November, 2007


The Human Will and Freedom

“Consider the will,” St Augustine said (City of God, XIV, 11.):

“Its choice is truly free only when it is not a slave to sin and vice. God created the human being with such a free will, but, when that freedom had been lost by Adam’s fall from freedom, the only One who could give that freedom back was the One who had the power to give it. So Truth tells us this: ‘If the Son makes you free, you will be really free’ (John 8:36) He might also have said just as well, ‘If the Son saves you, you will really be saved.’” …

Eden was both a material and a spiritual paradise, “but the joy of Eden did not last long, because of the proud, and, therefore, envious spirit who fell from Heaven’s paradise when his pride caused him to turn away from God to himself instead, and to the pleasures and pomp of tyranny, preferring to reign over his own subjects than to subject himself to God. I speak of his downfall and that of his companions, former angels of God who became the angels of this evil one….”

How very much that all sounds like what Augustine so often says!

Christ, the Son of God – God, the Creator come to earth; Christ, the One who will lead us back to God, Christ who saves us and sets us free.

And pride, the destroyer.

Pride and Arrogance

Pride: for Augustine that’s the very root of sin, its cause and its power. Not the kind of pride that makes us happy to do a good job; not the kind of pride that knows God has made us “very, very good.” Not the kind of pride that can say, with the old bumper-sticker: “I must be worth somethin’, ‘cause God don’t make junk.” Those attitudes in fact, seem more like what Augustine calls humility! Those attitudes are really truth spilling over into gratitude – like “boasting in the Lord” (I Cor 1:31).

“Arrogance” is the word some use to translate the horrible pride that Augustine speaks of here. It may, of course, start with something true – Lucifer was indeed a glorious being – but it ends not in gratitude to God but in exclusive glorification of oneself. Consider this: Mary was a glorious being, too – the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, I mean, of course. Her response, however? “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…!”

“Arrogance” basically means “arrogating” – unjustly taking – all good things to oneself. It means forgetting that we have not made ourselves, that others – and the Other – had a hand in making us what we are.

God’s Grace

Augustine is very conscious of the fact that he needs God’s grace to move in a positive direction. Even outside the realm of religion and theology, we can see that human beings mess things up when they set themselves up as the supreme arbiter of all things. It’s easy to see across history that people who think they are God cause many, many ills in the world.

Come back to the thought of the City of God: It’s easy to see how such a problem can exist among earthly societies and governments. Remember, too, though, that Augustine feared that holding a position of authority in the Church could lead to the same kind of sinful pride or arrogance. He prayed God would keep him from that fault.

The Great and the Lowly

Of course, you don’t have to be in an important position in the Church or in civil society to be tempted to arrogance. And you don’t have to be in the lowest ranks to be good, grateful, and humble.

November begins with the celebration of All Saints, including the lowly and anonymous. In the middle we honor people who have given their lives for our freedom. At the end we gather together in thanksgiving. As December begins we celebrate the great goodness God created in Mary. In mid-December we honor a man who is almost the definition of the lowly and humble, Juan Diego of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Maybe we need that – maybe all of that is just a way of getting us ready to celebrate the coming of God in the lowliness of Bethlehem’s manger.

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