St. Thomas Aquinas Believed in Ghosts

St. Thomas Aquinas at Prayer

St. Thomas Aquinas at Prayer

We’re coming up fast on Halloween, so I want to jump ahead a bit to see what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say about ghosts. The section is found in the Summa Theologica, Supplementum Tertiæ Partis: Question 69. Matters concerning the resurrection, and first of the place where souls are after death, Article 3. Whether the souls who are in heaven or hell are able to go from there?

St. Thomas knows his answer will be pushing a bit against The Master, Augustine, and so he addresses Augustine’s argument about Monica (quoted toward the end of this post) in his first Objection/Reply:

Augustine, as may be gathered from what he says afterwards, is speaking according to the common course of nature. And yet it does not follow, although the dead be able to appear to the living as they will, that they appear as often as when living in the flesh: because when they are separated from the flesh, they are either wholly conformed to the divine will, so that they may do nothing but what they see to be agreeable with the Divine disposition, or else they are so overwhelmed by their punishments that their grief for their unhappiness surpasses their desire to appear to others.

With due respect to St. Thomas, this does not address the Augustinian argument in its fullness. (This section of the Summa was compiled from other writings, after his death, by Fra Rainaldo da Piperno, and therefore its weaknesses should not be attributed to Thomas.) Augustine isn’t talking about frequency of apparitions, but about the mere possibility of them. Augustine freely admits that God may allow his angels or saints to appear in the world for His Own purposes, but his argument is more subtle and complex, and he seems to allow this possibility somewhat begrudgingly and anecdotally.

Thomas, on the other hand, is reflecting a more developed medieval sense of ghosts who may indeed have an active role in the world, as permitted by God for the His glory or the betterment of man.

There are some weaknesses in Thomas’s argument. He makes his case that only the saints and damned may be seen upon the earth without appearing much concern by the main question that vexed Augustine: how are they seen, with what vision, and what kind of bodies are seen if the soul is immaterial?

Thomas accepts, with Augustine, that some ghosts aren’t seen with corporeal vision, but declines to develop the idea:

Thus sometimes even the living appear to others and tell them many things in their sleep; and yet it is clear that they are not present, as Augustine proves from many instances.

Thomas also makes recourse to St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues in his argument, but fails note that the most famous ghost story in that book is of neither saint nor damned, but merely a restless spirit looking for release.

Curiously, he relies upon St. Jerome rather than Augustine for his sed contra, quoting Jerome against Vigilantius:

For thou sayest that the souls of the apostles and martyrs have taken up their abode either in Abraham’s bosom or in the place of refreshment, or under the altar of God, and that they are unable to visit their graves when they will. Wouldst thou then lay down the law for God? Wouldst thou put the apostles in chains, imprison them until the day of judgment, and forbid them to be with their lord, them of whom it is written: They follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth? And if the Lamb is everywhere, therefore we must believe that those also who are with Him are everywhere.

Since the devil and the demons wander throughout the whole world, and are everywhere present with wondrous speed, why should the martyrs, after shedding their blood be imprisoned and unable to go forth?

Thomas adds firmly: “Therefore it is absurd to say that the souls of the departed do not leave their abode.”

Again, this is further than Augustine is willing to go, but reflects the more developed medieval attitudes, which allowed a place for ghosts. This paralleled the more advanced considerations of purgatory in the middle ages, and allowed for souls in purgatory to visit the living through a semi-permeable membrane between living and dead.

It’s not that purgatory was “invented” in the middle ages. (Even Jacques le Goff admits the belief is found in the Early Church.) It’s that beginning in the 12th century, we have a more elaborate theology and visionary experience of purgatory which leads it to a more central place in the life of the church. With this, we see an expansion of the ghostly literature as it becomes a kind of adjunct to the literature of purgatory.

If we are to believe the Vita of Thomas by his fellow Dominican Bernard Gui (and there’s no reason not to), Thomas himself had ghostly encounters. One was with his sister, requesting prayers for her soul in purgatory, and then again when she had been freed from purgatory. The other was with Brother Romanus, who visited Thomas to announce his own death, sojourn in purgatory, and subsequent passage to eternal life.

There’s some discomfort in this, because while many ecclesial writers eject great clouds of qualifications about ghosts only being able to do the will of God, the literature reflects a more messy reality of saints, demons, and ordinary folk. The restless spirit in purgatory was already becoming a staple around the time of Thomas, and these tales, though often given a Christianizing veneer, often had deeper roots in ghostly, often pagan, folklore.

By the time of Thomas, much of Augustine’s nuance and qualification was, for all practical purposes, discarded. The unquiet dead were a social reality and weren’t going to be banished by pure theology, so they were gradually folded into the life of the church, albeit on the margins and never “officially.”

In all my reading on the subject (and although I don’t pretend it’s anything close to comprehensive, it’s pretty extensive) I have not yet come across an official magisterial statement on ghosts. The Church, of course, allows great latitude for the actions of saints doing the will of God, but as for the power of the ordinary unquiet dead—neither blessed nor damned—to visit the living, she appears to remain silent. If someone is aware of something I’ve missed on that front, I’d love to hear about it.

More ghost posts can be found here.

To conclude, here is the full article by Thomas:

There are two ways of understanding a person to leave hell or heaven.

First, that he goes from thence simply, so that heaven or hell be no longer his place: and in this way no one who is finally consigned to hell or heaven can go from thence, as we shall state further on (71, 5, ad 5).

Secondly, they may be understood to go forth for a time: and here we must distinguish what befits them according to the order of nature, and what according to the order of Divine providence; for as Augustine says (De Cura pro Mort. xvi): “Human affairs have their limits other than have the wonders of the Divine power, nature’s works differ from those which are done miraculously.”

Consequently, according to the natural course, the separated souls consigned to their respective abodes are utterly cut off from communication with the living. For according to the course of nature men living in mortal bodies are not immediately united to separate substances, since their entire knowledge arises from the senses: nor would it be fitting for them to leave their abode for any purpose other than to take part in the affairs of the living.

Nevertheless, according to the disposition of Divine providence separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men, as Augustine, in the book quoted above, relates of the martyr Felix who appeared visibly to the people of Nola when they were besieged by the barbarians.

It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned, and that for man’s instruction and intimidation they be permitted to appear to the living; or again in order to seek our suffrages, as to those who are detained in purgatory, as evidenced by many instances related in the fourth book of the Dialogues.

There is, however, this difference between the saints and the damned, that the saints can appear when they will to the living, but not the damned; for even as the saints while living in the flesh are able by the gifts of gratuitous grace to heal and work wonders, which can only be done miraculously by the Divine power, and cannot be done by those who lack this gift, so it is not unfitting for the souls of the saints to be endowed with a power in virtue of their glory, so that they are able to appear wondrously to the living, when they will: while others are unable to do so unless they be sometimes permitted.

 

St. Martin and the Thief’s Ghost

The main role of ghosts in the literature of the early church was to display the power of the saints. While Augustine was still alive, Sulpitius Severus wrote The Life of St. Martin, in which we find the following tale of Martin confronting and vanquishing the evil ghost of a thief who was being worshiped by mistake:

Not far from the town and very close to the monastery was a place [a village called Calitonnum] which enjoyed a certain sanctity because of the mistaken opinion that martyrs were buried there. Even an altar was maintained, erected there by former bishops.

Reliquary for the head of St. Martin

Reliquary for the head of St. Martin

But Martin was disinclined to believe what was uncertain. He kept asking those who were older, priests and clerics alike, to reveal the name of the martyr and the date of his martyrdom. He felt, he said, considerable scruple in the matter, since nothing certain had been handed down by any reliable report from his predecessors. He himself abstained from visiting the place for a while: he neither disparaged the cult, since his own position was uncertain, nor granted the populace the support of his authority, lest he fortify a superstition.

One day, taking a few of the brothers with him, he went to the place. He stood upon the tomb itself and prayed to the Lord to reveal who was buried there and what his merits were.

He then turned to the left and saw standing near him a grim, unclean spirit. He ordered him to speak out his name and his deserts. The spirit announced his name and confessed his criminal life: formerly a brigand, he had been executed for his crimes and was receiving veneration through the mistaken opinion of the populace; he had nothing in common with the martyrs—heavenly glory was their portion; punishment, his.

Strange wonder: those who were with Martin heard the voice, yet saw no one.

Martin then recounted what he had seen and ordered the altar which had been in that place to be removed. Thus he freed the people from the error of that superstition.

Augustine’s view of ghostly visions—both waking and oneiric—dominated discourse from the 4th century until about the 10th. The unseen world was divided between God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels and saints on the one side and Satan and demons on the other. Between the unseen and material worlds, there was little place for intermediary spirits or ghosts except for those doing work for God or the Devil.

Gradually, however, this bright line between this world and the next began to fade. Hagiography continued to depict saints vanquishing demons and evil spirits, and the niceties that vexed St. Augustine’s subtle mind were gradually cast aside. His concerns about the barrier between the living the dead, the nature of a being that could be perceived after death, the type of vision the witness used to see them: none of these could withstand the vigorous European culture that would see a flowering of creative forces in the Carolingian Renaissance.

St. Augustine’s Rejection of Ghosts

Pope Benedict with the bones of St. Augustine

Pope Benedict with the bones of St. Augustine

Our final look at Augustine’s theology of the dead comes from On the Care to be Taken For the Dead (De cura pro mortuis gerenda), written in 421 to Paulinus, Bishop of Nola. The text was a response to a question from Paulinus, and is quite touching in places.

A woman had asked for her son to be buried near the tomb of St. Felix, and she asked if there was any benefit in this. Paulinus said yes, but then reconsidered and put the question to Augustine.

Augustine’s primary concern when addressing the subject of ghosts was to disavow pagan funerary practices, which had become lavish, absurd, and consumed by superstition. He writes against them in City of God as well, complaining that people treat the dead as though they were gods.

Remember also, in The Confessions, how he praises his mother for obeying St. Ambrose when he forbid her to bring food to graves.

The body is not important to Augustine, and the funeral rites, while they must be sensitive to the needs of the grieving, cannot become excessive. The soul alone matters. Thus, he answers the question of Paulinus in the negative:

And we must not believe, as we read in Virgil, that the unburied are prohibited from sailing and crossing the river Styx because ‘One may not cross the gloomy banks and foaming crest until his bones find peaceful rest.’ Who would open his Christian heart to these fabulous poetic imaginings, when the Lord Jesus asserts that not a hair of the head of a Christian will perish?

Yet, the bodies of the dead, especially of the just and faithful, are not to be despised or cast aside. The soul has used them as organs and vessels for all good work in a holy manner. If a paternal garment or a ring or anything else of this kind is as dear to children as is their love for their parents, in no way are their very bodies to be spurned, since they are much more familiar and intimate than any garment we put on. Bodies are not for ornament or for aid, as something which is applied externally, but pertain to the very nature of the man. Hence, the funerals of the just men of old were cared for with dutiful devotion, the processions solemnized, and a fitting burial provided.

According to Augustine, the fate of the living is of no concern to the dead, the fate of dead cannot be known by the living, and communication between the two realms is impossible. Though he doesn’t dwell on the story of Dives and Lazarus at length, this passage is at the foundation of his rejection of the idea of the dead passing back and forth to our world.

He is unwilling, however, to dismiss the numerous reports of people who saw the dead, in dreams or while awake, and received some special knowledge from them. For example, there are reports of dead people who report the locations of their bodies, which were missing and unburied, and these reports turned out to be true.

This obviously puzzles him, and he’s willing to admit his ignorance, saying “Now, if we state that these things are false, we shall seem indifferently to go against the writings of certain of the faithful and against the senses of those who affirm that such things have happened to them.”

Augustine allows that these visions, if they provide useful and true information, may be the work of angels, who might be permitted or ordered by God to convey information to the living. The dead, however, take no role in this, and it is only done to provide “solace for the living.” At other times, false visions of the dead (demonic in origin) may lead people into error and doom.

He likens ghostly visions to those times when a person appears in the dream of another, without that person’s knowledge or consent. The dead who are seen as “ghosts” are thus not the souls of the departed. Even if seen while waking, they are no more substantial than the image of a living person in the dream of a sleeper. This is the spiritual vision discussed in Augustine’s Three Types of Vision.

The only exception he may allow is for saints, as with the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration, or when St. Felix is reported to have appeared during the barbarian siege of Nola.

In a poignant aside, he observes that

If the souls of the dead were taking part in the affairs of the living, and they themselves were speaking to us when we see them in our dreams (that I may be silent about others), my devout mother would be with me every night, for she followed me on land and sea that she might be with me. Far be it that she should have become for the sake of a happier life cruel to this extent, that, when anything grieves my heart, she would not console her grieving son whom she loved so fondly! She never wished to see me sorrowful. Truthfully, then, does the inspired Psalmist write: ‘When my father and my mother forsook me, the Lord received me.’ If, then, our parents have forsaken us, how do they take part in our cares and affairs? However, if our parents are not interested, who are the others among the dead who know what we are doing or what we are suffering?

Thus do we see the main thrusts of Augustine’s arguments—his rejection of any hint of pagan death customs or beliefs, and his interpretation of the story of Dives and Lazarus—colored by a very personal bit of reasoning. After all, if the dead could visit at will, where is his beloved Monica? It’s a fair question.

Since Augustine peppers his writings on the subject with stories of dreams and ghosts, I’m going to leave you with one more of his tales:

Payment of a debt was demanded of a certain son, whose father, without the knowledge of the son, had made full settlement before his death, but had not received back the original note which was now produced. The son became very sad and was wondering why his father as he was dying had not told him what he owed, since he had made a will. Then the same father appeared to his son, who was now quite anxious. While the son was sleeping his father told him where he might find the receipt which would acknowledge full payment of his original note. And when the son found this and presented it, not only did he throw off the slander of the false claim, but also recovered his father’s signature, which the father had not recovered when he repaid the loan. Here, indeed, the mind of a man is thought to have exercised a care for his son and to have come to him sleeping, that he might inform his ignorance and so set him free from a great annoyance.

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St. Augustine’s Three Ways of Vision

 

St. Augustine’s Ghost Story

St. Augustine was the first Church Father to consider at length stories of ghostly apparitions that appeared in various strands of hagiography, legend, scripture, and eyewitness testimony. It’s not truly a “theology of ghosts,” but it’s a more developed consideration of the subject that anyone else, even Tertullian, had attempted, or indeed would attempt for centuries.

The Devil and St Augustine Carlisle Cathedral

The Devil and St Augustine, Carlisle Cathedral

Augustine firmly rejected the idea that the dead could return from the afterlife to make themselves visible to the living. The idea that a person who saw a ghost was seeing, essentially, the soul of the departed was impossible. He addressed the issue is his letter to his friend Evodius (Letter 158 from Evodius and Letter 159 from Augustine) and in a treatise addressed to Paulinus of Nola called On the Care to Be Given to the Dead.

Evodius was a friend and follower of Augustine who eventually became the Bishop of Uzalis. His letters to Augustine often prompted prolonged discourses. In Letter 158, Evodius tells a complicated story of multiple waking and sleeping apparitions of known dead people who come to either predict a death, or reveal the fate of someone already dead. Evodius appears to accept these as legitimate experiences of the departed, although it is notable that he was eyewitness to none of them.

Evodius uses this story to ask whether the soul, upon leaving the body after death, takes with it some other kind of body which enables it to move and appear to the living.

In letter 159, Augustine slams the door shut on that question: “I emphatically do not think that the soul leaves the body with a material body.”

In addressing the question of sightings which include verifiable facts and predictions of the future, Augustine acknowledges that he has no explanation for them. As for the visions of the dead, he clearly places them in the realm of spiritual vision and refers Evodius to Book 12 of Genesis, which I discussed in a previous post.

The great saint of Hippo, however, can’t sign off without relating his own spooky story:

Our brother, Gennadius … told us that he doubted once … whether there was any life after death. As God would not abandon a man of his disposition and works of mercy, there appeared to him in sleep a handsome youth of dignified mien, who said to him: ‘Follow me.’ He followed and came to a certain city, where he began to hear, on his right, singing of such exquisite sweetness that it surpassed all known and ordinary sweetness. Then, as he listened, he asked what it was and his guide said it was the hymns of the blessed and the saints. I do not clearly remember what he said he saw on his left. When he awoke, the dream vanished and he thought of it only as one does of a dream.

But, on another night, behold, the same youth appeared to him again and asked whether he recognized him; he answered that he did so fully and perfectly. Then the youth asked where he had known him. He remembered what to reply to that, too, and described the whole vision and the hymns of the saints which the other had led him there to hear, recalling them with ease as a recent experience.

Thereupon, the youth asked whether he had been asleep or awake when he saw what he had described. He answered: ‘It was in a dream.’

The other said: ‘You remember well, it is true, that you saw all that in a dream, but you must know that even now you see, although you are asleep.’ When he heard that, he believed it was so and expressed it by his answer.

Then the one who was teaching him continued and said: ‘Where is your body now?’

He answered: ‘In my bedroom.’

‘And do you know,’ said the other, ‘that in that same helpless body, your eyes are fast shut and useless, and that you see nothing with those eyes?’

Gennadius answered: ‘I know it.’

His guide went on: ‘Then, with what kind of eyes do you see me?’

He fell silent at this, finding no reply, and, as he remained in doubt, the youth made known what he was trying to teach by these questions.

He went on: ‘As those eyes of flesh are now inactive and perform no function while your body lies asleep in bed, yet you have eyes with which you behold me and a sight of which you make use, so, when you die and the eyes of your flesh see nothing, there will be in you another life by which you will live and sense by which you will perceive. See to it that henceforth you do not doubt of the life which remains after death.’

Thus this faithful man says that his doubt on this matter was removed, and what was his teacher but the providence and mercy of God?

Augustine concludes by saying:

Every day man wakes and sleeps and thinks. Let him say whence come those thoughts resembling the shapes, the qualities and the motions of bodies yet not composed of corporeal matter. Let him say it, if he can, but, if he cannot, why does he rashly try to form some kind of definitive opinion about these very rare and unusual experiences when he cannot explain the constant and daily ones? As for me, words fail me to explain how those seemingly material bodies, without a real body, are produced; yet, as I know that they are not produced by the body, so I wish I could know how we perceive those things which are seen sometimes by the spirit and are thought to be seen by the body, or how we are to distinguish the visions of those who are deluded by error or impiety, when they are generally described in the same terms as the visions of the good and holy.

Bracing clarity and honesty from Augustine: when he doesn’t know an answer, he admits it. He suggests that the mysteries of ordinary life are enough to occupy our energies without recourse to rare and disputed phenomena.

Tomorrow, I’ll finish talking about Augustine’s ghosts by looking at his On the Care to be Taken For the Dead (De cura pro mortuis gerenda), which includes yet another of his ghost stories. For someone who didn’t believe ghost stories, he seemed to relish telling them.

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St. Augustine’s Three Ways of Vision

St. Augustine’s Three Types of Vision [Ghosts and the Church]

Before we get down to St. Augustine’s thoughts on ghosts, I need to do some spadework by exploring his understanding of different ways of seeing. He explains this in On Genesis Literally Interpreted (De Genesi ad litteram), his sprawling twelve-part study that is one of his least-read major works. (Don’t confuse it with the minor, earlier work, On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis: An Unfinished BookDe Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber.) Augustine’s work follows standard ideas found in antiquity, and would prove influential with the rise of Aristotelianism in the 12th century and beyond.eye2

Chapter 12 of De Genesi is titled “On the Heavenly Paradise: different kinds of visions,” and marks a turning point in the work in which his attention shifts from pure commentary on Genesis and related issues to a consideration of paradise.

Of particular concern here is the vision of Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, describing how he is caught up to the third heaven. The nature of this vision—and indeed, of all “dreaming and different kinds of ecstasy—leads Augustine to identify three types of vision: corporeal, spiritual, and intellectual. To understand what he thinks of ghosts we first need to grasp these three ways of seeing.

Corporeal (visio corporalis)

Simply stated, this is the physical sense of sight. Our idea of sight is quite different that of the ancients and medievals. We know that sight is reflected light received by the eye and transmitted to the brain through the nervous system. They had, generally speaking, two models of seeing: extromission and intromission.

  • Extromission suggested that a kind of beam or ray left the eye, touched the object being seen, and then returned to the eye, conveying the physical qualities (shape, size, color) of an object to the soul.
  • Intromission suggested that the form of object being seen emitted some element that traveled through the air (which was conceived as a medium rather than as empty space) and imprinted itself on the eyeball. Various words were used for this form, one of them being phantasma. Vision itself was thus a kind of “ghost.”

Both models suggest that a passive object has in fact an active part in being perceived by the sense of sight. This is the lowest order of vision.

Intellectual (visio intellectualis)

At the other end of the spectrum was the most exalted form of vision: the intellectual vision. This kind of vision is beyond all others: it is to see things as they really are, “not in images, but as it properly is in itself.” (De Genesis 12.15) This is a rare kind of vision, afforded only the the spiritually advanced. It begins in our intellect (mens), and seeks to contemplate God as He truly is. This is the vision of the upper part of the soul, and it is beyond any image.

Spiritual (visio spiritalis)

Between corporeal and intellectual vision, Augustine posited an intermediary way of seeing. In his “spiritual” way of seeing, neither the senses/sensus (as in corporeal) or the reason/mens (as in intellectual) are dominant, but rather the spirit of man. And he is not seeing concrete bodies, but rather semblances of bodies. Mediating between the sensus and the mens is the imaginatio, which can receive images acquired by the eye, submit them to the judgment of the intellect, and then pass them on to the memory. It can also generate nonexistent things from the fancy of the individual. Afflictions of the body or mind could cause the spiritual vision to malfunction, creating hallucinations. “Imagination” is certainly part of this, but imaginatio goes beyond that to suggest a profound mediating role.

Augustine offers an example and explanation:

When you read, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, three kinds of vision take place; one with the eyes, when you see the actual letters; another with the human spirit, by which you think of your neighbor even though he is not there; a third with the attention of the mind, by which you understand and look at love itself.

Both corporal and spiritual vision process images, but whereas the senses produce vision in relation to a material object, the spiritual vision produces images with or without reference to a material object. The spiritual vision perceives “semblances of bodies,” either while the individual was awake or asleep. When something goes wrong in the mind or the body, those semblances may not tally with objects in the real world, and we perceive merely forms in the imagination.

In other words: ghosts.

Augustine Contemplates the City of God

From the collection of the Morgan Library & Museum comes this amazing illuminated page from De civitate Dei. If you click on it you can zoom and scan to a remarkable level of detail.

The illuminations are by Girolamo da Cremona from 1475, and the Morgan describes it this way: “In the lower portion of this sumptuous illuminated border St. Augustine looks out from his book-lined study over an exquisite landscape populated by rabbits and deer toward the City of God, its golden walls hovering in the sky. Two elegantly posed angels guard one of the city gates, which forms the initial I in the upper left.”

 

St. Augustine’s Medicine For Doubt

I broke this discussion into two posts because I didn’t want Augustine’s greater point to get lost in his fit of pique. Instead, I want to draw your focus back to the first paragraph of the passage I cite from City of God Book 2:

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth! If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith,  effected a cure!

I’ve encountered that passage many times in my experience with City of God, but blew right by it without understanding that it was actually about me. (Look, it’s a thousand pages long: you can’t grasp the whole thing at one go.)

I returned to the faith after a undeniable encounter with the living God that broke through my doubt and drew me back, as though with Waugh‘s unseen hook and invisible line. But when I came back, I didn’t really believe it all. I fought my way back (or, rather, was dragged back) to Catholicism in stages, through mere theism (requiring deep reading in atheism and philosophy), scripture, Christianity (deep reading in apologetics), and finally Catholicism (lots of St. Thomas, Kreeft, Ratzinger, and catechism).

When I made that final leap to return to the faith of my youth, I didn’t believe everything Catholicism taught. I had mental reservations on a few contentious points, but I found everything else so balanced and perfect and right that I simply decided to submit my will and intellect on the rest. It was an act of humility, and not a pleasant one at first, but I saw that the collective wisdom of good and admirable and wise people, working for millennia on the deepest and most relevant questions of human existence, had yielded undeniable wisdom and clarity. If I was unable to mentally or emotionally grasp the last 5% that continued to give me trouble, whose fault was that?

And so, in what Augustine calls my “feeble condition,” I performed an act of faith, and submitted to the “the restorative medicine of sound teaching.” I let go, and put God in charge. As though one with the father of the possessed child in Mark 9:24, I said: “I believe; help my unbelief!” And in that act of submission, belief came.

I had to throw away a lot of carefully constructed dogma of my own invention, but once I shed it, I was overwhelmed with an immense sense of relief. I allowed my belief system to be stripped down to ground level: everything was on the table. In doing so, I shed a lot of modernist nonsense, as well as emotional and intellectual bias that clouded my thinking, and let myself be fill up with the simple and good things of God.

That’s an act of will leading to pure sacrifice. Submission of the will and intellect is what the Church calls for on its central elements of dogma. Modern ears hear that as simple tyranny, because, of course, in our few decades of life experience we know far better than the inherited wisdom of ages as guided by the Third Person of the Holy Trinity working through the Church. You don’t really know much until you grasp the enormity of all you do not–indeed, all you cannot–know as one mortal living a circumscribed and brief life. That’s the great lie of the modern world: I am my own man! I am self-invented! I can figure it all out! I took a class!

Hogwash. We are the product of billions of decisions made long before sperm met egg in a mother’s womb. We perch upon the accumulated wisdom of ages–trial and error, revelation and understanding, deep study in the things of God and man–and imagine we heaped up that mountain all on our own. At least, I did.

And from up there on my perch, it was impossible to tell whether that mountain is made of diamond or dung. I just knew it gave me a grand view of what I perceived to be reality. And it helped me look down on those who scratch out their lives on smaller mountains built of simple and sturdy faith.

Until I leveled that mountain, I may have known a lot of things, but a final and abiding Truth wasn’t among them. It was only in humility, and only by taking Augustine’s “restorative medicine” of simple faith, that I could find it.

It was only then that God could say, in effect, “Okay, let us begin.”

St. Augustine is Annoyed: Or, Don’t Wrestle With a Pig

There are a number of things that draw people to St. Augustine: the power of his prose, the clarity of his faith, his humanizing struggles, and his centrality to Christian doctrine. No other saint (or, indeed, any single figure of the ancient world) left us so many words, and in these words we find an immensely appealing and brilliant man.

Spend a significant amount of time with him, however, and there’s one delightful sideline of his prose: his frequent eruptions of irritation. One of his quips seems ready-made for the combox troll, but there’s also the opening of City of God Book 2, which includes this extended diatribe against answering endless question from people determined not to believe [emphasis added]:

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth! If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith,  effected a cure! In that case, men of sound judgment and adequate powers of exposition would not need to engage in lengthy discussion in order to refute mistakes and fanciful conjectures.

But as things are, the intelligent are infected by a gross mental disorder which makes them defend the irrational workings of their minds as if they were logic and truth itself, even when the evidence has been put before them as plainly as is humanly possible. Either they are too blind to see what is put before their face, or they are too perversely obstinate to admit what they see. The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with their eyes shut.

And yet, will we ever come to an end of discussion and talk if we think we must always reply to replies? For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentious that they refuse to give in even if they do understand  In fact, the Bible says “Their conversation is unrighteousness, and they are indefatigable in folly.” [Ps 94.4] You can see how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try to refute every objection they offer, when they have resolved never to think before they speak provided that somehow or other they contradict our arguments. [from City of God, 2.1]

That’s some eloquent irritation right there, and I thought of it today after reading the patient and charitable explanations from some of the Patheos writers to the latest face-palm post from a blogger on the atheist channel. Augustine is addressing what writer Daniel J. Flynn called Intellectual Morons, and the kind of people brilliantly lampooned by Paul Johnson in Intellectuals: people who may well be intelligent, but are so blinded by their own bias that they sometimes fail to grasp basic logic. They refuse to understand simple points because it disrupts a carefully constructed worldview.

It’s a good approach to take. We need to engage the faith and evangelize, but we also need to know when our efforts are wasted on people who are so intransigent in their disbelief that they insist on repeating the same errors even when corrected. It’s still worthwhile to give witness, but we need to also recognize “how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try to refute every objection they offer.” Some fields will never be fertile, and you just need to move on and work the ground the Lord has prepared for you: good ground that will produce a crop thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.

Or, as the old quote (sometimes attributed to George Bernard Shaw) goes: Don’t wrestle with a pig. You both end up dirty, and the pig likes it.

This post is continued here.

St. Augustine Asks the Hard Questions Atheists Don’t Ask UPDATED

It’s fun to read or listen to super-duper-smart professional atheists (well, they think they’re smart) banging on about the book of Genesis. It’s a useful issue for them, because the primeval history in scripture is mysterious, complex, and rich in symbolism. So, naturally, Reason Warriors approach it with the childish literalism of a young-earth creationist. Perhaps this works for them because fundamentalism is ill-equipped to properly understand Genesis, which is why friends don’t let friends be fundamentalists.

Atheists think Christians believe this is how things really happened.

One of their techniques is to throw out an endless litany of questions about the creation of the world and then demand instant answers, usually from some poor sap unequipped to respond knowledgeably. “Oh yeah, so God made light before he made the sun? He made plants before he made the sun needed for them to grow? Why are there two creation stories? Huh? HUH?!” And then they stand back in triumph, fold their arms across their chest, marvel at their own genius, and wait for the poor sap to fumble his way through a few pathetic replies.

This kind of low-hanging fruit is the bread-and-butter of the atheist combox troll and meme-maker, but the really hilarious thing is that their questions are all so pathetic. Because atheists believe they have the corner on reason and logic, they develop an inflated sense of their own intelligence. They gather for “Reason Rallies” as though reason was a wholly owned subsidiary of Atheism Inc., rather than something inherited from the centrality of Aristotelianism to Catholic theology, and thus to Western civilization. Their questions barely even skim the surface of the incredibly deep, profound, vexing, and glorious texts of Genesis 1 & 2. Continue reading