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St. Augustine and the big picture



There’s one bit in The City of God where St. Augustine is sensible—he talks about how sin is, in the end, necessary because the world is like a large canvas; if you stood back from the painting, you’d need some “dark” patches to offset the “light”—and so sin provides the necessary counterpoint for the cosmic harmony.


A sceptic would say that this is just conjecture because nobody can look at the cosmic painting sub specie aeternitatis—for all we know, the cosmic painting is two beautiful pieces with a giant ugly brown-black slash of paint down the middle. We don’t have a God’s eye view ourselves to know that “it all harmonises in the end”.


Nevertheless, we’ll run with the conceit, because I think in life you can see how bitterness and sweetness often form, after a long enough period has elapsed, a symphony.


Where I disagree with Augustine is that he calls this situation “good”. Augustine has an obsession with “good”, as do all Christians (mainly because he was obsessed with “good”). Now, it’s important to understand that the way Augustine uses that word, the way Christians use the word, is, in effect, meaningless—because, ultimately, everything is from God and God is good; therefore, everything is good, and so nothing is good.


This is important because a Christian will hurt you and will be convinced that they have done a good thing, because, in effect, everything is good—and, in particular, everything the Church and Christians do is good.


This is independent of external views as to good/bad behaviours—hence Augustine thinks an incontinent married man who believes (sexual continence is very important to Augustine) is superior to a continent married man who does not (ergo, to be good is to be a believer, not to carry out actions that are commonly supposed to be good).


Well, I don’t think paintings are “good”. I don’t think you really say, “It’s a good painting”, like Augustine does. I think you say, it’s a beautiful painting. That sums up a balance between sweet and sour (it’s a bittersweet symphony that’s life).


God isn’t good—God is whole. He’s literally holy—he’s a hole, he’s a whole, he’s a 0. If you say God is good, it’s a pleonasm—it adds no information and is meaningless because if everything is good then nothing is good. However, if I say God is whole then that conveys actual information—because what is “unwhole” (unwholesome) is in a process whereby it finds its way back to “the other end” of God and so becomes a perfect circle (infinity).


Hence life is beautiful—and this makes sense, because Augustine’s picture analogy really says that “sin is necessary to complete the picture”; but if you say “it’s good there’s badness to complete the picture” then you have defeated the point of goodness. However, if you say that good and bad events harmonise to create a wholeness that is beautiful then what you have said makes sense, because beauty is amoral—it’s just whole and balanced, a cosmic harmony.


That’s why I subscribe to the view that the Godhead splits itself to know itself, then plays hide-and-seek down through history to find itself again, so that what is apparent “evil” or “good” just constitutes a path back to wholeness which transcends good and evil but is, in the end, beautiful. It then does that again and again in multiple iterations, multiple experiments in beauty.


Christians don’t like beauty, because it’s supposedly worldly—but beauty is God, beyond good and evil; and it’s why churches are ugly, like Soviet apartment blocks are ugly, because Christianity is based, like Communism, on Hebrew moralism and democratic ugliness—every church is a visual crucifixion, it tortures the eyes with its spire-thorn.


Augustine was a terrible moralist, but in his moralism he makes assertions that don’t make sense—and he leaves people with the perennial question, “How can a good God do bad things, and if everything is really ‘good’ in the end, then how does ‘good and bad’ mean anything?”. The answer is that it’s not about morals, it’s about wholeness—it’s about beauty, which is its own justification.



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