The Apostle Paul and Saint Augustine on a Theology of ‘Things’: Against the Horizontal

I don’t know about you, but life seems to have an almost mesmerizing ethos to it, such that it almost begins to take on certain motions. The older we get the easier it is to simply fall into patterns that have come to identify us; things that become familiar and comfortable to us (even if they aren’t the healthiest of patterns). It is easy to get lost in the motions of this life, pursuing certain ends augustine(whatever those might look like for each of us), and gravitating towards certain ‘things’ that seem to have attractiveness to them; and sometimes these things become ends in themselves, or other times become things we are grabbing onto that we think will get us to better even more desirous things. And we too easily get caught up in things instead of keeping our eye on the giver of all ‘things’ (good that is); as such we lose perspective, fall prey to patterns and things that we find identity and comfort in.

The Apostle Paul tells us how we ought to engage with this world, though, and it is odds with simply going through the motions of this life or grabbing onto the ‘things’ of this world as identity forming things. He writes,

But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, 30 those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, 31 and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away.[1]

Saint Augustine has this insight on keeping perspective as we engage with the things of this world (this is actually Matthew Levering’s commentary on Augustine’s understanding of ‘things’ res):

… Augustine therefore sets the following rule regarding things: “Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and there are others which are to be enjoyed and used.” To enjoy a thing is to cleave to it with all our heart. When we seek a thing in order to enjoy it, we make it our ultimate happiness and we consider it the resting point of our desire. If we can obtain the thing that we hope to enjoy, we think that we will be blessed and at rest, so that we will not wish to seek further things. Thus, something that is to be enjoyed must be loved strictly speaking for its own sake and not for the sake of any further good. By contrast, to use a thing is to love something but not for its own sake. When our ultimate happiness rests in something, we love other things for the sake of the thing in which our ultimate happiness rests. Other things help us to obtain our goal, and we love them in reference to that ultimate goal. When we love something but do not rest in it because it cannot make us fully happy and blessed, we love the thing in its reference to what we hope to enjoy. In other words, we use the thing on our path toward the happiness that we hope to enjoy. It is important, therefore, to know what things to enjoy and what to use. All too frequently we seek to enjoy, or place our ultimate happiness in, things that cannot bear this weight. We must learn instead to use these things rather than to cleave to them for their own sake. Otherwise we will find ourselves loving created things above God. In our journey back to our Creator God, we need the help of many things in order to reach our true goal. Augustine compares the human person to a wanderer who is attempting to return to his homeland. The wanderer needs carriages and ships to return home, but if the wanderer got attached to the journey with its carriages and ships and began to love these things more than his homeland, he would no longer want to return home. This is the situation in which many of us find ourselves; we are alienated from the homeland that would give us true happiness, because we have become attached to this world. This world is good, but it is not the infinite good for which we were made, and so it cannot give us happiness. God made it so that we, and others, can use the things in it to journey to him. By means of “the things that have been made,” we should strive for union with God’s “invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity” (Rom. 1:20)[2]

Both Paul and Augustine warn us against living horizontal lives only. They warn us about getting caught up in the motions of this life as ends in themselves, and instead admonish the wanderer to remember that this is not our home, nor are the things in it (the world); but that we should use (and even enjoy) the things of this world as if indeed they are ‘passing away’. They want us to remember that there is a transitoriness to this worldly wilderness and that we ought to work at not getting lost in it (no matter how normal or mundane that might seem or look to us as we compare our lives against those around us — this is part of the point, we should not be using this world as our standard for value or perspective, we should be looking to God in Christ alone!)

Pax vobiscum

[1] I Corinthians 7.29-31, NKJV.

[2] Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works (Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 23.

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