Posts tagged with: augustine

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, February 27, 2007

This piece from the Scientific American examines the difficulty that human beings have achieving happiness even in a world characterized by material prosperity.

“Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness,” writes Michael Shermer, in the context of Richard Lay૚rd’s observation that “we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950.”

Shermer examines various reasons that increases in objective well-being don’t necessarily correspond to increases in subjective well-being, or happiness. Perhaps it’s because of our genes. Or perhaps, as Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns argues, it’s because we seek happiness in pleasure rather than satisfaction: “Satisfaction is an emotion that captures the uniquely human need to impart meaning to one’s activities.”

But none of these or the other possibilities Shermer surveys offer a complete answer. He concludes, “To understand happiness, we need both history and science.” I think that’s true, but I would add we also need theology.

Consider the truth of Augustine’s observations about the nature of sin and the search for happiness in a fallen world. First, “absolutely all of us want to be happy” (Confessions 10.21.31). But given the reality of sinful human nature, we constantly seek happiness and fulfillment in inappropriate places, arrogating our own misguided quest for happiness to the place of controlling priority.

Augustine’s understanding of uti and frui, or benevolence and complacence as Jonathan Edwards calls them, is illuminating here. The former regards the right use of things as means to achieve happiness, while the latter is the resting and right appreciation of something.

Thus, says Augustine,

there are some things which are meant to be enjoyed, others which are meant to be used, yet others which do both the enjoying and the using. Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them (On Christian Teaching, 1.3.3).

Ultimately it is only God in whom we are to seek our happiness, resting in him complacently. Speaking to God Augustine confesses,

A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy (Confessions 10.22.32).

Happiness can only truly be enjoyed when there is a right ordering of our affections for transient objects as means to enjoying and resting in God alone. That’s the insight provided by theology, and it helps explain the happiness conundrum plaguing various disciplines of social science.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, February 19, 2007

One of the latest iterations of the reality TV craze is the show, “Bad Girls Club,” on the Oxygen network. The premise of the show revolves around a group of young women of diverse backgrounds brought together to live in one house: “What happens when you put seven ‘bad’ girls in a house together – the type of girls who lie, cheat and flirt their way out of trouble and have serious trust issues with other women?”

It doesn’t take long for fireworks to fly. Only four days and a couple episodes into the experience, one of the bad girls named Ripsi flies off into an alcoholic rage (video here and here). After a long stretch of binge drinking (inexplicably she drinks more alcohol to sober up), Ripsi explodes into an attack on two of her housemates, amidst a flurry of broken dishes.

After that fateful night, Ripsi claims she had no memory of the events and is somewhat apologetic (although she brags about her privileged background with one of the girls she attacked), but the fallout is already decided: Ripsi has to leave the house (view the video here).

As she’s packing to leave, Ripsi shows great disdain for her possessions, giving away a $500 designer dress to one of her housemates. Too lazy to carry her bags, she simply kicks them down the stairs and lets them land where they may.

But in the midst of this prima donna behavior, Ripsi makes this tearful confession:

I just wanna be happy, I’m not happy. Nothing in the world makes me happy. I could shop until I drop. I could go out with my friends. But there’s a void in there. I have been looking for something my whole life and I don’t know what it is. I just know that I haven’t found it yet.

In this intimate and heartfelt admission, we find the confirmation of the truth of Augustine’s famous theological confession to God: “You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (1.1.1).

Ripsi: “I just wanna be happy, I’m not happy…”


Unless our affections are properly oriented toward God, nothing will make us happy. Ripsi exemplifies the perennial experience of fallen humanity which seeks fulfillment and happiness in various created goods, whether in the social bonds of family and friends or in material possessions. Solomon documents his search for meaning in the book of Ecclesiastes and takes Ripsi’s confession to its final conclusion: without God no one can be happy, everything is meaningless.

Ripsi’s confession is an unwitting witness to the reality that pervades all of fallen humanity, for “absolutely all of us want to be happy” (10.21.31). But by nature we seek happiness through the ignorance and corruption of our will and so we are doomed to seek happiness in sinful ways. As Augustine writes, “Sin gains entrance through these and similar good things when we turn to them with immoderate desire, since they are the lowest kind of goods and we thereby turn away from the better and higher: from you yourself, O Lord our God, and your truth and your law” (2.5.10).

Since Ripsi’s departure from the show, there have been more fights and misadventures in the Bad Girls Club. But at the very least this show has provided us with a contemporary testimony to the reality of fallen humanity and the self-destructive nature of sin. What Ripsi is looking for, even without her knowledge of it, is what all of us are ultimately seeking: the unsurpassed happiness that comes with a relationship with God, made possible through the work of Jesus Christ.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, February 5, 2007

Speaking of the ubiquity of pornography in our culture, last week ABC News’ Nightline highlighted the work of XXXChurch, a ministry aimed at evangelizing porn stars and pornographers, as well as addressing the spiritual problems associated with consuming pornography. Check out the story, “The Porn Pastors: XXXChurch.com.”

JR Mahon of the ministry says in the piece, “Our biggest critics are Christians.” Sadly this comes as no surprise. When XXXChurch came up with the idea of a New Testament with a cover emblazoned, “Jesus Loves Porn Stars,” resistance from the evangelical community was quick and strong. The American Bible Society refused to publish it.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said at the time that “I think these guys have crossed a line that I would not cross and I would not commit.”

“I just have to wonder what people think when they see that cover,” Mohler said. “In other words, are they expecting the Bible or are they expecting something else?”

Similar furor has erupted over an Australian Baptist church’s display of a sign that read, “Jesus Loves Osama.” Melinda at the Stand to Reason Blog calls such mottoes “bumper sticker Christianity” that is “just so unhelpful.”

The defense in both cases is that the verbiage is that it is simply an attempt to communicate the gospel message in a challenging and thought-provoking way; that we are called to evangelize everyone in the Great Commission and that we are to love our enemies.

There are two errors that are often committed in these areas. The conservative error is to reject both the sinner and the sin in the interests of purity and holiness. The liberal error is to minimize or even celebrate the evil of the sin as good in the interests of acceptance, tolerance, and “love.”

Augustine helps us to avoid both errors. If we are at pains to legislate against certain types of behavior but are not undertaking evangelistic efforts to convert those who need it most, we engage in Pharisaic legalism. If we do nothing to rebuke sin, we engage in licentious antinomianism.

Here are some thoughts from Augustine, that could arguably be pretty well summarized in the bumper sticker slogan, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” (clearly in light of the second quote the word “sinner” would need to be properly parsed):

“That is, he should not hate the man because of the fault, nor should he love the fault because of the man; rather, he should hate the fault but love the man. And when the fault has been healed there will remain only what he ought to love, and nothing that he ought to hate” (City of God, 14.6).

“No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account, God though on his own. And if God is to be loved more than any human being, we all ought to love God more than ourselves” (De Doctrina Christiana, 1.27.28).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, January 12, 2007

The question of cultural transformation looms over American Christianity. Should we engage culture? If so, how? In a battle for supremacy over American institutions? Or for the hearts and minds of the people?

Reading through a sermon from Augustine, I was struck by a passage that illustrates how transformation of the world begins (and sometimes ends) in the church:

…pray as much as you can. Evils abound, and God has willed that evils abound. If only evil people didn’t abound, then evils wouldn’t abound. The times are evil, the times are troubled, that’s what they say. Let us live good lives, and the times are good. We ourselves are the times. Whatever we are like, that’s what the times are like.

But what are we to do? We can’t convert the vast majority to a good life, can we? Let the few people who are listening live good lives; let the few who are living good lives bear with the many living bad ones. They are grains of wheat, they are the on the threshing floor; they can have the chaff with them on the threshing floor, they won’t have it with them in the barn. Let them put up with what they don’t want, in order to come to what they do.

Why should we be vexed, and find fault with God? Evils abound in the world to stop us loving the world. Great are the people, real saints are the faithful, who have made light of the beautiful world; we here can’t even make light of the ugly one. The world is evil, yes it’s evil, and yet it is loved as if it were good. And what precisely is this evil world? It isn’t the sky and earth and the waters and all that is in them, fishes, birds, trees. All these things are good. The evil world is the one made by evil people.

But because, as I have said, as long as we live we cannot be without evil people, let us man and groan to the Lord our God, and put up with evils in order to attain to things that are truly good. Don’t let’s find fault with the Father of the family; after all, he cares for us dearly. He is supporting us, not we him. He knows how to manage what he has made. Do what he has told you and hope for what he has promised [The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Sermons, part 3. Trans. Edmund Hill (New Rochelle, NY: New City Press, 1993), Sermon 80.8, pp. 355-56].

Words to remember and to live by, both for the 5th and the 21st centuries I think.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, January 11, 2007

A part of the pornification of culture is the pornification of technology.

G4TV, a cable network owned by Comcast Corp., has been covering the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) from Las Vegas this week and kicks off prime time special coverage tonight at 9pm ET. Of course, hip new gadgets like the iPhone (which actually was debuted at Macworld 2007) aren’t enough to appeal to “the male 18-34 audience and their fascination with video games, the Internet, broadband, technology, comics and animation.”

What’s missing from that list of interest? Porn, of course. That’s where the Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE) comes in, serendipitously timed to match up with CES. G4TV is advertising dual coverage of both CES and AEE as “two days of gadgets and girls.”

But as one commenter in a G4 forum notes, “You know, there are female gamers/sci-fi fans too. Like, people who prefer to be thought of as more than pieces of sexy sex meat.”

She continues,

But, silly me, why should G4 care if women like games, right? So much easier to play to stereotypes and make commercials about how men need ‘balance’ (like tech and ‘sex’ (meaning, clearly, scantily clad skinny white women) equals ‘balance’). Yay for G4! Who cares about women!

Poo to your advertisements and your stupid anti-girl sex shows. I guess I’ll need to start looking elsewhere for my gaming and sci-fi needs.

You go, girl.

Of course, the ubiquity of pornography on the Internet is the stuff of legend (although often of the urban variety). While pornographic websites on the web are estimated to do over $2.5 billion in business annually and about one-quarter of web searches are porn related, a recent government study has found that 1% of Internet sites are porn-related (other estimates have put the range at 10% or higher).

Even so, 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women admit accessing porn at work. This has led some, such as PJ Doland (HT: Slashdot), to entertain the idea of a NSFW (“not safe for work”) HTML attribute or tag that could be added to questionable content. Doland writes:

This isn’t about censorship. It is about making us all less likely to accidentally click on a[n objectionable] link when our boss is standing behind us. It is also about making us feel more comfortable posting possibly objectionable content by giving visitors a means of easily filtering that content.

An idea like this has the potential to achieve through voluntary measures what the proponents of the .xxx domain extension had hoped to accomplish by segregating explicit material from the rest of the web by an obvious marker.

Some church groups opposed the idea of a .xxx domain because they thought it would lend credibility to Internet pornography, and ICANN temporarily shelved the idea (although it may be revived).

Christian philosopher Albert Borgmann has written that “underneath the surface of technological liberty and prosperity there is a sense of captivity and deprivation.”

Augustine described the relationship between desire and deprivation in his Confessions this way:

The truth is that disordered lust springs from a perverted will; when lust is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion. These were like interlinking rings forming what I have described as a chain, and my harsh servitude used it to keep me under duress (8.5.10).

It would be hard to imagine something on the Internet that contributes as much to this binding of the will to sin than pornography, making the work of groups like the XXXChurch (who are covering the AEE in their own way) all the more pressing.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 19, 2006

In a much discussed op-ed for CNN last week, hipster church leaders Marc Brown and Jay Bakker (the latter’s profile, incidentally, immediately precedes that of yours truly in The Relevant Nation…a serendipitous product of alphabetical order) lodge a complaint against Christianity that doesn’t respect the call “love others just as they are, without an agenda.”

Speaking of Jesus, Brown and Bakker write, “The bulk of his time was spent preaching about helping the poor and those who are unable to help themselves. At the very least, Christians should be counted on to lend a helping hand to the poor and others in need.”

I’m sympathetic with their concerns that Christianity not become “co-opted by a political party” or only about “supporting laws that force others to live by their standards.” I’m less sympathetic with their emphasis on Christianity strictly as social gospel (the only mention of “hell” in the piece is as part of a rhetorical flourish at the piece’s beginning, having nothing to do with the biblical doctrine of everlasting punishment.)

In a piece for the Christian Science Monitor (HT: WorldMagBlog), Mark Totten writes that “a remarkable trend is emerging among Evangelicals today: the embrace of a social agenda that includes not only abortion and marriage, but poverty, AIDS, the environment, and human rights.” On one level, this reflects the positive engagement of evangelicals with the totality of public life, something that is important given the extent of Christ’s lordship.

Totten writes,

The most telling change is perhaps taking place in the pulpit. For most of the past century, Evangelicals have reacted against the Social Gospel movement of the progressive era, which many felt replaced the Gospel message with one of mere worldly social action. Today, however, a new generation of evangelical pastors is weaving an ethic of “neighbor love” into the fabric of sin and salvation.

(Totten cites the work of Rev. Tim Keller, whose work is discussed in more detail here and here, as a case in point.) The key here is that in an overreaction to the social gospel, some Christians eschewed any and all political or social engagement. We need to be careful, however, that in response to what may be too little engagement, we don’t return to the errors of the social gospel and make Christianity all about material or social well-being.

So, instead of the “either/or” dichotomy that Bakker and Brown set up between traditional political issues of the religious right (e.g. gay “marriage,” abortion) and the “new” concerns of political evangelicalism (e.g. the environment, poverty), it’s really a “both/and” equation. And this “both/and” extends beyond the political realm to the theological, so that we have a socially conscious and active Christianity that doesn’t abandon orthodox doctrine and concerns about salvation.

Augustine, in his monumental work De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), captures this relationship well (emphasis mine):

Now of all those who are able to enjoy God together with us, some we love as people we can help, some as people we can be helped by, some as ones both whose help we need, and whose needs we help to meet, while there are some on whom we ourselves confer no benefits, and from whom we do not expect any either. Still, we ought to want all of them to love God together with us, and all our helping them or being helped by them is to be referred to that one single end (1.29.30).

As Augustine elsewhere observes, “A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about” (Confessions, 3.2.3).

What does this mean in the context of Christian evangelism? That we not simply seek to bind up physical wounds, but minister to the whole person, body and soul. And real ministry to the soul entails that we relate the true situation of all sinners, for as Augustine also confesses, “my sin was the more incurable for my conviction that I was not a sinner” (5.10.18).

Brown and Bakker write that Christians are to “love others just as they are, without an agenda.” If taken to an extreme, this claim is a radical departure from traditional Christian faith. For not only in the words of Augustine are we to love others as they might become brothers and sisters in Christ (“No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account”), but also in the words of Jesus we are to show our love to one another by proclaiming the gospel: “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

This post concludes my series on the largely forgotten catholicity of Protestant ethics, with a few brief remarks and reflections.

My goal for this series, as stated in Part 1, was to show that voluntarism and nominalism are not the same thing, that two important Reformed theologians (Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi) had more than a passing interest in Thomism (or intellectualism as Pope Benedict XVI referred to it in his now famous Regensburg address), and that evangelicals need to revisit their wariness on the capacity of reason to discern moral truth. Much more could be written on each of these topics, and likely will be on this blog and some others, but the fundamental point should not be missed that two significant sixteenth-century Reformed theologians break the modern mold for Protestant ethics. Among the thinkers and writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I can assure you there are numerous others who also break the mold.

For almost one hundred years now, Protestant theologians and ethicists have held natural law at arm’s length. During this same period, Protestant theologians have also largely shunned any vestige of the scholastic and metaphysical base of Reformation-era theology in order to gain acceptance in the modern Academy and to increase their contemporary cachet. Whether this strategy has been successful, or if it is even coherent to begin with, is beyond this blog series to determine, but I have my doubts.

It is enough to simply point out that natural law is tied to philosophical realism — the belief that the created world is the external foundation of knowledge for all science. (Read Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1, pp. 223-33). And that a realist metaphysic, was the agreed upon philosophical approach from the very beginning of Christianity to somewhere in the eighteenth century when modern currents of thought began to chip it away. (For those who doubt whether this is so, take up and read Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine). According to the Belgic Confession, the world “is a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.” It is high time that Protestants recover a sense of their connectedness with the broader and older Christian moral tradition and take up once again “the invisible things of God.”

“If nominalism is correct,” as Bavinck warned, “we can forget about science altogether.”

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, my aim is to probe the natural-law doctrines of only a few influential sixteenth-century Protestant theologians.

Some, such as John Calvin, may already be familiar to you, while others, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli (known as Martyr) and Jerome Zanchi, may be entirely new. What is surprising about Martyr and Zanchi is how much their natural-law doctrines are in line with the metaphysical essentialism of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Before going any further I should forewarn you that what I just said challenges a good many Protestant and Roman Catholic stereotypes.

The most common stereotype is that the Reformers and their successors were indebted to the nominalist metaphysics of William of Occam, which resulted in the Bible being treated as a law book and God being conceived as an arbitrary and irrational sovereign. In subsequent posts, this interpretation will be examined in relation to the thought of Marytr and Zanchi. So stay tuned for more on this topic.

However, at this point, I should mention that the stereotype is largely accurate in regard to the modern natural-law tradition associated with Samuel Pufendorf and later thinkers but not with Hugo Grotius. The distinguished medievalist Francis Oakley has shown recently that Grotius’s famous remark in The Law of War and Peace about natural law being valid “even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, [namely] that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to him” does not point to a fundamental break with scholastic patterns of thought. In fact, Oakley thinks no real novelty attaches to the way in which Grotius identifies the ultimate grounding of natural law. He provides two reasons to support his view.

First, counterfactual assertions concerning the existence of God were commonplace in antiquity, the middle ages, and later. Grotius was not unique in his use of counterfactual arguments. Second, according to Oakley, “understood in the broader context of his natural law thinking, Grotius’s impious hypothesis can be seen to witness less to any great secular novelty than to the continuing dialectic between two distinct theories concerning the metaphysical grounding of natural law which the early modern natural law thinkers had inherited from their medieval and late medieval predecessors. In the De jure belli et pacis, it turns out, he was maneuvering for position in such a way as to distance himself from the more voluntaristic approach with which he had appeared to sympathize in his earlier De jure praedae (“On the Law of Booty”) and in accordance with which even the content of natural law was understood to be grounded in the mandates of a legislating divine will” (p. 66).

The second most common stereotype, particularly among evangelicals, is to assert that Thomas’s synthesis of Aristotle and Augustine started Christian theology on the way to secularization. According to Carl Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today and prolific evangelical theologian, “Thomas may have thought he was directing Aristotelian thought God-ward; instead, he grounded Christian theism and morality on secular turf.”

I will respond to these stereotypes in due course, but I first want to mention four Protestant doctrines in which natural law historically played an important role, which I will take up in my next post.

This post has been cross-posted in my blog, Common Notions.

Blog author: sgrabill
posted by on Wednesday, July 26, 2006

In Parts 5 and 6 we addressed the two most common Protestant objections to natural law. And now, as promised, we will see what limitations the Reformers perceived in natural law, even as they affirmed its value. (Incidentally, the treatment of the natural knowledge of God that Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and Francis Turretin provide, to mention only a few, is completely in step with that of the early church. For more on that topic, click here.)

The widespread assumption that Reformation theology allows no access to natural law—that its view of Scripture, revelation, Christ, salvation, and faith excludes every kind of natural theology —needs serious correction. Yet, in affirming natural law’s value as a bridge, it is also necessary to acknowledge its limitations.

The Reformers hold to the existence of a natural knowledge of morality in creation, conscience, and reason, but they think that knowledge has no saving power or merit associated with it. In fact, its primary role is to make people accountable for the basic moral truths they already know by undercutting any excuses they may propose along the way. In other words, according to the Reformers, natural law informs the mind of what is right and wrong, but it cannot ensure that the will shall choose to do good over evil. In this sense, they think natural law is ineffective and insufficient to bring about right action, even if it is a reliable source of moral information.

The Reformers’ assessment of natural law is complicated further when the issue of free will and morality is considered. They think the will is free in the sense that it is not coerced but self-determined, choosing voluntarily, on its own to do or not to do something. This is why people can be held responsible for their choices: They are self-determining moral agents who know right from wrong. The Reformers reject the extremes of the will’s complete unimpeded freedom, on the one side, as well as the will’s external coercion, on the other. Instead, they think the will is self-determined, willing voluntarily on its own, but because of corruption is in bondage to sin and therefore subject to a constant state of sinning.

Underlying the bondage of the will is the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. Following Augustine, the Reformers see the fall affecting every aspect of human nature with the result that fallen human beings are in bondage to sin. Despite the fact that human nature was originally created good, it has become corrupted as a result of Adam’s sin. Thus, prior to the action of God’s grace, the will is in bondage to sin, which means there is no way for people to prepare themselves to receive God’s grace. This is where the Reformation doctrine of prevenient grace comes in.

Grace is prevenient; that is, God’s grace precedes any human good will. Prevenient grace does not simply make it possible for people to respond affirmatively to God’s call; it actually brings conversion about. This is true not just of the beginning of the Christian life. Grace is needed at every stage and, in particular, for final perseverance. Prevenient grace is a gift of God, not something that is merited by previous obedience.

Other questions also enter the discussion about natural law in relation to free choice and grace. One such question is whether it is even possible to obey the moral law. The Reformers reject the assumption that “ought” implies “can”: That people can do on their own without divine assistance what they know they should do. While “ought” implies “can” was certainly true for Adam and Eve in the Garden, after the fall they think it is no longer possible to observe perfectly the moral law’s internal and external requirements. The purpose of the law, according to the Reformers, is not to show human ability but to point to grace. Grace gives what the law commands. Tied directly to the law is the question of “good works.” The Reformers argue that even the best of human works are tainted by sin. Thus it is by God’s grace and generosity that he rewards good works. Furthermore, all good works are the gifts of God’s grace and thus, as Augustine put it, when God rewards our merits he crowns his own gifts.

In Part 8, the final installment of this series, I will summarize what I think natural law is.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.