Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Saint Augustine, the hell fire and brimstone pagan philosopher

Don't ask me why I'm reading "City of God", by Saint Augustine, it's too complicated to get into...suffice it to say that it's given me a new perspective on how some of the hellfire and brimstone associated with conservative Christianity came to be that way. Also, it's given me some insight into why, when you think about it, hellfire and brimstone is sort of, well, pagan.

I say that in non pagan-phobic way, being pagan myself, and with the coverage of the continual hostility of Republican presidential candidates towards helping the poor, justifying it by personal responsibility, you've got to wonder whether they're channeling some philosopher or harshness from the Roman Empire. Reading Saint Augustine gives me the confidence to answer why yes, they are.

The weird thing about Augustine is that despite being a Christian he is obviously a very well educated, assimilated, Roman, who is drenched in the Stoic ethos. It's obvious everywhere in his philosophy, so much in fact that parts of his Christianity look like Stoicism on steroids. Arguments abound about how folks who experience bad events need to tough it out and look at them as tests of strength, while folks who succumb are looked down at as being weak minded and not disciplined enough in their faith aound. Take the faith part of it out and you'd have an ethic that right wing Roman pagans of the time would probably have appreciated.

It seems to me that the Roman ethic of harshness, which, admittedly, is not all bad in itself if used in moderation, seems to be grafted onto the Christian tree almost intact by Augustine, with no real work done on the parts that conflict with the central message of Christianity. For all I know, he wasn't the only one doing this, there may have been others, but I can see his writing making waves and eventually contributing to the frankly anti-human rhetoric about sin, damnation, hellfire, and personal responsibility, about the evil bodily impulses, that we all know and love that comes from fundamentalist preachers. Because he's such an important figure, this isn't just conspiracy theory. Along with Aquinas, he was looked at as one of the fathers of the Catholic Church, and more than that he was looked back to by Reformation theologians as providing an alternative to Scholasticism and all of its Papal associations. In other words, it can be most definitely asserted that because he was so central, he's been studied by generations of Christian priests and pastors and continues to be studied by them, and an inference can be made about there being a cumulative effect.

In his theology, condemnation of personal weakness greatly outweighs the influence of love and compassion. Whether his theology is really Christian in any currently accepted sense is another matter entirely.

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