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Augustine is not trying to “make sense” of evil. To make sense of it, to have an explanation for it, to be able to identify the cause would mean that it has a place in the world. But then it isn’t evil. Evil is what ought not to be, the disorder of creation, the violation we protest. Evil has no place, no room to fit, no home here in a good creation. …

You can’t protest what is natural; you can’t lament what is meant to be. The price to pay for explaining evil is to give up naming and opposing it. As soon as you “explain” evil, it vanishes. Augustine considers the Devil as a limit case in this regard. If God created everything, and everything God creates is good, then where did the Devil come from? Not even the Devil is “naturally” evil. His fall, like mine, is inexplicable. “The Manichees do not realize,” Augustine points out, “that if the Devil is a sinner by nature, there can really be no question of sin in his case.” The very face of evil, in that case, just is. You can’t complain otherwise.

When we fall prey to the hubristic need for intellectual mastery, the need to comprehend everything and hence explain everything, we end up naturalizing evil and thus eviscerating it, undercutting the ability to protest against it. Such explanation takes us beyond good and evil. The quest for the root, the seed of evil—to identify the cause of how it stole into the world—undercuts the tortured perplexity that generated the question in the first place. The question arises from our experience of dissonance (“This can’t be right! This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be!”). Our answers too often squelch that dissonance and thus make the question moot.

We also devalue or deny our intuitions of what ought to be—what is good and beautiful, what gratitude is for. When we try to extinguish the dark mystery of evil with the light of explanation, we simultaneously dim the radiance of beauty that befalls us unbidden. We forfeit the impulse to say “thank you”; we rule out the joy that attends those moments when we think, “This is how it’s meant to be.” We explain evil only to explain away love.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

Even a thousand miles inland you can smell the sea and hear the mewing of gulls if you give thought to it. You can see in your mind’s eye the living faces of people long dead or hear in the mind’s ear the United States Marine Band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” If you work at it, you can smell the smell of autumn leaves burning or taste a chocolate malted. You don’t have to be asleep to dream dreams either. There are those who can come up with dramas laid twenty thousand leagues under the sea or take a little girl through a looking glass. Imagining is perhaps as close as humans get to creating something out of nothing the way God is said to. It is a power that to one degree or another everybody has or can develop, like whistling. Like muscles, it can be strengthened through practice and exercise. Keep at it until you can actually hear your grandfather’s voice, for instance, or feel the rush of hot air when you open the 450-degree oven.

If imagination plays a major role in the creation of literature, it plays a major one also in the appreciation of it. It is essential to read imaginatively as well as to write imaginatively if you want to know what’s really going on. A good novelist helps us do this by stimulating our imaginations–sensory detail is especially useful in this regard, such as the way characters look and dress, the sounds and smells of the places they live and so on-but then we have to do our part. It is especially important to do it in reading the Bible. Be the man who trips over a suitcase of hundred-dollar bills buried in the field he’s plowing if you want to know what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about (Matthew 13:44). Listen to Jesus saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) until you canhearhim, if you want to know what faith is all about.

If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hot-air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the branches of a tree. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father’s arm. The old man staring into space in the nursing-home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak, but the words they do not speak. Feel what it’s like to be who they are–chirping like a bird because for the moment you are a bird, trying not to wobble as you move slowly into the future with all eyes upon you.

When Jesus said, “All ye that labor and are heavy laden,” he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the unlucky, the idle as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

Why should we care about Augustine’s story? Why listen? This is a question he wrestled with explicitly. And his only appeal—his only claim to authority—is witness authority. Augustine recognizes that he can’t prove anything: “I can’t prove to them that what I confess is the truth.” He’s not offering a demonstration that marshals evidence to prove a conclusion. He’s not trying to argue anyone into his story. Instead, he shares a story that he invites his readers to “try on” and see if it might perhaps fit their own experience. Why write these confessions to God “in such a way that other people can hear?” he muses. If I’m just confessing to God, why not keep a journal, work all of this out in private? Well, for the same reason that addicts share their story at a meeting: maybe someone will see themselves in my story, Augustine says. Maybe someone will hear this prodigal tale, with all its dead ends and heartbreak, and whisper, “That’s me.” And maybe if they can see themselves in my story, they might be able to imagine finding themselves in God’s story as the one making their way home, being gathered up by a father who runs out to meet them and throws a feast. Augustine’s story is only of interest if it is unoriginal, a story that’s been told a million times, one that rehearses the prodigal adventures of the human condition.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

A good joke is one that catches you by surprise–like God’s, for instance. Who would have guessed that Israel of all nations would be the one God picked or Sarah would have Isaac at the age of ninety or the Messiah would turn up in a manger? Who could possibly see the duck-billed platypus coming or Saint Simeon Stylites or the character currently occupying the pulpit at First Presbyterian? The laugh in each case results from astonished delight at the sheer unexpectedness of the thing.

Satan’s jokes, on the other hand, you can usually spot a mile off. As soon as the serpent came slithering up to Adam and Eve, almost anybody could tell that the laugh was going to be on them. That a person as blameless, upright, and well-heeled as Job was bound to have the rug pulled out from under him before he was through. That Faust, being Faust, was sure to be conned out of his soul. And so on.

In the last analysis, the only one who gets much of a kick out of Satan’s jokes is Satan himself. With God’s, however, even the most hardened cynics and bitterest pessimists have a hard time repressing an occasional smile. When God really gets going, even the morning stars burst into singing and all the sons of God shout for joy.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

Our cerebral struggles are often intertwined with other anxieties. What we identify as intellectual barriers are sometimes manifestations of emotional blocks. We pride ourselves on being rational but then miss the biases and blind spots that constitute our rationality (a feature of the human condition confirmed by recent developments in behavioral economics). We decide that something “doesn’t make any sense” when we no longer want to be associated with the people who believe it, or a “light goes on” and we “see” something after we’ve spent time hanging around people who believe it. Rationality turns out to be more malleable than we’d guess.

Sometimes plausibility is pegged to a person. The turning point for Augustine was not an argument; it was Ambrose. What Ambrose said, what he taught and preached, was not insignificant. But what made a dent on Augustine’s imagination was Ambrose’s very being—what he represented in his way of life. Ambrose was a living icon of someone who integrated assiduous learning with ardent Christian faith. If to that point, based on his childhood experience, Augustine had concluded that Christians were simple, backward, and naive, the encounter with Ambrose was the destabilizing experience of meeting someone with intellectual firepower who was also following Jesus. Even more than that, it was Ambrose’s hospitality that prompted Augustine to reconsider the faith he’d rejected as unenlightened. What ultimately shifted Augustine’s plausibility structures? Love. His recollection is warm and speaks to a hunger even more fundamental than the intellectual: “That man of God took me up as a father takes a newborn baby in his arms, and in the best tradition of bishops, he prized me as a foreign sojourner.” More than arguments or proofs, Ambrose offered the seeker Augustine something he’d been hungering for: a home, sanctuary, rest.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

Hate is as all-absorbing as love, as irrational, and in its own way as satisfying. As lovers thrive on the presence of the beloved, haters revel in encounters with the ones they hate. They confirm them in all their darkest suspicions. They add fuel to all their most burning animosities. The anticipation of them makes the hating heart pound. The memory of them can be as sweet as young love.

The major difference between hating and loving is perhaps that, whereas to love somebody is to be fulfilled and enriched by the experience, to hate somebody is to be diminished and drained by it. Lovers, by losing themselves in their loving, find themselves, become themselves. Haters simply lose themselves. Theirs is the ultimately consuming passion.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

The reason I want to know

Augustine would give a name to this kind of disordered relationship to wisdom and learning: curiositas. Curiosity for Augustine is not the spirit of inquiry we prize and encourage; rather, it is a kind of quest for knowledge that doesn’t know what it’s for—a knowing for knowing’s sake, we might say, or perhaps more to the point, knowing for the sake of being known as someone who knows. For Augustine, the reason I want to know is an indicator of the sort of love that motivates my learning. Am I learning in order to grow, learning in order to know who and how to love? Or am I learning in order to wield power, get noticed, be seen as smart, be “in the know”? The disordered love of learning makes you a mere technician of information for some end other than wisdom, and the irony is that philosophy could devolve into just another way of idolizing. Indeed, Augustine could still see this in himself by the time he was a teacher: “I was seeking to use my education to please other people—not to teach them, but just to please them.”

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine