If Christians have had an audible response to this addiction (other than “Woo hoo! Where can I get me some of that?”), it’s often been to deny the value of material possessions. Medieval Europe had monks who took vows of poverty and bishops who lived in palaces and ate on silver plates handed to them by the servants who kissed their gold rings. But what if material things were to be enjoyed without being craved? What if God wanted us to treat the goods of the world somewhat the way He wants us to treat other people, neither renouncing their value nor obsessing about controlling them?
Augustine sets out a very healthy philosophy of stuff in the Confessions. In the last post, I mentioned the importance of “turning” in the Bishop of Hippo’s autobiographical journey. Augustine says people basically live in one of two attitudes: turned toward God and turned away from God. But people don’t just turn away from God without turning toward something else; we need love and comfort and affirmation, so we have to look for them in something. If we don’t look for our meaning in the Creator, we look for it in the creation. But the things of the created world will ultimately disappoint: how could they possibly live up to the promise of substituting for God? “Turn us, O God of Hosts, show us Thy countenance, and we shall be whole. For whithersoever the soul of man turns itself, unless toward Thee, it is riveted upon sorrows, yea though it is riveted on things beautiful.” (Confessions, IV.15)
But notice that Augustine says that the things of the world may be beautiful. We cannot reasonably deny the value of the goods of this world. They’re “goods,” after all. Our only sane choice is to recognize their value and purpose while acknowledging the surpassing value of their Maker. God wants us to “have all things” and to “think on whatever is lovely,” just not at the expense of knowing Him.
For there is an attractiveness in beautiful bodies, in gold and silver, and all things; and in bodily touch, sympathy hath much influence, and each other sense hath his proper object answerably tempered. Worldly honour hath also its grace, and the power of overcoming, and of mastery; whence springs also the thirst of revenge. But yet, to obtain all these, we may not depart from Thee, O Lord, nor decline from Thy law. (Confessions, II.10)We have to interact with the world, but in doing so, we have to love, not the things, but God through the things.
If bodies please thee, praise God on occasion of them, and turn back thy love upon their Maker; lest in these things which please thee, thou displease. . . . Him let us love, Him let us love: He made these, nor is He far off. For He did not make them, and so depart, but they are of Him, and in Him. See there He is, where truth is loved. . . . The good that you love is from Him; but it is good and pleasant through reference to Him, and justly shall it be embittered, because unjustly is any thing loved which is from Him, if He be forsaken for it. (Confessions, IV.18)The best example of this via media – loving God through a proper appreciation of things rather than either denying the value of the created world or bowing down to it – comes from the life of Augustine himself. Trained as a master of rhetoric, the author of the Confessions gave up his career as a courtroom advocate, renouncing his worldly training and denying the power of language. “They’re just words,” he says. But then didn’t he turn right around and use his gift for words to teach the next sixteen centuries of Christians this very lesson – and many others besides? He who would find rhetoric must lose it.