The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of a young genius mathematician from India who can see formulae for incredibly complex theories as if they are simply colours in the rainbow. He explains (spoiler alert!) that these equations are given to him by the goddess he worships. Is it possible that the gods and goddess communicate with their followers? And if so can they help them find eternal peace?
This is the question that Augustine is wrestling with in Book 9 of the City of God. Perhaps a question unfamiliar territory for modern day Western minds, but maybe not so for Eastern religions. The issue Augustine is addressing is the problem of our separation from God. He is seeking to understand how a being who is infinite and spirit, can be known by those who are finite and physical.
In the ancient world (and still today in some parts of the world) this problem was attempted to be solved through the mediation of gods on behalf of people to the supreme being and vice versa. But does this solution withstand closer scrutiny? Augustine takes what their own philosophers have said about these beings and challenges the logic to see if there is any real possibility that they can help humans bridge the divine divide.
He starts by asking, are there good and bad gods? Followers of Plato saw all gods as good. So, how then to explain the things they do that we disapprove of? The bad ones some call demons, those who do evil activities and have degraded passions. These philosophers believed that gods have no contact with man, so gods are established midway, to carry men’s requests and bring back the benefits the gods have granted.
In order to more accurately define what we are talking about Augustine uses the definition of Apuleius, saying that these beings (described as demons throughout the chapter) are “animals in respect of species; in respect of soul, liable to passions; in mind, capable of reason; in body, composed of air; in life-span, eternal“. Some of these characteristics these creatures share with humans, some with the supreme being.
Humankind is described as having “a lowly abode, mortality & misery“, while gods are described by “the sublimity of their abode, the eternity of their life, the perfection of their nature“. Thus we can see three key elements that distinguish people, demons and God: i) their mortality, ii) their location and iii) their nature. People are temporal, earthly and unhappy, demons are eternal, ethereal and miserable, while God is eternal, spirit and forever blessed.
Augustine says these demons are worse than men, “older in wickedness and incapable of being reformed by the punishment they deserve” and so they are tossed about on “the raging sea of their minds“. He says that “only truth and virtue can offer a centre of resistance against the turbulent and degraded passions” if we are not to be carried along with them on the path to destruction.
To all this Augustine poses the question, can such beings that share our misery help us acquire the eternal blessedness of God? Can they aid us to achieve that which they are unable of accomplishing themselves? No, says Augustine, we need a mediator that has the opposite characteristics to demons, something, or someone who is mortal, earthy and perfectly blessed:
“all men, as long as they are mortals, must needs be also wretched. If this is so, we must look for a mediator who is not only human but also divine, so that men may be brought from mortal misery to blessed immortality by the intervention of the blessed mortality of this mediator. It was necessary that he should not fail to become mortal, equally necessary that he should not remain mortal“.
In order to bridge the gap between two worlds a mediator must share common ground with each side of the divide. In theory it may seem that demons could do this as “they are immortals, like the gods, and wretched, like men“. However, their desires are corrupted and even if they could help humankind reach the divine, they would not want to unite people with their sworn enemy. In fact they would do everything in their power to separate them from their eternal home.
In Augustine’s time they did this through creating a counterfeit religion which attempted to divert people from worshiping the true God. In our day they do it through covert means of maintaining the illusion that the only reality is the visible realm. Hiding behind the curtain they use their power to filter out the ripples of real supernatural activity, and hide their true nature from prying eyes.
These days we would never ask the same questions Augustine does of these beings. The average Westerner would claim they couldn’t care less about whether such demons exist, they are the thing of reality TV shows in haunted houses, and gory Hollywood horror movies. Our fascination is less about salvation and more about sensation – helping us escape from the real world for a few hours in our imagination.
We would do well to reconsider our limited view of the supernatural if we would avoid the twin errors of a counterfeit religion and a covert deception. We must find our refuge in the one true mediator who truly has our best interests at heart and has once and for all bridged the chasm between the divine and the debased. God the Son fulfilled the criteria perfectly by demonstrating that “the mediator between God and man should have a transient mortality, and a permanent blessedness“. And he invited each of us into that blessedness through his atoning death on the cross.
Lord Jesus, help us to rest fully on your mediating work, the one and only rescue to bring us safely to our eternal home. Thank you for taking on our frail humanity and weak nature to join us with you for all eternity. Amen