“The Devil laughs because God’s world seems senseless to him; the angels laugh with joy because everything in God’s world has meaning.”
Milan Kundera watched the world of Central Europe fall under the weight of totalitarianism, over most of a century being crushed, first by the Nazis and then the Communists, with remarkably artful eyes seeing the despair of his own people and place. In his books and essays, he has written again and again of the philosophical and political burden of those years. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is his astute reading of the modern world through the eyes of the Prague Spring in the 1960s. A story of love and loves exploring the meaning of life and labor — if God is gone, if there are no windows to transcendence and truth. There are bare bottoms and more in the filmed version of the story, but always with questions about the meaning of sex without love, and slowly by slowly the realization that to make love without choosing to love is unbearable, bringing about a lightness to our being that is unsustainable.
As the story unfolds, with the tensions of life and love and longing, we hear the aching words from a woman who innocently, if naively, has opened herself to a man’s affections and desires, in her heart wanting more than he is willing to give, finally asking, “What do you care about?” Not abstract, her question is born of an intimacy without commitment, a willingness to offer oneself to another in hope — but beginning to see that being in bed together is not the same as a life together. The question Kundera asks is crucial, at least if we are to know ourselves and our world with any degree of honesty. What we care about is central to who we are, to our sense of self and of our place in society, the choices we make about anything and everything born of our answer to that question.
As contemporary as Kundera is, a modern-becoming-postmodern writer, we read him because he wrestles with the reality of the human heart, the truth of the human condition — as did the man who wrote the first autobiography ever written 1500 years earlier, which is fundamentally why we are still reading Confessions by Augustine of Hippo. In his time and place a man whose life without love came to its own sad end, a man living in the world that is really there that he was, in the very deepest way he knew he wanted more than he had known, more than his headlong pursuit of a love that became lost in lust had given him.
To love and to be loved is the greatest of gifts. But we can skew that, getting it wrong, loving the wrong people in the wrong places, forming loves that are profoundly and tragically full of the wrong things in the wrong ways. Certain that our commitments and cares fundamentally form us, one of Augustine’s great gifts was his understanding of the ordering of our loves; with insight that runs through the centuries, he knew the human heart well-enough to know that we must get our “affections” right, to love the right things in the right way, if we are to flourish as human beings.
In his magisterial The City of God, with its hundreds of pages centered on one great question — what is the nature of our life in the world? — he reflects on the words, charity (caritas), love (amor,) and fondness (diligis), arguing that in the end, nuanced as they are, they are about the same reality. Different faces, but each one a dimension of our deepest and greatest affections, of what we care most about and for. For this brilliant professor of rhetoric who became the theologian for his century and the centuries, everything does in fact “turn on” what we love and why we love what we love.
The depth and range of The City of God is astounding, page after page full of probing, thoughtful analysis of what it means to be human in the world, from beginning to end a contrast of two cities, of two ways of living in the world, the City of God and the City of Man. They are marked by a line-in-the-sand difference: one is fixed on the love of God and the other upon a love of self — and there are implications for both persons and for polities, for “me” and for “we,” realities that taken together as they must be are integrally woven together throughout the book, and our life in the world, whether we are of the 5th-century or the 21st.
In the simplest way, Confession is Augustine’s account of his life, a book-length reflection on his life, from conception on, not knowing and then painfully knowing the ins-and-outs of his days and years. With unusual self-awareness he allows us to listen in as he remembers his childhood, his adolescence, his adulthood, the story it is of one man’s pilgrimage through time. On the other hand, The City of God is a broader analysis of the larger world, one begun in the heart but one that necessarily has meaning for the public square too. In a word, it is the metanarrative that makes sense of Augustine’s narrative; or to reverse it, the narrative of Confessions takes place within the metanarrative of The City of God, Augustine finding the meaning of his story within the deeper story of Everyman and Everywoman.
To press the point. In the modernizing / postmodernizing world, there is much written about “narrative theology,” with books by gifted people articulating a vision of theological meaning that comes from the biblical narrative. I am intrigued, but have never seen it as “new.” The truest truths cannot be that, and never are. In the 5th-century Augustine was the first to set forth the biblical story of creation / fall / redemption / consummation as the Story of Scripture, of all of reality and of every human heart — a metanarrative if ever there was one. Threaded through his work we hear of human beings made “posse peccare, posse non peccare,” able to sin and able not to sin; of “non posse peccare, non posse non peccare,” not able not to sin; of “posse non peccare,” able not to sin; and finally, “non posse peccare,” not able to sin. In its uniquely Augustinian way, with his own remarkable ability to write about himself as a self — the first autobiography we know — this framework makes sense of all of us, the story it is of all of us, a searching examination of one’s choices over time, of one heart wrestling with the nature of true love as the deepest of motivations, as opposed to false love which disorders us and the world around us. It is the story of the world that was meant to be, the world that is, the world that could be, and the world that someday will be, with meaning for everyone everywhere.
Much more could be said, and while we might imagine that because of their substance Confessions or The City of God are the best of Augustine’s work, over time The Enchiridion has been more widely read, published time and again for 1500 years, becoming a catechism for the Church through the ages. “The Handbook” was born of a correspondence between a Roman businessman, Laurentius, and Augustine, the bishop of Hippo. Watching the world as he was, having no historical categories of “decline and fall” to even imagine, Laurentius was trying to make sense of his time and place, of what seemed to him the disintegration of the Roman Empire. What is happening? What does it mean? What do we believe that can make sense of this?
Augustine responded, setting forth the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, as the core commitments that give grounding for a life that can make it through the crumbling of Rome, the city and empire that promised to be “eternal.” Centuries later, though it is still a great city, at its literal heart it is a city of memories, of what was but no longer is, a glorious ruin.
The bishop wrote that it is only as we take into ourselves the convictions that come from these creedal confessions that we are able to keep on keeping on. Idea by idea, he sets forth their meaning, weaving a tapestry of belief and behavior that has stood the test of time. People all over the world are still listening, still learning.
As he moved into the final section of his letter, explicating the virtues — the commitments about life in the world that direct us to our true end as human beings — he first takes up faith, then hope, and finally love. With insight into “us” that is not surprising given his almost timeless reputation, Augustine distinguishes one from another, first this, then that, and then this. When he comes to the meaning of “love,” he retraces his steps with the other virtues, explaining their part in the whole of one’s understanding of self and the world. But then he presses in, arguing that the telos of faith and hope is love. After every other question has been asked, the most important question is this: what do you love?
For Augustine, that question probed most deeply, going to the center of who we are and why we are.
Given that I have spent the years of my life with people who are learning to live in the world, coming into the classroom of my heart in many different kinds of ways, after listening to their lives and longings as well as I can, I have offered Augustine’s question as the most critical question. At the end of an undergraduate degree, of graduate study, in fact over the years of life beyond schooling, the question for all is, “What do you love? What have you learned to love?” After we have read all the books, passed the final tests— even sometimes affirmed every creed —the question that awaits us is Augustine’s, “What do you love?” What is it that matters most to you? What is it that is most important to you? What is it that is at the center of who you are, of why you are, and of what you are going to do with your life?”
Yes, a telos.
Augustine believed that our loves shape us, for good and for not, for our flourishing and for not — because our telos forms our praxis. In Confessions he argues that “our weight is our love,” understanding that what we care most about, what is at the heart of our heart, forms and shapes us. At the end of the day, in whatever century and culture we find ourselves, it all turns on affection.
Not surprisingly, Berry’s argument that “It All Turns on Affection” threads all of this together. Everything. All of life. All of learning. All of labor. From the most personal relationships to the most public responsibilities, our affections shape our selves and our societies. It is a hard truth, a weighty reality — but Augustine knew it, and Kundera did too.
The question of what we care about is the weightiest of questions, one we ask and answer all day long, in and through the days of our lives. Learning to care about the right things in the right way is what a good life is all about — and when we miss, we miss the meaning of our lives, and of life.
(These reflections come from Dr. Garber’s forthcoming book The Weight of Love.)