Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Ambrose & Augustine

When Augustine went to Milan to become Professor of Rhetoric, a whole new world opened up for him. Milan was experiencing something of a renaissance in philosophy, and Augustine dove in. First, he met a man named Ambrose -- the Bishop of Milan -- who impressed Augustine with his wisdom and insight. Ambrose himself had been influenced greatly by the Platonist philosophers, whom he referred to as the "aristocrats of thought".

For many early Christians, Platonism and Christianity seemed to have much in common. Both were other-worldly. Jesus had said, "My kingdom is not of this world." This sounded similar to what Plato had said about the "world of Forms". Both Greek philosophy and Christianity believed in the immortality of the soul.

At first, Augustine was drawn to the Milanese "neo-Platonists", who followed the teachings of Plotinus (205-270). Plotinus was born in Egypt, but he taught in Rome. He adapted Plato's philosophy in several important ways, and his word was edited by his disciple Porphyry (232-305). This philosophy became known as neo-Platonism.

Plotinus believed that creation emanated from the One (God) who was Good. There is, therefore, no radical distinction between God and his creation. Everything that exists must be good, or contain good, otherwise it could not exist at all. Plotinus' teaching was in sharp contrast to the Manichees' and helped Augustine rethink his position on some fundamental beliefs. Plotinus also gave Augustine the vocabulary to describe mystical experiences. Neo-Platonic thought is woven throughout Augustine's writings.

The Platonists always felt like they could offer a vision of God (or the Good) which could be attained by the unaided, rational "ascent" of the mind to the world of Ideas or Forms. They found the Christian notions of God becoming a man in Jesus, the crucifixion and the resurrection, unthinkable. The idea expressed in The Gospel of John that the "Word became flesh" was impossible for them to believe. Ultimate reality and ultimate truth could not be sullied by contact with the natural world of the material.

Through Ambrose, Augustine turned from the writings of Plato to the writings of Paul in the New Testament. There he found a man he could relate to -- weakness, struggling with temptation, passion to do right. Paul wrote, "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me."

That really resonated with Augustine. He came to realize that reason alone isn't enough. What was missing was grace. He needed help from God in order to be a whole person and find authentic freedom.

At the age of 32, Augustine turned to Jesus as the ultimate source of wisdom and salvation. He turned to the Bible as the ultimate source of authority and revelation. Here's the moment of crisis, in his own words:

"I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain 'Take it and read, take it and read.' At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scriptures and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.... So I turned back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for when I stood up to move away I had to put down the book containing Paul's Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes fell: 'Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature's appetites.' I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness and doubt was dispelled."