Thursday, July 2, 2009

I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine

Once there was a very revered teacher and philosopher named Siddhattha Gotama. This man had such great charisma, and his teachings were so astonishing to those who heard them, that his followers referred to him as “The Enlightened One” or the “Buddha.” I cannot claim to completely grasp the Buddha’s message, but I at least feel comfortable saying that –and this is a very elementary description—a major doctrine of his is that the root of all suffering is desire. The reason desire results in suffering, according to the Buddha, is due to the fact that it reinforces an illusion of separateness. We, under the illusion that we are an individual self, distinct from everything else, suffer from a sense of disconnectedness and dissatisfaction or “dukkha.”

However, the Buddha's assessment of the human situation rests on some very different presuppositions than the Christian assessment. In the Christian worldview, separateness or individuality is not an illusion to be escaped but part of the created character of the world to be celebrated. Likewise, (although alienation indeed is the cause of much suffering) it is not separateness itself that is source of suffering but rather a rupture or brokenness in our relationship to God, each other, and the world around us. Indeed, separateness is as much a condition of love as alienation! The fact of our individuality and distinctness makes relationship possible and thus love (a fact that mirrors the trinitarian nature of the Creator— but to elaborate would be a serious tangent!). Desire is perfectly natural and good because human beings were created to be incomplete on their own, which is the reason that, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

All of which brings us to our friend Saint Augustine. According to Augustine, the problem is our disordered love or “cupidity.” All created things are good because they were created by an infinitely good God, but we love them improperly, some too much and others too little. Most of all we have the tendency to love ultimately what is less than ultimate. C.S Lewis calls this “the sweet poison of a false infinite.” It is the substitution of created things for God, or what the Bible calls idolatry. Human beings were created with a desire for God, a desire so great that nothing in this world can satisfy it, but forgetting God we seek to fill this void up with the good things we find in creation. Created things are too weak, partial, and fleeting to ever satisfy us ultimately. The path to virtue and the happy, fulfilled life, according to Augustine,

…requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things; to love things, that is to say, in the right order so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.

In other words, we should love things appropriate to their value and in their proper place. Our lives are teaming with such disordered love and “false infinites.” In future posts, I intend to explore some common idols. Stay tuned!