The Bible is full of mysteries, a famous example being the contradiction in Genesis: In chapter 1, "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them," an obviously dual manifestation. Chapter 2 describes the Garden of Eden where the Lord God placed the man he had formed, but this man had no "help meet," so from Adam's rib came Eve. What happened to the original wife? Strangely enough, out of the second version of this conundrum arose a basic Christian tenet that has had a lasting effect.
The agony and sacrificed lives suffered by the early Christians in Rome and elsewhere are well documented, but ancient Gnostic writings discovered in Egypt in December of 1945 have provided valuable and surprising additions to Christian history. (Cf. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent and The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. Also The Secret Teachings of Jesus, translated by Marvin W Meyer.) When the Roman Emperor made the previously forbidden religion of martyrs the state religion in the latter part of the 4th century, one founding father loomed in importance, he who later became Saint Augustine. Many idealistic, high-ranking churchmen opposed his theories and assumptions as dangerously inimical to pure Christian concepts and tried to eradicate them. However, they all lacked his suavity, ambition for the organized church, respect for civil law, and already accumulated power. In fact, his ecclesiastical and political influence allowed him to render any threatening brothers powerless, disgraced, or excommunicated. It was he and his associates who acted with political expediency and, against all precedent, ruled the use of physical and psychological force against disobedient Christians permissible, making it part and parcel of the bishopric office.
To what matters did his eventually defeated peers object? First and foremost, to Augustine's vehement denial of human liberty, in the sense of an individual's right and ability to make personal choices, prudent or otherwise; and then there was his modifying into nothingness the early Christian conviction of human intimacy with God and Christ. A final parting of the ways came with official acceptance of Augustine's unique interpretation of the Garden of Eden story. Briefly, he explained without apology that when Adam mated with Eve (a mortal sin because in defiance of God), a share of his erring sperm was without exception implanted in every man born thereafter. So arose the "born-in-sin" doctrine. He carefully pointed out that Jesus was not subject to the dire result of Adam's fall, because he was born of a virgin mother.
One assumes that Augustine thought long on the intense sensual desires of his youth, on failed attempts at self-discipline, and in desperation reached out for an exterior cause. Certainly he thought well of himself, for he reasoned that if he could not overcome, neither could anyone else. This in part explains the solution he found in God's first man whose "heinous" disobedience made sure there always would be congenital iniquity in mankind. He went further by making Adam's behavior, which marred the garden's original beauty, nullify hope for earth's future perfection. He went so far as to suggest that the whole universe would never be the same again.
This Church Father was no mystic. Considering his background and low opinion of humanity, it was natural for him to believe that worthwhile lives and redemption could not result from inner urgings, let alone spiritual kinship, but are granted exclusively by the ecclesiastically authorized. In any case, this so-called legacy of Adam, eventually widely accepted, has defined proper Western behavior and attitude for centuries. Amazingly, this innovative dogma -- that the sexual behavior of the progenitor of the human race meant mankind's inevitable guilt and punishment forever -- was Augustine's own idea. No one else seems ever to have thought of it, certainly not Jesus, and its adoption no doubt reflected developments in government-church relations and the desire to gain firmer control over believers.
Augustine was an exceptionally intelligent man whose long life was crowded with unusual circumstances and experiences. Born in 354 AD, he was educated as a pagan and for a while was fascinated by the teachings of Mani, a Persian who told of two powerful gods -- one cause of all good, one source of all evil. Later, in Milan, Augustine taught rhetoric in which he had been trained, converted to Christianity, and returned to his native Africa. He was persuaded to become a priest and in 395 was consecrated bishop. Of all his voluminous writings, he favored City of God which took 15 years to finish. Here he fully presented his views of Christianity, including a valuable history of pagan Rome, especially pointing out the negative effects of its polytheistic religion on the Roman people. His limitation in explaining and defending the Christian faith lies in his premise that the mystic sphere of God and Christ is all divine foreknowledge and perfect peace, while the doomed living in the physical world are helpless and unholy. Although conceding that there are good men and bad angels, he adamantly insisted there cannot be interchange between the two realms. This overriding obsession with evil -- in humans and surrounding them in the form of devils -- was his undoing. Thoroughly as he knew the Bible, he interpreted it only in ways that fit his preconceived convictions.
Saint Augustine is thus a fascinating study, for himself, the nature of his era, the respectful comments concerning Plato, and because he forced his impression on Christian theology so strongly. His successes were made possible by conditions and events taking place at that time. The universal (catholic) church was building up, rapidly becoming impregnable in its wealth, reach, and solidarity. Most barriers to expansion were down, at least in the Western world, and these accomplishments were Augustine's main concern. To his satisfaction, church members the world over were beginning to follow the same rules, rituals, and beliefs.
Unlike the Gnostics and other early Christians who spent hours in often divisive discussion, argument, and speculation, the new church banned any such ventures. Obedience was mandatory and maintained through the believers' love of Christ, and also from fear. Augustine sadly admitted that some recalcitrant Christians could be dealt with in no other way. He was not over-endowed with love, charity, and compassion -- he and his supporters initiated the long cycle of threats, punishments, etc., carried out within the church and on unbelievers. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that he was a tireless organizational giant.
During this period ethical values in the teachings of Jesus received less emphasis than before. The worldly pressures on churchmen and the Church itself overwhelmed spiritual energy, and too little attention was paid to the inherent power found in loving and humane thought and action, and in forgiveness. Tolerance was nonexistent. Still, his North African bishopric was active for over twenty-five years, and he enjoyed publicizing his views. His eschatological vision was not very comforting, but despite that inevitable Adamistic stigma, all loyal, God-obedient, Christ-true Christians were assured that eventually heaven, where abide God, Christ, the angels, and saints, awaits them. Heaven is unimaginable, eternal peace and glory; earthly celebrity and riches ephemeral and worthless. An unbeliever's fate was full of horror: exquisite everlasting torture in a fiery hell. The underworld is another Biblical enigma, of course, since the Devil, Satan, and Lucifer are supposedly three-in-one, even though Lucifer means light-bearer and is an angel, if a fallen one, who resided with God before being expelled for leading a revolt. Little wonder Christian scholars have spent a lifetime analyzing words, phrases, and passages to find meaning and significance, and ranks of skilled interpreters periodically change their interpretations -- which is as it should be.
Augustine made other offerings that do not sit well with 20th-century women, animal lovers, and environmentalists. A few cases in point: the male is considered superior to the female and, until made a willingly subservient wife productive of children, woman is no better than a mirrored Eve. He and other churchmen were not the only ones to demean independent women; the pagans did, too. It is a mystifying stand, really, because Eve was God's creation and the Romans revered their goddesses. As for animals, no concern was appropriate, they being soulless and in any event created for man's use, as were all other material forms. In relation to Earth, everyone acknowledges the scars of its mistreatment. For this, Augustine blamed Adam and hovering evil in general. Who among environmentalists would agree with him?
Old religious proclamations survive, but time, knowledge, and experience have worn out many of them. What value, then, in investigating such as Augustine? Because here was a person so eulogized by the first formal Christian Church that it elevated him to sainthood. Reading his writings and the rebuttals of those against him is like entering into that tempestuous era that decided the path Christianity would follow. We can almost visualize him, feel his drive and the unfailing dedication to the church and its beliefs that kept him pushing. He was not a man of casual and easy habits but ruthless, manipulative, inflexible, in many ways an unappealing character fired by a talent to overcome setbacks and get the job done.
Were Augustine living now, he might well be a senior CEO involved in multinational corporate protection, mergers, or enlargement procedures and doing almost anything to achieve his goals. Ethics would not be foremost in such a mind, nor conscience. A number of present-day careers tend to demand the dimming of these inner pricks, and evidently so did his. By getting to know this Bible scholar a little, comes not only better comprehension of a renowned church founder, whom some label obnoxious and some holy, but a fresh knowledge of Christianity: what it is and what might have been. The 5th century seems far away, yet apparently human nature has not changed very much, and many people still believe in the devil and accept the "born-in-sin" creation story. One positive 20th-century difference is that few doubt any more the possibility of spiritual enlightenment in the here and now, available everywhere for those who search; and everyone is eligible. Moderns increasingly emphasize humanity's inherent divinity, not unresolvable sinfulness over which they have no control.
When considering Augustine, it is an inspiring contrast to ponder Jesus' tender love for the children. Could he have believed they were stained with sin? Augustine fashioned an incredibly long-lasting fantasy that gives too much due to evil and divine vengeance. It is time to let it go.
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, October/November 1991; copyright 1991 by Theosophical University Press)
World Spiritual Traditions Menu