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- Unboxing God
Augustine, born 354 in what is now Algeria, was a theologian who could be called the father of the Western Church. At least I will call him that. For many in the west, he is held in high regard, in fact known as a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. To the rest of the church (yes, there is a rest of the church), he is largely ignored, and for good reason. I blame Augustine for most of the heresy of the West, and go into some detail in my upcoming book.
Augustine was a Roman citizen and rather privileged. His early years were spent drinking, womanizing, and philosophizing, not unlike many other young men throughout history. Fairly early on he joined the Manicheists, which believed that we were caught in an eternal battle between good and evil, a concept known as dualism. They also believed that the Sun and the Moon had souls, among other things. Augustine seemed to be personally caught up in this battle between good and evil, which continued through his life.
Sometime later, he became impressed with neo-Platonism, another dualistic philosophy, without the astrological nonsense. The battle between good and evil continued, and Augustine struggled to come to terms with the origins of evil. Along the way, his dualistic thinking translated into a dualism of spirit and body, in which the spirit was good and the body was evil.
I’m oversimplifying here, which means that there’s a resultant loss of accuracy, but you get the drift. Finally, Augustine decides to become a Christian (influenced by his mother), and eventually rises to the position of the Bishop of Hippo and writes a lot of theology.
in the 5th Century, there was still only one Christian Church, most of which spoke Greek. However, Augustine spoke (and wrote) in Latin, which created an interesting situation. Because of the languge barrier, much of the church leadership was not aware of Augustine’s writings and teachings, and it was not until much later they realized what he was teaching. As a result, Augustine is not considered a saint in the Eastern church. He’s respected as being a bishop, but ignored as far as being a theologian.
Next: Augustine’s heresies
I am going to start out with a statement that may cause some of you to scratch their heads: Many Christians believe the same things about God that many atheists do.
The problem is that western theology tends to build God-constructs–that is, a set of definitions about who God is. We can look up “God attributes” on the interweb and find many different lists of things that supposedly define who God is. And then, of course, there are images of God from the Old Testament that curiously don’t look much at all like Jesus. What you then have is a God-construct. Not God, but a mental golden idol that takes the place of God. In other words, a God who isn’t, which makes this god substitute easy to not believe in.
So again, many Christians believe in a God-construct that many atheists can’t believe in. (Many athests will say “I don’t believe in any god,” but I have a hunch that at least in the Western world, their mental image of God looks a whole lot like this God-construct.
The Eastern Orthodox church (which is the best reflection we have of the early church) uses something they call apophatic theology, which is focused on defining who God isn’t. In the West, we are obsessed with definitions and categories and boxes. If we don’t have a box to put something, we must create one, as soon as possible. It’s makes us nervous to have something that can’t be defined or contained in some kind of human construct.
Rather, the Eastern Church recognized centuries ago that to try to define God is to create heresy. God is simply bigger than our human ability to understand. For example, any attempt to define the concept of the Trinity will always result in heresy. It’s easier to specify what the Trinity isn’t, which then leaves room for a lot of unknowns–better known as mysteries.
So, the answer to questions like “how can one God be three persons?” is best answered by saying “I don’t know.” We can say that they are not 3 separate Gods, we can say that God the Father didn’t become Jesus which became the Holy Spirit, and so on, which rules out some heresy while leaving plenty of room for mystery.
I believe in a God who isn’t capricious. I believe in a God who isn’t angry with us. I believe in a God who isn’t… well, you get the idea. Atheists may still not believe in God, but at least they will not be distracted by disbelieving a false god-construct. And maybe we can start believing in a God who is, mysteries and all.
As some of you know, I’ve been writing another book, this one tentatively titled “Unboxing God–An Unevangelical Guide to Christianity.”
Well, I’ve completed the manuscript and have now hired an editor (with a theology background) to go through it. As with most creative types, I go between “this is excellent” to crippling self-doubt. The editor helps, and I think will be well worth the investment.
You might get the idea from the title that it’s just another postmodern, deconstructionist thing, but it’s actually more of a pre-modern, constructionist thing.
You’ll have to read it when it’s done.