In Book IX Augustine writes movingly about the last few days of his mother’s earthly life. Of special note is the vision or experience that he claims they shared together at Ostia. Together alone Augustine and Monica talked in depth about eternal life. They concluded that the pleasures of the bodily senses were not worth comparing with eternal pleasures.
Augustine describes how they were lifted up so that they climbed ‘beyond all corporeal objects and the heaven itself.’ They even moved beyond their own minds, ‘to attain to the region of inexhaustible abundance where you feed Israel eternally with truth for food.’ They experienced that wisdom which is eternal. As they talked about it they ‘touched it in some small degree.’ They soon had to leave behind ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit’ (Rom.8:32) to return to the sound of their human speech, ‘where a sentence has both a beginning and an ending.’
Augustine’s theological reflection on this experience was to move towards a theory of immediate knowledge of God. Imagining a possible scenario where everything and anything in creation was silent:
“…having directed our ears to him that made them, then he alone would speak not through them but through himself. We would hear his word, not through the tongue of the flesh, nor through the voice of an angel, nor through the sound of thunder, nor through the obscurity of a symbolic utterance. Him who in these things we love we would hear in person without their mediation. That is how it was when at that moment we extended our reach and in a flash of mental energy attained the eternal wisdom which abides beyond all things.”
Augustine equated the experience of his vision with the reality of eternal life.
Karl Barth calls this “one of the most beautiful but also most dangerous passages in the Confessions.” (In Church Dogmatics, vol. II.1, p.p.10-12.)
Augustine was claiming to encounter the beatific vision, in time. Barth comments, “… here [Augustine] saw and heard God without concepts, without an image, without a word, without a sign – God Himself speaking, not through something else, but through Himself, ipsum sine his, so that the One seen is already about to take up into Himself the one who sees: “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
Barth says No! Choosing not to account for Augustine’s experience as such, he writes that “it is certain that the reality of the knowledge of God is not reached by way of the image of such a timeless and non-objective seeing and hearing." He reminds us that Augustine himself describes the eternal vision of God quite differently in another place (City of God, XXII.29).
Barth continues that in his Word God gives us – in the here and now – a mediate, objective knowledge akin to what Augustine describes in City of God. What Augustine describes in Confessions IX means abandoning “the place where God encounters man in His revelation and where He gives Himself to be heard and seen by man.”
If we ascend to heights and reduce all concepts, images, words and signs to silence, ‘we willfully hurry past God, who descends in His revelation into this world of ours.’ Instead of finding Him where he has sought us, we seek Him where He is not to be found. God seeks us objectively in His Word. So it is not the case that we experience something higher, better, more real, when we seek immediate knowledge of God.As Barth puts it the truth is just the reverse. God’s very revelation consists in His making Himself object to us.