(Sorry for the light blogging this week, we just got back from Disneyland, which Augustine would surely question, but where we had a great time. Without question, my loves continue to need to be realigned.)
In book 6, Augustine moves on from questions about whether the Roman gods help their worshippers in the present life to asking whether they can help in the afterlife. Some of his opponents had suggested that the purpose of worshipping the gods is not about getting better circumstances now but about happiness after this life ends. We worship the gods because they have the power to give us eternal life. Augustine does not have much patience for this argument (after all, he only gives his refutation one short book). The gods each have their own sphere of influence and can give blessings within those spheres, but none has authority over eternal life. If none has authority over eternal life, then how can worshipping any of them help anyone gain eternal life?
“But will these authors indeed assure any man who supplicates the immortal gods that, when he asks the Lymphs for wine and they reply, ‘We have water; as Liber for wine’, he may rightly say, ‘If you have no wine, at least give me eternal life’? What absurdity could be more monstrous? If they do not try to deceive him, like the demons they are, will not these Lymphs laugh at him? It is, after all, always very easy to make them laugh. Will they no answer the suppliant: ‘O man, do you suppose that we have power over life when you have heard that we do not even have power over wine?’ It is, therefore, a most shameless folly to ask or hope for eternal life from such gods.”
As Augustine has been saying, we get some blessings in this life but those are gifts from God. If we treat the blessings as ends in themselves or as gods to be worshipped, then we are mistaking gifts for gods and neglecting the one true God. The same dynamic seems to be at play in this discussion about eternal life – if we’ve mistaken gifts for gods and still sense the pull of our souls for eternity, then we will be tempted to worship gods-who-are-not-gods for the sake of eternal life. Augustine mocks this kind of misplaced worship. We do the same thing – we receive the blessings of technology, art, government, medicine, family, even a spouse, and then we set those blessings above God, worship the medium (technology, art, government, etc) through which we receive the blessings, and ask that medium to give us eternal life. Poets talk about a kind of immortality associated with a great poem; medicine offers a longer and longer life expectancy (and even cryogenic freezing, so that you can hope to be revived); we believe that we can live on after our deaths, in our family lines; the government memorializes certain people in civic holidays and monuments. These are all gifts but nothing except the God who creates life and raises the dead can grant eternal life.
In a second important development from book 6, Augustine looks at the works of Varro and Seneca to explore different kinds of theology. Varro talks about “mythical theology”, “natural theology”, and “civil theology”. Mythical theology refers to the theology of poets and of the theatre. It is full of contradictions, inconsistencies, and immoral portraits of the gods. Natural or physical theology is the theology of the philosophers and located in the academy. Civil theology is the lived theology of the city and deals with the worship of real people in everyday life – sacrifices and worship and priests. Augustine seriously questions the division of theology into these various categories, though he seems to find the conversation useful. Mythical theology is found in civic events, natural theology is the most clear and beneficial of the three theologies but is separated from common worship, and philosophers (like Seneca) engage in civil worship for practical reasons even though they don’t agree with or believe in the worship of the common people. It seems like the ideal would be a scenario where the three theologies work together for the sake of the church. Yes? Still working out what to think of Augustine’s use of this threefold division of theology. I expect him to continue to use it. We’ll see.