Monday, July 5, 2004

Christian Heritage - July 5 - The Impact of Belief

"God gave human beings the ability to believe in him: it is natural for them to do so. Indeed it is against nature for them not to believe in God, for disbelief arose not through God's creation but through the willful violation of his commandment. This deprived them of spiritual health and clarity of vision, so that all they could do by their own free will was increase their blindness and moral frailty: they could not rid themselves of it. Our omnipotent Creator, however, can for the glory of his name, give unbelievers such enlightenment and healing as to enable them not only to believe but even, through the grace of faith, to attain immortality and a life of incorruptibility. Then, having received grace upon grace, they will be quite incapable of sinning and will be able joyfully to see what they believed in.

"Hence the words of faith that ring out in the psalm: I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Therefore, although in creating human nature God did not intend it to be marred by sin, he can still by his omnipotent goodness heal that marred nature through grace. God heals and enlightens the human will, so that it comes naturally to people to believe in him. Faith then is possible for human beings, but only through the grace of God."

Fulgentius of Ruspe (AD 468-533), Ep. XVII episcoporum 46: CCL 91A, 599

Fulgentius was the bishop of Ruspe in northern Africa, a faithful disciple of Augustine (also a North African bishop) and the best theologian of his time.

This is a very turgid, but rich, passage. In many ways it speaks for itself. But there are a few things I would like to emphasize.

1) Although Augustine is often satirized or boxed-in as an overly juridical, ethical theologian, I think Fulgentius's study of him shows a richer theology. To be sure, Augustine, as is typical for Western theologians, focused quite a lot on the juridical, legal aspects of sin and salvation. But I think this emphasis is often excessively (and polemically) contrasted with the more "therapeutic" emphasis of Eastern theology. Not only does even a basic understanding of Augustine's personal spirituality soften this sharp contrast, but a wide reading of his corpus reveals plentiful discussion of the "medical" aspects of our fallenness.

Contrary to the popular caricature of Augustine's view of original sin, God doesn't simply pretend we really committed the sin of Adam. Rather, Augustine means that God designed the human race to be of such mystical and unbreakable unity that we are punished as a sheer, ethical consequqnce of lacking a good that we should have to merit anything from God. God does not condemn us because we actually personally sinned in Adam, but rather because Adam's federal status over the human race has deprived all his descendants -- you and me and grandma -- of a fundamental spiritual virtue, an inherent blindness towards God, that deprives us ipso facto from receiving anything but a lack of His total grace. In other words, lacking the ability and inclination to seek God or receive His grace without His grace separates us ipso facto from the life of God, as enjoyed via the internal beatific vision of Him that Adam and Eve knew, and which all Christians one day shall enjoy again.

2) The blindness which Fulgentius speaks of reminds me of the basic theme of vision in Dante's Commedia (aka Divine Comedy). If you can look past the recurring, and usually confusing, discussion of 14th-century Italian politics, the Commedia simply a breathtaking work. I was nearly breathless, at a level somewhere between my subconsciousness and consciousness, by the vision of the circulating celestial chorus in the Paradiso. The traveller, like every person, gained strength as he received more and more of that beatific light, a light that spins the universe. He had to bear a cross -- specifically, to crawl upside down into the devil's icy anus -- but he ultimately reached the glorious peak of the mountain of purgatory. As you may know, people usually focus on the gory, nightmarish, literalistic nature of the contrapasso retribution in the Inferno and the contrapasso penance in the Purgatorio. I, however, could not help but pay more attention to the cheerier, climactic theme of the whole Commedia: God's love is light and it is a light that literally makes the whole world go around.

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