Patristic Voices: Augustine on Human Unity

There is no doubt that, whatever their day to day lives were like, women in the patristic era did not even have a theoretical equality with men.  The text we quoted from Augustine last week is an example of this.  Such was the time, the history, the culture, the philosophy, the understanding of Scripture and of human nature that questions like, “Will female bodies be raised as male ones at the Eschaton?” were not outrageous to ask.  Augustine cites two scripture passages that were used by proponents of the male only resurrection theory, Ephesians 4:13 and Romans 8:29.  We would probably not interpret these passages that way, and neither, in fact, did Augustine.  Instead, Augustine’s view of women was ahead of his time, but not up to par with our time, and yet timeless too.

Augustine was ahead of his time and fits well in our own with the overall message he gives in the passage we quoted last week (City of God, 22.17).  The “female sex is not a fault.”  “The woman, therefore, is just as much God’s creation as is the man.”  “The one who established the two sexes will restore them both.”  Even the odd sounding section on female organs and childbearing might be compatible with a modern appreciation of the female sex.  In this section, Augustine asserts that the resurrected female body will still have all of its female organs, but they will no longer be ordered for child bearing.  In other words, women are meant for more than just having children, but their bodies are good just the way they are.  The fact that they are not going to have children anymore does not mean that their bodies need to be changed.  The female sex is a good in and of itself.  Of course, we can wonder if there is the background presumption that right now the female sex is primarily ordered to having children, which probably wouldn’t fit in some modern presumptions.  Still, Augustine ends this discussion saying that the female body is meant to “evoke praise for the wisdom and compassion of God,” which is a good deal more than many of his contemporaries would say and would fit well into a modern view too (City of God, 22.17).

But there is a timeless quality to Augustine’s discussion of the female sex too.  Earlier in the City of God, Augustine describes the creation of the world, specifically of humanity.  He says that God made humans in a different manner than the other animals for a very specific reason.  All other animals were made independently from each other.  Humans, however, are created one from another.  Thus, the reason woman was made from man was not to show subordination, as if coming second meant being less than being first, but to show unity (City of God, 12.27).  From one flesh they are made and to one flesh they return and as one flesh must they live.  Augustine also sees the task, possibly the only task, of both men and women, pre-Fall, as bearing and raising children – it is not a task for women alone (City of God, 12.23).

For Augustine, the Creation Story in Genesis is meant to show us that we humans must be united.  This is the theme that Augustine concludes book 12 with (City of God, 12.27).  Unity, unity, unity again, and again, and again is the key theme to be taken away from the Genesis story.  This unity extends between man and woman, between humans in general, and between humanity and God.  For in the creation of woman out of the side of man, Augustine sees the creation of the Church out of Christ prefigured when Christ is pierced by a spear on the Cross, “For that sleep of the man was the death of Christ, whose side, as He hung lifeless upon the cross, was pierced with a spear, and there flowed from it blood and water, and these we know to be the sacraments by which the Church is ‘built up’” (City of God, 22.17).  In spite of the faults Augustine undoubtedly has in his view of the role of women in society, he still reaches beyond the prejudices of his time and helps focus us on what is most important in our lives: Love and Unity with God and Neighbor.

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