Saint Augustine’s Theology during Covid-19

The scholastics understood theology as faith seeking understanding, however, in Augustine the study of God takes a step further, not as a point of departure, but rather it opens up in theology an aperture for a God-discourse for the service of humanity. Theology in Augustine becomes the study of God as Summa Simplicitas (Highest Simplicity) affirmed from our human point of view. Theology, therefore, within the context of Augustine, would involve an attempt to understand God, know Him and His perfections, the way He relates with us and the universe at large. From this perspective, we know God, not from what He is, but what He is not, also known as the via negativa or the apophatic approach- thus Augustine writes that: “If you understand (something); it is not God” (Sermo 117, 3, 5).

The basis of this theological approach towards understanding God is the limitation of the human intellect and language to capture or express the fullness of divinity. These limitations provide a ground for faith in Augustinian theology. Theology in Augustine would be incomplete without faith. He cannot be a theologian who has no faith. This is because whatever we succeed in knowing about God must be understood and verified in the light of faith or divine revelation, and even here, the analogies we draw in articulating our faith are often “inexplicably surpassed”. The theological implications here, is that even what we have come to know through faith will only be fully understood when we “see Him face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12) and so the Augustinian theologian cannot but “Trust the past to the mercy of God, the present to His love and the future to His providence”.

What then are the implications of the Augustinian model of theology in this time of pestilence?

  1. Theology should provide answers to man’s innermost and deepest longings, that is, the search for happiness (God), which the present pestilence of corona virus threatens
  2. Theology would be irrelevant if it lacks a pastoral role. It should be able to respond to questions such as: what is the role of theology in a believer’s concrete life?
  3. What people are suffering (fear, loss, death, etc) at this moment of pestilence can better be understood within the context of our relationship with God
  4. There is a limit to what we can understand in relation to the present suffering since our God who is Mystery cannot be separated from the mystery of human suffering
  5. Since God is involved, and our limited minds cannot go further than their capacities, we need faith at such a moment to make meaning or transcend the present darkness to see light
  6. Augustine’s stretching of the understanding of the relationship between God and man into eternity (when we shall see him face to face) reassures the living that even the dead are captured in this scope of hope

God is in Control

In spite of the present pestilence, divine providence is not in doubt. God, with wisdom and love, cares for and directs all things in the universe, and is in complete control of all things. He is sovereign over the universe as a whole (Psalm 103:19), the physical world (Matthew 5:45), the affairs of nations (Psalm 66:7), human destiny (Galatians 1:15), human successes and failures (Luke 1:52), and the protection of His people (Psalm 4:8). Augustine insists that nothing happens by chance but within divine providence: “But, perhaps what is commonly called fortune is itself governed by a certain hidden order. What we call a matter of chance may be only something whose why and wherefore are concealed. Perhaps nothing fitting or unfitting happens in a part which is not suited to the whole” (Contr. Acad. 1. 1.1). He strongly believes that Divine Providence is demonstrated in the event of creation and in the sustenance of the created order (Cf., Retr., 1,32; De mus. 6,17,56; Civ. Dei, 1,28; 12,4).

Augustine wrote a specific work entitled “On Providence”, which was addressed to Christians who were scandalized by the presence of evil in the world. This homily addresses the objections of those who deny God’s providence and especially refuse biblical testimonies by claiming that God does not care for the world He created nor interested in the affairs of mankind. Augustine disproves these objections with recourse to argument from the order in nature. He went on to teach that the apparent disorder in the world is an order that surpasses our understanding. The most sublime of all proofs of God’s care and providence for the affairs of mankind is the event of the Incarnation of Christ, which not only shows that God cares, but also reveals to what extent God is interest to go for the human person. Therefore, God cannot send His only Begotten Son to die for the salvation of mankind and still not be concerned about the affairs of men (Cf., Serm. de prov. Dei, 8).

St. Augustine’s theology of providence does not allow for discouragement. The one who believes in God’s providence cannot submit to desperation because he is convinced that God, the Lord of history, whose providence works in and through the wills of mankind, ultimately leads all of creation to its finality, which is ultimately for its good. Human events become significant when viewed in the light of divine providence. Therefore, at this time of pestilence, punctuated by death, ill health, loss, wailing, death, etc., our present condition can only be understood, in such a way that it conveys profound meaning, within the context of divine providence- that God is still in control of all things.

It is only within such a context that we are able to make meaning from the most unfavorable of events. It is only within such an interpretation that we understand that through unfavorable events, God burns away pride in the just and purifies their faith according to His infinite design (Civ. Dei, 8,17-18). The apparent joys of the wicked are only false happiness; if and when the wicked suffers woes, it is only God’s invitation to them to deplore their evil deeds. The sorrows of the good is a means which God employs to increase their rewards; their happiness is a consolation here in this worldly exile as they await the joys that God has reserved for them in the world to come (Sermo de Prov. Dei 8). Thus, divine providence can order favorable events and permit adversities (Civ. Dei, 17: 23; 2: 29).

God Surpasses Every Pestilence

Augustine understands history as history of changeable things, and for history to exist (changeable things), there must be that which is beyond history, the eternal, unchangeable substance, that is, God. And so, there is history because God made it; every particular event in history makes sense only from God’s point of view. History is owed to what is beyond history – God. And if God is beyond history, it means that God can change history or intervene at historical moments. Augustine’s description of God in the Confessions speaks of the hallowed place he gives to God as the Changer who remains Unchangeable.

What art Thou then, my God?

Most highest, most good,

most potent, most omnipotent;

most merciful and most just;

most hidden and most present;

most beautiful and most strong,

standing firm and elusive,

unchangeable and all-changing;

never new, never old;

ever working, ever at rest;

gathering in and [yet] lacking nothing;

supporting, filling, and sheltering;

creating, nourishing, and maturing;

seeking and [yet] having all things.

 

And what have I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy?

or what says any man when he speaks of Thee?

And woe to him who keeps silent about you,

since many babble on and say nothing (Conf. 1.4.4).

At such a moment of pestilence, only a God who is Most Present, Most Strong, Unchangeable and All-Changing can change the course of events. Augustine has also taught us that the human race is united in sin and rebellion against God and cannot save itself. Those who have met with Christ have learnt that they must trust Him completely and not rely on their own efforts, qualities, or inheritance for their salvation. To emphasize the possibility of a divine intervention and how God is present in human and profane history, Augustine writes that, “When Herod was on the throne of Judea, and when Caesar Augustus was emperor, after a change in the Roman constitution, and when the emperor’s rule had established a world-wide peace, Christ was born, in accordance with prophecy of earlier times, in Bethlehem of Judah.” (Civ. Dei. 18. 46. 827) It doesn’t matter who or what is on the throne of human history, Christ is the Eternal King.

KANU Ikechukwu Anthony, O.S.A

Professor of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Tansian University

Consultant, Civil Society Network on Migration and Development

Rector, Villanova Polytechnic, Imesi Ile, Osun State

President, Association for the Promotion of African Studies

ikee_mario@yahoo.com

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