Pilgrims from Paradise:
Last time, as we finished up, I pointed out that, as Augustine of Hippo begins to join Platonic understandings and platonic interpretations with traditional Christianity, the God of the Christian West becomes different than the God of the apostolic tradition. We are going to be investigating that today, and I think to really best understand the particular Western problem that comes through the influence of Augustine, and those that followed in his footsteps, we first need to consider just who God is, to Eastern Christians.
In this apostolic tradition, God is the God of absolute, self-denying love. He creates human beings as an expression of this self-emptying love. Power pours forth from the divine heart, which by nature, always unselfishly gives itself away, and the universe is filled with life.
Humanity holds a very special place in this realm of love. Human creatures are born of the physical world, and yet, by nature, reflect the image of God, as we read in Genesis 1:26. Since the day of Pentecost, about which we read in Acts, Chapter 2, they have had the opportunity to actually possess God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, who comes to dwell within those who will receive Him. As such, human beings are the exalted creatures through whom God’s ultimate intention for the universe is to be fulfilled. That purpose, St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:10, is to make the entire creation one with its creator.
When humankind refuses this calling to love and oneness, and falls into death and sin, the God of love does not become bitter and angry. He does not become obsessed with punishing humanity for dishonoring him by rejecting Him. After all, St. Paul tells us that love, and most especially, perfect, divine love, “…suffers long, and is kind. It does not envy, and it never seeks its own. Love is not provoked, and thinks no evil. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:4-7.
When humanity turns away from the triune God, the Trinity devotes itself to one cause: Restoring human creatures to perfect love, with the persons of the Trinity, and with one another. God accomplishes this by the same self-denying, self-forgetting, other-directed love that brought the world into being. Jesus Christ comes to the world and empties Himself for us. In the beautiful words of the apostle, …“the Christ, though being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in the appearance of a man, He humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:6-8.
God does all this for our sakes, not His. The death of Christ is not an appeasement of the Father’s indignation toward us. It does not purchase the Father’s love for us—love which He was somehow unable to give us until he restored his honor by heaping the punishment for our sins upon His son. No - Christ’s death, and even more so, His resurrection, accomplishes that which the Father, Son and Spirit have eternally, mutually desired—the end of human death, and the restoration of humanity to intimate participation in the life of the Trinity.
In the ancient apostolic Eastern Christian worldview, salvation is defined as this active participation in the divine life. God has done everything necessary to make this possible, but he made us creatures with free will, and we must make a choice. It is not just a choice to believe certain things about God—that He loves us, that Christ has saved us, and that He has given us immortality. No - salvation is the willful act of entering with love, longing, deep repentance, and resolute commitment, into the life of God.
It is the act of emptying ourselves of all our selfish lusts and passions, of all our self-directed desires, thus allowing the Spirit who has come to indwell us, to have free rein in us. Salvation is the experience of the life of God flowing in us, through us, and around us. It is, in short, the experience of divine love in its totality.
Unfortunately, this is not the God, and this is not the experience that the Christian West inherits from Augustine and philosopher theologians who follow in his footsteps. From the nature of God, to the nature of salvation, the differences are readily identifiable. The foundational difference between the God of Eastern Christian experience, and Augustine’s objectified, philosophically-approached God, is that Augustine’s God is not, at the heart of his nature, a God of self-denying, self-emptying, self-forgetting love. Augustine’s God is, rather, a God of self-concerned, morally perfect order.
It is here that we begin to see the telltale influence of Plato on Augustine’s Christianity. The problem, you see, is that there is much that is within the philosophy of that august Athenian, the founder of Western philosophy, which resonates with Christian thought. For example, Plato believes in an ultimate reality, which is the source and ground of all things that exist. It is eternal, unchanging, and completely perfect. He calls it, The Good. For many Christian thinkers, it is a short step from The Good, to God. The Christian God does indeed, as I said, possess many of the characteristics of Plato’s supreme reality, but there are some critical differences, and therein lies the problem.
Augustine, together with other philosophers in the Western Christian tradition, makes the mistake of trying to understand God in terms of Platonic concepts that are intrinsically at odds with ancient Christian truths. Here is the more fundamental tension, as I see it, between the two world views. Ask one of the apostles to describe God in the simplest, most essential terms, and you will get the reply that St. John actually provides in his first epistle: “God is love” (1 John, 4:8). God’s perfection is revealed in His selfless commitment to us, as He empties Himself to restore us to deep, intimate communion with Him.
But ask Plato or one of his followers to describe The Good in the same basic way, and you will get a different response. The Good is perfect order. The Good’s perfection is not made known through some intimate self-denying relationship with creation. Rather, it is revealed through the beauty, the symmetry, the balance within the created universe. Within the realm of The Good, humanity’s ultimate destiny is not to join in the Holy dance of three Divine persons who make up one God. Rather, the goal for humankind is moral perfection.
It seems to me that the problem for Western Christianity boils down to this: Beginning with Augustine, the God of the Christian West becomes far too much like The Good, of Plato. This becomes apparent when one reads Augustine. Take, for example, Augustine’s teaching on why God created humankind. He says, “If the universe did not have souls which could attain the very peak of the order in the whole creation, such that if they chose to sin, the universe would be weakened and would totter, something great would be missing in creation.” That is from “On Free Choice of the Will.” Book 3, Chapter 11, Section 113.
Humanity, in Augustine’s philosophical view, was not created out of God’s self-emptying love, and His desire for oneness with His creation. No—just like rocks, ivy, squirrels, oak trees, and rivers, human beings exist to fill a necessary niche in creation—an extremely important niche, but a niche, nonetheless. We were not created from the love in the creator’s heart, instead we are just the logical product of God’s intrinsic need for completeness—a God whose most fundamental trait is a desire for order, and most especially, moral order. This is the God Augustine introduces to the Christian West.
Christians in the various traditions are by-and-large unaware of just how profoundly this particular image of God impacts their faith. It significantly alters the apostolic understanding of what God is like, as well as the role we human beings play in His life.
We will begin to discuss some of those significant impacts on Western faith that this worldview brings next time.