Last week I mentioned a modern sense of alienation as a possible cause behind certain types of conversion. I want to return to the point here briefly.
There is indeed an alienation that exists now, but we need to be careful to locate its source correctly. Is it a product of modernity? While I would not want to deny that modernity may add accidental features to man’s Verfremdungseffekt that are not found in other times and places, the sense itself is a corollary of man’s fallen nature. In this respect, it is universal, and thus demands a transcendent solution.
Augustine understood this. Early in his Confessions (1.3.3), he says to God, conligis nos: “you gather us; you collect us; you put us back together.” In back of this language is an idea of man as fragmented, scattered, or dispersed and therefore in need of God’s remaking and reunifying power (though here the language arises in the context of a rejection of Mani’s fragmented material god: nec tu dissiparis sed conligis nos).
Here, moreover, a doctrine of dispersion of divine being into material fragments, and the hope of restoration of wholeness, was central to the Manichees: ep. 236.2, `animas non solum hominum sed etiam pecorum de dei esse substantia et omnino partes dei esse arbitrantur. deum denique bonum et verum dicunt cum tenebrarum gente pugnasse et partem suam tenebrarum principibus miscuisse eamque toto mundo inquinatam et ligatam per cibos electorum suorum et per solem ac lunam purgari asseverant et, quod purgari de ipsa dei parte non potuerit, in fine saeculi aeterno ac poenali vinculo conligari’. The coincidence points to a late antique habit of thought that perceived the world-as-experienced as a place of shards and fragments, and supplemented that perception with a yearning for wholeness. A. knew Manichean, Platonic, and Christian forms of that perception and that yearning and chose to use Christian ones here, without having to abjure echoes of other forms.
In other words, for an Augustinian sensibility the “shattered” aspect of the world is not peculiar to America, late modernity, the Industrial Revolution, or anything else. It is a result of the Fall, and its solution is simply the Christian faith. The “yearning for wholeness” that was present in the late antique mind is real, but it finds its answer in Christ himself, and not in any particular organizational structure or nostalgia-inf(l)ected golden age.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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