What is more…

an excercise in getting to the point

Tag: Augustine

Reading With Our Spines…

I’ve recently been reading James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, and it has been thoroughly enjoyable. Smith reflects upon Christian formation and education from a Reformed perspective, and yet he significantly shifts the center of gravity away from talk about world-views, beliefs and ideas to a more Augustinian account of the importance of loves. Given my recent fascination with Augustine, this is scratching me where I itch, so to speak.

One of his critiques of world-view speak is that it ignores the relationship between our embodiment and the formation of our loves toward certain ends (teloi). In particular, Smith argues that our “vision of the good life” is more often formed by affective, unconscious (or subconscious) means, rather than by cognitive means. In everyday speak, this means that it is the stories and images that we encounter every day that affect us at the gut level that really form us. “Stories seep into us–and stay there and haunt us–more than a report on facts” (58). Or, in the words of a former teacher of mine, “facts are inert, what matters is imagination.”

Smith offers an example of this in the process of reading good literature:

“Given this role of the imagination, we might suggest that liturgy is like literature: it gets hold of us through the body. In that connection, consider Vladimir Nabokov’s comment on reading Dicken’s Bleak House: “All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week. but I think Dickens will prove stronger.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature [New York: Harvest, 2002], 56)

Nabokov doesn’t mention it directly, but he could very well have commented on the antithesis of the mode of reading literature and the way we engage the world through the medium of the internet. I know and love the shiver that he mentions, and while I have certainly felt that shiver while watching a good film, I have never experienced it while reading a blog post, tweet, or facebook status update — although increasingly I am spending more time doing that. It makes me think hard about the quantity/quality distinction when it comes to digesting new information. I must remember to spend time reading good literature, or just not reading at all and thinking and praying, so that my thoughts can focus and come from a deeper place. The problem with the internet is its tendency toward shallowness (and its tendency to make us shallow, not just emotionally but also intellectually – so argues Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains). I can already see this in my own habits of reading the first few lines of many blog posts each day without actually reading a single one through to the end.

About Smith’s point generally, I wholeheartedly agree with his [Augustinian] analysis of human formation and am excited to see what he does with it (although he is particularly applying it to the context of Christian education, a form of education about which I am particularly skeptical). I think the church must constantly be attentive to the importance of imagination, desires, and embodiment on human formation, not just in the realm of Christian education, but also in the realm of gospel proclamation and cultural engagement.

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Here we go…

Ready to write some papers. For the next three weeks its gonna be me and Augustine and alot of coffee.

A Sweet (and Stinky) Song…

"Excuse me... Oh my, I am so embarrassed!" - St. Augustine

This week in my Augustine class we are focusing on Augustine’s mature view on the relationship between the human will, human desires, and the body (in particular his views on sex and marriage). In short, Augustine’s account of the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise goes something like this: Adam and Eve were in the garden and they had everything they needed. They were completely obedient to God, and as a result their souls were rightly ordered (loving the most lovable things) and their bodies were rightly ordered (in subjection to their souls). What this presumably means is that they had complete control of their desires, and they also had complete control of their bodies.

Then something bad happened. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden apple, broke the command of God. Not only did they break the command, but their act “was a despising of the authority of God” [Civ. Dei. XIV, 15]. They wanted independence from God, they wanted to re-order their loves and desires and act accordingly. Therefore, as a punishment, God said, “Go for it! But don’t say I didn’t warn you beforehand.”

As a result, humankind “who by keeping the commandments should have been spiritual even in his flesh, became fleshly even in his spirit; and as in his pride he had sought to be his own satisfaction, God in His justice abandoned him to himself, not to live in the absolute independence he affected, but instead of the liberty he desired, to live dissatisfied with himself in a hard and miserable bondage to him to who by sinning he had yielded himself” (i.e. Satan) [Civ. Dei. XIV. 15.]

The result of sin was a disordering and a dis-integraging of the human–or in Augustine’s words “what else is man’s misery but his own disobedience to himself… our flesh, which was subjected to us, now torments us by insubordination” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 15].

So what does all this have to do with sex and marriage? Whereas before the fall, according to Augustine, men and women would be moved to marital bliss (if you know what I mean) simply by as an act of the will (similar to moving your hand to turn on a light), now they have lost control of that faculty. “Even those who delight in this pleasure are not moved to it at their own will… but sometimes this lust importunes them in spite of themselves, and sometimes fails them when they desire to feel it, so that though  lust rages in the mind, it stirs not in the body” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 16.] (it happens to the best of ’em). This is the basis for Adam and Eve’s “shame” in Genesis 3. It was not simply nakedness or sexuality that was shameful, those things were created good by God and are to be appreciated. Augustine knew this. Therefore, for him, instead, they were “ashamed of the disobedience of their own flesh, which witnessed to their disobedience while it punished it” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 17.].

As a result of striving for control, we have lost control. The great irony is that in our pursuit of freedom, we have sold ourselves into slavery–we no longer have control of our bodies, our loves, our even our own desires. And yet, Augustine sees an analogy to how things ought to have been in the way…

“…that some men are differently constituted from others, and have some rare and remarkable faculty of doing with their body what other men can by no effort do, and, indeed scarcely believe when they hear of others doing. There are persons who can move their ears, either one at a time, or both together. There are some who, without moving the head, can bring the hair down upon the forehead, and move the whole scalp backwards and forwards at pleasure. Some, by lightly pressing their stomach, bring up an incredible quantity and variety of things they have swallowed, and produce whatever they please, quite whole, as if out of a bag. Some so accurately mimic the voices of birds and beasts and other men, that, unless they are seen, the difference cannot be told. Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing…” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 24.].

Apparently, these are the types of things that we can imagine Adam and Eve being able to do in the garden before they lost control of their bodies, and they became dis-ordered beings. So much for Augustine’s mature view on the soul, desires, and body!