Confessions 7:10

St. Augustine claims to discover something within himself:

I entered, and with the eye of my soul (such as it was) saw above the same eye of my soul, above my mind, the Unchangeable Light. Not this common light, which all flesh may look upon, nor, as it were, a greater one of the same kind, as though the brightness of this should be much more resplendent, and with its greatness fill up all things. Not like this was that light, but different, yea, very different from all these. Nor was it above my mind as oil is above water, nor as heaven above earth; but above it was, because it made me, and I below it, because I was made by it. He who knows the Truth knows that Light; and he that knows it knows eternity. Love knows it. O Eternal Truth, and true Love, and loved Eternity!

You are my God

We could approach this is as a doctrine, but it would be tiresome. Why not approach it as an empirical claim about what one finds by an interior search? This calls for a different sort of response, a different kind of analysis.

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8 Comments

  1. Beth said,

    September 28, 2010 at 6:34 am

    I don’t know exactly what you mean by interpreting this as doctrine. This seems to be a lived experience of the God which doctrine affirms, but not doctrine itself. It seems to me that experience is a valid source of theological reflection only when it conforms to doctrinal positions, thus we can use Augustine’s own experience to reflect theologically, without collapsing that experience into a doctrinal claim.

    • Robert King said,

      September 28, 2010 at 11:08 am

      The question, if I understand our host rightly, is whether such an experience is a valid source of scientific reflection. It is, after all, as real an experience as observing a chemical reaction or intuiting a mathematical relation between certain events.

      I think the very fact that we can ask questions about non-empirical (meaning, non-sensible and non-quantifiable) events is evidence of the existence and importance of things beyond the limits of empirical science.

      • September 28, 2010 at 4:36 pm

        I oppose “empirical” to “innate”, that is, it is the doctrine that all human thought arises from sense experience and requires a necessary reference to it whenever in act. The other school, with a fine tradition from Plato to Descartes to Kant to the 20th century idealists- teaches that some ideas are not gathered from experience, but are infused from without or somehow possessed prior to experience. Later on, Empiricism became more restricted, but this only makes it a subset or more narrow species of the broader Empiricism that was accepted by, say, Aristotle and St. Thomas. Taken in this way, the ideas that we form from our experience of ourselves, from turning within our own intellects, are Empirical, even if they are not publicly verifiable.

        What you are saying might be better said by saying that what we now call science cannot exhaust all that we experience- that is, the narrower sense of “Empirical” can never exhaust the broader and more ancient sense of “Empirical”.

      • Robert King said,

        September 28, 2010 at 6:14 pm

        Yes, I was using “empirical” in the restricted sense of contemporary “science”. I’ve usually heard the term “realism” used to describe what you call “broad empiricism” from “idealism” and the way I’ve used “empiricism.”

        In any case, I think we mean roughly the same thing, in that Augustine’s experience is indeed a real experience, yet is treated as irrelevant or illegitimate by most contemporary scientists.

    • September 28, 2010 at 4:28 pm

      What I mean by taking it as a doctrine is to read the quotation and respond to it by saying “Ah yes, this is the Augustinian theory of illuminationism. This doctrine proved very influential to the Scholastics in Franciscan thought, though it was a point of contention and (to some extent) redefinition by the Dominican School, and Descartes adopts the doctrine in his Meditations to…” I find this sort of reading tiresome, and I don’t think I’m the only one. You can read it however you want. It’s a free country ‘n all, and we postmodern people aren’t exactly going to start demanding that everyone read the same thing in the same way (especially if its “religious”).

  2. Patmos Pete said,

    September 28, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    The third message from heaven…

    If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

  3. Vetdoctor said,

    September 29, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    I’m probably drifting off topic but I was just thinking today that if there were such a thing as an atheist mystic Imight take atheism a little more seriously but it seems atheism at its heart is cut off from anything outside of itself.

  4. PatrickH said,

    September 30, 2010 at 5:35 am

    Sam Harris, the first of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism, is very sympathetic to “spirituality” and “mysticism”, and has even gone so far as to express agnostic sentiments on the question of the survival of consciousness after death. His position on these matters has cost him some stature in the NA movement. He has no sympathy for Christian mysticism, however, and his version of “mysticism” is heavily influenced by Buddhism. Though Harris is not a Buddhist, he practices, with apparent committment and intensity, a form of “non-denominational” Buddhist meditation.

    Harris really is different from Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett. Almost, in his way, an atheist mystic. Though I have doubts about the authenticity of his atheism.


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