John Cavadini reflects on Saint Augustine and the meaning of life


“Saint of Suspicion! Wow! It’s kind of a suspicious title!” Thus began the fifth lecture of the sixth season of the Institute for Church Life’s “Saturdays with the Saints” lecture series in Geddes Hall. John Cavadini, Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Church Life, delivered the lecture on October 17.

While centered on the figure of Saint Augustine and the hermeneutic of suspicion, Cavadini’s talk focused primarily on the meaning of life.

“Yes, I am actually going to reveal the meaning of life, in a simple, declarative sentence, without any admission fee, tuition, or other compensation,” Cavadini assured the audience. Prior to divulging that simple sentence, however, Cavadini built the context in which that meaning would become meaningful.

The hermeneutic of suspicion means “an approach to a cultural product, a speech, a text, a religion, or an institution, which does not receive or interpret it on the terms or identity it lays out for itself, but rather ‘suspects’ that these terms or identity serve to disguise a deeper intention or investment which the author or institution would prefer to remain hidden.”

Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche are counted among the so-called prophets of suspicion. Marx claimed that religion is false and is the “opiate of the people” used by capitalists to dupe the proletariat into submission; Freud claimed that religion is not true but is only the result of repressed sexuality; Nietzsche claimed that religion (or anything else) is not true but is merely an exercise of the will to power.

The claim of Nietzsche, Cavadini said, is the “most radical claim of the prophets of suspicion” and ultimately leads to nihilism. This nihilism claims that “God is dead and with His death is the death of all truth claims except, paradoxically,” the truth claim that God is dead, Cavadini noted.

“I want to suggest,” Cavadini said, “that not only can Augustine take his place confidently among the prophets of suspicion, but that in the end he is more than that, he is a ‘saint’ of suspicion.”

What is the meaning of life? Is it, as Freud suggests, the quest for sexual gratification? Is it economic, as Marx claims? Is it seeking and exercising power? What would Augustine say? Cavadini pointed to the opening lines of Augustine’s Confessions: “You are great, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise! … You so excite us to praise you so that it may bring us joy, because you have made us, and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

The meaning of life, according to Augustine, is to praise God. Resting in God, Cavadini said, means “praising God, and even sin does not erase this desire, or longing, that we have as creatures, which cannot be fulfilled in any other way.”

What does it mean to praise God? To answer that question, Augustine needs to ask the question, “What are you, my God?” In answer, Augustine says that God is everywhere whole at once—ubique totus simul—or, Cavadini said, “something so transcendent that it cannot be pictured in the mind.”

But Cavadini noted that this philosophical description of God lends itself to the subversion of praise of God into praise for the one who can articulate what God is. Therefore Augustine introduces a new question—he no longer asks God, “What are you?” but “What are you to me?” Answering this question, Cavadini noted, “might cost you something. It might be a little embarrassing and make you hot under the collar for a minute.”

After asking this question, Augustine says to God: “O Lord, I am your servant, I am your servant and your handmaid’s son. You burst my bonds asunder, and to you will I offer a sacrifice of praise. … Is there any evil I have not committed in my deeds, or if not in deeds, then in my words, or if not in words, at least by willing it? But you, Lord, are good and merciful, and your right hand plumbed the depths of my death, draining the cesspit of corruption in my heart…”

This answer, Cavadini noted, does not deflect praise of God onto the subject ostensibly giving praise but gets a little closer to the meaning of life: “Praise as confession of God’s goodness in answer to the question, ‘What is God to me?’ praise in the form of a testimony of sorts, and not simply a dry philosophical description.”

The most fundamental praise that we can offer to God is praise to God as Creator, “Creator not just of things in general, but of myself, praise that recognizes that everything in creation and in particular and most especially one’s own existence, is a gift, completely un-owed, completely gratuitous, completely one-sided.” Appropriate praise of God is to give thanks to God as Creator.

“[H]ere is the simple declarative sentence containing the meaning of life: The meaning of life is to learn to say ‘Thank you’ better,” Cavadini said.

Why do we need to learn to say “thank you” better rather than just say “thank you”? Cavadini said learn to say “thank you” better “because Augustine believes that we resist gratitude, and in fact, that was the original sin of Adam and Eve.” Enjoying paradise in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given a simple command by God, “so simple that there was nothing they could have gotten from disobedience that they could not have gotten from obedience.” Adam and Eve disobeyed because “they did not want to receive creation, including their own beings, as a gift; rather they wanted it on their own terms, as though everything they had received, including themselves, were not a gift.”

This original sin of Adam and Eve, Cavadini noted, is the sin of pride—superbia. The opposite of pride is humility, but Cavadini cautioned that thinking of humility might not aid in imagining its opposite—pride—because humility carries incorrect connotations of “some kind of self-deprecating loathing or disgust.”

Pride in the Augustinian sense is “the refusal of gratitude; it is a deep, mental reservation about gratitude, that gratitude is weakness; it is an habitual state of ingratitude, even more, an addiction to ingratitude that is so deep we don’t even notice it as such, an insistence on having life on our own terms and denying that any of it is a gift.”

Pride so defined leads to a rejection of the meaning of life—“the rejection of the very thing that would make us happy, to receive ourselves as an utterly undeserved gift and to continually be saying ‘thank you,’ to live in a state of perpetual gratitude that the prideful considers undignified, embarrassing, humiliating, and childish.”

Bringing his discussion full circle, Cavadini suggested that Augustine’s idea of original sin—pride—“is the primal hermeneutic of suspicion, which, when applied to cultural realities, unmasks their pretensions and reveals the deepest source of social stagnation and human decline in the refusal of humility, understood as a passion for gratitude for our own being as a gift, that is, a refusal to praise God.”

For example, the “pursuit of excellence” touted in political speeches and at universities often disguises the very thing that causes human communities to come apart—pride. “It’s not that there is no true excellence or virtue to pursue—that would be outright nihilism—but rather that the pursuit of excellence by fallen human beings inevitably tilts towards the rejection of excellence or virtue, even in its very pursuit, because the pursuit of excellence is inevitably confused with the pursuit of praise, glory, fame, or, we could say, translating into our own idiom, prestige.”

The remedy, Cavadini offered, to the human tendency toward pride is charity or love—“the only thing that can shake the imagination, even shock the imagination, out of its addiction to fame and prestige and free it to be able to rethink cultural conventions of excellence without fear of loss of status, position, job, or even, at the extreme, life.”

Love frees us to “give up the prestige of our accomplishments because we come to love the Creator more than the creature, or rather love the creature in the love of the Creator, and so we are free to speak up and speak out, free to critique the assumptions of excellence on which the very prestige attaching to our own accomplishments is based.” But love, on its own, is vulnerable to the distortion of pride just like any other human act. The love that frees us from that distortion is not our own but is something we hear about “when we learn of the story of the Creator’s loving descent into finitude and history—into finitude as a helpless baby, as vulnerable, naked and non-prestigious as any other—and into history as the mess of corruption and fraud and betrayal that we have made of history…”

Augustine, Cavadini said, commented in a sermon that the Cross is the Incarnate Word’s “chaired professorship, the place from which he teaches as magister.” But “can we listen, Augustine asks us, to Professor Jesus? Can we afford to let that love seep into our own closed hearts and suddenly, out of gratitude for the sacrifice of love, for something so beautiful, we, in love with something completely non-prestigious, non-excellent as we have come to construe and constrain it, blurt out—‘Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!’”

The story of God’s descent into history, His death on the Cross and the victory of His Resurrection, “frees the imagination from the bonds of the absolutization of any form of excellence or virtue, even justice, besides love, for Christ’s love is the only excellence, the only justice or righteousness, that can resist co-optation into self-righteousness and—yes—prestige.”

The stories of the saints, especially the martyrs, and the Eucharist are the keys, for Augustine, to praising God, receiving His love and being formed in it as something “we cannot finally co-opt or claim to our own glory,” Cavadini noted.

What is the glory of the martyrs? Cavadini, following Augustine, said that “it is the martyrs’ glory to refer their courage, their witness, their speaking up and speaking out, not to themselves, but to God, and not to claim it, in the first instance, as their own.” A whole new realm of imagination is revealed to us by the martyr’s resistance to prevailing opinion as they bear witness to the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. “These stories are ‘lights;’ they move us to see an excellence which is not bound to the vocabulary of power and prestige, one that tells of the glory of the Creator, and all that He has created, not the glory of the structure of power.”

The second key way of being formed in Christ’s love is the Eucharist. “The Eucharist,” Cavadini said, “is the sacrament of ‘the price of our redemption,’ which is the innocent blood that endowed the professorship of the Cross. It is the sacrament of the most glorious thing there is in the universe, the mercy of God, which is revealed and enacted on the Cross.” There is nothing more precious than Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, Cavadini noted, because no one can reimburse Christ for his gift. The more we are formed in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the more we are formed in the sacrifice of praise and gratitude. “The Eucharistic life is the life of learning to say thank-you better, of wanting to say thank-you better, and it is not incidental to remember that the word Eucharist comes from the Greek word for giving thanks.”

Cavadini concluded, “Let’s just say this: the Eucharist is the sacrament of the meaning of life.”

Tim Bradley is a senior living off campus. If you would like to report any suspicious activity, contact him at