaks truly ... "27 In the Confessions he suggests that while the fables of the poets are not "true," they nevertheless "provide real food for thought."28 Following a long examination of the myriad corruptions of nature and miseries that have been introduced as a result of original sin and the curse, he pauses to consider the "blessings of God" which have persisted in spite of it all. Among these blessings he lists such "astonishing arts" as weaving, navigation, architecture, painting, sculpture, the theater, song and musical instruments, each of which owes its existence to God's providence - God who has filled the human mind with exuberant inventiveness, vigor and a marvelous nimbleness, and not removed these as punishment for our sin. "The little spark of reason," Augustine assures us, "which was the image of God in him, has not been quite quenched." Even the theater receives a guarded endorsement here. "What wonderful spectacles," he writes, "are exhibited in the theaters, which those who have not seen them cannot credit!"29 While Augustine, like Tertullian, was a pagan who had been recast into a Christian, unlike Tertullian he retained a real affection for the world he had turned his back on - a world that was now itself threatened both internally by the growing Christian influence, and externally by the incursions of barbarians from northern Europe - and took the view that aspects of pagan culture ought to be preserved and put into the service of the church.

In effect, Augustine softened the boundary between the church and the surrounding culture that had been erected by Tertullian and other church fathers. In Augustine's terms, while the earthly and heavenly cities had two different ultimate destinies, for the present, they "are mingled together from the beginning down to the end."30 The two cities, he wrote, "are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation."31 Citizens of both cities inhabit overlapping spaces for the duration of history, and spend their lives passing through the same buildings, participating in the same institutions, witnessing the same works of art, and engaging in many of the same social practices that constitute the earthly city. The difference between them is not in the external accoutrements of their lives, but in the quality of their love and attachment to these things. We are citizens of the earthly city to the extent that we love the earthly city as an end in itself; we are citizens of the heavenly city to the extent that we make use of the earthly city - including its astonishing arts and cultural attainments - as a way of loving God.

With respect to cultural phenomena that functioned in the ancient world as popular culture - such as the games, the theater, pagan philosophy, myth and ritual - Tertullian readily associated the bulk of it with false gods and idolatry. As such, he insisted that participating in them at any level would draw Satan and his demons into the world to do their work. Augustine, on the other hand, suggests that while idolatry is bad and to be avoided in every case, idols and their stories can be examined for what they can tell us about various attributes and actions of God. The various mysterious powers attributed to the gods, by which particular things are caused to be, by which seeds germinate, diseases are healed, eloquent speech is uttered, wars are fought and won, the waters are governed, the light of the sun is sustained, and human minds acquire knowledge of the arts that are necessary for life - the very powers that had been distributed among the gods in the pagan imagination - "these are the things the one true God makes and does."32 Examining the powers of the gods can be viewed as a primitive form of metaphysics that accurately analyzes the forces that operate in the universe, even if it fails to determine their true source.

And so, Augustine urges, the pantheon of pagan gods should not be spurned out of hand given what they might teach us about how the world works and, moreover, about the attributes of the true God. "We ought rather to seek to know what gods these are, and for what purpose they may appear to have been selected." Augustine then lists, among others, the gods whose specialized powers are well known: Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Mars, Neptune, and Venus. It is important to note, first, he suggests, that despite their rivalries, these gods work for the most part in concert. The pantheon is at least a distorted recognition that the cosmos is unified and coherent. Furthermore, the ancients who "invented the images, badges, and adornments of the gods" did so, he speculates, out of a humane desire to provide people with vessels they could see with their own eyes, vessels that contain real mysteries. And while this took away some of their fear of cosmic mysteries, a worthy achievement in Augustine's view, it also added error.33 But for Augustine this is worth sorting through; there is much to be gained from an investigation of the invented symbols and fabulous deities of the pagans regarding knowledge of an array of powers that are in reality the work of the one true and supreme God who is the great mystery deep below the surface. Given that humans are made to long for God, and given the inescapable fact that even proper worship requires the use of signs, it is to be expected, Augustine argues, that humans will discover in earthly and celestial forces a rich supply of "symbols of mystery ... which increase our mystical knowledge." Thus, even in the scriptures God is called lamb, calf, lion and rock, which are all sanctioned ways to signify God, provided God is treated as that to which these things point.34

Behind this view of a true religion which adores the world as a means to worship God is Augustine's fundamental principle of the human condition, namely that the heart is restless until it finds peace in God. It is with this recognition that Augustine framed his Confessions, his autobiographical examination of his own restless life. Looking back he understood that his life had been a succession of grasping for some enduring consolation - ideas, bodily gratifications, social esteem, friendships, metaphysical schemes - to which he became attached, eventually grew weary, then moved on. Driving this restlessness, he concluded, was an unslakable desire for the true God, a desire that kept pressing him to fix onto some aspect of reality larger than himself. God alone can satisfy this longing; the world can function only as a set of signs through which God is encountered.

One can find in Augustine two norms that guide his judgments regarding which elements of pagan culture deserve to be preserved. First, he claims that "Wherever we may find truth, it is the Lord's."35 With this norm in mind, he makes such observations as:

We should not think that we ought not to learn literature because Mercury is said to be its inventor, nor that because the pagans dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue and adored in stones what should be performed in the heart, we should therefore avoid justice and virtue.36

He goes on, "If the philosophers have said things that are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use." Just as the people of Israel took vases, ornaments, garments, gold and silver from the Egyptians when they fled, "as if to put them to a better use," Christians should plunder the philosophers.37

The second norm is charity. Augustine writes: "Knowledge which is used to promote love is useful."38 In his handling of pagan religious symbols and forms of devotional practice, Augustine adamantly rejects those that have arisen from collusion with demons. But this does not exhaust all pagan symbols and practices; there are many that the Romans had borrowed from nature and history, which are for Augustine legitimate sources for symbolizing the divine, and only become problematic when observed in an idolatrous manner. This misuse, however, does not invalidate them as potentially useful religious signs that can be used in understanding or worshipping the one true God. To test their usefulness as genuine religious symbols, Augustine proposes that they be interpreted in the chamber of the conscience. If in a particular interpretation of an appropriated pagan symbol the interpreter is aware of himself becoming more proficient at loving God and neighbor, then there is something worthy of retrieval in the symbol. By proficiency in love, Augustine has in mind "the motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of God for God's own sake."39

This understanding of love as the "enjoyment" of God is a technical definition in Augustine. He frequently distinguishes between the terms "enjoyment" (frui - as in the word fruition) and "use" (uti - as in the word utilize). To enjoy something is to love it for its own sake. To use something is to employ it in moving closer to that which is loved. But both enjoyment and use are ways of loving. The first is appropriate to human love for God and the second is appropriate to human love for other creatures. In this distinction, Augustine prescribes the proper attitude one is to take regarding religious symbols. "In this mortal life," he writes, "wandering from God, if we wish to return to our native country where we can be blessed we should use this world and not enjoy it ... so that by means of corporal and temporal things we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual."40 Or, expressed differently: "Love those things by which we are carried along for the sake of that toward which we are carried."41 Thus, any sign, whether it is a symbol or a custom, may be appropriated by a Christian provided one's application of it propels the soul in this movement toward God which Augustine calls charity.

This is precisely the shortcoming of the pagans in their poetic and theatrical portrayals of the gods. The pagan gods are presented as moral criminals. Augustine is fond of citing the example of Jupiter, who is "painted, cast, beaten, carved, written, read, acted, sung, and danced"

in the act of committing adultery.42 This sort of behavior attributed to the gods can only inspire similar immorality in humans, who know instinctively that they are to imitate the divine. Consequently, these religious symbols and performances make people unfit for society and depraved, and thereby fall short of the criteria of charity. In any legitimate representation of the divine, it is incumbent, according to the very idea of divinity, "to publish in plain terms the laws of a good life."43 The theater, then, is not intrinsically evil; all depends upon the love of God and neighbor that it inspires.

Even the artistry and ornamentation that is incorporated into the most mundane objects can be an occasion for gratitude to God. In Confessions, Augustine writes,

By every kind of art and the skill of their hands men make innumerable things - clothes, shoes, pottery, and other useful objects, besides pictures and various works which are the fruit of the imagination. They make them on a far more lavish scale than is required to satisfy their own modest needs or to express their devotion, and all these things are additional temptations to the eye, made by men who love the worldly things they make themselves but forget their own Maker and destroy what he made in them. But, O my God, my Glory, for these things too I offer you a hymn of thanksgiving. I make a sacrifice of praise to him who sanctifies me, for the beauty which flows through men's minds into their skilful hands comes from that Beauty which is above their souls and for which my soul sighs all day and night.44

Thus, Augustine offers a strategy for the appropriation of pagan religious symbols and all varieties of popular art. They may be appropriated if they can be pressed into the service of charity, into the journey of the soul to God, as a means of devotion rather than as objects of devotion, if they can be "used" rather than "enjoyed." Pagan customs, figures, metaphors, fables, precepts, poetry, theater, paintings, sculptures, clothing, shoes, and pottery may be plundered if they can be put to use in such a way as to enable one to enjoy God and imitate divine goodness.

Furthermore, Augustine encourages this appropriation. First, by pointing out that it is the fitting thing to indulge the human need for tangible signs, and, second, by claiming that truth artfully adorned is more persuasive, comprehensible, and conducive to stirring human beings to charity. Augustine, for these reasons, is receptive to a Christian use of elements of popular culture from outside of the church. The treasures of the pagans and even conventional ornaments may be plundered and converted to a better use in the worship of the one true God.

0 0

Post a comment