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Augustine longs for revelation
Augustine longs for revelation
The formal ecstasies and intellectual insights of the schoolmen are not real revelation, and Augustine knew it. In all fairness to him we must report that he would infinitely have preferred revelation to philosophy. Not only did he feel guilty about what he was doing, but it was only after long years of agonizing struggle and indecision that he at last, painfully and with heartbreaking reluctance, closed the book on revelation or recognized that he could not open it. What a difference there is, he cries in the City of God, between the ambiguities of the academicians and the certainty of the Christian faith! And yet it is the Academy that he brings into the church, and without Plato, he informs us, his own conversion would never have taken place. The Confessions is the story of a man who all his life hungered for revelation—"Here are my ears, God speak to them!"—but in the end had to settle for a second best. He tells us of the founder of the state religion of heathen Rome, the great and good Numa, who though he did his best, had for inspiration to resort to hydromancy and the arts of divination. He was compelled (compulsus) to do this, says Augustine, because the poor man "had no prophet of God, nor any holy angel sent to him." Divination was a poor substitute for prophecy, yet Numa had no other choice. And was that not Augustine's position? In his quest for certainty, he tells us, he consulted the astrologers and soothsayers with a determination that moved even his superstitious friends to merriment, and he continued to seek out the astrologers even after he was a catechumen, a candidate for baptism, in his thirties.10 All his life he snatched at straws, condoning such practices as the use of sortes (divination by the random opening of the scriptures) and the visiting of oracles as being, if not desirable, at least better than nothing. The yearning of Augustine for real revelation and the inadequacy of all substitutes is beautifully brought out in his last conversation with his mother. Here these two saintly people bare their souls, and what they both wish for above all else is a real revelation: what is it like when God really speaks, they ask each other, when he alone speaks, not by any intermediary "but by himself, that we may hear his word not through any tongue of flesh nor angel's voice, nor in the sound of thunder, nor in the dark riddle of the similitude; . . . but we might hear the very One whom we only love in these other things, that we might hear his very self without these, . . . and if this thing could be continued on . . . so that life might be forever like that one moment of understanding for which we now sighed—would not that be 'entering into thy Master's joy?' And when shall that ever be?" In this moment of frank self-revelation Augustine admits that what he really wants is not revelation that comes by the preaching of men or even of angels, nor that comes through his laborious intellectual demonstrations, nor is the manifestation of God in nature—the voice of thunder—nor even the mystic flash of insight which both he and his mother experienced in their last conversation together, for even then they still "sighed after" the real thing and wondered what it was like.
- Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 11, references silently removed—consult original for citations.