Christianity as Mystical Fact
12. Augustine and the Church
The full force of the conflict which was enacted in the souls of Christian believers during the transition from paganism to the new religion is shown in the person of Augustine (354–430). When we see how this conflict has become resolved in the spirit of Augustine we are enabled in a mysterious way to penetrate the spiritual struggles of Origin, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, Jerome and others.
Augustine was a personality in whom deep spiritual needs developed out of a passionate nature. He passed through pagan and half-Christian ideas. He suffered deeply from the most dreadful doubts which can attack a man who has felt the impotence of many varieties of thought in the face of spiritual problems, and who has tasted the depressing effect of the question, Can man know anything at all?
At the beginning of his struggles Augustine's thoughts clung to the transitory things of the material world. He could conceive of the spiritual only in material images. It is a deliverance for him when he rises above this stage. He describes this in his Confessions: "When I desired to think upon my God, I knew not how to think of Him except as a mass of bodies, for what was not of such a nature seemed to me to be nothing. This was the greatest and almost the only cause of my 78Augustine, Confessions, Book V, Ch. 10. inevitable error." Thus he indicates the point which a person is bound to reach who is seeking the true life in the spirit. There are thinkers — and they are not few — who maintain that it is impossible to arrive at pure thought, free from any material substance. These thinkers confuse what they believe they ought to say about their own soul life with what is humanly possible. On the contrary, the truth is that it is only possible to arrive at higher cognition when thought has been freed from all material substance; when a soul 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 achieved spiritual vision. Everywhere he asked where the "divine" was to be found. "I asked the earth and it said, I am not He; and all things that are in the earth confessed the same. I asked the ocean and the depths and all that lives in them, and they answered me: We are not thy God. Seek above us. I asked the fleeting winds, and the whole air, with all its inhabitants made answer: The philosophers who seek for the essence of things in us are deceived. We are not God. I asked the heavens, the sun, moon and stars, and they said: Neither are we the God whom thou seekest." 79Augustine, Confessions, Book X, Ch. 6. And Augustine perceived that there is but one thing which can answer his question about the divine: his own soul. The soul said, No eyes nor ears can impart to you what is in me. for I alone can tell you, and I tell you in such a way that doubt is impossible. "Men may doubt whether vital force lives 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 of something, he thinks, he knows that he knows nothing, he judges that he must not accept anything hastily." 80Augustine, De Trinitate, Book X, Ch. 14. External things do not defend themselves when their essence and existence are denied. But the soul does defend itself. It could not be doubtful of itself unless it existed. By its doubt it confirms its own existence. "We are and we perceive our existence and we love our own existence and cognition. On these three points no error disguised as truth can trouble us, for we do not apprehend them with our bodily senses like physical things." 81Augustine, De civitate Dei, The City of God, Book XI, Ch. 26. Man learns about the divine by bringing his soul to perceive itself as spiritual in order that it may find its way as spirit into the spiritual world. Augustine had struggled through to this perception. Out of such an attitude of mind grew the desire in pagan personalities seeking cognition, to knock at the portal of the Mysteries. In the age of Augustine such convictions could lead a man to become a Christian. Jesus, the Logos become man, had shown the path which must be followed by the soul if it would attain the goal of which it must speak when in communion with itself. In 358 at Milan Augustine received the teachings of Ambrose. All his doubts about the Old and New Testaments vanished when the most important passages were interpreted by his teacher, not in a merely literal sense, but "were spiritually laid open and expounded by him, the mystical veil thereof being removed." 82Augustine, Confessions, Book VI, Ch. 4. 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. By degrees he comes to a conviction regarding Church doctrine, of which he says, "I felt it was with moderation and honesty that it commanded things to be believed that were not demonstrated." 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 conformity 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?" 83Augustine, Confessions, Book VI, Ch. 5. Augustine's method of thinking told him that since the Christ event other conditions had begun for souls seeking the spirit in place of those which had existed previously. For him it was firmly established that in Christ Jesus there had been revealed in the outer historical world what the mystic had sought through preparation in the Mysteries. One of his most significant utterances is the following: "What is now called the Christian religion already existed among the ancients, and was not lacking at the very beginnings of the human race. When Christ appeared in the flesh, the true religion already in existence received the name of Christian." 84Augustine, Contra Faustum, 33:6. Two paths of development were possible for such a mode of thinking. One is that if the human soul develops within it the forces leading it to the cognition of its true self, if it but goes far enough, it will also come to cognition of the Christ and of everything connected with him. This would have been a Mystery knowledge enriched through the Christ event. The other way is that actually taken by Augustine, by which he became the great example for his successors. It consists in cutting off the development of the forces of the soul at a certain point and in receiving the ideas connected with the Christ event from written accounts and oral traditions. Augustine rejected the first way as springing from pride of soul; he thought the second way was the way of true humility. Thus he says to those who wished to follow the first way: "You may find peace in the truth, but for this, humility is needed, which does not suit your proud neck." 85Augustine, De quantitate Animae, 70–76. On the other hand he was filled with boundless inward happiness by the fact that since the "appearance of Christ in the flesh" it was possible to say that experience of the spiritual can be attained by every soul which goes as far as it can in seeking within itself, and then, in order to reach the highest, has faith in what the written and oral traditions of the community of Christians tell about the Christ and his revelation. On this point he says: "What bliss, what abiding enjoyment of supreme and true good is offered to 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 beneficiently 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 ..." 86“And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” — I Corinthians 3:1–2 (It is beyond the scope of this book to give an account of the alternative method of thinking which is evolved from the Mystery knowledge enriched through the Christ event. The description of this method will be found in my outline of a Geheimwissensch aft.) — Whereas in pre-Christian times one who wished to seek the spiritual foundations 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 as you can on the path of cognition with your human powers; from there, faith (belief) will carry you up into the higher spiritual regions. It was only going one step further to say: It is in the nature of the human soul to be able to arrive only at a certain stage of cognition through its own powers; from there it can advance further only through faith, through belief in the written and oral tradition. This step was taken by the spiritual movement which assigned to natural perception a certain sphere above which the soul could not rise by its own efforts, but everything which lay beyond this sphere was made an object of belief which has to be supported by written and oral tradition, and by faith in its representatives. Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274), the greatest teacher of the Church, has set forth this doctrine in the most varied ways in his writings. Human perception 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 not accessible to man's own perception, and as an article of faith, is superior to all cognition.
The origin of this point of view may be observed 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 early Christianity to the point of view of Thomas Aquinas. His conception of the world is expressed in the sense of Neoplatonism. In his treatise, De Divisione Naturae, Erigena has elaborated the teaching of Dionysius the Areopagite. This teaching started with a God far above the transitory things of the material world and it derived the world from Him. Man is involved in the transformation of all beings toward this God, Who finally attains to what He was from the beginning. Everything falls back again into the Godhead which has passed through the universal process and finally has become perfected. But in order to reach this goal man must find the way to the Logos who became flesh. In Erigena this thought leads to another, that faith in the content of the writings which give an account of the Logos, leads to salvation. Reason and the authority of the Scriptures, belief and cognition, stand side by side. The one does not contradict the other, but faith must bring that to which knowledge alone can never raise itself.
The cognition of the eternal which the ancient Mysteries withheld from the multitudes, when presented in this way by Christian thought and feeling, became an article of faith which by its very nature was related to something unattainable by mere knowledge. It was the conviction of the pre-Christian mystic that to him was given cognition of the divine, and to the people, a faith expressed in imagery. Christianity came to the conviction that God has given His wisdom to mankind through His revelation, and man attains an image of the divine revelation through his cognition. The wisdom of the Mysteries is a hot-house plant which is revealed to a few mature individuals; Christian wisdom is a Mystery revealed as cognition to none, but as an article of faith it is revealed to all. In Christianity the viewpoint of the Mysteries lived on. But it lived on in an altered form. All, not only the special individual, were to share in the truth. But it should so happen that at a certain point man perceived his inability to penetrate further by means of cognition, and from there on ascended to faith. Christianity brought the content of the Mysteries out of the darkness of the temple into the clear light of day. The one spiritual stream within Christianity outlined here led to the idea that this content must necessarily be retained in the form of faith.