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The Beauty of the Universe and the Risk of Idolatry


De vera religione, ch. 37

In this intense page by St. Augustine, key insights can be found about Pantheism and idolatry, which have been widespread temptations for philosophers who, attracted by the beauty of the universe, stopped at the contemplation of the creatures without ascending up to the Author of such beauty.

XXXVII, 68. This is the origin of all impiety of sinners who have been condemned for their sins. Not only do they wish to scrutinize the creation contrary to the commandment of God, and to enjoy it rather than God's law and truth - that was the sin of the first man who misused his free will - but in their state of condemnation they also make this addition to their sin. They not only love but also serve the creature rather than the Creator, and worship the parts of the creation from the loftiest to the lowliest. Some worship the soul in place of the most high God, the first intellectual creature which the Father made by means of the truth, that it might ever behold the truth, and beholding the truth might also behold himself whom the truth resembles in every way. Next, men come to the living creature through which God eternal and unchangeable makes things visible and temporal in the realm of becoming. Then they slip further down and worship animals and even material things, among which they first choose the more beautiful, above all the heavenly bodies. Some are satisfied with the sun, the most obvious of the heavenly bodies. Others think the moon worthy of religious veneration because of its brightness. It is nearer to us, we are told, and so is felt to have a form that is closer to us. Others add the rest of the stars and the sky as a whole with its constellations. Others join the air to the ethereal sky and make their souls subordinate to these two superior corporeal elements. But those think themselves most religious who worship the whole created universe, that is, the world with all that is in it, and the life which inspires and animates it , which some believe to be corporeal, others incorporeal. The whole of this together they think to be one great God, of whom all things are parts. They have not known the author and maker of the universe. So they abandon themselves to idols, and, forsaking the works of God, they are immersed in the works of their own hands, all of them visible things.

De vera religione, XXXVII, 68, engl. tr. J. H. S. Burleigh (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2006), pp. 259-260.