regio
dissimilitudinis

"the region
of unlikeness"
   Saint Augustine, in his immensely influential autobiography, The Confessions , written in 413 A.D., chronicles his life as a long process leading to his conversion to Christianity. During this process, he passes from pursuing an ambitious career as an orator to passionately pursuing knowledge as a philosopher, to a zealous conversion to the Mithraitic-Christian religion of Manicheism to an equally passionate falling away from Manicheism, and, finally, to a dramatic conversion to Christianity. As he approaches this conversion, Augustine in his narrative describes his struggle to discover truth immediately before this conversion, a struggle for truth that is centered around Plato and the Neo-Platonists. While describing this struggle, Augustine breaks off to address God in the present tense: "I found myself wandering far from You in a region of unlikeness (regio dissimilitudinis)."

   This is an odd statement, but one that would have a tremendous influence on the medieval world view and would sit at the heart of the way the medievals understood the world and their role in it. What precisely does Augustine mean by a "region of unlikeness"? It sure sounds cool, but when you begin to mull over the concept, things get a bit murky. Here's how it works. In the typological world view of early Christianity, all the events of history are metaphors for the events recorded in the life of Christ. In other words, the New Testament represents a finite stock of events that reproduce themselves over and over again. To understand the spiritual meaning of a thing or event, you must determine what in the New Testament is similar to it. The spiritual meaning of that New Testament event is the spiritual meaning of whatever historical or biographical event you're trying to explain. Make sense? This means that every event is a metaphor for something in the New Testament.

   This is where it gets pretty cool. Every metaphor has two aspects: likeness and unlikeness. Suppose I were to say that my friend is like a lion. If you had your head screwed on right, you would think about what lions have in common with humans, that is, how lions are similar to certain people: nobility, ferocity, pride, etc. However, if you began to scratch your head and say: "What do you mean, your friend's a lion? Does he have long teeth and claws and live on the African savannah?" everyone would realize that there's very little cream filling in your Twinkie. Why? Because you're taking the metaphor literally and concentrating on those aspects that lions don't share with humans, in other words, those aspects which are unlike humans.

   This, in fact, is what Augustine means by a "region of unlikeness." The world and all the events that fill it have some similarity to the life of Christ and to God; the only real meaning those events have are as metaphors for the events of the New Testament. If you were to understand the world and its events literally , that is, on their own terms, you would be concentrating on those aspects of the world and its events that are "unlike" the New Testament and "unlike" God. As such, like the rube who can't understand the lion metaphor because he takes it literally, the world and its events are unintelligible on their own terms. Augustine calls this the "carnal" (as opposed to "spiritual") or "literal" understanding, which is to say, no understanding at all.

   The "region of unlikeness," then, is not a place that is separate and distinct, it is rather the wrong interpretation of the world and its events. It is a region of the individual mind gone astray, that tries to understand the world literally on its own terms rather than understand the world as it relates to God and to the zero ground of historical meaning, the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

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