Gilbert Meilaender on curiosity as vice

Gilbert Meilaender on when curiosity can be vicious

Many possibilities may pique my curiosity — I may wonder how … human beings respond to experiments harmful to their bodies, or even to suffering; how the development of a fertilized egg could be stimulated to produce a monster rather than a normal human being; how to preserve a human being alive forever. I may wonder, but it would be wrong to seek to know. Not, in every case, because I cannot know, but because I cannot possess such knowledge while willing what is good. … To love the good and to possess what we love are, in this life, not always compatible. Hence, to seek always to love the good is to commit ourselves to a life that seeks to receive, not to possess.

Although Augustine does not outline for us any general principle by which we can always distinguish a proper desire for knowledge from the vice of curiosity, we can learn from him the attitude which may at least make virtue possible — an attitude characterized by a reverent desire to understand creation rather than a longing to possess the experience of knowing.

from The Theory and Practice of Virtue (Univ. Notre Dame Pr., 1984), 140.

David Burrell on truth and friendship

David Burrell on truth and friendship

a full-blooded understanding, one which engages the entire person in a discriminating and discerning assent to what one has come to regard as true, can never be a solitary endeavor. We are too much in our own way, and are especially led astray by the multiple desires of our wayward hearts. This observation should remind us that, far from being the first autobiography, Augustine’s Confessions represents anti-autobiography, seeking not for an elusive self but for its transcendent source, which is nonetheless closer to us than our very selves. And it is more dependable, as being the very truth of ourselves, the “light of the light of our souls.” If that sounds like will-o-the-wisp language, the invitation of the Confessions is to entrust our own search for our self to Augustine’s tutelage. If we can place that search in his hands, he will attempt to teach us how to displace it altogether, showing how one of our potential friends – himself – let it be transformed into a search for the source of all, including that precious self. Then we will be empowered to spend it in the service of others, as a part of our project of returning it to the One who gives it so freely and abundantly.

What may have appeared to be an excursus on friendship turns out to show us that a commitment to truth may be barely intelligible in other than personal terms. And attempting to understand the shaping convictions of others persons becomes the best access we can have to a view of truth as personal. It will take a tradition shaped by revelation to give proper voice to truth as personal, where God speaks in a language accessible to us. Significantly enough, those traditions which are shaped invariably speak of a path and a journey of faith. God’s word presents a challenge to understanding rather than a certitude made easily available.

from Friendship and Ways to Truth, (UofNotreDame Press, 2000), 60-61.

Ian McFarland on original sin

Ian McFarland on original sin

In short, the claim that human beings are born sinners (i.e., actually guilty of sin and not just predisposed to sin) derives from and depends logically on the more fundamental conviction that the ultimate vindication of particular human lives before God is pure gift.

This soteriological framework affects Christian claims about what makes human beings human. If humanity’s ultimate destiny as human before God is a matter of gift, it follows that the source and guarantor of human identity is located outside the self in God. This perspective is inconsistent with the penchant of most modern thinkers to see the (free) exercise of the will as the source of human identity. In other words, it is a corollary of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin that human identity is rooted in a reality that is prior to human willing. This reality is either the grace of Christ, which leads to eternal life, or the taint of original sin, which leads to death and damnation.

This way of thinking has the further effect of transforming sin form a moral category defined in terms of discreet acts of the will to an ontological one that describes the conditions under which willings takes place. The will is directed by desire, which is in itself not under the control of the will. Again, the will does whatever it wants, but it cannot want whatever it wants. Because in the aftermath of the fall human desire is turned away from God, the will is constitutionally sinful prior to any act of the will (i.e., prior to any concrete thought or deed that could be subjected to moral assessment). […] In short, while a sinner is one who commits sin, from an Augustinian perspective it is the fact of being a sinner that leads to concrete acts of sinning and not the other way round.

from “The Fall and Sin,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, (OUP, 2007), 148. [emphases added]

Rowan Williams on Augustine

Rowan Williams writes to St Augustine

What everyone remembers, of course, is the things you got wrong – or the things we’re quite sure you got wrong.

How you painted yourself into a corner over predestination, God deciding before all time who was to go to heaven and who not. And women; we get very indignant that you had difficulty believing that women were really in God’s image as much as men. We forget that this is what you did believe, and how difficult it was for you to square this with what everyone else in your age thought.

And we blame you for messing up Christian attitudes to sex, because for you it was an area of humiliation and tragedy – forgetting, again, that you truly thought sex between husband and wife had something of heaven in it.

We look for a scapegoat to explain why Western Christianity and Western civilization are so much of a mess. You wrote such a lot and so powerfully that I’m afraid you’re a very good candidate for the position. But I think you would have turned around and challenged us: why the passion for a scapegoat? What are you refusing to look at in yourself?

In the City of God you explained the mechanisms: we’re not sure in ourselves what we really love and value; we invest all our expectations in people and solutions inside this world, and they let us down cruelly. We feel restless and insubstantial because we don’t know how and what to love. So we give ourselves a false solidity by pushing the darkness, the doubt and evil out there, projecting it onto some other person, some other group.

We get our solid identity from denying our own poverty and incompleteness. When I was teaching students about the City of God, I felt I really began to understand the Cold War.

So we can’t learn to love unless we let go of the longing for solid, fixed identity. We start to grow up not when we become independent, but when we recognize that we shall always need the words and actions of others to give us life – and when we face that fact without resentment or shame.

Behind it all is the recognition that the only reason there is anything at all is the pure act of generosity that creates the world – it doesn’t have to be there, God doesn’t have to make it, but he wants his joy shared. When we know that, we know ourselves – not by introspection, because I shall always lie to myself about my motives, but by looking to the love that made me and remakes me.

Not a scapegoat, then, but someone who’s taught me what I hope is the right kind of skepticism about myself and the world of power around me – and the right kind of trust in my maker.

Thank you.

The original is available online here.

Book Notice: James Wetzel

How do you introduce a mind as cavernous as Augustine’s to those unversed in the terrain of his literature? Answering this question is the task James Wetzel sets himself for his contribution to Continuum’s series on Guides for the Perplexed. It may be worth noting that Wetzel’s Augustine (2010) is not his first venture into Augustine studies. Quite the opposite is the case. Wetzel holds the Augustinian Endowed Chair in the Thought of St Augustine at Villanova University. Augustine, the point is, is a specialty of Wetzel’s. In fact, he has already offered the well-received Augustine and the Limits of Virtue (Cambridge, 2008), and more recently Parting Knowledge: Essays after Augustine, (Wipf&Stock, 2013). Both of those volumes, however, are more specialized in focus. For that reason, it will serve my purposes better if we simply consider Wetzel’s Guide, which works as a general and more accessible introduction to its subject matter. Wetzel selects as his point of departure Augustine’s moral psychology. It makes for demanding reading. But I would be quick to add that your efforts will be abundantly rewarded. The results of Wetzel’s account are soul-stretching. Wetzel’s Guide doesn’t just introduce you to Augustine, it is itself an exercise in Augustinian spirituality.

What Wetzel so helpfully brings to view is the character of Augustine’s theology as a “great refusal” — the refusal of a lie (125). “The lie is that he [Augustine] is most himself when he is nearest a self-contained intelligence” (126). The truth, however, so often lost amidst our aspirations to a god-like epistemic self-sufficiency, is disclosed in “Augustine’s ideal of a life,” namely, that “of a life confessed” (8). It was a trail of trials and tears that taught Augustine how to surrender his self-definition to others (35); he had to learn that perspicacious self-perception is a fruit of friendship, divine and human. Even in matters of self-knowledge there can be no elimination of truth’s character as a gift received, extra nos, and not the product of an individual’s genius.

Augustine’s insight points to a critical moment for theology and philosophy. Augustine is building to the conclusion that an ingredient of either enterprise is the pursuit of a right spiritual posture. Wisdom is with the humble, we’ll remember (Pr 11:2). The truth is, the blind spots in the field of our self-vision are not exceptions to our general epistemic condition. Rather, they’re indicative of the fundamentally cooperative and dialogical character of all inquiry (i.e., bringing into view some of the moral liabilities of intellectual endeavor). Wetzel is alert to the significance of this consideration, and he aims to practice what he finds Augustine preaching: “I respect and share his [Augustine’s] view that philosophy is not about gaining the upper hand in an argument. It is about risking self for the sake of truth and a more generous self” (10). Here Wetzel reminds me of another philosopher (Joel Backström) who’s made a similar point about this reflexive dimension of inquiry, “Winning arguments and proving others wrong is quite useless. The promise of philosophy is that one may come to prove oneself wrong, to see through one’s own illusions.” Surely theology would applaud this sentiment with a hearty Amen. It’s been a defining task of theology to bid us to mind our sins — even in our theologizing. For theology’s promise, at the end of the day, is the divine unmasking of our idolatries, to have our own unconfessed reserves of faithlessness disclosed.

We, however, Augustine has been cautioning us, ought not to presume to be experts in self-diagnosis (37). We stand in need of a Confessor. “I beg you, God of mine,” prays Augustine, “show me me, that I may testify to what I find mangled in me” (Conf.10.37.62). The truth we can apprehend, we learn, is a measure of the company we keep. This is the difference a student’s spiritual state makes in their intellectual formation. Our temptations to distort or refuse friendship will figure into our capacity to discern truth. But if we would follow Augustine, it will become our prayer that our as-yet disparate spiritual, moral, and intellectual labors would begin to image the integrity of the one God.

So who do I think would profit from spending some time with Wetzel’s Augustine? Well, if you’ve had trouble “subordinating [your] responsibility for sin to [your] more fundamental responsiveness to God” (9); if you’re someone who questions “the value of the life that makes a person liable to grief” (17); if you’ve found yourself tempted by the desire for knowledge that “banks on the notion that knowing the good and being willing to live by it are entirely separate things” (52, 67); if you’re curious as to how the Christian religion functions as a map of the human soul (51); then to you I would suggest letting Wetzel be your guide to both Augustine and Augustine’s God. May they impress upon you the integrity of truth and love. Rest assured, Wetzel knows better than to “stay too long with a negative moral” (111).