Proof by Person - Scholarly examination of Augustine's Choice by Dr. Gary Knight
Charles Natoli speculates in his essay Augustine's Choice: The Lord of
Light or the Light of the Lord, (Philosophy Now 71 Jan/Feb 2009:
ight_or_the_Light_of_the_Lord ) on whether Augustine's ratiocination for
substituting Manicheanism with Christianity is compelling in one direction
only. Could a post-Christian Augustine use similar polemics to disabuse
himself of rational faith in favour of Mani’s dualist gnosticism? The
question is relevant for inductees to Yogic ideologies that are dualist, or at
least immanentist in so far as claiming to lead the unenlightened to all
Godhead in themselves. Could an illuminated Gus of the Vedas persuade
souls to leave Christ for spas and shamanistic retreats?
Natoli is rightly convinced that in bestirring Augustine's reasons of the
heart, what had to operate is more than meets the eye in Confessions.
Something palpable had to be present in that illumination calling to tolle,
lege: something so bracing and convicting that Augustine could more easily
doubt his breath. It had to equal at least the ataraxia of the brahman in
union with himself, for Gus left all behind: he surrendered fame in the well-
honed skills of rhetoric, and the high social status these begat.
Natoli, no expert at Christianity, stops short of compassing what the great
enticement could comprise, but does probe an analogy of conviction for
Nietzsche - of whom he is an expert - namely "proof by power". What gives
the mind restive conviction is the raw power of an idea to dispel doubt and
confusion (or perhaps one's cares about doubt and confusion).
However, clear imperatives alone cannot insure against the invincible error
of self-delusion: a dangerous thing if we but take Nietzsche as an example.
Natoli makes his stand on the skeptic’s creed that, at all costs, avoids the
delusion to be feared lurking in every move to sureness. Something surer
than proofs of power would need to be in play for a mind to pass the bar to
assurance raised by conscientious skepticism. Did Augustine have that?
Natoli supposes that Augustine's conscience - skeptical though it was for a
period before conversion - was not equal to desires, cravings and longings –
imagining some unspecified needs outside of fame, society, power and
women. By this metric the conversion of a C.S. Lewis would reduce to a
weakness of sentiment, where a stoical Cathar or Yogi would fare better.
But setting aside the counterfactual that Manichee adeptness had long
nerved Augustine for disciplines, we must allow that Augustine had heart,
or perhaps elan which he - like Pascal later - knew capable of imagination
and aspiration. A power of affection Natoli attaches to Augustine's need to
worship, averting him from Mani. A man of zeal would hardly die for a
'Lord of Lights' usurped by Darkness, whose harsh Lord made the crushing
world; rather, "passionate worship Augustine longed to give, [wanting a]
guarantor for the kind of certainty he craved".
The 'criterion' adduced by Augustine on recollecting his skepticism: "I
wished to be made as sure of the things I could not see as I was certain that
seven and three make ten", is as round a criterion as any skeptic has
written. But Natoli sees it as longing that found fulfillment in the garden,
with the book. I don’t deny it as a longing; but here's a skeptic who admits
longing as a criterion for dispassionate satisfaction! In this I think Natoli is
being inchoately honest, on behalf of all skeptics.
Fulfillment in the garden was actually not with the book, nor with some
'proof by power', but with proof far superior for the seeker: a distinctive and
enlightening presence (effulgent as Natoli inadvertently puts it). A presence
who bestows light as one reads His word. It has been well said of
personhood that it is in the end the mystery of presence; and as Augustine
could later demonstrate, this is because persons were made in God’s image.
There is no greater mystery of presence than God’s.
Augustine in the garden was imbibing his first draught of the religion not so
much of the 'book', but of the Person. The Person of the book: its very
author, present beside and even taken into the reader (or he into Him). For
only personal presence, indeed the presence of a Lord by any definition of
the word (to a Lord can you say you owe your peace of mind, which is
tantamount to your whole being) could have so dispelled all doubt,
including the wholesome doubt of conscience (Augustine was very
conscious of his sins when he heard the child’s voice calling him to read).
Only a Lord could have given ineluctable personal confederacy and the
peace that comes with it, lifting all darkness. From the rapidly evolving
fruit, we know this is what happened to Augustine that day. Very soon after,
Augustine addressed his Lord as "You".
To answer Natoli, this is what established the one direction of heart’s
conversion (opening even the mind) - a reverse analogue of the law of
entropy setting time's arrow. In the spirit lies a gradient or hill in order
ephemeral: once the Personal encounter occurs, an uphill walk together is
all-desirable, for on the way confusion retreats - not without tasking
mortifications. And none of its ordeal is found clear or possible but for the
walk with the Lord.
As Augustine would say it, order is the first rule of heaven. Even so, its
enjoyment is delight only because it is the pleasure of heaven's Lord.
Augustine called the order "Beauty", singing "O beauty ever ancient, ever
new; how late have I loved thee!" When he realized that not only he, but
others – especially his champion, St. Paul - were sharers in the love of their
Creator, he was moved to call this beauty what God calls it: Church.
In grasping the scroll, Gus later realized he had encountered the Church
who gave him the text; and with the Church he embraced the Person Who
filled it, the Person Whom he would call Lord. Paul too, about to cease
forever persecuting the Church, had said, “who are You, Lord?”.
The shocking, even blinding (often with tears, as also happened for
Augustine in the garden) peace of embrace is what characterizes the one-
way door to the Truth, and is the reason that Augustine's ever increasing
luminance was not to diminish. As the Lord said himself, "the Truth will set
you free". Longing skeptics, take heed; for in the end darkness is a choice. By: Dr. Gary Knight