Of Fathers and Newborn Infants

This is the season when we traditionally celebrate LIFE under the symbol of the newborn child.  The thought of newborn life immediately conjures the image of the family with loving father and mother. The following reflection is taken from a work in progress on the Reformation.  It highlights the anomalies that the Augustinian view-of-the-world presented for the Christian imagination at the beginning of the 16th century … .

Augustine’s worldview

Augustine became Christian at a time when no one doubted that at the end of their individual life there would be a private judgment which would determine the eternal destiny of their “soul:” happiness in heaven, or eternal punishment in hell.  For many people those assumptions are with us to this day.  But in the fourth century they represented a significant change from an earlier Christian view, as recorded in the New Testament: that Jesus’ return was imminent and that he would restore the reign of justice for all on a transformed earth.  Originally there was no talk of immortal souls, heaven or hell, no particular judgment; persons existed after death only temporarily, awaiting their flesh and blood resurrection in a new universe.  The “paradise” anticipated was the human body immortalized by immersion in Christ’s resurrection living on this earth, a material world made completely friendly to humankind.  There was no thought of any world other than this one.

By Augustine’s time that had all changed.  It had become increasingly clear that Christ was not coming any time soon; the immortalized body on a transformed earth had ceased being a realistic expectation.  Christians had come to believe that what was important was not the body but the “soul.”  “God” weighed the moral worth of individual souls without bodies and consigned them to live forever as souls in either bliss or torment in another world ― a world of spirits, minds and ideas familiar to the followers of Plato that would have been foreign to the Jewish followers of Jesus.  This “God” was identified as Jesus.  He had been elevated to Pantocrator (the all-ruler) less than a century before Augustine by Constantine’s Council at Nicaea in 325.  His “mercy” notwithstanding, the “Judge of the living and the dead” was obligated by the order of the universe to see that righteousness was satisfied.

Augustine was convinced that because of the dignity of the office, an insult to “God,” just like an insult to the emperor, was a major crime regardless of how unimportant the offense or how willing the person insulted was to forgive it.  Such insult was a threat to the social order.  Dignity had to be restored.  The juridical interpretation of Adam’s disobedience as a case of laesa majestas1  was clearly in the background and essential to Augustine’s theory of redemption.  Augustine’s Roman “God” could not simply dismiss the offense.  The insult to God was so heinous that the entire human race not only lost its original immortality and was condemned to die because of what Adam did, but each and every human individual born thereafter carried the guilt of the crime and was condemned to eternal punishment — hell — just for being born of Adam’s “seed.”  That included newborn infants.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, while also acknowledging the literalness of the Genesis account, the expulsion from the garden, the loss of immortality, etc., never believed that “God” imputed the guilt of Adam’s sin to all of humankind or that all were condemned to hell for it.  That little added detail was the brilliant stroke of the Roman Augustine and it insured that Adam’s sin and the need for baptism would be applied personally to each and every individual across the face of the earth.  It theologically justified the practice of infant baptism already being promoted in the late fourth century as more than a pious practice.  Augustine claimed it was necessary; for the “God” that Augustine painted was obliged to send even innocent infants to hell if they died without baptism.  It was another stone in the foundational claim that “outside the Church there is no salvation” — a critically important and very attractive “doctrine” for the managers of the religion of the Roman Empire.  It provided justification for requiring that everyone be “Catholic,” an imperial demand intended to establish the social harmony that was essential if the Romans were going to maintain control over such a vast and culturally disparate conglomeration of conquered peoples.  Constantine had been quite explicit about what he expected from his imperial religion.

But it was also hugely influential in portraying the kind of “God” that Western Christians imagined they would meet at the end of their lives.  It belied any claim that Augustine’s “God” was merciful.  What intensity of hatred must this “God” harbor toward us to even think of anything so utterly inhuman as sending innocent babies to hell just for being born human?  This “God” had to be a monster.  Augustine insisted on the damnation of unbaptized infants to the end of his life.

Augustine’s “God” was internally inconsistent.  Consider: “God” was forced to honor the requirement that there be just retribution for and restoration of lost divine dignity; but because he “loved” humankind, Augustine said, “God” devised a clever plan that would circumvent the death sentence and restore human beings to their original immortality.  That plan was our salvation through the death of Jesus whose act of obedience on the cross paid in full the debt owed to “God” in justice, and thus freed the human race from punishment and “God” from wrath.  Augustine’s infinitely merciful all powerful “God” who is unable to forgive is simply incoherent, if not self-contradictory.

As you might expect, this divine plan was perceived as love only by Augustine and other likeminded Romans.  For most others, like late mediaeval Christians, the fact that “God” was bound to the demands of this arbitrary “dignity-as-justice” cultural obligation and could not be moved to simply dismiss the charge for a  humanity that was pleading with “him” for forgiveness … a “God” who would even punish innocent babies … was a clear indication that their “God” did NOT love them.  And in fact most mediaeval Christians were terrified of “God” and some, like Luther, even admitted that they “hated” him.[2]  The loving fathers that they knew, like the one in Jesus’ parable, forgave their prodigal sons.  The open armed father running to embrace his wastrel son was Jesus’ own image of “God,” an image that Augustine somehow missed.  Augustine was so focused on the standard picture of punishment and sacrificial atonement that had become central to the Christian view of the world that Luke’s parable was unable to shake him out of his obsessions.  Jesus’ “prodigal father” was a far cry from Augustine’s insulted emperor.  Jesus’ “God” and Augustine’s “God” were two very different kinds of “father.”

Augustine’s so-called “God” demanded the death of his own son to compensate for his lost dignity.  Imagine the parable of the Prodigal Son being re-told in Augustinian terms:  As the repentant son approached home “… while he was still far off, his father sent his servants to arrest him, and bring him to him in chains.  And he said to him, you have dishonored me and wasted your inheritance.  You have become so dissolute that you are now incapable of doing what it would take to make it up to me.  So I will take your upright brother who has been obedient to me throughout and I will subject him to mutilation and torture and a slow agonizing death in your place so that his steadfast obedience will re-establish respect for me in the eyes of your brothers and sisters, who have become miscreants because of your bad example.  His death will be the salvation of this family.”  Preposterous!  That people ever bought such nonsense, and that even the Reformers, despite having declared that scripture was their only source of information about “God,” continued to imagine such a “God,” speaks to the Augustinian conditioning to which all had been subjected.  Mediaeval Christians were inured to the sadistic violence of the patriarchal Roman system rationalized for them by Augustine.  They considered it “normal.” They had been programmed by the religious practices and beliefs rooted in imperial antiquity that had dominated the Mediterranean world since time immemorial, and Augustine had made it all make sense.

And to make the situation even worse it was all pure conjecture.  The full story with all these bizarre interconnections had never been put together before Augustine.  He was a master at exactly this kind of thing, as we saw from his conversion.  It was a triumph of the synthetic imagination.  Augustine wove it all together: his own personal life experience, current Church belief and practice, a Genesis story with his own personal spin, and the juridical and cultural customs of the Greco-Roman overlords whose slave-based empire was driven by torture, mutilation and, quite specifically, execution by crucifixion.  But even the Roman emperors who punished those who displeased them could still be moved to pardon and forgive.  In that respect they had more freedom and moral depth than the pseudo-“God” of Augustine’s paranoid imagination who apparently had to obey the law of laesa majestas in support of the established order whether he wanted to or not

And then, for Augustine to call “God’s” planned sacrificial death of his own son, “mercy,” was a psychopathic inversion that served to justify the punitive violence that has characterized religion, governance and the relationship among peoples in the lands of the Christian West since that time.  Augustine’s “theology” was little more than a narrative that mirrored and justified the violent autocracy of the Roman Empire.  That his sketch of “God’s” character was familiar to Roman subjects from their experience of punitive authority not only gave it plausibility, but it ultimately justified the way things were.  This has been the fundamental import of western Christianity ever since.  It is the handmaiden of empire and “empire” has been written into its doctrinal configurations since the fourth century.

Luther had been thoroughly imbued with this mindset and not even his new awareness of “God’s” gratuitous donation of salvation by faith could extirpate the violent punitive sadism embedded in this imagery.  It was Augustine’s “God” that had become the unquestioned horizon of mediaeval western Christendom and, as for everyone else who took religion seriously, it had become part of Luther’s idea of “normalcy.”

Luther put it on public display on more than one occasion.  In 1524 when the German peasants rose up against the oppression of their overlords, Luther called on the armed nobility to pitilessly slaughter the “evildoers.”  This is from his second letter on the Peasant Uprising:

Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or diabolical than a rebel.  It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.[3]

And later, when the Jews failed to see the “truth of the Gospel” as he had newly revealed it and did not convert, he called for their enslavement and expulsion from Germany.  His admonition for the treatment of the Jews written in 1543 three years before he died, called for

Firstly, that their synagogues and schools should be burned down and what will not burn should be razed and covered with earth, that no man will ever see a stone or cinder of it again … next, that their houses should be broken and destroyed the same way … Thirdly that all their prayer books and Talmudists … should be taken from them … Fourthly, that their rabbis should be forbidden to teach from now on, at the risk of life or limb … Fifthly, that escort and road should be completely prohibited to the Jews, … Sixthly that they should be prohibited from usury and all their cash and fortunes in silver and gold should be taken from them … seventhly, that young strong Jewish men and women should be given flail, axe, hoe, spade, distaff, spindle, and be left to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows … For as all can see, God’s wrath over them is so great that gentle mercy will only make them worse and worse, and harshness little better.  So away with them at all costs.[4]

That the Third Reich sought to exterminate the Jews was a Christian inheritance, not some deformity of the Aryan brain.  I don’t bring this up to indict Luther or Protestantism; these attitudes were common throughout Christian Europe north and south of the Alps.  But it gives a very clear picture of the violent and punitive attitude considered “Christian” in obvious conflation with a “God” of righteous violence that Augustine’s theology had justified.

Augustine’s theology conformed to and served to confirm the ongoing upper-class subversion of Jesus’ message, effectively harnessing it to the goals of the Roman system.  The reversal of Jesus’ image of God — from an empowering, liberating, loving and forgiving father, to a pusillanimous, self-involved, legally rigid, implacable mirror-image of the narcissistic autocrats who ruled Rome — immediately entailed a corresponding reversal in the attitudes required for an authentic relationship to “God.”  Augustine’s Emperor-“God” demanded obeisance, obedience, acquiescence of mind and behavior to his will.  Quid pro quo: “you will obey or you will be punished.”

Jesus’ “Father,” in contrast, asked us for something else entirely: insight into his self-donating gift of creation which we celebrate symbolized in newborn life … and a generous forgiving love for one another, recognizing his image and consciously attempting to imitate his generosity.

The difference could not be more profound.

 

[1] Laesa majestas was a juridical category that judged the seriousness of a crime according to the status of the person offended.  Status always had to do with one‘s position in the body politic and so the offense had the overtones of treason.

[2] Luther explicitly admitted that in the Preface to the First Volume of his Latin Writings (1545) (reprinted in Hans Hillerbrand, The Protestant Reformation, (revised) , Harper Perennial, NY  (1968) 2009, p.29)

[3] Martin Luther, Against the Murdering and Robbing Hordes of Peasants, 1525, reprinted in Michael Baylor, The German Reformations and the Peasants’ War, Bedford/St.Martins, Boston/NY 2012, p.131

[4] Martin Luther On the Jews and their Lies, 1545, reprinted in Oberman, Luther, Yale U.Press, 1989 tr Swartzbart, p.290

Advertisements

4 comments on “Of Fathers and Newborn Infants

  1. Joris Heise says:

    Yes, though one might find picayune elements to argue about. It has been the great fortune of these latter days to a) discover the “mythological” sense that created the Bible and the Gospels in particular–an understanding beyond the traditional analogical, anagogical, etc. senses oof the ancients and much of medieval exegsis, including Augustine b) re-discover the Gospels and the rest of the Bible as presenting a non-conformist and healthy dis-equilibrium in the understandings of God, the “Son of God,” etc. The Hubble universe has demolished the heaven “up there,” while scholarships continues to show that our “Christian” understandings of justice/ hell/judgment/afterlife was a common belief prior to Jesus, but not one that a Jesus of His time would accept. Tsedaqah is a salvific Hebrew understanding of God, the corrective need to guide people onto the “way”–not a juridical notion a la Rome.
    Thanks for the thoughtful exposition.

  2. I think this is a superb post, Tony. It gets to the core of why I cannot voluntarily consider myself a Catholic. Even the modern phase “cultural Catholic,” which I hear so often from those who no longer accept the bulk of RC doctrine is seriously problematic. I continue to uncover hidden depths of that culture in my own self, and it is something that I always examine with some dread at what I will learn about myself.

    But I realize that so much of what I reject about Catholicism – really about much of Christianity – is not what early Christianity was about.

    Can the institutional church, though, ever return to the original pre-Nicea Christianity of the first centuries? Or is the concept of power which Constantine so effectively corralled too deeply entrenched? I don’t think the question is whether we can learn to serve the poor, as Pope Francis keeps saying. I don’t even think the most basic questions are gender equality or birth control or even whether or not we humans have eternal souls. The question is whether the institution can give up the attempt to coerce people through threat of punishment, either in this life or in the “next.”

  3. mj7blackwell says:

    Beautifully, clearly and forcefully said. Thank you.

  4. Ian Fraser says:

    Along with the first three commentators, Tony, I thank you for a clearly stated, and very necessary, post which underlines the chasm of difference between the concept of God as father from Jesus’ parables and other teachings, and God as father from Augustine, the Rome-dominated Council of Nicea, and much of traditional Catholic teaching.

    The Vatican II re-focus on the actual words of the New Testament instead of on the interpretations of the Fathers of the Church, was a breath of fresh air which surprisingly survived long enough to be re-invigorated by Pope Francis in his public utterances. No, I do not expect much ‘liberalisation’ from him, given that he is from South America – a very traditional church in all but its social justice stance – but at least he emphasises the sayings and actions of Jesus rather than the minutiae of church tradition.

    Cheers, Ian Fraser

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s