Wednesday, October 16, 2013

These Essays: The Love of God and Neighbor

When we talk about love we do not often mean the word in the same way that Augustine did. Augustine said caritas, which we now call charity or Christian love. But when he did so he did not mean a love among loves, in the way that Christians think about agape and eros and philia today. What he meant instead was something like the love behind the loves, the desire that orients our desires. One can even, in Augustine’s thinking, love the wrong things.  

But because we have the love commandment in mind, we are concerned about the love of God and neighbor. And these are quite clearly the right things to love, for us and for Augustine. In the case of Scripture, he wrote of the love of God and neighbor that not a single word of Scripture became clear to him if he did not meet both parts of Christ’s love commandment. 

I am interested in this connection between love and clarity. For although it is not obvious, it seems to be helpful. If we recall our analogy of the therapist, we find that the client goes to the therapist for the purpose of gaining insight or knowledge, of understanding a problem so that something can be changed.

Now Augustine famously wrote that we are restless until we find our rest in God. He did not mean, and I do not mean, that we find God and understanding on our own and disappear our own difficulties. Indeed, quite the opposite often seems to occur: we ourselves are sought, found and understood by the divine, and then our problems alter, increase or recur regardless.

What I am saying is that we search nonetheless, often despite ourselves, because we are not well in ways we do not even understand. We do not clearly see ourselves, our emotions or our behavior. Still less do we satisfactorily understand the world in which we live. What Christ may bring to our lives is the perhaps unpleasant ability to see ourselves as we are. That few experience this ability as constant should not lead us to despair. It simply means that we need not expect human knowledge of any kind to be perfect or complete. God intends for us to grow.  

And God means that growth to happen, at least in part, by new understanding. So it is crucial for therapy. But understanding is also key for reading, and still more for reading texts from which we hope to learn and be transformed. Understanding was Augustine’s immediate and foundational reason for interpreting Scripture. Scripture was, always and everywhere, for the purpose of instructing either the interpreter or the interpreter’s audience.

We can see this in the half of the famous passage of Christian Doctrine. “Whoever thinks he has understood the Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them...does not yet understand them as he ought.” (emphasis mine). We are to discern the truth of Scripture through interpretation. And we are to share our understanding with others: “love itself, which binds men into the bond of unity, would have no means of pouring soul into soul and, as it were, mingling them one with another, if men never learned anything from their fellow men.”

Understanding comes first. As he says quite clearly, there are two things on which every interpretation of scripture depends: the mode of discovering what should be understood and the mode of presenting what has been understood. It is no accident that understanding precedes explication, that reading precedes rhetoric, when one reads Scripture in Augustine’s footsteps.

This establishes the structure of On Christian Doctrine. Understanding is our way of loving God; rhetoric is our way of loving neighbor. We read Scripture because our love seeks understanding. We explain Scripture because love seeks out our neighbor. Augustinian understanding is the understanding between lovers, not only logical but also experiential, existential, and oriented between lover and beloved. It may be difficult for us to understand today, but for Augustine both understanding and love were ways of being, and better ways of being than any alternatives.

It may also seem strange to us that Augustine most often used the sermon in Christian Doctrine to explain what caritas might look like, but this is certainly the case. Scripture expounded rhetorically remains Augustine’s central interpretive image. Augustine continues Cicero’s understanding of the purpose of rhetoric being to teach, to delight, and to move. We have certainly covered the teaching part, and its importance cannot be overstated.

But  delight and movement cannot be ignored by the preacher: “He, then, shall be eloquent, who can say little things in a subdued style, in order to give instruction, moderate things in a temperate style, in order to give pleasure, and great things in a majestic style, in order to sway the mind.”

There is a comparable analogy is love of one’s own body in Augustine. It is not evil, he thought, to love one’s own body. What is evil is not caring for the bodies of others as if they were our own. It may not be too much to say that in the Augustinian understanding, we have inherited the love and care of self precisely so that we will understand how to love and care for others. One can, perhaps, see the analogy: one will understand the Scriptures for oneself so that one will know how to best teach others. Understanding is for sharing.

Augustine’s hermeneutic includes an interpreter receiving a gift of understanding that is incomplete until given to another. Such doubleness of Augustine’s mirrors the love of God, which is incomplete until it becomes the love of the neighbor, and the love of the neighbor which expresses, and so requires, but cannot supersede, the given love of God.  

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