Christianity As Mystical Fact/Chapter XIII

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ST. AUGUSTINE AND THE CHURCH

The full force of the conflict which was enacted in the souls of Christian believers during the transition from paganism to the new religion is exhibited in the person of St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430). The spiritual struggles of Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzen, Jerome, and others are full of mysterious interest when we see them calmed and laid to rest in the mind of Augustine.

In Augustine's personality deep spiritual needs developed out of a passionate nature. He passed through pagan and semi-Christian ideas. He suffered deeply from the most appalling doubts of the land which attack one who has felt the impotence of many varieties of thought in the face of spiritual problems, and who has tasted the depressing effect of the question: "Can man know anything whatever?"

At the beginning of his struggles, Augustine's thoughts clung to the perishable things of sense. He could only picture the spiritual to himself in material images. It is a deliverance for him when he rises above this stage. He thus describes it in his Confessions: "When I wished to think of God, I could only imagine immense masses of bodies and believed that was the only kind of thing that could exist. This was the chief and almost the only cause of the errors which I could not avoid." He thus indicates the point at which a person must arrive who is seeking the true life of the spirit. There are thinkers, not a few, who maintain that it is impossible to arrive at pure thought, free from any material admixture. These thinkers confuse what they feel bound to say about their own inner life, with what is humanly possible. The truth rather is that it is only possible to arrive at higher knowledge when thought has been liberated from all material things, when an inner life has been developed in which images of reality do not cease when their demonstration in sense-impressions comes to an end. Augustine relates how he attained to spiritual vision. Everywhere he asked where the divine was to be found. "I asked the earth and she said 'I am not it' and all that was upon the earth said the same. I asked the ocean and the abysses and all that lives in them, which said, 'We are not thy God, seek beyond us.' I asked the winds, and the whole atmosphere and its inhabitants said, 'The philosophers who sought for the essence of things in us were under an illusion, we are not God.' I asked the sun, moon, and stars, which said, 'We are not God whom thou seekest.'" And it came home to St. Augustine that there is only one thing which can answer his question about the divine—his own soul. The soul said, "No eyes nor ears can impart to thee what is in me. For I alone can tell thee, and I tell thee in an unquestionable way." "Men may be doubtful whether vital force is situate in air or in fire, but who can doubt that he himself lives, remembers, understands, wills, thinks, knows, and judges? If he doubts, it is a proof that he is alive, he remembers why he doubts, he understands that he doubts, he will assure himself of things, he thinks, he knows that he knows nothing, he judges that he must not accept anything hastily." Outer things do not defend themselves when their essence and existence are denied, but the soul does defend itself. It could not be doubtful of itself unless it existed. By its doubt it confirms its own existence. "We are and we recognise our being, and we love our own being and knowledge. On these three points no illusion in the garb of truth can trouble us, for we do not apprehend them with our bodily senses like external things." Man learns about the divine by leading his soul to know itself as spiritual, so that it may find its way, as a spirit, into the spiritual world. Augustine had battled his way through to this knowledge. It was out of such an attitude of mind that there grew up in pagan nations the desire to knock at the gate of the Mysteries. In the age of Augustine, such convictions might lead to becoming a Christian. Jesus, the Logos become man had shown the path which must be followed by the soul if it would attain the goal which it sees when in communion with itself. In A.D. 385, at Milan, Augustine was instructed by St. Ambrose. All his doubts about the Old and New Testaments vanished when his teacher interpreted the most important passages, not merely in a literal sense, but "by lifting the mystic veil by force of the spirit."

What had been guarded in the Mysteries was embodied for Augustine in the historical tradition of the Evangelists and in the community where that tradition was preserved. He comes by degrees to the conviction that "the law of this tradition, which consists in believing what it has not proved, is moderate and without guile." He arrives at the idea, "Who could be so blind as to say that the Church of the Apostles deserves to have no faith placed in it, when it is so loyal and is supported by the conformity of so many brethren; when these have handed down their writings to posterity so conscientiously, and when the Church has so strictly maintained the succession of teachers, down to our present bishops?"

Augustine's mode of thought told him, that with the coming of Christ other conditions had set in for souls seeking after the spirit than those which had previously existed. For him it was firmly established that in Christ Jesus had been revealed in outer historical fact that which the Mystic had sought in the Mysteries through preparation. One of his most significant utterances is the following, "What is now called the Christian religion already existed amongst the ancients and was not lacking at the very beginnings of the human race. When Christ appeared in the flesh, the true religion already in existence received the name of Christian." There were two ways possible for such a method of thought. One way is that if the human soul develops within it the forces which lead it to the knowledge of its true self, it will, if it only goes far enough, come also to the knowledge of the Christ and of everything connected with him. This would have been a mystery-wisdom enriched through the Christ event. The other way is taken by Augustine and is that by which he became the great model for his successors. It consists in cutting off the development of the forces of the soul at a certain point, and in borrowing the ideas connected with the coming of Christ from written accounts and oral traditions. Augustine rejected the first way as springing from pride of the soul; he thought the second was the way of true humility. Thus he says to those who wished to follow the first way: "You may find peace in the truth, but for that humility is needed, which does not suit your proud neck." On the other hand, he was filled with boundless inward happiness by the fact that since the coming of Christ in the flesh, it was possible to say that every soul can come to spiritual experience which goes as far as it can in seeking within itself, and then, in order to attain to the highest, has confidence in what the written and oral traditions of the Christian Church tell us about the Christ and his revelation. He says on this point: "What bliss, what abiding enjoyment of supreme and true good is offered us, what serenity, what a breath of eternity! How shall I describe it? It has been expressed, as far as it could be, by those great incomparable souls who we admit have beheld and still behold.... We reach a point at which we acknowledge how true is what we have been commanded to believe and how well and beneficently we have been brought up by our mother, the Church, and of what benefit was the milk given by the Apostle Paul to the little ones...." (It is beyond the scope of this book to give an account of the alternative method which is evolved from the Mystery Wisdom, enriched through the Christ event. The description of this method will be found in An Outline of Occult Science, see advt., front page.) Whereas in pre-Christian times one who wished to seek the spiritual basis of existence was necessarily directed to the way of the Mysteries, Augustine was able to say, even to those souls who could find no such path within themselves, "Go as far as you can on the path of knowledge with your human powers, thence trust (faith) will carry you up into the higher spiritual regions." It was only going one step further to say, it is natural to the human soul only to be able to arrive at a certain stage of knowledge through its own powers: thence it can only advance further through trust, through faith in written and oral tradition. This step was taken by the spiritual movement which assigned to knowledge a certain sphere above which the soul could not rise by its own efforts, but everything which lay beyond this domain was made an object of faith which has to be supported by written and oral tradition and by confidence in its representatives. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest teacher within the Church (1224-1274), has set forth this doctrine in his writings in a variety of ways. His main point is that human knowledge can only attain to that which led Augustine to self-knowledge, to the certainty of the divine. The nature of the divine and its relation to the world is given by revealed theology, which is not accessible to man's own researches and is, as the substance of faith, superior to all knowledge.

The origin of this point of view may be studied in the theology of John Scotus Erigena, who lived in the ninth century at the court of Charles the Bald, and who represents a natural transition from the earliest ideas of Christianity to the ideas of Thomas Aquinas. His conception of the universe is couched in the spirit of Neo-Platonism. In his treatise De Divisione Naturæ, Erigena has elaborated the teaching of Dionysius the Areopagite. This teaching started from a God far above the perishable things of sense, and it derived the world from Him (Cf. p. 208 et seq.). Man is involved in the transmutation of all beings into this God, Who finally becomes what He was from the beginning. Everything falls back again into the Godhead which has passed through the universal process and has finally become perfected. But in order to reach this goal man must find the way to the Logos who was made flesh. In Erigena this thought leads to another: that what is contained in the writings which give an account of the Logos leads, when received in faith, to salvation. Reason and the authority of the Scriptures, faith and knowledge stand on the same level. The one does not contradict the other, but faith must bring that to which knowledge never can attain by itself. *** The knowledge of the eternal which the ancient Mysteries withheld from the multitude became, when presented in this way by Christian thought and feeling, the content of faith, which by its very nature had to do with something unattainable by mere knowledge. The conviction of the pre-Christian Mystic was that to him was given knowledge of the divine, while the people were obliged to have faith in its expression in images. Christianity came to the conviction that God has given his wisdom to mankind through revelation, and man attains through his knowledge an image of this divine revelation. The wisdom of the Mysteries is a hothouse plant, which is revealed to a few individuals ripe for it. Christian wisdom is a Mystery revealed as knowledge to none, but as a content of faith revealed to all. The standpoint of the Mysteries lived on in Christianity, but in a different form. All, not only the special individual, were to share in the truth, but the process was that at a certain point man owned his inability to penetrate farther by means of knowledge, and thence ascended to faith. Christianity brought the content of the Mysteries out of the obscurity of the temple into the clear light of day. The one Christian movement mentioned led to the idea that this content must necessarily be retained in the form of faith.