Augustine of Hippo believed that human beings were originally created as perfect communicators, living in complete unity with each other and God. I’m not so sure he was correct.
How could we creatures commune perfectly with other persons, let alone God? We’re finite creatures. Even if we could communicate perfectly with each other surely we couldn’t commune with many people at once. We’re limited by the quantity as well as the quality of messages. Email today proves the point— lots of messaging but lots of confusion and ignorance, too.
Although we can imagine perfect communication in concept, we can’t imagine it in specific actuality. We get to taste a bit of intimate communication here and there, but the full banquet is beyond us. We’re physical, embodied creatures. If we want to enjoy food most fully, we have to savor less than what we might desire. Similarly, we have to practice self-restraint in order to experience fuller communion.
We humans imagine communication only in terms of evaporating time, not in terms of the possibility of timelessness. We all wish we had more time to communicate what really matters in life, with people who really matter to us. We even hope to find more time so that we can matter more to others. Yet we seem to be limited by the daily avalanche of messages that demand our attention. We don’t have the time to imagine what our communication could be like outside of the limits of time! Some of our most pleasurable intimacy with others — when we really connect — seems timeless at the time. But how could we implement that timeless vision in our time-bound lives?
So here’s an irony: We humans are able to send and receive messages faster then ever, almost instantaneously from place to place, around the globe, and increasingly through space. Yet at the same time (in the same high-tech era, too) we don’t have enough time to discern how to use the speed more meaningfully. Meaning evaporates just as quickly as we can shower ourselves with messages. Time both equips us to communicate meaningfully and limits the intimacy of our communication.
Did Augustine contemplate this irony when his scribes furiously wrote his sermons, letters, and books for others to read? I can’t believe that he imagined five million-plus of his words still “in print” 1600 years later, communicating across geographic space and through the generations. His words, however much they are misunderstood today, still resonate with readers. By reading his Confessions (the first Western autobiography) we can transport ourselves to northern Africa, around the year 400 A.D. Perfect communication with Augustine? No. But pretty amazing nonetheless. Augustine’s body is gone but his ruminations endure.
How is that really possible? What does it say about our creaturely natures? I don’t know. It’s time for me to go.