Christianity as Mystical Fact
XIII. St. Augustine and the Church
The full force of the conflict enacted in the souls of Christian believers during the transition from paganism to the new religion is revealed in the person of St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.). The spiritual struggles of Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzen, Jerome and others are revealed to us in a mysterious way when we see them quietly assimilated in the mind of Augustine.
In Augustine’s personality, out of a passionate nature, deep spiritual needs developed. He passed through pagan and semi-Christian ideas. He suffered deeply from the most appalling doubts such as attack one who has felt the impotence of thoughts 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 quantities of matter and believed that was the only kind of thing that could exist. This was the chief and almost the only cause of error 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 is rather, that it is only possible to arrive at higher cognition 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 am 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, he thinks, he knows that he knows nothing; he judges that he must not accept anything hastily.” Outer things do not resist when their essence and existence are denied, but the soul does offer opposition. She could not be doubtful of herself unless she existed. By her doubt she confirms her own existence. “We are, and we recognize our being, and we love our own being and cognition. 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 herself as spiritual, so that she may find her 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 among pagan peoples 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 the soul must follow if she would attain to the goal of which she speaks when in communion with herself. In 385 A.D., 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 Gospels 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 unanimity 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 conditions had set in for souls seeking the spirit other 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 through preparation in the Mysteries. One of his significant utterances is the following: “What is now called the Christian religion already existed among the ancients and was not lacking at the every 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 maintains that if the human soul develops within her the forces which lead her to the knowledge of her true self, she will, if she only goes far enough, also learn to know the Christ and everything connected with Him. This would have been a Mystery-wisdom enriched by the Christ-event. The other way is that taken by Augustine, by which he became the great model for his successors. It consists in ceasing to develop one’s own soul-forces at a certain point, and in borrowing the conceptions connected with the coming of Christ from written accounts and oral traditions. Augustine rejected the first way as springing from pride of soul; he thought the second way the way of true humility. Thus he says to those who wished to follow the first way: “You could 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 human soul can come to spiritual experience if she goes as far as she can in seeking within herself, 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...” 1 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. A presentation of this method will be found in my book, Occult Science, an Outline.
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 on the path of knowledge as your human powers will carry you; thence trust (faith) will lead you up into the higher spiritual regions.
It was only going one step further to say: It is natural for the human soul only to be able to reach a certain degree of knowledge through its own powers; thence it can advance further only through trust, through faith in written and oral tradition. This step was taken by the spiritual movement that assigned to cognition a certain sphere above which the soul could not rise by her own efforts. Everything beyond this domain was made an object of faith which must 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 no longer accessible to man’s own researches, but is, as the substance of faith, superior to all knowledge.
The origin of this point of view may be studied in the world conception 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 world conception is couched in the spirit of Neo-Platonism. In his treatise De Divisione Nature, Erigena has elaborated the doctrine of Dionysius the Areopagite. This doctrine started from a God far above the perishable things of sense, and it derived the world from Him (cf. p. 169 et seq.). Man is involved in the transmutation of all beings into this God, Who finally attains to what He was from the beginning. Everything reverts to the Godhead which has passed through the universal process and has finally become perfected. But man, in order to reach this goal, must find the way to the Logos that was made flesh. In Erigena this thought leads to another: What is contained in the writings giving 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.
Knowledge of the Eternal, withheld in the Mysteries from the multitude, became for this mode of thought, through the Christian attitude, the substance 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 insight an image of this divine revelation. The wisdom of the Mysteries is a hothouse plant revealed to a few individuals who are ripe for it. Christian wisdom is a Mystery revealed as knowledge to none, but as a content of faith 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 this was to occur in such a way that at a certain point man recognized 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 spiritual stream within Christianity designated led to the idea that this content must necessarily be retained in the form of faith.