Ice Bucket Challenges and St Augustine

Ice bucket challenges have raised awareness of, and funds for, an illness that comparatively few people know much about, but I have to admit they leave me cold (no pun intended). I think that is because I believe one should help others whenever one can with ‘time, treasure or talent’, as the case may be. I don’t see why one shouldn’t have fun into the bargain, but wasting fresh water and energy to make ice does strike me as a little daft. St Augustine, whose feast we keep today, had some wise things to say about being charitable. For example,

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.

or this

Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.

If, like me, you are averse to the notion of having icy water poured over your head, you could take to heart these two sentences of St Augustine and give as much as you can to as many as you can, starting with the needy around you. It isn’t always a material need that has to be met, but a spiritual, intellectual or emotional one. Scope for all!

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The Price of Peace

The price of peace is letting oneself be taken for a coward, a fool, even someone who secretly favours the enemy — whoever or whatever the enemy may happen to be. Being a pacifist is not the same as being a wimp. It means that one can never have the golden glow of feeling heroic, that one has made a difference or done the ‘right thing’ as often conceived. It means a different kind of anguish, one that no warlike activity can relieve; and it is an anguish many must be experiencing today as the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria grows ever closer. Most of us want peace and are prepared to defend it; but that is not the same thing as seeking to impose our ideas about peace on others. Whether we are pacifists, believing that war is never justifiable, or whether we are reluctant fighters, believing war must only ever be a last resort, the situation in Syria calls for some clear, cool thinking about ourselves as well as what we think is happening there. Emotional muddle, soundbite theology and Walter Mitty fantasies are not the best preparation.

We might begin by thinking about what is called the Just War Theory. St Augustine, whose feast we celebrate today, believed that the only just reason for going to war was the desire for peace. St Thomas Aquinas later elaborated on this so that, in his view, three conditions must be met for any war to be called just:

  1. Legitimate authority, with the duty of preserving the common good, must declare the war;
  2. there must be just cause;
  3. the warring party must have the right intention, so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.

To these many would now add that war should always be the last resort, when all other means of resolving differences or righting wrongs have failed; that there should be proportionality, so that whatever good may be achieved is not outweighed by the harm that will result; and that there should be a reasonable probability of success.

I am not sure how a missile strike against Syria measures up against these, but I hope our politicians will think very seriously indeed. President Obama’s talk of a red line being crossed if chemical weapons were used must, in retrospect, look unwise. Men, women and children have been dying as a result of the bloodshed in Syria for two years. The manner of their deaths has been different, but it is surely the fact that they have been killed, rather than the weaponry used to kill them, that is significant. Are the conditions for a just war being met? Can they be met? If the West acts now against Syria, the conflict will escalate. War in the Middle East will quickly spin out of control and mean war elsewhere. The consequences are too horrible to contemplate. If the price of peace is to be thought a coward, the price of an unjust war — perhaps any war — is, quite simply, death.

Note: for the record, I am totally opposed to Western military intervention in Syria and pray that a peaceful solution may be found.

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Beauty ever Ancient ever New

Those who don’t read St Augustine (whose feast is today) tend to associate him with one thing, and one thing only: his views on sexuality and sin. The more learned may concede that his defence of original sin and his (to us) skewed view of sexual desire had much to do with his battle with Julian of Eclanum, a Pelagian bishop largely forgotten today; but for most people Augustine remains someone who was hostile to pleasure and severe, not to say completely cranky, about sex.

It is not my intention to defend Augustine against his critics, but there is one aspect of his teaching, often overlooked, which to me speaks volumes about the man: his conception of beauty. Augustine was heavily influenced by the neoplatonists, especially Plotinus, and made a sharp distinction between the creation of God (ex nihilo) and the creation of artists (ex materia). God’s beauty emanates out to natural things through his creation, which was originally without any beauty (cf Confessions, 12.3).  The earth occupies the lowest form of beauty. Things become more beautiful as they possess more form; God is supremely beautiful because only God possesses perfect form. And from this supremely beautiful God we derive rhythm, which is so important to mathematics, music and poetry. (cf De Musica) The wonderful thing about this rhythm, which is eternal and immutable, is that it can only be discovered by human beings, never invented.

For Augustine, unity is a necessary element of beauty. Hence, the Church is beautiful because she is united. Equality (or likeness) is another necessary element; and the Church is beautiful because she mirrors her Spouse. Number, proportion and order are also elements of this beauty (cf Of True Religion), for he maintains that ‘in all the arts it is symmetry [proportion] that gives pleasure, preserving unity and making the whole beautiful’ and ‘everything is beautiful that is in due order.’

Where beauty is concerned, I think I am an unregenerate Augustinian and I’m grateful to him for helping me not merely to experience beauty but to think about it and see yet more beauty. A mathematical equation, a musical phrase, a line of poetry, a brushstroke, a fold of the hills: all can speak to us of the beauty of God. But perhaps most eloquent of all is the human person — and, paradoxically, it is Augustine, the north African saint allegedly responsible for all our current anxieties about sex and marriage, who helped us see that.

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