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We live in the age of the “nones”, those who answer “none” when asked by pollsters, “What is your religion?” “Noneism”, I suppose, is their ideology. This kind of nihilism is a dismal competitor to Christianity, but surely it is even more dismal for the multitudes who consider its bleak landscape as the be-all and end-all of existence.
If we were to look across the centuries for an inspiration to shake us out of this fatal delusion, what might we find? There is one who stands out, one who made the journey from nothing to everything after a long and arduous battle. But there is also one in our own time, among our own millennials.
Augustine of Hippo lived the life many in our wretched world are now living. He originally thought that fame, riches and love offered him happiness. But then he saw through this folly. He went to war on behalf of the Truth – and helped mould our understanding of a new alternative City, the City of God.
If the “Benedict Option” – reading it as a way of bringing Christ to a darkened world rather than misreading it as sealing us off from its wretchedness in isolating cocoons – offers a way for the modern family under siege, the Augustinian option is more personal and more attainable. It is a choice which will become a reality with the immediate assent of the subject under the influence of grace in the moment of conversion. It speaks to the anguish of our time, the anguish driving our suicide rates, our divorce rates, our hedonism and all the maladies driven by a meaningless existence. He found a world as dysfunctional as ours. But with his response, he went on to become a pillar of Christendom. In our time, another saint, Josemaría Escrivá, wrote words which summed up the truth which they embodied and wherein still lies the key to our redemption, “These world crises are crises of saints.”
Manichaeism, which beguiled Augustine as a worldly young man, is as dismal as Noneism. It could be compared to many of the lifestyle vapourings which pass for religion in our time – New Age, Scientology, moral relativism and so on. The brilliant Augustine saw in these doctrines a philosophy untainted by faith. He hoped to find a scientific explanation of nature and escape from a God who set a standard of goodness. But he was tortured by the origin of evil. Augustine and his Manichean companions explained it away just as we explain sin away, by denying the freedom on which personal responsibility is based.
But all that changed with his conversion to Christianity. To appreciate the meaning of Augustine’s life and the power of his message one has to read his Confessions. It is one of the greatest literary achievements of Western culture. There is one passage which poses the questions which we need to answer if we are to come to a redemptive understanding of the Truth. It shows that loving all the goods that come to us from God is not incompatible with loving God Himself, but is in fact the purest way to love God. It is this:
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