Thursday, January 16, 2014

"City of God" I.24-27

Chapter 24:
Once again, we see that the pagans themselves by their example stand against suicide. If the very best example of a virtuous pagan (Regulus) understood that suicide was a sin, how much more should we as Christians who are not bound by pagan beliefs and customs, but who instead worship the true God and have a heavenly citizenship?

Chapter 25:
But shouldn't we commit suicide if we're about to be raped (or beaten, or anything) to resist the possibility that in the course of the assault we find ourselves liking it and so sinning? Heaven forbid, replies Augustine, that we use one sin to counter another. Instead, we should have our hearts and minds "confiding in God, and resting in the hope of His aid."

Chapter 26:
Again, we see Augustine's pastoral delicacy on display--this time in disagreeing with the church. After all, if suicide is wrong, and the church celebrates the suicides of certain virgins who sought to escape their pursuers, are we suggesting that the church is wrong? In our day of course we would immediately jump to say "yes, of course the church was wrong; and my view is right, and that's all there is to it." We would not stop to think that perhaps disagreeing with our church shouldn't be our default setting, but should instead be done only slowly, carefully, quietly, and after much thought, reflection, and prayer.
Augustine clearly handles this issue with all of those things. He begins by admitting the possibility that there is some way the church is right in its judgment of those who have died--perhaps the suicides had the "special dispensation" that God occasionally gives that allows someone to take a life (mentioned in the previous passage), as if they were a modern Samson.

We, however, must be very careful in our considerations of such things, since we have no way of knowing whether the persons in question did or did not have such a Divine dispensation. What we do have is a solid statement of truth: "that no man ought to inflict on himself voluntary death, for this is to escape the ills of time by plunging into those of eternity; that no man ought to do so on account of another man's sins, for this were to escape a guilt which could not pollute him, by incurring great guilt of his own." As the reader, we are left to connect the dots ourselves that the particular teaching of the church about the virgin suicides is at odds with the revealed truth about the nature of suicide in general. And so instead of the violent rendering we would expect to see today, Augustine leads us gently in a different direction, correcting error along the way.

Chapter 27:
But again, isn't it better to avoid the real horrors of sinning against God? Isn't suicide a better alternative that sin? In order to respond to these questions, Augustine draws on a false view of baptism that had crept into the church sometime in the 3rd and 4th centuries-- the idea of "baptismal regeneration" (i.e. that the act of being dipped in the water itself is what washes away sin). If suicide is an appropriate response to the potential of falling into sin, then those who have been baptized should immediately kill themselves and so enter immediately into heaven in the purest attainable state. We all immediately see that "it is wicked to say this; it is therefore wicked to kill oneself. For if there could be any just cause of suicide, this were so. And since not even this is so, there is none."

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