Epiphany: Augustine the Hippo

It may be a fool’s errand to try to summarize the most influential Christian thinker (after St. Paul) in a brief blog post, but I will attempt to do so nonetheless. Perhaps Simeon the Holy Fool will intervene on my behalf and help me. I actually just learned that Simeon the Holy Fool is the patron saint of puppeteers.

If I were a puppeteer, I would purchase a puppet of a hippopotamus and name him Augustine (d. 430), or Augey for short. For my puppet show, I would introduce Augey as a talking hippopotamus from North Africa (modern-day Algeria) who traveled to Rome to teach other hippos how to speak. I would purchase another hippo with a pink ribbon in her hair, who would be Augey’s concubine and a baby hippo who would be Augey’s son, Adeodatus. Augey would first eat some manicotti, which would represent his affiliation with the Iranian-Gnostic-Christian sect Manichaeism. He would then play with some Play-Doh thus representing his interest in Neo-Platonism. The puppet show would then get a little sad when Augey loses his son and concubine. But then, another hippo, covered in ambrosia salad will give Augey a Bible. As Augey looks curiosly at the Bible, a monkey puppet will dance across the stage singing “Tolle lege! Tolle lege!” So Augey would start to read the Bible and fall in love with the Maker of all hippopotami. He would then write many books intending to help other hippos fall in love with the Maker including Confessions of a Hippo, The Happy Hippo Life, Homilies for Hippos, The Pod of God, and On the Pygmy Trinity. At the end of the show, Augey’s son Adeodatus will return to the stage along with Augey’s concubine who will be wearing a tutu.  The three of them will dance together (Fantasia-style) thus representing the eternal dance of the Trinity…

Brilliant. Thanks, Simeon.

Imago Dei

Influenced by Neo-Platonism, Augustine taught the importance of looking into “the innermost part of the self”, because there, in the human soul, one can see a mirror image of the Trinity. The soul, made up of memory, understanding and will, mirrors the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (A truly original approach to understanding the Trinity and the imago Dei within.) Memory, for Augustine, includes much more than just things remembered and the ability to remember. According to Mary T. Clark, “To think naturally or spontaneously of things implicitly known is to remember, according to Augustine. God transcends the memory but is present within it, close to the light than enlightens the memory.” (17) Augustinian memory, I would argue, is the ability and capacity to think spiritually.

One can access the imago Dei by looking within the soul because such interiority opens one up to the Trinitarian life. Augustine’s eloquent Confessions, arguably the first autobiography of the West, serves as an example of this phenomenon. In the first nine books of Confessions, Augustine describes his own life from infancy to conversion, concluding, in the tenth chapter, with a severe examination of his present spiritual state. Serving as proof that looking honestly within leads to looking towards God, Augustine’s initial self-examination crescendos, in the last three chapters, into “meditations on Scripture [and] personal reflections on time and eternity, creation and reconciliation, transfiguration and the restoration of all things in the Word of God.”(57)

Augustine begins his autobiography with one of his most famous quotes: “God, You made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” By looking inward, one discovers a mirror image of the Trinity (in one’s memory, understanding and will) thus opening one up to the Trinitarian life. Furthermore, by looking inward, one uncovers a restless heart that leads one to finally find rest in Trinitarian love.

Relation to Jews

Although the Manicheans, other Gnostic groups and even Christians held antagonistic views towards the Jews, Augustine’s view were actually relatively moderate. Of course, to modern ears, his views on the Jews are repulsive. But it is helpful to see him in his context. When it came to heresies like Pelagiansim, Arianism, Donatism, and Manichaeism, Augustine encouraged using forceful violence to eradicate these ideas, even if it meant hurting the people who followed them. However, when it came to Jews and Judaism, such violence certainly should not be used. The Jews, according to Augustine, must remain alive as “living letters of the law,” as living proof of the Torah and its prophecies about Jesus. Yet, because the Gospels held the Jews responsible for Christ’s death, they must not receive special honor. In other words, the Jews must survive, but they must not thrive.


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