29 June 2007

orthodox readings of augustine 2

It's been a busy week, especially having been away for the first half of it, and now attempting to catch up on a variety of tasks. Still, allow me to return to my summary of the conference on Orthodox readings of Augustine. At some later point, I'll something about the Barth conference.

Symposium II

A second symposium of two talks rounded out the day on Friday, 15 June. In the first talk John Behr spoke on Augustine and the Legacy of Nicaea and Lewis Ayres on Sempiterne Spiritus Donum: Augustine's Pneumatology and the Metaphyics of Spirit.

Unfortunately, I ended up missing the bulk of Behr's lecture in a failed search for email access in order to re-send a document I needed to get to its destination before the end of day.

From what I gather, the thesis of Behr's talk was that Augustine introduced a new way of speaking of God as Trinity into theological discourse. He admitted that distinction between Augustine and the Cappadocians is sometimes overplayed. Nonetheless, against the Cappadocians and more creedal affirmation of "the God and Father" of Jesus Christ, who is "the Son of God," Behr suggested Augustine was more willing to speak of "the Triune God" and "God the Son." Having only heard the beginning and end of the talk, I can't really fill in the details of the argument.

Lewis Ayres's talk, though focused upon Augustine's doctrine of the Holy Spirit, attempted to demonstrate that when Augustine speaks of God's being, it is always in terms of the three Persons and not simply as the divine essence alone. Ayers walked us through a number of different texts from De Trinitate, Civitas Dei, and Homilies on John, showing how Augustine conceives of the Persons of the Trinity, in particular the place of the Spirit in the life of God.

Plenaries III and IV

On Saturday, 16 June, I was not awake for the early talks, so don't have much to report. David Bentley Hart spoke on The Hidden and the Manifest: Augustine’s "De Trinitate". He'd lost his full paper through some kind of computer file mishap and was speaking from notes. The gist of his talk was to try to close the gap between Augustine and the Cappadocians and undermining some of the typical sorts of oppositions that are posited between eastern and western theology.

David Tracey followed Hart, speaking on Augustine and Contemporary Theology: The Void, the Open, the Good, God, connecting Augustine's thought up with Nietzsche, Heidegger and Levinas.

Symposium III

During the third symposium session Carol Harrison spoke on Blue in Green: Augustine’s Reading of Orthodoxy, Joe Leinhard, SJ, on Augustine of Hippo and the Cappodocian Fathers, and David Bradshaw on Augustine the Metaphysician.

Harrison's presentation concerned less Augustine and Orthodoxy and more Augustine and orthodox, that is, right opinion or belief, which emerges typically in the context of conflict, with a clear definition of what is be believed, against heresy. Much of what Augustine writes defends the true faith against errors, especially Donatists, Manichees, and Pelagians.

Harrison suggested, however, that within orthodoxy there is a "darker side" of ambiguity, fluidity, flexibility, potential for change, etc. She compared orthodoxy to tectonic plates with distinct, describable features, but with slow motion and change over time beneath the surface, which from time to time result in visible shifts. Augustine's work illustrates this perspective.

Augustine’s first defense of orthodoxy is Scripture, according to Harrison. But Augustine points out that Scripture needs analogy and metaphor, and is accessible only to the tentative search of the humble, not to the proud. There remain shifting depths under the textual surface. Interpreters, on Augustine's view, improvise from text in keeping with love of God and love of neighbors to arrive at new shifting and diverse meanings which are, nonetheless, orthodox.

The second authority for Augustine in establishing orthodoxy is the church transmitting tradition through teaching and sacraments. Truth and grace, however, are not possessed but given and accessed by participation. For instance, Augustine cite Cyprian as orthodox, even though he may have advocated re-baptism of heretics, because he didn’t break with the church and participation in its sacramental life.

Orthodoxy for Augustine, therefore, is something we receive when God is present and it is mediated to us, in and with others. We are relational beings, social.

Augustine, on Harrison's reading, was very aware of the temporal situatedness of human culture and relationships and the conventionality of language. Right faith must be re-thought and re-spoken in order to not become arcane or unintelligible.

Augustine’s thought is eschatological in direction, aimed at love of God and one another in God as our ultimate end. But faith rests in temporal, corporeal, situated signs and words that mediate divine truth.

Returning to the tectonics metaphor, Harrison turned to the question of how Augustine responded when the plates crashed and slid and the underlying movement came to the surface. Is "the new thing" something that, for Augustine, threatens our fixed and accepted way of speaking or is it something we ought to have anticipated.

On the topic of original sin, for instance, Augustine's interaction with the Pelagians brought to surface movements already in place in Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrosiaster, and so forth, and already receiving liturgical form in the practice of infant baptism.

Harrison concluded with noting how Augustine's orthodoxy supposed that we are limited and finite, but also fallen. So orthodoxy requires grace and receptivity through faith, hope, and love.

In his talk on Augustine of Hippo and the Cappodocian Fathers Joe Leinhard began by noting that Augustine doesn’t interact with Nyssa, but only Basil and Nanzianzen.

Leinhard suggested there are three basic ways in which one can attempt to discern lines of influence from the Cappodocians to the Augustine: impressionistic, consensus, citations.

Impressionistic approaches pick up upon resonances between Augustine and other Fathers and then posit dependence.

The Cappadocian “solution” to the problem of the Trinity - one ousia, three hupostases - never shows up in quite those terms in the actual Cappadocians, but it does show up in Augustine's De Trinitate. So that may suggest some point of contact, Leinhard urged.

In a similar way, Gregory Nanzianzus says, regarding the procession on the Holy Spirit, that he doesn’t understand it. Augustine similarly says, “that much I know, but how to distinguish between generation and process I do not know and cannot understand it.”

A consensus approach picks up on how many times Augustine mentions earlier Fathers, even apart from specific quotations. From this perspective, Leinhard noted, Augustine mentions Basil and Gregory Nanzianzus each about 18-20 times, though he never mentions Gregory of Nyssa. Yet, it is clear that Augustine knew two of them and held them in high esteem.

A textual citation approach looks at quotations with named authors. But the results here, Leinhard suggested, may seem disappointing because Augustine doesn’t quote what are now thought of as the “great works” of Basil and Gregory Nanzianzus. Yet what we think of as the “great works” only have that status since the 19th century and did not necessarily reflect the assessment of earlier generations.

In Augustne, there are only two extensive citations of Basil and only one with correct author attribution. With regard to original sin, Augustine quotes Basil from a sermon on fasting. This, by the way, shows Augustine can translate Greek. Basil speaks of fasting before the fall and suggests that we must fast because Adam and Eve didn’t. Augustine also quotes Basil’s Homily 13 on baptism, but attributes it mistakenly to Chrysostom. The quote concerns not delaying baptism and draws a parallel with circumcision.

Augustine quotes Gregory Nanzianzus more often than Basil, doing so from a Latin translation of his homilies. Augustine's most extensive quotation of Gregory Nanzianzus is from his apology for his flight. The quote suggests that the effects of sin remain after baptism, in th struggle between old and new man. Augustine also quotes Gregory on venerating the nativity of Christ, which frees us from our earthly nativity under sin. Elsewhere, Augustine quotes Gregory's oration on Pentecost to bolster his argument on predestination and perseverance and quotes that work again on original sin.

Thus, one can conclude that not only did Augustine know the writings of at least two the Cappadocians and hold them in high regard, he was happy to draw upon them to support his own position on a number of topics.

In his talk on Augustine the Metaphysician, David Bradshaw began by noting differences between Augustine’s response to Greek philosophy and the response of the Greek Fathers, noting that both make use of Plotinian neo-Platonism, but in different ways. The talk was tightly argued and at a high level of detail, making it difficult to summarize.

Bradshaw began with a review of Aristotle's prime mover in comparison and contrast with Plato's form of the good, tracing how the thinking of both these figures is carried forward through middle Platonism and into neo-Platonism.

Bradshaw contrasted his understanding of Augustine, against the backdrop of neo-Platonism, with his understaning of the Greek theologians. According to Bradshaw, for Greek Fathers there are energies that manifest God, based in the biblical notion of divine glory and working. But God, in his essence, possesses no form and lies beyond any naming.

God as known to himself as essence is, therefore, to be distinguished from God as manifest in his energies. The distinction between essence and energies, Bradshaw suggested, is not a fixed boundary, but an ever receding horizon, so that the more we know God the more we know that there is more unknown. Moreover, the triune character of God is the locus of the energies.

In Bradshaw's view, Augustine, by contrast and unlike Plotinus, rejects any hierarchical relation between the One and Being, Unity, and Truth, thereby rejecting
apophaticism. The result is an absolute divine simplicity in which God is identical with his perfections. This in itself is not problematics, but it becomes problematic, Bradshaw urged, when the divine names are taken to designate God's essence rather than, as for the East, his energies.

Also, since for Augustine God “is” in such a way that his existence is identical with his essence, this would have to apply to God’s will as much as any other aspect of God. As Bradshaw sees it, this makes it difficult to imagine how it is possible that God might have willed something other than what he does (thus threatening the contingency of creation). Moreover, it makes it difficult to see any real interaction between God and creatures. The basic problem, Bradshaw asserted, is the identification of divine being with unity.

After Bradshaw's talk, David Hart in particular took issue with Bradshaw's arguments and assessment of the eastern Fathers. While Bradshaw's paper was tightly argued and grounded in some interesting connections between Augustine and later forms of Platonism, his presentation was arguably the most contentious of the conference.

The conference, all in all, was excellent and I really look forward to reading these papers more closely in published form.