Augustine vs. Russell

Article by   December 2012
Editors' Note: The following article was an opening statement given by Dr. Trueman at Saints and Skeptics, a staged debate between Aurelius Augustine and Bertrand Russell.

The cultural and intellectual influence of Augustine of Hippo is indisputable. In his own day, he was bishop of a relatively insignificant town in North Africa but his writings impacted not only the world of his day but the world ever since. His City of God remains a standard text in the history of political theory; his theological writings set much of the agenda for both Catholicism and, later, Protestantism; and his autobiography,Confessions, represented a brilliant fusion of classical culture and Christian theology and, in setting out his life as an internal psychological struggle, was a very early precursor of the modern novel.

To seek the fulfilled life is, of course, to assume that there is such a thing as fulfillment and that it can be sought. For Augustine, that such is the case is evidenced by the innate desire of human beings to transcend themselves. As with all other types of animals, human beings seek food, shelter and to reproduce. Yet there is much more. Central to human psychology for Augustine is love. Love is the desire or will to become one with its object. As men and women make love in order, as it were, to be united with each other in the most intimate way, so this is a general picture for that which drives all of human action. It is not enough for human beings simply to exist or to maintain existence. Nor is it enough for them simply to contemplate their own existence, given that certain other actions, such as eating, are necessary. They strive for other things. Augustine would say that they want to love and be loved.  

Augustine saw this in his own life. He had sought to find satisfaction as a child in youthful pranks, in being part of a group, even in petty acts of theft. Later, he had sought satisfaction in training to be an orator. We might today say that that was the functional equivalent of a celebrity: he wanted to be famous and admired. Oratory also appealed because of its aesthetic qualities: he sought satisfaction in beauty. He sought satisfaction in sex. And he sought satisfaction in philosophy, in the quest for truth.

As he looked back on these things from the later perspective of his Christian faith, he was to draw two conclusions. First, he was, as he put it, in love with love. The desire to find fulfillment and satisfaction through something outside of oneself was a good thing and a natural human drive. Each of the above things - for example, the desire for social acceptance, for sexual pleasure, for some kind of transcendent truth - witnessed to the fact the human beings strive to find their fulfillment outside of themselves, in something greater than their own individual existence.

Second, he saw that each of these things actually offered only mercurial and passing satisfaction because they ultimately turned the individual back on themselves. The desire for social acceptance was really a desire to reassure the ego that it was the centre of the universe, a salve for insecurity. Sexual pleasure was ultimately at root a selfish act, a desire for love which terminated in personal pleasure rather than true self-giving to another. The quest for truth was actually more exciting than the discovery of truth because it allowed the individual thinking subject to remain the measure of all things rather than that which is itself measured.  

From the perspective of his Christian faith, Augustine saw this as the result of the fact that human beings, made in the image of God, are made to image him. Fourth century Christianity had hammered out the doctrine of the Trinity and saw the very identity of God as being that of a communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit existing in an eternal communion of love. Thus, human beings, made in God's image, are made to love: what Augustine concluded was that human nature now was deeply flawed. The drive to love, to find full meaning and satisfaction through love, remains; but now it is turned inward from loving God to loving self. All roads of love ultimately lead back to the self; and the self cannot provide a truly satisfying object of love. Thus, humans desperately try to find that fulfillment in finite objects ordered to the self. But such is a fools' errand, doomed to frustration.

Such an approach allowed Augustine to make sense not only of his own autobiography but also of the world around him. Were he here today, he would no doubt point to the massive disparity between high levels of material wealth and low levels of satisfaction in Western society as an example of how consumerist materialism is not simply inadequate to meet the human desire of fulfillment but is in fact a function of precisely the human condition, a search for ultimate meaning where no such thing is to be found. On its own terms materialism is failure: the acquisition of material objects is not enough, the need for acquisition is not satisfied by the act of acquisition itself. We keep on needing more and more and more.

He would probably also see the rise of internet pornography as witnessing to both the basic place of sexual satisfaction in human existence but also at the self-absorption of human beings.  Pornography is powerful because it does touch on sexuality, a thing tightly connected to the need to love, to unite with another. But it also reduces sex to a commodity, an object; it makes no relational demands upon the individual; it promises satisfaction without strings attached. It sounds like the ideal means for personal satisfaction; and yet seeing one video or owning one picture is not enough; the satisfaction such give is fleeting; and the one addicted to pornography needs to return to it again and again to find fleeting moments of fulfillment.

This brings me to the positive side of Augustine the Christian. First, as he became convinced that the Bible gave an authoritative account of the world and of the phenomena he saw therein, Augustine came to see life in this world as tragic. All human beings die. That means there can be no ultimate satisfaction in this life and thus his thinking about fulfillment and satisfaction in this life must be set within this framework. We must moderate our expectations of life in light of death. Utopianism is to be rejected in all of its forms, whether purportedly Christian or pagan.  

Second, Augustine saw love of God as the means of finding transcendent meaning and satisfaction. It could not be found fully in this life; for him, the Christian life was one of inner struggle, of fighting love to self with love to God. Yet it did allow him to set this world in context.  A basic distinction in his thought is that between enjoyment and use. God is to be enjoyed; everything else is to be used as instrumental to the enjoyment of God. This has led critics to say that Augustine reduces social relations, and thus other human beings, merely to the level of tools to further his own enjoyment of God. In fact, what Augustine means is that all things have merit to the extent that they can be ordered to God. I love my neighbor, not because in so doing I gain some personal advantage thereby; I love my neighbor because I see that they too are made in the image of God and are thus to be treated as such.

How would Augustine respond to modern atheism? I suspect he would say that, in its humanist form, it represents a case of wanting to have one's cake and eat it. Certainly, in its emphasis on mutual respect and altruism he would see it as an example of that search for satisfaction, for the meaning of life, which correctly sees it as lying outside of the individual's own self-constructed existence. Moreover, he would see it as witnessing to the fact that there is something bigger than the individual to which we all belong. 

But I also suspect he would see it as failing to understand that, if there is no God, then there is no moral universe beyond the imagination of the individual. Thus, Augustine would have asked how the atheist Bertrand Russell could justify his indignation over the use and proliferation of nuclear arms. In a universe that is simply matter and chance, what place, then, for indignation?   All metanarratives become myths whereby one group or individual seeks to impose its will over another. 

He would challenge the atheist to be a true atheist, to embrace the vision of Nietzsche's Madman who rebukes the polite atheists in the town square for killing God but wanting the universe to remain a polite and orderly place in accordance with their own tastes. If God is dead, satisfaction is not only fleeting; it really lacks any definition beyond that which you choose to give to it. That such a vision is embraced by so few would be evidence to Augustine that human beings know there is more to it than that.


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