The deconstruction of tradition acquires flesh and bones only through close work on individual texts, and no essay on the topic, however programmatic in intent, could be adequate if it eschewed the task of showing how deconstruction might proceed in textual practice. A body of work as disciplined, as thoroughly reflected, as sober and vigilant as that of the great Christian theologians is no easy target for this exercise. Nor can a random deconstruction which merely notes the rhetorical tricks the text plays on itself suffice. The exercise must have a theological intent and a theological upshot, like Paul’s deconstruction of Judaism and Luther’s deconstruction of Catholicism. It will be prompted “from the outside” by the remembrance of the scriptural word and the questions of contemporary faith, but it must lodge in the texts it chooses for its operations, opening them up from within. Without such critical immanence there can be no engaged reading of the witnesses of faith, and tradition remains a dead weight to be revered or despised. The following suggestions on how to read Augustine’s Confessions may not yet have attained that strategic point of penetration at which a text yields up a “strong” reading. However, they may prompt others to more effective inroads and they do at least, I hope, raise a question mark against the “respectable” readings of Augustine which continue to abound, one of the best of which is here chosen as a counterfoil.
In an earlier effort at a deconstructive approach to Augustine’s De Trinitate (“Dieu-Esprit et Dieu-Substance chez saint Augustin,” Recherches de science religieuse 69, 1981, 357-391) I opposed Augustine’s experience of God as Spirit to his explicitation of that experience in the language of being, substance, essence, and form which is determinative in various guises throughout that deeply self-divided work. Similar language in the Confessions seemed to me to remain strictly subordinate to an articulation of contemplative experience in which biblical, narrative, and metaphorical elements served to capture contours of reality which elude the grasp of metaphysical reason. A re-tractation of these thoughts at a more fundamental level leads me to suspect that the substance/spirit tension of the De Trinitate is a secondary formation and that it is largely an intra-metaphysical one. It reflects the deeper tension between what I will call the “biblical” and the metaphysical dimensions of Augustine’s thought, and this tension too belongs to a metaphysical landscape which the contemporary language of faith tries to leave behind, first playing off the biblical against the metaphysical, but then transcending both for a more autonomous articulation of “die Sache selbst.” The Bible as opposed to metaphysics is quickly enlisted for a series of roles within the discourse of metaphysics – God as “infinite,” “other,” “Thou” is still represented as a set of principles. Still less does an appeal to contemplative experience provide a foothold for overcoming Augustine, for his own control of every nuance of such an appeal is not to be bettered and, in fact, the language of immediate experience, the language of Spirit, in the Confessions powerfully reinforces Platonic ideals of presence, interiority, certitude, and recollection. (The vision at Ostia, Conf. IX 10, was undoubtedly an immediate experience of great force, yet it is narrated as a double Platonic anabasis – the experience itself and its “recollection in tranquillity” – culminating each time in the image of “touching” the eternal – the supreme Platonic aspiration, here clad in a sumptuous biblical garb.) “In the Confessions Augustine uses a metaphorical and descriptive language to evoke his religious experience. Even when he uses terms like ‘substance’ and’being’in that work, one feels that they are vehicles of a contemplative intuition which transcends the strictly metaphysical sense of these words” (art. cit., 357-8). This is characteristic of the pre-citical language which it is so difficult to avoid when trying to overcome metaphysics. A “religious experience” or “contemplative intuition” accessible to “descriptive language” is in need of a double demystification. First, no language is merely descriptive; language always marshals complex interpretative codes. Second, no experience ever comes uncoded, and the Confessions is a very complex play of codes from which an “original experience” can scarcely be excavated.
The Confessions is Augustine’s triumphant reading of his own life, a Proustian lighting up of the palimpsest, which is as much a work of imagination as a literal report. A novum comes to pass when Augustine’s experiences and reflections, the conflicts he has surmounted and the conflicts that continue, the languages he has outgrown and the languages he still strives to master and reconcile, precipitate the crystallization which brings unprecedented lucidity to bear on his life and the human condition in general. A reading of life, one’s own or everyone’s, is never a literal x-ray. To be at all illuminating it must be a symbolic fiction, eliciting form from a chaos of contingency which admits of a theoretically infinite number of interpretations. Such form is the product not of unaided individual insight, but also of the culture of the period. Augustine’s reading of his life depends heavily, then, on the forms of reading accessible to him, literary, philosophical, and biblical. The textuality of the Confessions bears witness to the extraordinary degree to which its author (or one is tempted to say the text itself) is conscious of the conditions of its composition. For the Confessions is above all a chronicle of readings: its narrator is always reading, always searching for the right reading, and the Confessions itself is that reading which was sought all along. The Confessions humbly lodges in the greater text of Scripture, especially Genesis and the Psalms, regarding its reading as only an increment of the process whereby the whole of life is lit up by the Word of God. The Aeneid, the Hortensius, the Categories, the books of the Manicheans and the Neo-Platonists, the signs presented by dreams, encounters, chance, bereavement, or illness, above all the sequence of narrations relayed from one person to another in Book VIII, culminating in the flash of lightning whereby the passage from Saint Paul deciphers the sense of Augustine’s life and liberates him by that stroke, all of these keep the narrator incessantly busy with his task of reading. The “thing in itself” behind all these readings, and towards which their genuine or illusory illuminations converge – what is it? What is the truth of Augustine’s experience? It turns out to be nothing else than the document he is writing, the reading in which all previous readings are subsumed. Never again will Augustine be able to read his life so convincingly; from his comment on this text in the Retractations one is tempted to imagine that he consulted it often himself when he wished to read his life, and that he never found a more interesting reading than the one constructed there. Mallarmé’s dictum that everything in the world exists to issue in a book is verified in this case with a vengeance. In producing so powerful a reading of his own life Augustine may have become its prisoner, and made countless others its prisoners, in providing them, too, with a reading of their experience to which they found nothing to add.
The excess of the truth of textuality over the explicit metaphysical statements in the Confessions was grasped in misleading terms when I suggested that the metaphysical expressions are being used as metaphors for contemplative experience in that work. The distinction between literal and metaphorical is itself a metaphysical one. Augustine’s own “metaphors”— e.g, the guiding “hand” of God – can be just as much carriers of the metaphysical orientation of meaning as his literal metaphysical terms. In fact the texture of the Confessions is richer than that of the De Trinitate not because it is more metaphorical but because both its abstract and its figurative language admit a double reading much more readily and rewardingly than the De Trinitate does. One can interpret the image of the “hand” of God metaphysically, as a metaphor for “providence”; butit also invites one to read it “literally” as a biblical naming of the divine presence which cannot be adequately translated into those metaphysical terms. One can interpret the word “being” in the Confessions in a straightforward metaphysical sense, literally, or one can attend to the biblical resonances of the surrounding discourse and reinterpret it accordingly as a “metaphor” for the reality or holiness of God. In the richest passages of the Confessions the possibility of a breakdown of the metaphysical distinction between literal and metaphorical thus begins to emerge. However, Augustine’s explicit metaphysical reflection is often itself so complex and highly reflected that what appears to be an image almost breaking the bounds of metaphysical reason may turn out to be perfectly well-behaved figuration of a complex or paradoxical concept fully worked out elsewhere in the text. (This is best illustrated by Robert J. O’Connell’s investigations of the Plotinian metaphors in the Confessions.)
A double reading of Augustine can play off the biblical overtones of his language against its dominant metaphysical orientation, stressing for instance the biblical overtones of caritas against his tendency to grasp it in terms reminiscent of philosophical notions oferos. The Platonic and biblical codes through which Augustine’s experience was mediated, and which he was able to reactivate and reinterpret in light of his experience, reinforced one another in the single powerful reading constructed in the Confessions. The first step in a deconstruction must be to subvert the dominance of metaphysics by pitting the latent implications of the biblical code against the Platonic ideals of experience to which Augustine keeps them subordinate. But even such oppositions as that of eros and agape are still intra-metaphysical. Indeed, there is no outside of metaphysics. What one can do, however, is to resist the metaphysical orientation of Augustine’s chain of signifiers, the magnetism of God as ground, origin, goal, point of rest, source of certitude and transparent insight, which-inspires so much of his writing, and instead read the text “backwards,” following the not quite suppressed clues of the biblical metaphors, in order to reassert the claims of a God who eludes all metaphysical attempts to fix “his” identity. The rich biblical content of the Confessions thus provides the surest foothold for a counter-metaphysical reading. The goal of such a reading is not, however, a reduction of Augustine’s experience to purely biblical terms. Instead what is aimed at is an opening of both the dominant metaphysical orientation and the residual irrecuperable biblical elements of Augustine’s text to a language which more adequately apprehends the matter of faith in contemporary terms. The biblical elements are used to subvert the metaphysical framework, but the process of deconstruction may react on them in turn, raising questions larger than that of the overcoming of metaphysics.
For instance, the God of Augustine is recognizably the “Thou” of biblical revelation, and as such always threatens to burst the bounds of the metaphysical system wherein Augustine apprehends this “Thou.” Every dimension of the biblical metaphorical and anthropomorphic language about God can be perfectly integrated into a metaphysical order by means of the Origenian method of interpreting this language in a spiritual sense. It is not that this language in its original Jewish context needed to be spiritualized, for the Platonic differentiation of sense and spirit is foreign to the world of the Hebrew Scriptures. In a culture for which the distinction of sense and spirit is axiomatic the force of the biblical anthropomorphic language can be retrieved only by the detour of a spiritualization followed by a metaphorical concretization; the hand of God really means his providence, but one can speak of his providence graphically as his hand, using that expression now in a metaphorical sense. It is to the degree that Augustine’s language in its vivid leaps of imagination partly eludes this Origenian grammar that a flaw in its metaphysical texture can be sighted. In the Confessions metaphysical awareness raises biblical diction to a higher power, while the step back from metaphysical propriety to daringly direct anthropomorphism suddenly invests metaphysical notions with unexpected existential force. Where Origen is pedestrian, Augustine constantly generates dramatic effects of spiritualization and concretization through the interplay of these registers. Thus the God of Augustine is at once a set of metaphysical attributes – subject and will, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, spirit, being itself, source of all being, and providential orderer of all events – and a “Thou” whose reality is not exhausted in this listing of attributes, but demands dramatic narration. The narration of God’s actions is controlled and deanthropomorphized by the securely established metaphysics of God, yet there is a biblical nakedness in Augustine’s dealings with God which allows him to show himself baffled, like Job, by the inscrutability of this “Thou,” as where Augustine asks “What am I to you, that you command me to love you?” (Conf. I 5). When Augustine steps back from calm metaphysical vision to a direct wrestling with the mystery of God in this way he may be indicating a more primordial layer in his apprehension of the phenomenality of God, one which potentially calls in question the adequacy of the controlling metaphysical topology. For the Fathers the spiritual exegesis of biblical anthropomorphism was felt as a progress in the freedom of the language of faith, a freedom Augustine fully appreciated, for Ambrose’s Origenian sermons on Genesis had freed him from Manichean literalism, effecting the first major breakthrough in the process of his conversion. A further stage in this freedom was the ability to use these anthropomorphisms freely in a higher spiritual sense; Augustine enjoyed this freedom more than any of his predecessors, reveling in its paradoxes (just but merciful, seeking though in need of nothing, angry but calm) and supplementing them with metaphysical paradox. But a further level of freedom in the language of faith is touched when Augustine reverts to a biblical diction which simply calls out to God in faith, without attempting to situate him metaphysically. This level of language is the one to which we must appeal, for we no longer find the metaphysical regime prevalent in the other levels to be capable of effecting progress in the freedom of the language of faith for us. The strategy of our reading is determined by the historical conjuncture, the crisis of metaphysics, which has robbed Augustine’s metaphysical assurance of any major significance for our faith and which throws us back instead on the basic grounds of Augustine’s conviction. To reach these basic grounds we must perform a phenomenological reduction of Augustine’s metaphysical projections or constructions to the basic experience of faith which his text articulates.
But, and here the larger question surfaces, might it not be that even this bedrock biblical level in Augustine’s faith is also largely experienced as alien by contemporary believers? Augustine’s God, even as “Thou,” is largely a metaphysical construct, an apotheosis of the Western ego and will. But even in the basic biblical evocation of God as loving agent, personal presence, object of trust and utter dependence, insofar as it can be abstracted from its metaphysical elaboration, one may be inclined to suspect that somehow Augustine protests too much. His metaphysical preoccupations led him to over-accentuate certain aspects of Scripture, centering everything on the claustrophobic drama between the individual sinner and the will of God in judgment or grace. Contemporary faith must first apprehend Augustine’s testimony to the reality of this experience (which it can do only by overcoming the metaphysical terms in which it is articulated) but then it will be obliged to go a step further and, in dialogue with this Augustinian experience, set about demythologizing these conceptions of God and the self in which the West has invested so heavily. The Bible itself, it may be, provides alternative perspectives which might allow us to take these representations more lightly than the Augustinian tradition does, but a salutary jolt from the outside might also be provided by religious traditions completely independent of Semitic or Hellenic conceptions of divine personality, sin, individuality, or will. To the Taoist seeking a bedrock awareness of reality as an “uncarved block,” Augustine’s assertion of God as supreme will, dominant over all things, must appear as a crude overleaping of the phenomenality of world (see Chang Chung-yuan, Creativity and Taoism, New York, 1963, 19-53); to a Buddhist the sharp distinctions of self, world, creation, and Creator would illustrate a fixated attachment to relative notions (see Jacques Gernet, Chine et christianisme, Paris, 1963, 290-99). Indeed, the narrative and doxological texture of the Bible itself and the nature of the Hebrew tongue never allow any of these notions to become as stabilized as they do when grasped in terms of being by Western thinkers. Thus where a metaphysical mind, even when reaching back to a more primordial biblical language, tends to make the biblical notions more rigid and massive than they need be, a post-metaphysical sensibility recalls all these notions to their experiential foundation and reveals them as the imperfect constructions of a given culture, subject to challenge and questioning in dialogue with other worlds of experience. Thus the overcoming of metaphysics is the first step in the Western journey to an open dialogue with other traditions.
SUFFERING THE TEXT
Many patristic texts can excite a mild historical sympathy, while their literary conventions and philosophical assumptions prevent the contemporary believer from entering fully into the world of their authors. Augustine’s Confessions still largely escapes this cultural obsolescence, continuing to speak “from faith to faith” and to challenge and unsettle its readers. If we wish to come to terms critically with the tradition which has shaped our faith, it is as impossible to avoid a confrontation with this text as with the Councils of Nicea or Chalcedon. Yet, despite its continuing power to question us, the favorite spiritual reading of the West for so many centuries no longer speaks as directly to its contemporary readers. The metaphysical presuppositions Augustine found so satisfying and illuminating, the convictions which strongly girded his universe, now seem the feeblest part of his work, while its power seems to live on in those elements which do not quite fit this metaphysical framework or which strain against it in subtle ways. This paradox makes the Confessions an ideal site for a demonstration of the difference our proposed approach makes in practice to the reading of the Christian classics. As we differentiate “faith” and “metaphysics” in the very texture of Augustine’s writing the programmatic observations of the preceding chapters will acquire a richer complexion and the positive goal of our inquiry, to be sketched in the concluding chapter, will begin to come into view.
It is not perhaps possible to prove that the contemporary reaction to Augustine’s text is what I have stated it to be. For this starting point of a deconstructive reading I must simply appeal to the experience of the reader of Augustine’s text. When, for instance, one reads: “I would not be at all, my God, unless you were in me” (I 2.2.), is one not pulled in two directions, on the one hand drawn into a devotional participation in Augustine’s sense of utter dependence on God, on the other thrown back by the formalization of that devotional stance through a metaphysics of esse? The direct appropriation of Augustine’s words is made problematic once it is seen that they are burdened with a fairly elaborate theory of being. To take another of the countless possible examples, when one reads: “Why, O perverse soul, do you follow your flesh? Let it rather be converted to follow you” (IV 11.l7), one may find that these words resonate with everyone’s awareness of moral alienation and with the thirst for a correct ordering of life, and one may be pleased by their literary elegance, but is it possible to silence the questions so summary an imposition of anthropological dualism on the texture of existence must provoke? At every turn in Augustine’s texts the post-Kantian reader will stumble on such occasions for misgiving.
Even passages which at first seem free of metaphysical formalization, and from which one might hope to spin an Augustinianism of the heart, a spiritual language propelled by a play of images and no longer subject to a governing metaphysical scheme, turn out on closer acquaintance to contain a high quotient of implicit metaphysics. For instance when Augustine writes: “Do not be vain, O my soul, nor allow the ear of your heart to be deafened by the tumult of your vanity” (IV 11.l6), the imaginative vividness of this is largelv the product of a metaphysical scheme. The Origenian notion of the spiritual senses, brilliantly exploited throughout the Confessions, allows Augustine to systematically transfer to the realm of the spiritual the language of the sensible. What seems a flash of imagination has Platonic method in it. The underlying distinction between inner and outer in all its fertile variations is inseparably linked with the Platonic dualism of soul and body. Similarly, Augustine’s reflections on the presence or absence of God to the sinner are controlled by a set of carefully formulated quasi-Plotinian theorems about omnipresence. Above all, the nostalgia for rest and certitude in the divine presence and for transparent self-presence, the ruling desire which fuels Augustine’s eloquence and imagination is itself the product of metaphysical presuppositions: God envisaged as ultimate ground and ultimate goal, the point of rest in a system of relations; the soul’s self-presence seen as a necessary mediation of the return to that ground. Conversion is the basic structure of existence for Augustine and it is grounded in the axiom that “you have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (I 1.1). Centuries of readers have made these words too their own in an unproblematic way. But can we? In that phrase “you have made us for yourself” do we not detect a questionable stepping outside the horizon of the given to take a loftier view of God’s ontological and causal relation to the creature? Do we not suspect that this somewhat abstract and privatized evocation of resting in the Lord is a construction conditioned by a metaphysics of creation, and that a wider and fuller sense of what such resting in the Lord might mean could be attained if one left behind this metaphysical perspective in order to espouse the “hints and guesses” of a personal divine presence which real-life occasions suggest? Is Augustine not unduly universalizing and formalizing the particularity of this presence, imposing on it the status of a metaphysical origin?
Pursuing these suspicions we find that the questionability of metaphysics haunts every corner of the text, forbidding us to take anything simply at its face value. There is no doubting the reality of Augustine’s experience of God’s presence and providence; yet metaphysical schemas again and again seem to inhibit his articulation of the concrete modalities of that presence. Augustine’s God is a metaphysical God, but also the living God of the biblical revelation, the former at the expense of the latter. If the metaphysics of God’s presence in the Confessions can nonetheless subserve his witness of biblical faith, it is because this metaphysics is constantly being solicited and inflected by biblical emphases. My claim, therefore, is that we cannot link up with Augustine the witness of faith as long as we take for granted the apparently seamless mutual complementation of the languages of faith and metaphysics in his text. Only by driving a wedge between them, building on indications of tension in the writing itself, can we recover the clues for faith embedded in the text, clues which the prevailing metaphysical discourse tends to misinterpret.
Such a reading demands that we attend to the reactions of dissatisfaction, even the sense of oppression, the text elicits, not writing them off as a distraction, but recognizing them as hermeneutically relevant, as clues to the possibility of a subversive and liberative solicitation of the text. Those who bring an attitude of uniform admiration to Augustine are not necessarily his best readers. If one practices a hermeneutics of “suffering the text,” consciously registering the malaise it induces and seeking the sources of this malaise, one is likely to obtain a more precise and more engaging sense of the contemporary significance of Augustine. Fifteen centuries of Augustine’s influence have made us familiar with the oppressive potential of his thought and as we apply this consciousness to Augustine’s texts we may discover an alternative reading which dismantles his metaphysical formalization of spiritual experience. Indeed we have little chance of recovering the truth of the Christian tradition for today unless we cultivate this consciousness in regard to every corner oi that tradition, questioning after what underlies its possibly overemphatic claims and counterclaims (seven sacraments or two?), its rather dogged repetitions (e.g., the resumption of patristic dogmatic language by Luther and Melanchthon despite their initial resistance), and its networks of moral and doctrinal argument which might seem to constitute again and again a Law which the Gospel would again and again abrogate. It is only through this process of reassessment that the vision these broken instruments defended can be deciphered anew. our dealings with Scripture provide precedents for this approach: in a world mapped out for nuclear extinction we cannot share the Psalms’ cosmic optimism, yet in a paradoxical way we do cling to their imperative of praise, as a protest against the nuclear corruption of nature and our hearts? (see Daniel Berrigan, Uncommon Prayer, New York, 1978). We cannot be awestruck by the quaint miracles in the Acts of the Apostles, but we can take them as betokening the fullness of the Spirit in the early Church; we wince at the anti-Semitic resonances of passages in Matthew and John, yet this reaction is truer to the spirit of the gospel message than a pious complacency would be. No text written by human beings is without its shadow side, which the passage of time may throw into deeper relief. Theology is largely a struggle with these shadows.
To wrestle with the Confessions in this way need not be a purely negative task. Indeed it may be a spiritual exercise in a more authentic sense than a straightforward reading can any longer be, as we continue Augustine’s spiritual quest in opposition to the metaphysics which originally sustained it, but now hinder our participation in it. It might be thought that this counter-metaphysical reading is a timid substitute for what the “masters of suspicion” (Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) might find in Augustine. A Marxist might see the Confessions as powerfully constraining the Gospel within the limits of individual subjectivity and, through its influence on people like Petrarch and Pascal, giving spiritual legitimation to the culture of bourgeois individualism. Nietzsche thought Augustine “lacked distinction in his desires and gestures to an insulting degree” (Werke, ed. Schlechta, II, 614), suggesting that one might query whether one who lived so much in the light of eternal, unchanging forms could remain fully and authentically human. Freudian approaches to the Confessions have not been very illuminating, but it is sure that the powerful affective investments of that work, which have had such an influence on subsequent religious feeling, call for ongoing analysis and assessment. Each of these critiques, however, brings us back to the question of metaphysics. Augustine instituted a thorough metaphysical formalization not only of Christian beliefs, but of Christian experience and language. The doctrinal tenets of the Greek Fathers, translated into the more tightly logical medium of Latin, were assembled in a rather petrified system, in which the margin of vagueness or mystery they retained in Greek was mercilessly lopped away. Dogma became fixed as never before, and henceforth provided the unquestioned basis for every form of “faith seeking understanding” in the Latin West. At the same time, a metaphysical form was imposed on the whole of experience, a systematic geography of love and desire, joy and suffering, sin and virtue. The transmission of that form in the West implied the dominance of a single religious diction, the capacious terminology of Augustine’s Latin, capable of integrating and controlling every stirring of the Spirit in its lucid texture. Thus in whichever direction one pursued either religious experience or theological speculation after Augustine one came up against the all-embracing structures of his groundplan, which seemed the definitive institution of the boundaries of Christian truth. Nor could an escape be found through a return to Scripture, since Scripture was automatically read (even by the Reformers) through Augustinian eyes. If the Church today is vulnerable to the critiques of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche it is largely because of an Augustinianism insufficiently overcome, that is, a metaphysical institutionalization of the Gospel which does not allow it to deploy its liberative challenge in concrete interplay with social and psychological situations, but tries to inscribe its message in a systematic code.
A counter-metaphysical reading is not only a more central approach to the problems of the Augustinian legacy; it is also more practicable than a directly Marxian or Freudian critique. It demands that we read the text backwards, undoing the harmony which the centuries-long symbiosis of faith and metaphysics generated, attending instead to the biblical diction of faith insofar as its absorption by metaphysics remains incomplete, soliciting this troublesome, unintegrated residue so as to bring to light in the text a largely repressed biblical witness of faith. In raising biblical faith to the transparency of the concept Augustine may have augmented the danger latent in all credal statements, the danger that faith becomes a theoretical ideology to which one subscribes, rather than a communal vision which is always being reshaped. As we overcome the transparency and systematic character of his vision, recapturing the opaque texture of the underlying biblical confessions of faith, we discern the human and historical contours of Augustine’s witness as an accommodation of the Gospel message to the intellectual conditions by which he was bound. The metaphysical lucidity of his articulation of the vision of faith is the explicit surface of his finding and defining of Christian identity under the conditions of that time. But if we look at the back of the mirror, through an examination of the textual embodiment of this metaphysical explication of the faith, we find that Augustine has something more to tell us about Christian identity, for his style betrays the resistance of faith to any metaphysical systematization. Explicitly, the biblical and metaphysical elements coexist in harmonious fusion. But the texture of the writing reveals a constant friction between them, which Augustine himself does not reflexively control. Heidegger, in 1921, saw this tension, somewhat simplistically, as one between experience and its conceptual articulation: “The conceptuality taken up by Augustine falsifies the experience to be expressed in it… While Augustine lives and thinks in the unrest which characterizes factical life, he becomes untrue to himself and misses the factical life-experience of original Christianity through the quietism of the fruitio Dei which comes from Neo-Platonism” (summary of Otto Pöggeler, Der Denkweg Martin Heideggers, Pfullingen, 1963, 39). “In the philosophy of Augustine an original and basic religious experience is perverted being conceptualized in terms of uncritically accepted metaphysical ideas” (J. L. Mehta, Martin Heidegger, Honolulu, 1976, 12; for a diametrically opposed line of criticism see Kurt Flasch, Augustin: Einführung in sein Denken, Stuttgart, 1980). This opposition of existence and interpretation needs to be substantiated by a textual study tracing the tension between two languages in Augustine. Such a study would absolve us from the futile effort to reconstruct Augustine’s experience independently of its linguistic inscription, and from the need to solve the historical puzzles his narration of his conversion creates, allowing us to attend instead to the functioning of the text and the possibilities of a new reading which it allows.
ONTOTHEOLOGY OR THEOLOGAL ONTOLOGY?
Deconstructive insight can sometimes be facilitated by a critique of an exemplary standard reading of the target text, and in this case a recent essay of Dominique Dubarle, in which scholarship is laced with an unusual degree of philosophical alertness, provides an ideal foil (“Essai sur l’ontologie théologale de saint Augustin,” Recherches augustiniennes 16, 1981, 197-288). Indeed Dubarle’s essay has been recommended by Goulven Madec (Revue des études augustiniennes 28, 1982, 345-7) as a wholesome corrective to the dangerous views of Augustine’s deconstructors. His study has the warrant of Augustine’s own self-understanding, but misses the insights of those who subject Augustrine to the Heideggerian critique of ontotheology. Dubarle contrasts Augustine’s’ “theologal ontology” with ontotheology, but seems to understand by the latter a rationalistic natural theology in the manner of Christian Wolff, rather than a project intrinsic in various degrees of explicitness to all metaphysics. It is evident that as early as the De Vera Religione (390) and De Libero Arbitrio (395) Augustine is intent on projecting a totalizing systematic grasp of being-as-such and beings-as-a-whole. In his basic ontology he depends largely on Porphyry. His own most energetic thinking on the nature of being-as-such is concerned with the axiom that “whatever is, is good, insofar as it is, and evil is not.” As for beings-as-a-whole, his universe is a hierarchy of participation in being, of which God, the supreme being and source of being, is the summit. The sense of the intrinsic goodness of being-as-such is supplemented by a notion of the intrinsic order and harmony of the universe. The sense of the hierarchical unity under God of beings-as-a-whole is supplemented by variations on the theme of an ascent from the body (mutable and sensible) to the soul (incorporeal but still mutable) to God (spiritual and immutable). Indeed the entire biblical economy provides further supplementation to this ontotheological structure, as we shall see. Thus what Dubarle calls “theologal” or even “Christic” ontology turns out then to be a major triumph of ontotheology, its colonization of the world of faith.
As ontotheology Augustine’s thought falls prey to the Heideggerian critique. If a phenomenological insight underlies Augustine’s axiom of the convertibility of being and goodness, Augustine did not dwell with that insight, but used it to provide metaphysical explanations and grounds for the existence of things. Instead of questioning back to the true phenomenality of being he built speculative accounts of the order and structure of reality. A deconstruction of Augustine along these lines might be possible, building on the tension between his ordering mentality and his inchoate phenomenological perceptions whose development that quest for speculative order frustrated. But this is not the concern of a theological critique of Augustine. Our task is rather to gauge the degree to which Augustine’s discourse succeeds in being what it is principally intended to be, a discourse of faith, and to examine how his ontotheological methods of thinking help or hinder that purpose. Since we are dealing with what is perhaps the most perfect expression of the spirit of faith within the culture of Western metaphysics, it is clear that this task, however inadequately we fulfill it, is a matter of epochal import. Dubarle rushes through an open door when he points out that the richness and coherence of Augustine’s theologal ontology cannot be reduced to the “platitude of the ontology or ‘natural theology’ found in manuals” (200), although there is a certain flatness if we compare Augustine with Plotinus (see Joachim Ritter, Mundus Intelligibilis, Frankfurt, 1937). The very perfection of Augustine’s performance on its own terms calls forth the higher criticism which notes the points at which this system founders on the impossibility of fully capturing – or even correctly placing – the “theologal” or the “Christic” within the structures of a systematic ontology, however modified to accommodate them. Is this merely a question of fashion? Was it natural to explicate the mystery of God and Christ in terms of being and Logos when these were the culturally recognized names for ultimate reality, and do we now drop this language only because the words carry less weight? I think the issue is more basic than this. Augustine obeys the imperative of metaphysical reason in bringing God and Christ into relation with the supreme principles of ontotheology; for him this is a matter of rational necessity, not cultural accommodation. Only with the Reformation did the possible independence, and even the necessary independence, of faith from metaphysics come into view. There is no assured reflexive grasp of such an independence before this, it seems. It is exactly that polyphonic symbiosis of Christian and philosophical culture, so natural and necessary to Augustine, and on which the strength and beauty of his writing depends, which has become basically questionable to us, the heirs of Luther and Kant, so that our entire relationship to Augustine has shifted to another plane.
It is true that Augustine articulates his experiences, or rather the reflexive interpretation of them precipitated in his mind some twenty years after the event, in ontological terms, and that he does this very smoothly and coherently. The metaphysical discourse seems to unfold organically from the contemplative experience he associates with his reading of the books of the Platonists. Previously the narrator had wallowed clumsily in the ontologies of Manicheanism and Stoicism, sensing their inadequacy to the true nature of God and the soul. Now he gains immediate contemplative access to spiritual reality, and begins at once to articulate the content of this vision in ontological terms. Contemplative insight translates into ontotheological coherence without any apparent gap. Augustine knew no better language for the reality he had glimpsed. He quarries from his encounter with the reality of God a vision of being as such: “I saw them neither altogether to be, nor altogether not to be…” (VII 11.17); “And it was revealed to me that the things which are corrupted are good…” (VII 12.18); “And all things are true insofar as they are…” (15.21), and a vision of beings as a whole, grounded and unified in the supreme being, God: “I saw that they owed it to you that they are, and that they are all finite in you, but in another way, not as in a place (as Augustine had previously imagined), but because you are he who holds all things in his hand by truth” (15.21). This contemplative, theologal ontology, like that of Aquinas, appears to be a seamless robe, providing the bedrock foundation of the Christian vision of reality, based on the doctrine of creation, incapable of being surpassed or displaced.
A frontal attack on the truth of this theologal ontological vision would of course be misguided, just as a denial or the doctrines of the Trinity or the Incarnation would be. But in each case a lateral critique of the linguistic and conceptual texture in which these doctrinal convictions are embodied is obligatory, not only because of the exigencies of modern philosophy, but also because many contemporary believers find the classical language unpalatable, although unwilling to surrender belief in the divinity of Christ, the trinitarian nature of God and the dependence of all that exists on a loving creator. A phenomenological critique of Augustine’s language will differentiate distinct strands in it, revealing it to be an amalgam whose elements are bound by a very high valency, but not an absolute one. one might say that in a metaphysical epoch Augustine’s or Aquinas’s vision is the finest expression possible of the truth of the doctrine of creation, the light of reason converging irresistibly with the light of faith, but that with the closure of this epoch the conjunction appears in retrospect as dissoluble, through a reduction of both the philosophical and the theological elements to their phenomenological origins.
If we read Confessions VII 10.16 ff. with a view to this differentiation of strands and to the laying bare of their contrasting phenomenological foundations, we discover that the text lends itself quite well to this operation, though it is inspired by concerns foreign to the conscious intention of its author, concerns possible only to those who have experienced the crises of metaphysics and the correlative crises of traditional formulations of faith. The text colludes with its critic as anatomy colludes with the surgeon’s knife, despite the violence of the incision in both cases. For the historical fault-line sundering faith and metaphysics even in their closest embrace is found to appear whenever biblical language is sensitively used in Christian theology, even when there is no explicit consciousness of its counter-metaphysical thrust. The contemporary critic will solicit that language, accentuating its irreducibility to the surrounding metaphysical categories, thus setting up a ferment of self-contradiction in the text. Metaphysical lucidity is no longer serenely superimposed on the biblical elements, but is seen as straining against them. Conversely, where the biblical elements seem to be merely tagged on to the metaphysical ones, they are no longer seen as innocent appendages but as irremediably compromising the transparency of the concept. Even if biblical elements irreducible to metaphysics are marginalized in the text, they can constitute a quintessential instance of the treacherous margin, calling in question the entire metaphysical order which seeks in vain to integrate them. Augustine generally seeks, unlike the scholastics, to saturate his text with biblical allusions, so that if one can speak of marginality here it is only.in the sense that the biblical strand is tightly bound into place by the governing metaphysical arrangements. The biblical text is massively present, but in an interpretation which is ninety percent metaphysical; it is the ten percent residue of unintegrated biblical diction which provides the margin for our solicitation.
For instance, the opening words of VII 10.16 combine biblical and Plotinian themes in what is almost an exercise in theological punning. Deeply satisfying as this harmony is, it must be noted that while the philosophical themes are transformed through being referred to a personal God and his enabling grace, the. Biblical themes undergo the more radical transformation. “And thence admonished to return to myself”: the books of the Platonists are a providential means whereby God recalls the erring soul, but this idea is mediated through Platonic conceptions of sensible traces of immaterial reality; Augustine returns to himself as the Prodigal Son comes to his senses, but much more as the Plotinian soul recollects itself, withdrawing from its dispersion in sense fantasy. If there is a ten percent of biblical matter here which resists integration into the metaphysical translation, it must be sought in Augustine’s tone of voice, the tone of confession which places the sinner before the God of mercy. The next words, “I entered into my own interiority led by you and I was able to, since you became my helper” (cf. Ps. 56:7), present grace as what mediates the soul’s self-presence or self-transparency, and as so often it is the scriptural allusion which most resists integration into the governing metaphysical scheme. Grace as a principle has been well integrated into the metaphysical structure of Christian theology, but the concrete biblical presentation of God’s favor and saving intervention (the phenomenological origin of all later thematizations of grace) could never satisfactorily be presented as a principle. The trouble is that in trying to do justice to this “unprincipled” character of grace and to the divine freedom, theologians felt obliged to produce auxiliary principles, such as the principle of the gratuity of grace, or the principle of predestination. The metaphysics of grace became the most puzzling corner of theology, and its relation to the revelation of God’s saving favor, for whose defense it had been constructed, became impossible to discern. As the narrative particularity of the present passage cedes in Augustine’s writing to the prevalence of grace as a metaphysical principle this speculative effort to provide the grounds of grace (in the name of defending its groundlessness) is launched, with the catastrophic consequences already apparent in the Saint’s last writings.where the defender of divine freedom in fact appears to be hedging it about with calculations born of a logic of fear.
“I entered and saw with a certain eye of my soul, above that eye of my soul – above my mind – an unchanging light, not the ordinary one all flesh can see, nor anything similar to it though bigger, as if this light were to shine much, much brighter so as to fill all by its size. Not such was that light, but other, quite other, from all these.” The contrast of inner and outer light is entirely Platonic – the parable of the cavern (Republic VII) and Plotinus’s On Beauty (Enneads I 6) – and even the key of interiority into which Augustine translated the conjunction between the mind’s eye and the light above it cannot be presented as a specifically Christian or Pauline importation, since it merely develops the pathos of recollection alreadv present in Platonic or Plotinian anamnesis, aphairesis, and anabasis. This spirituality, greatly as it has prevailed in Christian culture, is not at all biblical. In contrast, Augustine’s sense of himself as an individual “I” addressed by the divine “Thou,” though it too has become ninety percent metaphysics (enriching metaphysics with a new set of themes, refining and sharpening its concepts of the particular), does have a distinctively biblical cast which is never quite submerged in the texture of his metaphysical theology. Note the stylistic jump in the next sentence as the biblical theme of creation emerges along with the evocation of the divine “Thou” and the human “I”: “Nor was it above my mind as oil is above water or the sky above the earth, but it was above me because it made me and I was below it because I was made by it.” The Plotinian texture of the discourse is almost ripped by the twist the words “ipsa fecit me” introduce. Augustine first described his experience as on one of spiritual self-transparency; now it is a discovery of creaturehood. The two accounts are welded together almost by force. We are not concerned with what Augustine “really” experienced at Milan; probably no pure kernel could be extracted from the interpretative schemes which both interpreted and explicated the experience, and it may be that a combination and partial clash of two schemes presided over the original experience; or it may be that the creational scheme was later imposed over the Plotinian one, as seeming to do more justice to the true import of the experience. In any case there is a significant slippage in the text. It recurs in a subtler form in the next sentences: “Who knows truth, knows this light, and who knows this light, knows eternity. Charity knows this light. O eternal truth, and true charity and dear eternity! You are my God; to you I sigh day and night” (cf. Ps. 42:2). In Platonism eros mediates the vision of the forms, and the forms possess self-identical being. Augustine replaces eros with charity, the form of beauty with divine truth and the timelessness of the intelligible world with the eternity of the biblical heaven. But charity, truth, and eternity are just as much metaphysical principles as those they replace. Augustine’s crypto-trinitarian invocation of them is a modulation from the exposition of these metaphysical principles to the undisguised biblical prayer of the final quotation. But that modulation again masks a stylistic leap, and repeated reading confirms the impression that the words “you are my God” almost wrench Augustine’s discourse out of its metaphysical course. Caritas, veritas, aeternitas are the bearers of ontotheological aspiration after a totalizing apprehension of the being of beings; but the implicit system is almost exploded when Augustine turns to address them as “my God.” The God one calls on in prayer and the totalizing principle one constructs in speculation are not as easy to identify as Augustine’s simple “you are” suggests. Can a “you” ever be a principle or set of principles?
These subtle tensions are acerbated when Augustine introduces the Porphyrian language of “esse” into the interpretation of his illumination at Milan: “And when I knew you for the first time, you lifted me up that I might see that that which I wished to see indeed had being but that I who wished to see had not being as yet. You struck the weakness of my gaze, shining powerfully on me so that I trembled in love and dread, and I found myself to be far from you in a region of dissimilitude, as if I were hearing your voice from on high: ‘I am the food of the full-grown: grow and you shall feed on me, nor shall you change me into you as the food of your flesh, but you shall be changed into me.’ And I realized that you punished man for wickedness and that you had caused my soul to dry up like a spider’s web. And I said: ‘Is truth then nothing, since it is not diffused through either finite or infinite space?’And you called from afar: ‘I am who I am’ (Ex. 3:14) and I heard as one hears in the heart, nor was there further room for doubt: I had more easily doubted myself to live than the existence of truth, which is perceived through the consideration of the things that are made.” The quotation of Exodus 3:14 here is the king-pin of the ontological interpretation of the contrast between the reality of God and his own weak state. The “region of dissimilitude” is the Plotinian terminology for the lowest degree of being, verging on non-being (Enn. I 8.13). Augustine has not yet being, cannot yet participate in the fullness of being which is God: this ontological reading underlies the food-image. The hierarchical, participational ontology of the following paragraphs is already present here in nuce, as the concluding allusion to Romans 1:20 makes clear.
But the quotation from Exodus might also be read as indicating a more primordial level in Augustine’s experience, which the prevalent ontological scheme does not perfectly embrace, an encounter, like that of Moses, between the majesty and holiness of God and the sinfulness of the individual. The Platonic imagery of blinding light is yoked together with the biblical “Thou” who “lifts up” Augustine and addresses him in biblical style; the spiritual sense of sight functions Platonically, but the spiritual sense of hearing functions biblically, and is significantly located in the heart rather than in the mind. This presence of a personal and active God dislodges the Platonic elements so that they become illustrative of and subservient to a biblical evocation of God, losing some of their own intrinsic weight. The language of being in this paragraph is no longer an end in itself as it was for Plato or Aristotle. The reality of God is what is of first importance, and the language of being is “used” to express it in what might almost be described as a metaphorical way. The language of-illumination in Augustine is a strange hybrid, because of the deflection imposed on its Platonic terms by reference to a biblical image of God as active, vigilant, personal presence. Yet both the language of being and that of illumination continue to have a metaphysical function of locating God (one might almost say keeping God in place) as the supreme ground of being and knowledge. The personal God of Augustine is thus only partly the God of the Bible. Despite the ultimate irreducibility of the divine “Thou” to metaphysics, Augustine’s God remains nine-tenths a metaphysical construction. To draw out the more primordial biblical sense of God from the prevailing metaphysical discourse about God great attention to the tone and narrative movement of the text is required, for one can easily mistake Augustine’s powerful metaphysical evocations of God’s presence and providence as simply biblical, while it is just as easy to miss the irreducibly non-metaphysical touches in his narration of God’s dealings with him. Utterances like “Thou hast made us for thyself…” or “O true charity and beloved eternity!” might seem utterly in tune with the tenor of biblical language to the unsuspecting reader, who might equally underestimate the degree to which the Platonic substance of “you struck the weakness of my gaze, shining on me violently” is hollowed out and undermined by the presence of the word “you.”
I am trying to show that the Confessions is an inherently troubled and instable composition, as is every text which attempts an original synthesis of faith and metaphysics. Amplify the resonances of the biblical language in such a text and dissonances begin to be heard between it and the metaphysical elements; the converse is true to a lesser extent (amplify the Platonic resonances and their incompatibility with the language of faith appears). Like the themes thrown together at the high point of the Mastersingers overture, faith and metaphysics do not harmonize; it is only the orchestration which keeps them together. Augustine is a master of orchestration, and the attempt to recover the autonomy of faith will take nothing from his art. But in lesser hands the discourse of metaphysical theology abounds in grating dissonances, especially in its contemporary revivals. Augustine resites Porphyrian ontology between the abyssal poles of divine infinity (“Thou”) and the nothing whence creatures (“I”) are drawn, causing the ontotheological notion of God as supreme cause to rhyme richly with the biblical confession of the Lordship of the Creator. But allow any autonomy to the biblical God over against his ontological characterization and a fatal gap appears. If the supreme cause of ontotheology is retained as a secondary description of God it will continue to interfere and clash with the biblical one despite so many apparent reasons for concord; the worst dissonances are between notes very near in pitch. So we find that the discord between the God of Abraham and the God of metaphysics cannot be resolved by compromises, but only by critical overcoming.
Dubarle’s reading of Confessions VII 10.16 ff. provides an instructive contrast. “Saint Augustine describes the perception of a radical difference between the being of God and that of his creature… He speaks of God as being and of divine being, not of the unique One of Plotinus” (209-10). One notes the monochromatically ontological character of this reading. “The ‘dissimilitude’ caused by sin is discerned… only in the light of ontological dissimilitude” (211). Here Dubarle solicits Augustine’s text in such a way as to promote the primacy of the ontological framework over the biblical elements. This seems to me the exact opposite of the procedure required for a creative theological hermeneutic. But Dubarle can also solicit the text in the other direction: “Augustine’s statements (about the non-being of evil, VII 12.18) presuppose a mind raised to a spiritual and intellectual understanding which makes forcefully present to it that light which is the divine truth of the Word… Espousing in some sense the divine gaze on creation, one who lives this act of understanding knows experientially that evil is nothing which subsists” (212). Here Augustine’s metaphysical thinking is quite ‘‘dissolved into the contemplative experience from which it is quarried; the phenomenological content of his vision of the goodness of being is emphasized at the expense of the ontotheological structure of his argument. But even the contemplative vision here is governed intimately by the structures of Platonic metaphysics. This reading overlooks the biblical elements in the text, e.g., “that truly is, which abides immutably. ‘But for me it is good to cling to God’ (cf. Ps. 72:34), because if I do not abide in him, neither can I abide in myself (VII 11.17). The psalm text is in sharp stylistic contrast with what precedes and the language of “abiding” is capable of a double reading, as meaning either the Plotinian soul’s self-presence, dependent on its upward gaze towards the intelligibles, or a biblical trust in God which preserves one in righteousness. Thus Dubarle elevates Augustine’s metaphysics to the spiritual level to counter the charge of ontotheology, but does not raise it to the biblical level, for this would cause it to founder.
One cannot accept without question the equation of Augustine’s ontology with a participation in the divine view of things, nor does the joyful contemplative certitude attaching to the vision guarantee the adequacy of the categories it employs. In “seeing” the structure of being so transparently, Augustine may in fact already be falling away from the real source of his joy and certitude, exchanging a phenomenological or contemplative apprehension for the projection of an objectifying totalization of beings as a whole, a projection which is a theoretical conclusion, not an immediate given of contemplative experience. We must read the explicitly metaphysical utterances of the text backwards, attending to every trace of a more originary sense which they have already begun to rationalize, and especially to the biblical elements insofar as they partly betray that the metaphysical schemes are not entirely adequate to capture this deeper layer of meaning. In all this one must, however, try to avoid the temptation to posit a transcendental signified in the form of an original pure experience, whether one of Eastern-style contemplative illumination or of biblical encounter with the holiness of God. We have no access to the original experience, which exists for us only in the play of textual possibilities in what Augustine wrote so much later; our difficulty in interpreting that textual play, and the variety of readings it can generate, testify to the complexity of Augustine’s own task of articulating and interpreting his experience; all we can do is continue the play, avoiding the danger of replacing the metaphysical interpretation with another claiming the same stability and adequacy. The increasing complication and undecidability of our reading is not gratuitous, but is part of the way the text functions, and a tribute to its power. It is because it involves us in its play and lures us on to investigate its “unthought” implications that this text still claims our attention. Were its meaning utterly straightforward, so that there could be no room for soundings and solicitations which refuse to take it at face value, then we could register Augustine’s views, but scarcely dialogue with them, for there would be nothing in his writing which could respond to our questioning.
At least the argumentative parts of this passage of Confessions VII must be admitted to have a secondary character in relation to the deliveries of contemplative vision, for the logic-chopping about the goodness of what is corruptible (12.18) and the cosmic harmony which makes what appears evil in one respect good in another (13.19) is surely the product of the everyday reflecting mind, drawing on two traditions of homely philosophical argument as it attempts to tease out the implications of the clue, no more than a clue, which contemplation brought. A false materialist metaphysics yields to a true metaphysics of divine spirituality and the goodness of being. It is a contemplative experience that causes the latter to “click” for Augustine, giving him an essential clue for its acceptance. But while this change of languages is an advance in truth for Augustine, it is by no means a gift of an absolutely adequate language and one could even say that it was precisely because he was a contemplative that Augustine continues to betray in his writing the tensions between the biblical and the metaphysical, needing both languages to express the fullness of God and incapable of repressing for the sake of uniformity either of the languages in which his praise found voice.
Augustine also describes his inability to sustain the contemplative vision, due above all to his weakened moral state. He comes back to this more systematically at VII 17.23 where in his ascents from the appreciation of corporeal beauty, through the principles of aesthetic judgment, to the eternal truth enabling this judgment, and from corporeal things, through sensation and the inner sense, to the power of reason and the Light which enlightens it, Augustine clearly locates the divine at the summit of a hierarchy of beings. This hierarchy is not a contemplative datum but a metaphysical scheme used as a launching pad for a contemplative exercise. The exercise reveals explicitly a truth about God which remained implicit in the experience described in VII 10.16, namely “the impossibility of having direct knowledge, assured and penetrating, of that which God properly is” (Dubarle, 218), or the noetic impenetrability of God, which Dubarle correlates with the ontological divine infinity also borne in on Augustine in his contemplative experience. I suspect that Dubarle overemphasizes the noetic-philosophical dimension of this experience of being thrown back by the majesty of God. The “weakness” to which this is ascribed is just as much a concrete condition of sinfulness as an ontological structure of finitude; perhaps here too is an occasion for deconstructive play. It is not only that God is impenetrable because infinite; there is also here a biblical sense of the exalted holiness of God, inspiring a sense of sin now, but admitting a more substantial contemplative enjoyment in the vision at Ostia described in Book IX. Augustine deals with God as both a “Thou” and as the summit of a metaphysical hierarchy and while the two approaches supplement one another they can also leave minor loose ends in the text, loose ends which the deconstructionist can pull on so as to unstitch its fabric. One might solicit Augustine’s sense of the elusiveness of God and ask if it does not react on the Platonic topologies whereby he continues to fix the place of God so confidently, as summit of a hierarchy, summum and ground of the perfections of being, truth, goodness. Is there a dehiscence between these topologies and the activity of the divine “Thou” who both raises Augustine to himself and withdraws from his grasp? Can God be at once the passive object of contemplation and the active subject of self-revelation and self-concealment? Either the anabasis must be taken lightly, as the ladder one throws away having mounted it, or the revelation must be subordinated to its ontotheological structures. Augustine combines anabasis and revelation by avoiding ever having to choose between these two possibilities. If he is a theologal ontologist rather than an ontotheologist it is because he sustains so well this delicate equilibrium. But logically his ontology demands to become ontotheology in the fullest sense, and thus exclude an integral account of the God of revelation, while conversely the biblical element in his thinking strains towards its autonomy, which would throw off the language of metaphysics.
A CHRISTIC ONTOLOGY?
Now we must examine the surprising twist in Dubarle’s interpretation, whereby he presents the ontology of Confessions VII as displaced or sublated in a richer, more specifically Christian formation of thought, which he calls a “Christic ontology.” This I see as a Hegelian, dialectical resolution of the tensions between faith and metaphysics in Augustine’s text. I oppose to it a phenomenological reading which takes the “failles” in the text as indications of the unthought, invitations to deeper questioning. One such fault/flaw is the stylistic heterogeneity of Confessions VII and VIII. As Dubarle remarks: “At first sight it looks as if once the theologal ontology and the encounter between monotheistic faith and the philosophical conception of God have been posited as preliminaries the specifically Christian dimension of existence is deployed according to the order of a religious faith on which the considerations of philosophical ontology have no hold” (221). However, Dubarle resolves this problem by presenting Augustine’s christology and soteriology as completing and enriching the “virtuality of theologal ontology” (222) Augustine shares with Platonism, in a richly unified thinking which transcends the concern with ontological construction or even with “the systematic organization of theological material” (ib.). Undoubtedly this unity exists, and it is more the unity of a contemplative vision than a system. But the disunities it embraces, particularly the gaps between the biblical and metaphysical contributions, the former of which constantly frustrates the latter’s constantly renewed urge towards system, should be closely studied. What I have calculated to be the ten percent resistance of the biblical elements to metaphysical integration effectively prevents the Augustinian world of thought from ever closing in on itself as a fully constituted system. A literary sign of this state of affairs is the mosaic texture of Augustine’s writing, in which lines of argument derived from Scripture are juxtaposed with others depending more on philosophical traditions with little attempt at a textural fusion of the two (e.g., in De Trinitate XIII a philosophical argument about the desire for beatitude leads to a biblical exposition of faith as the means to attain it; as the biblical references enter the philosophical ones leave). “It is the whole of the teaching of the Christian faith, the truth of the God of monotheism and the truth of the incarnate Word, which the ontological understanding (of BookVII) serves in reality to undergird and outline, at least de jure,” writes Dubarle (202), the latter phrase being added because this unity of ontology and soteriology is not explicitly presented in Confessions VII-VIII. The doctrinal unity of Augustine’s views hardly needs to be defended. But the leaps one notices in the text, the leap from the ontological lessons drawn from the Milan experience (VII 10.16-16.22) to the account of the moral quandary into which it plunges Augustine (17.23-21.27) and the narration of his release from this quandary through “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” in VIII, reflect the great distances between the different cultures Augustine reconciled in his person, the worlds of Plotinus and of Paul. His Plotinus is Christianized, to the point of appearing as a teacher of Christianity without the incarnation and kenosis of the Word, and his Paul is metaphysicized, as the treatment of the themes of Romans 7 in Confessions VIII shows. Nonetheless he could not fully weave the two together in a single texture of argument. The unity of the Confessions is thus in the end the unity of a narrative. Narrative is the only medium in which Plotinus can be surpassed by Paul. To attempt such a surpassing in the medium of metaphysical argument would be to reduce Paul to metaphysical terms and to miss the concrete reality of conversion and grace; to attempt it by completely reducing the Plotinian themes to themes of biblical faith would constitute the overcoming of metaphysics! This is not a possibility for Augustine.
It is true that elsewhere Augustine does unify ontology and christology in a single argument. My claim is that as far as Augustine succeeds in doing this he falls short of the powerful witness of faith achieved in the Confessions. In Confessions VII Augustine indicates the place of Jesus Christ only in relation to the second feature of the Milan experience, his inability to abide in the contemplation of his God, and refrains from the attempt to place him in the ontological framework established in VII 10.16-22; in Confessions VIII the ontological background yields to the dramatic foreground of conversion, and it is through a series of concrete narratives, placed one against another like a series of lenses concentrating light to a single searing point, that Augustine comes to his supreme, remarkably non-intellectual, non-noetic moment of truth. When Augustine integrates christology and ontology more explicitly, it is at the expense of the phenomenological power of Confessions VIII. The volonté de système begins to close in on the biblical message. Where Dubarle finds in the sequence of Confessions VII and VIII the announcement and initiation of “an entire intellectual economy of Christian theology and, in a more hidden way, of ontology itself” (203), I would rather say that this is what the sense of these books becomes when they are interpreted ontotheologically and that the economy thus established is none other than that of metaphysical theology, that is, basically, ontotheology. But there is also to be found in the sequence of these books the possibility of a quite different economy of Christian theology, building on the differentiation of faith from philosophy. Augustine never sought to realize this possibility, yet his texts as we have them call on us to do it for him.
Dubarle speaks of a Christic displacement of the ontology of Confessions VII but in reality he eludes the possibility of a true Christic displacement which, following Augustine himself, would build on the theologal displacement of the God of metaphysics by the biblical “Thou” which we have already glimpsed in Confessions VII. Dubarle’s displacement is in reality a confirmation and the difference the biblical language he invokes makes to the metaphysical structure of Augustine’s thought is minor. In fact any difference it could make is erased in the dialectic of the nomen essentiae (“I am who am,” “He who is”) and the nomen misericordiae (“I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” – Exodus 3:15; see En. in Ps. 121:5), for the second of these names is neatly subordinated to the first, signifying how the infinite, impenetrable God stoops to the limits of human comprehension. Faith is associated with the nomen misericordiae, which refers to the economy of historical signs; these are systematically subordinated to the eternal signified, mysteriouslv indicated in the nomen essentiae. To abide in the horizon of faith in the God of Abraham is difficult when it is over-arched in advance by the transhistorical naming of God as ipsum esse. Dubarle claims that “the two namings of God cause their respective meanings to be continued and as it were reversed one in the other” (228). Jesus is the fullest expression of the nomen misericordiae yet his own fullest self-expression is a return to the nomen essentiae, the “I am” of the Fourth Gospel. Conversely, “the ontology of the divine substance” always contains implicitly a moment of “Christological mercy” so that “the essential nexus of Augustine’s theology is Christological much rather than ontotheological” (229). The divine name “EST” is not simply ontological in the philosophical sense; for Augustine it includes “a certain connotation of the divine Word… coming to implant in this world the reality of divine filiation” (231). Here again I suspect that the unity of the simplicity of the divine substance and the fullness of the biblical revelation in the word “EST” is a matter of orchestration in which the alterity of metaphysical and biblical is smoothed over. Dubarle sees Augustine as “recovering the unity of the two nominations distinguished in Exodus” (232). What is their unity in the original biblical narrative? It is the unity of the holiness and unapproachable mystery of the Lord on the one hand and his fidelity to Israel on the other, a unity which can be grasped in contemplation, not in a speculative synthesis but in constant wonder that the Most High has looked down with compassion on his people. The two divine names can be held together in a phenomenological way, as both names lay claim on the believer, and insofar as Augustine holds them together thus his thought moves in a biblical horizon foreign to metaphysics; but insofar as he attempts to hold them together with the bonds of speculative logic, in which “the interior structurations of the divine reality” are united with “an ontology founded in the reasoned perception of the difference between the creature and God the Creator” and a “synergy” is installed between “purely human knowledge and the intelligent reflection and apperception of faith” (ib.), the result is that the duality of biblical names is replaced by a duality of biblical faith seeking metaphysical understanding. Thus Augustine accommodates the truths of faith as best he can to the requirements of rnetaphysical reason by expanding the unifying notion of “being” so as to embrace them comprehensively, locating all the data of Scripture on an ontotheological map. The enlargement of the language of being to embrace the procession of the Word, the Incarnation, and salvation history is continuous with the movement within Neo-Platonism which was generous in using the word “being” to designate the supreme hypostases and the lesser realities depending on them. Even if this movement received a new force from the doctrine of creation, there is nothing in it which intrinsically conflicts with the fundamental orientation of metaphysics. Augustine applies this ontological grid to scriptural as well as to cosmological or psychological data, but it is not here that his radical difference from the philosophers is to be found; for that we must look to the “Thou” to whom the whole construction is referred. Augustine himself tends to integrate the divine “Thou” within metaphysics. Faith, instead of being explicated in terms of a calling on or trusting in God, terms irreducible to any other, becomes an epistemological and ontological principle, which fits us for “seeing in an ineffable way that ineffable being” (De Trinitate I 2.3). Yet Augustine’s direct language of faith is so passionately engaged with the “Thou” of the God of Abraham that the functional and mediating status of faith within the metaphysical scheme of things is often left behind for a style of confession inspired by the Psalms, in which faith dwells entirely in its relation to its object, renouncing any aspiration to situate speculatively either itself or its object. The faith overflowing in such cries as Confessions I 5.5 (“Who shall grant me to rest in thee…”) and throughout the whole of the Confessions insofar as they are regulated by the vivid conviction of the address to the divine “Thou” eludes articulation in the categories of the Platonic via-patria, purgation-vision, temporal-eternal, visible-invisible, belief-knowledge schemes. The object of this faith, like the God of the New Testament (who is Spirit, Love), cannot in the last analysis be named by any metaphysical term. Even though ninety percent of what Augustine says about God and faith represents a superb metaphysical apprehension of these ideas, the remaining ten percent, the part that to the contemporary reader seems to witness most powerfully to the reality of faith and to the reality of God, breaks open the framework of metaphysical names and evokes God in the open-ended “Thou” whom we may name as we will (“Summe, optime, potentissime, omnipotentissime…”Confessions I 4.4) as long as every name is heard as declaring the surpassing greatness of that “Thou” and does not fall back again within the limits of a metaphysical representation. Only in this openness are the divine names “Christic”: Christ opens them up to their fullest resonance. The name “EST” sometimes has this status in Augustine; but insofar as it becomes the key-word of an ontological system, bringing Christ into place in an ontological scheme, it can no longer figure as a fitting name for God in our discourse. Like the word “Absolute” it is too burdened with the historical aspirations of ontotheology to name worthily the God of faith.
AUGUSTINE THE BELIEVER
Augustine is surely “the man to beat.” Few historical figures have imposed their authority as uncontestedly. But in what did this authority consist? Can faith today simply accept. Augustine’s authority unreservedly, or can our faith be nourished by his only across a questioning relationship? No other document exemplifies as convincingly as the Confessions what it means to see with the eyes of faith. Augustine’s mastery of biblical and metaphysical paradox allows him to focus the phenomenality of God as apprehended by faith; the genre of the confession, both prayer and narration, provided a uniquely effective medium for this focusing. But in addition the wide span of his experience and the intensity of his philosophical, ethical and religious meditation on it enabled him to grasp the contours of his own life, and of human life in general, not only with an existential and psychological insight equal to that of any other writer, but with an unwavering theological and metaphysical lucidity which lights up in uncanny detail the byways of sin and grace, human folly and divine providence, firmly establishing the right order of things at every turn. It is not so much that Augustine assumes a divine view from above on human life; in fact he writes in constant awareness of the defective human status of his insights. Rather, his powerful experience of being known and judged by God is what he is chiefly concerned to articulate, and it quite naturally unfolds into a comprehensive examination of the human conscience.
However, if our analysis of the Confessions is correct, it may be that to a contemporary reading they can be seen to suffer the defect of their virtue, namely, an excess of metaphysical lucidity, a too definitive ordering of the world and of life. This defect has two roots: the nature of Augustine’s faith and the metaphysical texture of his thinking. As a metaphysical thinker Augustine works towards a comprehensive and exhaustive ordering of the data of experience; his writing is surely in large part inspired by the will to uncover such total order; the inconclusive, the open-ended, the ambiguous emerge as surds on which this ambition stumbles again and again, but they are never delighted in as pointers to another kind of insight. Augustine is never content to let them be, still less to allow them to subversively unravel the dominant metaphysical texture of his thought. Augustine’s faith is founded on the authority of the Church, an authority whose providential epistemological function he proved in opposition to Neo-Platonist and Manichean presumption. His conversion spelled a total identification with this authority, to the point that he became its living embodiment. To what extent was this act of faith too a metaphysical principle, a ground of certitude and insight on which he could capitalize in his voluminous writings and in the other activities which served to further define and round out the ideal of the orthodox Christian Church? To what extent has the traditional Western conception of the Church’s mode of teaching and acting in the world been a metaphysical construction? Is faith obliged to outgrow this Augustinian model of ecclesial existence, and to find a new one, inspired not only by biblical models (the people of God, the body of Christ), which Augustine’s ecclesiology in any case fully subsumed, but, more essentially, by the necessity for the Church to become a questioning, dialogal community in accord with the wider contemporary horizons of its mission and in accord with the critical turn Western consciousness has taken? Is the Church an institution which masters life in a system of metaphysical insight or is it a community of prophetic faith which relinquishes such pretentions in order to discern what the Lord’s will is for the here and now? To what extent are the Church’s “answers” always subordinate to a deeper life of questioning in faith, of seeking after God? Augustinian faith seeks understanding; but perhaps this dynamic of seeking is best retrieved today if interpreted in terms of a universal human search which is not suspended or even limited by the act of Christian faith (or of any other kind of faith) but continues unceasingly under whatever religious or areligious complexion. Confession of the Church’s faith remains an act of obedience, giving a foothold of certitude, but with such a greatly heightened sense of the historicity of the tradition in which it enables one to share and of the fragility and questionability of the categories which it obliges one to assume, that faith is henceforth much less conscious of “having the answers” than of having gained a locus standi for pursuing the questions at greater depth.
A differentiated reception of Augustine’s faith along these lines would enable us to overcome the oppressive aspect of his legacy, and to overcome it not through skeptical negation but through the affirmation of the deepest implications of that faith. Where Augustine hammers Scripture and metaphysics together in triumphant affirmation, we allow the tensions between them to prompt the formation of a more delicate and questioning language about God. Where Augustine maps human life in the light of eternity, we pursue the method of Augustinian phenomenology more consequently than Augustine himself did and reduce this mapping more strictly to the phenomenological data to which it testifies. Even as “Thou,” Augustine’s God is too massive, even oppressive, a presence, so that we are obliged to question even the most basic and biblical stance of Augustinian faith, opening it up to a sense of the relativity of the indications of God found even in the most privileged experience. The reality of Augustine’s experience is to be retrieved across a critical consciousness of the inadequacies of his language as these have become apparent. This can be done by reinterpreting Augustine in light of a new set of coordinates, those of contemporary faith, admitting the questionability of the metaphysical and even the biblical coordinates which were entirely determinative in his own discourse. Of course what is thus retrieved is no longer the experience of Augustine; that experience is no longer possible for us. But it is a more authentic communication “from faith to faith” than can be reached by fictitious efforts to repeat that experience, whether in the key of metaphysical enlightenment, biblical piety, or existentialist revamping. This differentiated reception of the Confessions should make possible a more decisive overcoming of the later Augustine. As a bishop Augustine enacted on the grandest scale the practical consequences of the excess of metaphysical lucidity and the stylized repertoire of biblical themes which give his faith its peculiar cast. A work like the City of God may in part deserve to be celebrated as a triumph of the vision of faith, but it may also represent the rather summary burial of classical humanity. In ordering all reality according to the will of God, Augustine may have increasingly depleted the phenomena of experience of their intrinsic significance, with the result that the will of God too became an increasingly abstract principle. Thus the career of Augustine, by its very consistency, which despite its strong but narrow biblical basis is primarily a metaphysical consistency, may have inflicted a deep wound on Western consciousness, reinforcing the absolutism of the metaphysical principle of ground with the absolutism of a dogmatic certitude of faith which matched it perfectly. In this career we witness the final convergence of Christianity and metaphysics under the unity of a single principle, the God of the West, a principle which would hold sway even over such critics of metaphysics as Luther, Calvin, and Pascal. It is surely this God – and not the moral God of Kant or some other convenient scapegoat – which is in question when thinkers like Nietzsche diagnose “the death of God”; (one must presume they were sufficiently familiar with their traditions to know what they meant by “God”). If Augustine’s God has died, it may be that the God of the Bible insofar as “he” lends himself to this under-standing is also attainted. By exploiting to the full one virtuality of the biblical legacy Augustine may have shown the dangers of that aspect and made a more differentiated reading of Scripture obligatory for us – one which might seek traces there of Nietzsche’s “God who dances.”
In the study of Augustine we confront in its most characteristic form the religious identity of our Western world, including, it may be suspected, that original sin of our religion, a fanaticism of metaphysical abstraction, to which many subsequent more visible evils might be traced. That study should be a work of healing, a patient dismantling of those decisions, largely determined by the prior developments of metaphysical theology, which continue to block our access to a life of faith today. As this work of healing the Western believing mind proceeds, a transformation of thinking begins to take place, analogous, in the realm of faith, to that which Heidegger and others have mapped elsewhere. The immensity of Augustine’s work and influence and the small success of the explicit efforts which have been made to overcome that influence are but one indication of how long the task of transforming tradition must continue. One must linger for a long time with each of its great monuments before their significance for contemporary faith, both their oppressive significance as metaphysical construction and their liberative significance as witness, can be brought into view. It would be premature to claim that this past has been outgrown and put behind us, and that we can go on to state boldly the meaning of Christian faith for today without further ado. On the other hand, the ongoing task of overcoming tradition need not entirely paralyze the present articulation of faith. In fact without such an effort at articulation the task of overcoming would lack the contemporary coordinates which guide it. Thus we now proceed, in the final chapter, to articulate the essence of Christianity in contemporary terms, though conscious that the ghost of Augustine. and the other ghosts of the past, have not been shaken off or adequately pacified, and that our reflections on this theme must therefore be even more provisional and programmatic than those on the topic of overcoming metaphysics.