A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 4: Augustine

As I mentioned last week, the academic dean of the secondary literature on existentialism, Walter Kaufmann, points to the Christian theologians St. Augustine and Blaise Pascal as early examples of existentialist thought. He does so in a rather unhelpful and patronizing way:

If we look for anything remotely similar [to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground] in the long past of European literature, we do not find it in philosophy but, most nearly, in such Christian writers as Augustine and Pascal. Surely, the differences are far more striking even here than any similarity; but it is in Christianity, against the background of belief in original sin, that we first find this wallowing in man’s depravity and this uncompromising concentration on the dark side of man’s inner life.

Kaufmann thus manages not only to slight Augustine and Pascal as thinkers—in what sense are their writings not philosophy?—but gives only the vaguest reasons for their influence on Notes from Underground. My task in this post is to expand on Kaufmann’s assertion, to demonstrate exactly why Augustine belongs in the canon of proto-existentialist writers. I will make the case for Pascal next week, when I discuss existentialist apologetics.

St. Augustine is (quite rightly) claimed as a forebear of such disparate traditions as Thomism and Calvinism, so there shouldn’t be too much harm in adding existentialism to this list, so long as we acknowledge that he, like all great thinkers, contains multitudes, and that Charles Taylor and John Piper have as much of a claim on him as Karl Barth and Paul Tillich do. (I’ve even heard him called the father of postmodern semiotics, so maybe Roland Barthes also gets a slice of the pie.)

Augustine’s most important book for existentialist thinkers is indisputably his Confessions, often called the world’s first autobiography and certainly an innovation in theological technique. The book is a work of serious philosophy—no doubt many readers decline to finish the book once they reach the abstract speculation on memory in Book X—but it is also intensely personal. The saint decides here that he cannot tell the story of God without simultaneously telling his own story. He treats theology, in other words, as something other than an academic discipline—he treats it as something that is inextricably bound to his own day-to-day life.

St. Paul did this, too, of course—his letters collected in the New Testament depend on the story of his life and his conversion in order to make their theological point—and yet there is no doubt that for Paul, his story was to come second to the story of Christ. The difference for St. Augustine is that to tell the one story, he has to tell the other—there can be no abstraction, no depersonalization. Frederick Buechner says that “All good theology is autobiography”—this assertion is never more true than it is in Augustine.

And yet it’s not just a method that Augustine offers to later existentialist thinkers. There are two main ideas that existentialists take more or less directly from Augustine: (a) the so-called “God-shaped hole,” utilized mostly by Christian existentialists; and (b) the nothingness of evil, utilized by nearly everyone, but Sartre in particular. (These are not Augustine’s only contributions to existentialist thought—Heidegger takes his notion of “curiosity” directly from the Confessions, for example—but they are the two most notable.)

Christian existentialism begins, for all intents and purposes, with the first paragraph of the Confessions:

“You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised” (Ps. 47:2): “great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable” (Ps. 146:5). Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being “bearing his mortality with him” (2 Cor. 4:10), carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you “resist the proud” (1 Pet. 5:5). Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your own creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

Augustine sees in human beings an innate religious longing, an undeniable pull toward the source of their being, that is, the God of the Bible. As I will demonstrate in my post on apologetics, this puts the arguments for God’s existence on entirely existential grounds. Christian theologians of all traditions will latch onto the last sentence of this paragraph, but existentialists in particular love it. Pascal does so most famously—“there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present” (Pensée 425)—but nearly every existentialist theologian describes this longing, even if, like Karl Barth, they say the religious impulse is equally matched by a complete inability to find God on one’s own.

The result of this religious instinct is clear, in that Augustine’s philosophical methodology follows directly from it. Philosophy becomes a chance to encounter the God for whom his heart longs, and early on in the book Augustine asks a series of philosophical questions with serious relational ramifications:

Tell me, God, tell your suppliant, in mercy to your poor wretch, tell me whether there was some period of my life, now dead and gone, which preceded my infancy? Or is this period that which I spent in my mother’s womb? On that matter also I have learnt something, and I myself have seen pregnant women. What was going on before that, my sweetness, my God? Was I anywhere, or any sort of person? I have no one able to tell me that—neither my father nor my mother nor the experience of others nor my own memory. But you may smile at me for putting these questions. Your command that I praise you and confess you may be limited to that which I know.

Philosophy thus becomes a special sort of prayer, a desperate attempt to contact the God behind all things. We see the same attitude even in non-Christian theologians, such as Martin Buber, whose I and Thou operates on much the same principle. It’s also related to Augustine’s use of Scripture, which is intensely personal and which begins what Robert McQuilken derisively calls the “existential hermeneutic”: “the existential approach claims that the life-situation of the interpreter plays a formative role in the meaning of any communication.” This hermeneutic very clearly begins with the Confessions, though McQuilken does not acknowledge it.

Augustine’s other contribution to existentialism is a bit more abstract, though he still builds it out of the autobiographical materials of his own life. While talking about the sins of his youth, he marvels, nearly offhand, that “evil has no existence except as a privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being.” This is a heavy statement, one that Sartre will expand on sixteen centuries later in Being and Nothingness. If evil is nothing but a privation of the good, it is roughly congruent to what Sartre calls “nothingness,” the non-Being that infuses all being on this earth. If evil has no substance of its own, then it must exist at the heart of every substance other than God.

Sartre, obviously, does not agree with most of Augustine’s assumptions—including, of course, the existence of God and probably “good” and “evil” as categories—but it’s hard to argue that his discussion of nothingness does not proceed more-or-less directly from Augustine’s discussion of the same topic. The difference between the two thinkers is ultimately the difference between religious existentialism and atheistic existentialism, which is to say that the former believes in a Being wholly without nothingness that will, presumably, one day banish nothingness from our universe and make us all what we are rather than what we are not.

0 comments