Hey there! This is the second part in a two-part series on Augustine and Platonism. If you haven’t read the first part, you can do that here:
On with the show! Incidentally, the inspiration for this title comes from a good friend of mine who’s made a Plato Potato shirt. Check it out here:
So last time we talked about how Platonism has a duality where the transcendent realm is great and the physical realm is not-that-great. Christianity doesn’t really have that strict duality – in fact, there’s a very strong case against that duality in the person of Christ, in whom you get a meeting of the physical and spiritual. Christ, of course, is considered to be without sin by the Christian faith – so if he’s perfect, and he’s also fully human, then it’s possible for humans to be fully perfect even in our physical bodies. Therefore, because the physical aspect of our humanity isn’t necessarily bad, it follows that neither is the physical plane inherently bad. We can see this idea validated in the opening of Genesis, where God looks at the world he’s made and declares “It is good”.
However, you also get lines like this one in Romans 12:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
It sounds like there’s ‘the world’, or the physical realm, and we have to be ‘transformed’ towards the will of God in the spiritual or transcendent realm. Alternately, in 1 Corinthians 2, we get this:
“…we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age… But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden.”
Again, there’s a sense of our earthly human wisdom as something limited and bound to this time and place, and God’s transcendent wisdom as something greater and purer and more true. Obviously God’s transcendent wisdom should be privileged over our earthly wisdom, but that’s not to say that we should privilege the transcendent realm over the earthly one, and it’s not to say that the physical realm is quote-unquote bad.
Probably the more accurate way to describe the Christian conception of this physical reality is as contested. Let’s scroll over to Romans 8, where creation is described as “subjected to futility” and in “bondage to decay”. Both of these images suggest that reality was not originally designed in such a fallen state, but has entered into it from an original state of perfection. This is Augustine’s opinion, at any rate: he argues that “Evil is contrary to nature; in fact it can only do harm to nature; and it would not be a fault to withdraw from God were it not that it is more natural to adhere to him” (XI, 17). He goes on to say that “There is no such entity in nature as ‘evil’; ‘evil’ is merely a name for the privation of good” (XI, 22).
C.S. Lewis actually borrows this idea in Mere Christianity, where he argues that “evil is a parasite, not an original thing”. When I first read this passage in City of God, I sat bolt upright and thought “So that’s where he got it from!” There’s a very clear line of descent – Lewis basically argues that for an evil power to be evil, they must “exist and have intelligence and will. But existence, intelligence and will are in themselves good”. Thus, “Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war”, but it’s “a civil war, a rebellion, and… we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel”. Mere Christianity was initially a series of radio talks given by Lewis in Britain between 1942-1944, so all the war language is bread and butter for the listeners.
Anyway: so in its natural state, the world is a good thing. Its current state of “bondage to decay” is an unnatural state, and it’s this unnatural state which is referred to when Paul says things like “Do not be conformed to this world” – he’s not saying the physical realm is bad, he’s saying that it’s our job to rise above this corrupted unnatural state. Of course, this reliance on the image of ‘the natural’ as ‘the good’ carries its own set of problems and insufficiencies – it doesn’t lend itself to certain theological arguments which are otherwise entirely reasonable. For example, the concept of nature doesn’t gel well with the idea of technology. We’ve got this idea of Mother Nature, the perfectly balanced ecosystem that doesn’t take kindly to the meddling and ravages of modern industrialisation. We might say that our human lifestyle is not ‘natural’, insofar as it is not found in nature.
That said, not many Christians would go so far as to reject all technology entirely. The Amish, for example, reject a great deal of technology, but only insofar as they see it to be a sort of temptation – so it’s not that technology is unnatural, it’s that we, as weak human beings, are subjected to various unnecessary temptations as a result of modern technology. One that gets cited a lot is photography – there’s this line of thinking that having lots of images of yourself leads to vanity and pride in your appearance, rather than humility. By not having a camera, you don’t have to worry about this whole vanity issue as much – because the temptation’s not there in the first place. Of course, even the Amish are fine with agriculture and so on. Most Christians would point to the verse in Genesis about stewarding the land, managing it and working it, and say that in fact, technology is quite alright. The point here is that you can only spin out the metaphor of nature and goodness so far before it starts to unravel. That’s not a problem, theologically speaking – it’s just a matter of knowing how and where to apply it.
Perhaps the best way to think about it is in terms of what the theology is being used against. Augustine was, earlier in his life, a Manichee, and they all thought that there was a great cosmic duality where good and evil were two equally matched cosmic forces fighting for dominance. Augustine’s rejecting this idea, and that’s where the impetus for his nature/goodness metaphor comes from. You can see again why Lewis picks it up, right at the time when there’s a massive conflict going on between two groups of world powers, both fighting for dominance. It’s a way of affirming the theology, but it’s also a way to interpret and give meaning to the major events of the day. That’s probably my favourite thing about theology – the interplay between the culture and the unchanging nature of God.