Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Of Pears, Peers, Spit and Tears

This blog already appeared on the Wood Hath Hope site. But it seemed far too "Theology and Peace" to warrant not posting it here. Coming to grips with Augustine has to be part of any renewed theology of peace.

Jim Warren, my Christian magician friend, sent me a piece he’d written, on a passage in Augustine’s Confessions. He’s commenting on the famous episode where the coming giant of Western theology is telling how as a sixteen-year-old, he once robbed a pear orchard. From the vantage point of his now forty-plus years and evolving Christian consciousness, Augustine is musing painfully on why and how this shameful act was possible. He did not do it for the pleasure of eating the pears for, as he says, he threw most of the “enormous quantity” to the pigs. The picture he paints is rather of a gang of boys spurring each other on and, as Jim relates it, clearly an instance of the power of mimetic or imitative desire. Here is a key passage which Jim quotes:

It is true that if the pears which I stole had been to my taste, and if I had wanted to get them for myself, I might have committed the crime on my own…(and) I should have had no need to kindle my glowing desire by rubbing shoulders with a gang of accomplices. But as it was not the fruit that gave me pleasure, I must have got it from the crime itself, from the thrill of having partners in sin. (II.8) Jim then comments: “So Augustine penetrates to a much more profound level of insight than the typical romantic idea that the thief steals because of the intrinsic desirability of the object. Desire was certainly at work, but in a way different from how we typically frame it. He describes himself possessed that night by a “glowing desire,” kindled from “rubbing shoulders with a gang of accomplices.” (II.9) The image is one of kindling a fire by the friction of rubbing wood against wood. The desire thus kindled does not have an independent existence; it does not originate within Augustine himself, in isolation, as a function of his relation to the pears. Rather, this desire springs into being as a function of his relation to his cohorts.”

In other words, it’s not the pears but the peers… Jim says that Augustine’s psychological analysis brought him very near to the insights of Rene Girard about the imitative character of desire, including its frequently violent outcome, as in the theft and destruction of a harvest of pears. What then struck me was the following. 1) Yes, Augustine has incredible powers of introspection and is right on the track of mimetic desire, and 2) he completely misses it as a structural principle! The reason he was so close to this anthropological principle and yet did not identify it is because he subsumes the whole thing within the Platonic metaphysics of the immortal soul and a doctrine of original sin. And this led me in turn to reflect on how profoundly the whole Augustinian framework has affected Christianity and how it is now at last all changing. I can’t believe how plain it all now seems, and I hope I can make it just as plain in the next couple of paragraphs!

Augustine is one heck of a smart guy. He is called by his contemporary Jerome (the same Jerome who translated the Greek bible into Latin) “the founder anew of the ancient faith” (Epistola 195). When I first came across this remark I thought it outrageous but I feel now it was no exaggeration. The first thing you need to know about Augustine is that he was a rhetorician, the most brilliant of his generation (and perhaps a thousand years after that as well). Today we would be more likely to call him a writer (his literary output was truly amazing) because he is so absolutely good with words, phrases and composition. So, thinking about Jerome’s remark, the first flag is that he is the producer of texts and a complete master of his craft.

Secondly if you read the Confessions you will see that Augustine’s path to conversion to Christianity came via a prior conversion to Neoplatonism (actually he calls it Platonism and in terms of the basic derivation of the philosophical viewpoint he is correct). Without going into any kind of detail—which is unnecessary because we are all so profoundly affected by the spirit of Platonic thought—we may say that what Augustine got from Plato was the intellectual conviction of a heavenly otherworld made available by the immortal intellectual soul which carries in itself the light of that world. Here he is, talking about his encounter with “the books of the Platonists”: These books served to remind me to return to my own self. Under your guidance I entered into the depths of my soul… I entered, and with the eyes of my soul, such as it was, I saw the Light that never changes casting its rays over the same eye of the soul, over my mind…. What I saw was something quite, quite different from any light we know on earth. It shone above my mind…. It was above me because it was itself the Light that makes me, and I was below because I was made by it. All who know the truth know this Light, and all who know this Light know eternity. It is the light that charity knows. (vii, 10)

Cutting to the chase, I would say that what Augustine is doing here, and throughout the Confessions, is constructing the Christian God out of Platonic thought, just as Plato constructed the true otherworld out of the intellectual soul and the death of the body. Plato goes round and round in a circle from innate ideas (like math) to the immortal soul which remembers them, to the return to the heavenly realm by the soul after death of the body. It’s very important to underline that effective construction of any circle of thought involves the casting out or elimination of the element that disturbs it—in Plato’s case the body. Deconstruction in its contemporary sense is the path of reflection which brings to light the cast out or eliminated element in the construction of any circle of thought. In Augustine’s case what is cast out—on top of Plato’s casting out of the body—is historical or earthly salvation, the very thing that the gospel proclamation of God’s kingdom seems to be urgently proposing! And so Augustine crossed a line, refounding Christianity on eternal principles derived from human cultural violence, i.e. the casting out of something (the body and the earth). Ever since Christians have gone round and round in an eternal circle, from the God beyond this world, to the soul intended to live with this God, to the almost complete devaluing of the earth and history, and back again to the God beyond.

It is true of course that Augustine is too much of a Christian and biblical scholar to get rid of history and historical salvation completely. When he’s commenting on the books of the Platonists he says he learnt so much about God and the Son of God in them, but he also says that what he didn’t learn of was Christ’s self-emptying and his redemptive death and the coming of charity or love by these means. (vii, 9 & 20) Nevertheless, these elements are included at a subordinate rhetorical moment after he’s laid out what he’s learned from the books, and so the essential framework is maintained. He even says: If I had not come across these books until after I had been formed in the mould of your Holy Scriptures and had learnt to love you through familiarity with them, the Platonist teaching might have swept me away from my foothold on the solid ground of piety, and even if I had held firm to the spirit in which the Scriptures had imbued me for salvation, I might have thought it possible for a man who read nothing but the Platonist books to derive the same spirit from them alone. (vii 20) In other words the final intellectual and aesthetic reference remains these books and nothing he has learned in the scriptures has provided an alternative intellectual principle. Later in his career Augustine did add what he considered a biblical notion to his thought of God—predestination of souls for heaven or hell. But this simply made things worse. By adding historical initiative to an eternal concept—a changeless divine will beyond the world—he ended up with the absolute inverse of a God of history: a God who has made up his mind for ever and always about the saved and the damned and nothing on earth—including the incarnation of the Word itself—will make any difference. In other words the casting out of history is even more absolute, and the construction of the dogmatic circle ever more fixed.

But now—and this is where all this has been leading—we have the emergence of an intellectual framework not borrowed from Plato, one arising directly from the scriptures themselves, and able to provide a rigorous meaning related directly to humanity and its history. This is what Jim was talking about, what Augustine guessed but then saw in terms only of the soul and original sin. Through the work of Rene Girard we are beginning to see that imitative or mimetic desire is not just a chaotic effect of some mythic sin by our first parents but it is the principle itself of humanity. It is what produces human beings, through their intense ability to imitate, through the violence and group victims this produces, and through the consequent birth of ritual, language and law: the emergence of human culture. But then, and of astonishing importance, it is the bible which is the singular narrative which has revealed all this to a self-deceiving world and at the very same time the possibility of a new human way. Deconstruction itself has to be part of this pulling away of the veils and it means we are now in a completely new situation.

What, therefore, is the goal toward which the gospel is leading, if not a new anthropology, a new way of being human? Rather than the immortal soul as the final point of reference we have a new humanity of love, shown us in Jesus, rising up against the world of violence and beyond all deconstruction because it does not exclude or eliminate anything. All this of course demands a whole lot more treatment, but let me give a quick illustration of what I’m saying. Instead of an eternal principle somewhere off the earth we are offered a new anthropological principle very much on the earth, the dramatically new humanity of Jesus.

In recent bible studies we have been reading the gospel of John and in that context I was struck by the mention of bodily fluids! Nothing in John’s gospel is there by accident. It all has a sign value or what also might be called the character of a signal. It’s meant to lead you deeper into the new thing that is so hard to sense at first. If the gospel talks about Jesus’ spit mixed with mud (9:6) or about his tears (11:35) these are signals to lead us deeper into Jesus’ new humanity. They are not there just to satisfy curiosity. And what is this humanity? It is the absolute handing over his self, his body, to others in love. Spit and tears join with the water and the blood which flow out at 19:34. They are all signals of endless self-giving, of expenditure without reserve, and it is endless or without reserve both at the moral level of Jesus’ character and person, and at the ontological level of how this character and person are raised up as deathless after they have given themselves to the last. In other words, spit and tears become grace: a grace lodged within spit and tears, as spit and tears, not as some ethereal, otherworldly immortal soul. Or, to carry the deconstruction all the way (and in admittedly a challenging image), the only immortal soul we now know is spit and tears condensed, evaporated and raised up for ever, as love.

Tony Bartlett