St Augustine: Are You Seeking Things Above & Forsaking Things Below

Feast of the Holy Martyrs Terrence and Eunice

Augustine_Square_2.jpgTHE READER of these reflections of mine on the Trinity should bear in mind that my pen is on the watch against the sophistries of those who scorn the starting-point of faith, and allow themselves to be deceived through an unseasonable and misguided love of reason. Some of them try to transfer what they have observed about bodily things to incorporeal and spiritual things, which they would measure by the standard of what they experience through the senses of the body or learn by natural human intelligence, lively application, and technical skill. There are others whose concept of God, such as it is, ascribes to Him the nature and moods of the human spirit, a mistake which ties their arguments about God to distorted and misleading rules of interpretation. Again, there is another type; people who indeed strive to climb above the created universe, so ineluctably subject to change, and raise their regard to the unchanging substance which is God. But so top-heavy are they with the load of their mortality, that they do not know they wish to give the impression of knowing, and what they wish to know they cannot; and so they block their own road to genuine understanding by asserting too categorically their own presumptuous opinions, and then rather than change a misconceived opinion they have defended, they prefer to leave it uncorrected. 

Indeed this disease is common to all three types I have mentioned – to those who conceive of God in bodily terms, those who do so in terms of created spirit such as soul, and those who think of Him neither as body nor as created spirit, but still have false ideas about Him, ideas which are all the further from the truth in that they have no place either in the world of body, or in that of derived and created spirit, or in the Creator Himself. Thus whoever thinks that God is dazzling white, for example, or fiery red, is mistaken, yet these are realities of the bodily world. Or whoever thinks that God forgets things one moment and remembers them the next, or anything like that, is certainly quite wrong, and yet these are realities of the mental world. But those who suppose that God is of such power that He actually begets Himself, are if anything even more wrong, since not only is God not like that, but neither is anything in the world of body or spirit. There is absolutely no thing whatsoever that brings itself into existence. 

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It was therefore to purify the human spirit of such falsehoods that holy scripture, adapting itself to babes, did not shun any words, proper to any kind of thing whatever, that might nourish our understanding and enable it to rise up to the sublimities of divine things. Thus it would use words taken from corporeal things to speak about God, as when it says “Shelter me under the shadow of Your wings” (Ps. 17.8); and from the sphere of created spirit it has transposed many words to signify what was not in fact like that, but had to be expressed like that; “I am a jealous God” (Ex. 20.5) for example, and “I am sorry I made man” (Gen. 6.7). But from things that simply do not exist it never has drawn any names to form into figures of speech or weave into riddles. Hence those who are shut off from the truth by the third kind of error fade away into the meaningless even more disastrously than the others, since they imagine things about God that have no place either in Him or in anything He has made. 

The divine scriptures then are in the habit of making something like children’s toys out of things that occur in creation, by which to entice our sickly gaze and get us step by step to seek as best we can the things that are above and forsake the things that are below. 

~St Augustine, The Trinity

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