Per Caritatem

According to St. Augustine, the cross disturbs all shallow optimisms—whether that of the wise (i.e. St. Augustine of Hippophilosophers) or of the hoi polloi—and challenges us with the reality of suffering and affliction that so characterizes life in this world.  Thus, the cross is a constant reminder that this world is out of joint, dislocated, and we too are disfigured, permeated with this dislocation.  When confronted with the reality of the cross, our futile attempts to construct a world of unassailable happiness are laid bare, uncovered, and exposed as delusional.    As Schuld explains,

on Augustine’s view, coming face-to-face with the harshness, the stark corporeality of the crucifixion is imperative for grasping the relational significance of Christ as mediator.  As Christ is pierced with the implacable realities of finitude, the faithful have pressed upon them their own limits as creatures…Christ must reach to the faithful in their weakness; they cannot reach him (120).

The way in which the en-fleshed, crucified-as-a-slave Christ gives himself for the turned-in-on-themselves fallen ones wreaks havoc on the classical mind.  Why?  Because God-become-Man enters fully into the messiness of life, knowing full well that his destiny involves suffering, loss, betrayal and separation from His most intimate (Trinitarian) love.  “He does not minister to and transform the lowliness of suffering from the heights of heaven; he fully descends into it.  He participates in humanity’s lowliness by becoming lowly himself” (122).  We do not ascend to God, he (con)descends to us, clothed in our frailty, stooping and lisping that we might hear, touch and feel something of his divine reality.

Unlike earthly glory, association with Christ’s glory involves entering into Christ’s humility and accepting the “shame of the cross.”  Paradoxically, the person who embraces the “shame of the cross” is transformed—ever so slowly, often imperceptibly, and always peppered with periods of repeated regressivity—and begins to sense the significance of an other-focused existence.  Unlike the knowledge of the philosophers, the resulting cross-produced self-knowledge is tempered with humility.  “The wisdom and virtues that are re-formed in light of the cross are…from the standpoint a successful world, tragic virtues:  they are shaped and moved by the painful awareness of human frailties, shortfalls, dependencies, and finitude” (121).  The cross yields wisdom, but it is a wisdom birthed through sorrow and brokenness—a non-solipsistic wisdom that awakens a desire within the transformed person to act compassionately toward others.

Embracing the “shame of the cross” moves one from the “hollowness of naïve optimism to the hope of sacrificial love” (122). As Schuld explains, the life of sacrificial love is motivated by two beliefs: (1) “God loves without reserve,” and (2) his “boundless love is founded on sheer mercy rather than human merit” (122).  When these two beliefs grip the heart, they protect the believer from the twin threats of self-deceptive arrogance and the downward spiral of hopelessness.  Our need for others once again comes to the fore—to be is to be in relation to an Other and others. “The solidarity of the community, Augustine reminds his followers, depends on individual and collective remembrances of these relational insights and on their reenactment in the concrete deeds of mercy.  The constant interweaving of sacrifice and compassion knits the entire community together” (122). The solidarity created through sacrificial love among the believing community does not override the solidarity of all human beings in Adam; the latter, though fallen, still retain their status as bearers of the divine image.

Next, Schuld discusses the role of confession in the believing community.  Augustine’s own confessions and reflections can be seen as a form of “sacrifice” that is “meant to nourish … bonds of social solidarity” (123).   When confession is understood in a “self-emptying” way, it fulfills two functions for the community:  First, it keeps one thankful and mindful of his/her need for God’s mercy and sustaining power, thus encouraging a mindset that protects one from both despair and arrogance. Second, “[a]s a public activity, it disturbs the pride of others” (123).  Confession marks Augustine as an anti-(Greek) hero.  Augustine’s own (ongoing) confessions reveal his continued moral, spiritual, and cognitive struggles not simply prior to but also following his radical embrace of Christ as narrated in book VIII of the Confessions.  Augustine’s honesty and open confession of his own failings help to remind the community of their finitude and relational dependence.  In this way, Augustine’s life of non-glorification serves as an anti-heroic model, which “punctures the pretensions of his fellow Christians” (124).

Rather than repeat common (post)modern (mis)interpretations of Augustine and Foucault—interpretations that tend to flatten Augustine through caricature and reduce Foucault to a spokesperson for a social determinism—Schuld takes seriously Augustine’s ethic of humility, believing that this will enable one to better understand Foucault’s critical value (124). Schuld is not advocating an uncritical acceptance of either figure; however, she believes that we must evaluate the personal successes and failures of each thinker, as well as the socio-cultural trends and thought patterns that shaped them by engaging and analyzing their own critical reflections (124).

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