Guest Lecture: Dr. Mark Edwards on Saint Augustine’s Confessions

Dr. Mark Edwards
Dr. Mark Edwards

On February 2, this term’s core course on Forms of Love (AY, BA) had a new guest: Dr. Mark Edwards, who lectured on February 1st & 3rd on Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Dr. Edwards is a graduate of Oxford University with a PhD. in Literae Humaniores. He is now a Tutor in Theology and his main interests are Early Christianity, the New Testament and Platonism.

The focus of his lectures was a comparison between love in the Greek tradition and love seen from the perspective of the Christian tradition, with Saint Augustine’s teachings guiding the discussion.

Dr. Edwards started by pointing out the need to find a new word to express the Christian notion of love between God and man since there are a few reasons why the Greek word eros does not fulfill the task. “Nygren was the first to draw a distinction between agape and eros”, he said. “Eros means seeking of the good by means of the beautiful, a sentiment by which human beings discover their need for the divine, and eventually become united to it.

Agape works in a different way. Faith, which is its main manifestation, is what is established by God when he reveals Himself to human beings; otherwise there would be no such feeling. God was not searching for anything when he came into this world. It is only giving love, it’s not about self-fulfillment, as is the case for eros”, Dr. Edwards explained. However, Dr. Edwards said that it is in fact the sexual connotation of eros – and not its intimation of selfishness – that accounts for the substitution of agape in biblical texts. But in Saint Augustine’s Confessions, the two kinds of love work together in synergy.

In the search for a different word, other terms were also discussed. The Greek word philia is used to describe the love between equals. It is often translated as friendship, but can also be applied to the love between a child and parent. Nonetheless, it is not applicable for the love between God and man, since each belongs to a different category of being. The Latin word amor corresponds to eros, but doesn’t necessarily imply any sexual attraction. The word dilectio is weaker than amor, and is more likely to be suited to non-personal objects of desire. It is often translated as affection, and is equivalent to philia.

The Latin word caritas is more common in the Christian tradition than in classical vocabulary. It is used as an equivalent to agape in biblical translation. Etymologically, it means lack, and is less likely than amor to express acquisitive desire. In this way we see that the best word to express the love between God and man is agape, a term that doesn’t connote any passion at all. Dr. Edwards also highlighted that the idea of carnal affection is not enough, since that feeling has to be transcended.

Going back to the Confessions, there we see that Augustine is looking for love, for objects of love. “He doesn’t actually know what his object of desire is. This was a quest for him, and not a quest for God”, the guest lecturer said. It is in this way that eros and agape can be synergic: what could first be a manifestation of eros, then eventually turned into pure love for god, a complete renouncing of physical things.

Augustine’s beliefs are often expressed in comparison with his previous convictions. The saint used to be part of the Manichaeism religion, one that had no conception of the transcendent. However, when Saint Augustine has his own experience of the divine, he can only desire the love of God, and he has to leave everything behind, because everything is inferior to that. He can see more clearly the love of God in the creations of the world.

Dr. Edwards also spoke of the revelation that Augustine shared with Monica to explain what love of God actually means. “This joint experience, an experience together of God, is very rare. The encounter with God in his vision is not described in an ordinary way, he doesn’t speak of the beautiful”, Dr. Edwards said. He then moved on to the difference in perception between Platonism and the Bible. In the Greek tradition, the highest principle is there to be reached by human beings, and is described through vision.

In the Bible, the highest principle is made manifest through hearing. “Hearing is the inescapable sense of human beings, we cannot chose whether to hear. This indicates that our relation to God is one of obedience. Love of God in Saint Augustine is not only legitimate, but also mandatory”, explained Dr. Edwards. In this way, and going back to the different terms, what we learn from the Confessions is that loving God is a matter of the correction of desire, and not the extinction of it. Hence, from a Christian point of view, fear, desire, grief and rejoicing are all appropriate feelings, provided they are aimed at the right objects.

For Saint Augustine, the mystical experience implies both obedience and God’s task for us, and this is the only way that can lead us to God himself. As regards the experience of the highest principle in the Biblical tradition, one could argue that both vision and hearing can be avoided. “However, hearing implies that one has been spoken to. One always reacts to this; not listening is also a response”, Dr. Edwards said.

The Confessions is an account of Saint Augustine’s experiences, his life. How is this knowledge of God? “Saint Augustine goes back to his memories and discovers that he can only think of himself as a creature of God. It is in this way that self knowledge is knowledge of God. Going in search of the self is acceptable so long as it is also a process of seeking God”, Dr. Edwards explained.

If we look further into the structure of similarity between Platonic philosophy and Christianity, in the former the good is not described as any known beauty, it is anonymous. There is no personal relation, one could not even address it with a proper name. In Christianity the relation between the human and the divine becomes something specific. The good now has a name and it also knows your name, you can respond to this.

The difficulty with Platonic philosophy lies in the fact that it does not support any dimension of specification; hence, it is difficult to love something that is so mysterious. We could take this comparison even further in order to understand the concept of obedience towards God. For Socrates, there is no dogma, no prescribed rules that one might follow in this search for the greater good. There is no church. In Christianity, on the other hand, one becomes good through obedience to a very specific set of rules.

In both traditions, however, the human being is understood as incomplete. It is what links us to the higher good that makes a difference. In the Greek tradition, the mediator between the human and divine spheres is that of the intellect, one is compelled to use the mind to move upwards; whereas in the Christian tradition, there is the Word, a figure of mediation, which is Christ.

This structure of comparison continued in the second lecture. Dr. Edwards began by noting that Plato did not believe that the creation of the world was a good thing. From the point of view of Christianity, God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son. “It is not possible to conceive of God, Jesus or the Church, unless we understand the concept of charity. This is why Augustine explains the Trinity”. In this way, no work is good unless it is informed by the love of the Holy Spirit. Love of God, which is self-sacrificial, is not limited to incarnation. It is manifested through the Trinity: the Father, which is memory; the Spirit, which is love; and the Son, who enables our understanding of the highest good.

Therefore, as Dr. Edwards explained, there must be a Trinitarian understanding of God. He rejected the idea of Plato that we tend toward the good, and higher knowledge, because it is in us as potentiality. The love of God, then, is an experience of those three aspects of his Being. In his Confessions, Saint Augustine explains how all three can be God, rather than separate entities. Love is a fruit of knowledge, since it is only because we have knowledge of God that we can love him. Before this knowledge comes the desire for it, which is generated by an imperfect understanding.

 by María Cruz (AY ’10, Argentina)

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