Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 7-8

“A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.”

Leading up to Augustine’s conversion are 3 other conversion stories (although one is merely referenced as something his readers would already know), each of which build upon each other.

Victorious Victorinus

Victorinus was a neo-platonic philosopher who investigated the Christian scriptures and concluded that they were true. However, he was at first hesitant to admit so in public. (Page 127)

He used to read the Holy Scriptures, as Simplicianus said, and thought out and studied all the Christian writings most studiously. He said to Simplicianus — not openly but secretly as a friend — “You must know that I am a Christian.” To which Simplicianus replied, “I shall not believe it, nor shall I count you among the Christians, until I see you in the Church of Christ.” Victorinus then asked, with mild mockery, “Is it then the walls that make Christians?” Thus he often would affirm that he was already a Christian, and as often Simplicianus made the same answer; and just as often his jest about the walls was repeated. He was fearful of offending his friends, proud demon worshipers, from the height of whose Babylonian dignity, as from the tops of the cedars of Lebanon which the Lord had not yet broken down, he feared that a storm of enmity would descend upon him.

Probably all of us have heard similar views. There are many who claim to be Christians who avoid being involved in their church or being publicly associated with fellow-believers. But Christianity is a community religion as much as an individual one, and to be practiced properly it must be practiced with others.

Some are motivated by laziness; Victorinus was held back by his pride, which he eventually overcame, “for he more feared to be denied by Christ before the holy angels because he was now afraid to confess Christ before men.” He even made sure to profess his faith in public, because he had publicly taught rhetoric, which was far less important.

Augustine here takes a moment to wonder why there is more rejoicing the more unexpected a salvation is. God himself confirms that there is “more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7) He mulls over many examples of this seeming contradiction, noting that drinkers will eat salty food to increase their enjoyment when they quench their thirst. He wraps it up with a prayer.

Anthony and Ponticianus

Ponticianus held a high office in the emperor’s court. He told Augustine about St Anthony the monk. One day Anthony walked into church as Matt 19:21 was being read (“Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor”), and immediately went out and did so. He was the first most famous of the desert monks, inspiring many thousands to follow him and kickstarting the entire monastic movement.

At some point, Ponticianus and three of his friends had gone for a walk. Two of them came to a cottage where they find the book about the life of Anthony. They read it, and were inspired then and there to abandon their pursuit of political power and dedicate their lives to God instead.

Then, suddenly being overwhelmed with a holy love and a sober shame and as if in anger with himself, he fixed his eyes on his friend, exclaiming: “Tell me, I beg you, what goal are we seeking in all these toils of ours? What is it that we desire? What is our motive in public service? Can our hopes in the court rise higher than to be ‘friends of the emperor’? But how frail, how beset with peril, is that pride! Through what dangers must we climb to a greater danger? And when shall we succeed? But if I chose to become a friend of God, see, I can become one now.” Thus he spoke, and in the pangs of the travail of the new life he turned his eyes again onto the page and continued reading; he was inwardly changed, as you did see, and the world dropped away from his mind, as soon became plain to others. For as he read with a heart like a stormy sea, more than once he groaned. Finally he saw the better course, and resolved on it.

The story affected Augustine greatly; for all his learning, he was unable to do what the illiterate Anthony had done without hesitation. He is thrown into a moment of crisis, torn between a will that wants to follow God, and a will that wants to cling to his old sins.

Giving it over

Probably the most famous quote of Augustine’s is his prayer to God as he struggles with the idea of giving his life over:

“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For I was afraid that you would hear me too soon, and too soon cure me of my disease of lust which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished.

They are sentiments we can all relate to. Make me righteous, after I’ve had the chance to be wild and enjoy myself. The conflict tears Augustine apart, as part of him desperately wants to make the leap, but the other part just as desperately clings to his old habits and lusts. Many times he comes very close to making the change, but never quite gets there. On his own strength, he is powerless to change. Finally, in frustration, he throws himself down under a fig tree in his backyard and gives up, submitting himself fully to God’s power:

“Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

Like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), Augustine is praying not only that he will change, but that he will want to change. The change in his heart that needs to take place goes down to the very core, covering his actions, his motivations, and even that part of him that attempts to change his motivations.

The prayer is answered right away in an odd form. He overhears a voice chanting “Pick it up, read it. Pick it up, read it.” This he views as a sign to open the Bible and read whatever page he randomly turns to. He finds Romans 13:13-14:

“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

The passage speaks perfectly to Augustine’s struggle. He shows it to Alypius, who was there with him, and Alypius finds that the very next verse, Romans 14:1, applies directly to his own situation. Both give their lives to God at once.

Here we see God performing one of those deniable miracles which He seems so fond of. Nothing in the chain of events is explicitly supernatural, but the string of coincidences is so unlikely that is hard to take any other explanation seriously. The voice Augustine overheard did not boom down from heaven, and may well have been simply a child in a neighboring house, and yet the strange chant was exactly what Augustine needed to hear (Augustine himself seems unclear as to whether the voice had an actual human behind it or not). Augustine then opens his Bible and against all odds lands on a verse that is again exactly what he needs to hear; one followed immediately by another verse that is exactly what his companion needs to hear. It could all be a coincidence, but would a mere string of coincidences really have been able to make such a radical change in both Augustine’s and Alypius’ lives?

The symbolism in Augustine’s story is meant to parallel humanity’s fall from and return to grace as well. Augustine focuses on his sin of stealing fruit from a tree (simply because it was wrong), just as Adam and Eve fell by taking fruit from a tree they had been forbidden. Mankind’s salvation is ultimately derived from Jesus being hung on a tree, and Augustine’s own salvation is found when he flings himself at the base of a tree. Note also that in each of the stories he tells, the inner change is induced by receiving the written word.

Homework

The biographical portion of Confessions is just about finished. Augustine wraps things up with the death of his mother. Read Chapter 9.

Optionally, you can also read the very same biography of St. Anthony that was read by Ponticianus’ friends. It was written the Athanasius, himself a great church father.

Confessions of St Augustine – Chapter 6

Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_St_Augustine“Rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” -Proverbs 9:8

Chapter 6 follows Augustine through a period of his life when he was particularly depressed. His faith in Manichaeism had unraveled, and he was beginning to doubt that he would ever find answers. The chapter does a great job of conveying the sense of despair that hung around him and his companions during this time. This is Augustine’s dark night of the soul; soon to be swept away by his conversion.

Ambrose

A significant event here is that Augustine meets Ambrose, who is to become his mentor and spiritual father. Importantly for Augustine, Ambrose introduces him to the concept of interpreting scripture allegorically:

First of all, his ideas had already begun to appear to me defensible; and the Catholic faith, for which I supposed that nothing could be said against the onslaught of the Manicheans, I now realized could be maintained without presumption. This was especially clear after I had heard one or two parts of the Old Testament explained allegorically — whereas before this, when I had interpreted them literally, they had “killed” me spiritually.

A particular turning point comes with Augustine’s revisit of the passage in Genesis where God makes man “in His own image.” Previously, Augustine had assumed that this must mean that Christians believe God is trapped inside a human body of His own; now he realized that this was more commonly understood to refer to a spiritual image, even though he wasn’t entirely clear on what this meant. He began to suspect that other “knotty” passages in scripture may hide deeper meanings as well.

The Laughing Beggar

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” -John Stuart Mill

The story of the laughing beggar (page 102) plunged Augustine even further into depression. I don’t think I can add anything to the text itself, so here it is:

While walking along one of the streets of Milan, I saw a poor beggar — with what I believe was a full belly — joking and hilarious. And I sighed and spoke to the friends around me of the many sorrows that flowed from our madness, because in spite of all our exertions — such as those I was then laboring in, dragging the burden of my unhappiness under the spur of ambition, and, by dragging it, increasing it at the same time — still and all we aimed only to attain that very happiness which this beggar had reached before us; and there was a grim chance that we should never attain it! For what he had obtained through a few coins, got by his begging, I was still scheming for by many a wretched and tortuous turning — namely, the joy of a passing felicity. He had not, indeed, gained true joy, but, at the same time, with all my ambitions, I was seeking one still more untrue.

If the beggar had asked me whether I would prefer to be in his merry state or my own fearful one, I would have answered that I would rather be merry. On the other hand, if he asked whether I would rather be a beggar like him, I should say that I would choose to be myself, even though worn out with cares and fears. But was that poor judgment and was it the truth? Shouldn’t I prefer to be like him? I had more knowledge than he, but no joy in all my pursuits. I was robbed of my joy because I sought to please men by impressive deeds.

The joy of a faithful hope lies very far from a scholar’s egotism. That was why the beggar had moved beyond where I was. He was happier because he was thoroughly drenched in mirth, while I wasn’t because I was hollow inside with cares. He had gotten precisely what he wanted in the wine. I listened to lies and sought empty, head-swelling praise.

Do you like gladiator movies?

“What make resisting temptation difficult for most people is that they don’t want to discourage it completely.” -Franklin P. Jones

This chapter also digresses into some stories of those close to Augustine, and there is a parallel theme in both Monica and Alypius’s stories. Both had a bad habit, and both give it up after correction. Monica makes offerings at the tombs of martyrs (Page 98); Alypius is addicted to gladiatorial games. Alypius’s story is especially interesting, because it serves to illustrate how he tries (and fails) to overcome his sinful ways on his own power, but is able to do so instantly once God intervenes. Monica, who has already submitted herself to God’s will, has no such struggle.

Alypius’s method of dealing with temptation will no doubt be familiar to all of us (Pages 105-108). At first, he hates the gladiator fights. But, when a group of his friends go to the circus games, he allows them to bodily drag him along with him, while loudly proclaiming that he will be mentally absent. He then sits there in the crowd with his eyes closed, trying to block everything out. Then, he allows himself just a little a peek, confident that he will “remain aloof from whatever evil was before him.” Before long, he is caught up in the excitement with all the rest, and after that, even tried to draw others into attending the games. Their hold is finally broken on him when Augustine makes an offhand comment mocking the games, which Alypius takes to heart.

Assignment

Read Books 7-8, which includes the story of Augustine’s conversion.

Confessions of St Augustine – Chapters 4-5

Augustine in his study“You shall have no other Gods before Me.” -Exodus 20:3

“Most men regard idolatry as being limited to these practices alone: burning incense, immolating a victim, giving a sacrificial banquet, or being bound to some sacred functions or priesthoods… [However, idolatry] can be practiced outside of a temple and without an idol.” – Tertullian, ca. 200 AD

“It became clear to him that no security can be found in this flood of Samsaric existence, and that the threat of death is ever-present.” -The Legend of Buddha Shakyamuni

Distractions

When we left our hero, he was grieving the death of his best friend. He was so upset that he even moved to Carthage to get away from places that would remind him of his old friend. Over time, he healed, and gathered a new, tight-knit circle of friends. However, looking back, Augustine does not see this as an unalloyed good:

For wherever the soul of man turns itself, unless toward thee, it is enmeshed in sorrows, even though it is surrounded by beautiful things outside thee and outside itself. For lovely things would simply not be unless they were from thee. … But far better than all this is He who made it all. He is our God and he does not pass away, for there is nothing to take his place. … You [God] alone cannot be lost; You alone are certain.

Ultimately even the good things in this world perish, so relying on them is foolish. Only God is lasting. It is important to keep in mind that Augustine does not condemn friendship, but rather treating friendship as an ultimate good. Even things which are good can be stumbling blocks if we allow them to take the place of God.

Fame and Folly

When he was 26 or 27, Augustine wrote a book called The Beautiful and the Fitting. He had already lost it by the time he wrote Confessions, which was apparently not much of a loss, because Augustine describes it as “miserable folly.” From his account, it was a mix of Manichean and Neo-Platonic philosophy.

Augustine dedicates the book to an orator who was famous at the time. However, Augustine himself actually knew nothing personally about this orator he admired, except that other people admired him (but they also knew nothing about him). Augustine’s vanity gets the best of him: he wants the man’s approval simply because he is famous, even though he may not be worthy of that fame. But Augustine doesn’t want just any fame; the kind of celebrity status enjoyed by actors and gladiators isn’t something he wants, even though he admires it in them. We saw a similar contradiction earlier, where Augustine realized that he enjoyed it when plays stirred up feelings that he hated in real life.

Smarts and Sanctification

Augustine continues to delve into philosophy, reading Aristotle’s Categories, and then trying to use it to understand God. However, because the categories are only good for understanding the created world, Augustine actually ends up moving further from the truth. He concludes that while intelligence is good, it is better to have faith without intelligence than intelligence without faith. This is similar to his thoughts on friendship; even good things become bad if they stand between us and God.

Near the end of this segment, Augustine meets Faustus, a prominent Manichean. Faustus is eloquent, but not all that smart. He doesn’t really know any more than the other Manicheans; he’s just better at saying them. This left Augustine thoroughly disillusioned with the religion, which now seemed utterly unable to resolve the problems he saw with it.

Assignment

Read through Chapter 6. Augustine begins to move back towards Christianity in this section. There is an important theme developed in this section of knowing the right thing to do, but being unable to follow through with it, both in Augustine’s own life and the lives o those around him.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 3-4.5

Monica and Augustine“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” – I Corinthians 1:25

Now a young adult, Augustine travels to Carthage for what would be a rough equivalent of college. There, he discovers his love of philosophy, so it is fitting that this section ended up giving us several different things to ruminate on.

You don’t want no drama

Augustine was quite taken with the theater in his younger days, but looking back he views it as a great waste of time. He cannot seem to figure out why we would enjoy watching something that stirs up feelings that, in real life, we try to avoid:

But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters — whether historical or entirely imaginary — are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy. Tears and sorrow, then, are loved.

In our discussion, none of us were able to come up with an answer to this, even though none of us shared his dim view of the entertainment industry. Some did theorize that movies provide us with a release for some of our more negative emotions, preventing us from bottling them up, although this didn’t seem to quite cover things. If true, though, the ideal movie would run through all of the emotions.

The simple complexity of scripture

Reading Cicero gave Augustine a thirst for knowledge, and he turned back to the Bible to learn more. However, as a teacher who specialized in rhetoric, he found the language somewhat crude.

When I then turned toward the Scriptures, they appeared to me to be quite unworthy to be compared with the dignity of Tully [Cicero]. For my inflated pride was repelled by their style, nor could the sharpness of my wit penetrate their inner meaning. Truly they were of a sort to aid the growth of little ones, but I scorned to be a little one and, swollen with pride, I looked upon myself as fully grown.

One of the important features of Scripture is that it is accessible to even the simplest people; everybody is able to comprehend what is necessary for salvation. It’s interesting that Augustine actually viewed this as a mark against it; he was too proud to want to be part of something that was so accessible to even the uneducated. At the same time, looking back, he realizes that Scripture also went over his head. Underneath the simple message, there is more than enough meaning and wisdom that even two thousand years later people still haven’t finished penetrating its depths.

Unsaved loved ones

At this point in his life, Augustine had turned to Manichaeism, which caused extreme distress to his mother:

My mother, thy faithful one, wept to thee on my behalf more than mothers are accustomed to weep for the bodily deaths of their children. For by the light of the faith and spirit which she received from thee, she saw that I was dead.

This stood out as a rebuke to most of us, who have unsaved members of our own families, but not a similar level of distress. Augustine’s mother was eventually rewarded with a vision assuring her that he would rejoin her in the faith, a prophecy that took almost a decade to come true.

Baptism and death

One more incident stood out to me in this section. Augustine’s best friend falls sick. Augustine had previously converted this friend to Manichaeism, but while he was unconscious and near-death, his presumably Christian family has him baptized. Surprisingly, this has a very marked effect on the friend when he temporarily revives:

For when, sore sick of a fever, he long lay unconscious in a death sweat and everyone despaired of his recovery, he was baptized without his knowledge. And I myself cared little, at the time, presuming that his soul would retain what it had taken from me rather than what was done to his unconscious body. It turned out, however, far differently, for he was revived and restored. Immediately, as soon as I could talk to him — and I did this as soon as he was able, for I never left him and we hung on each other overmuch — I tried to jest with him, supposing that he also would jest in return about that baptism which he had received when his mind and senses were inactive, but which he had since learned that he had received. But he recoiled from me, as if I were his enemy, and, with a remarkable and unexpected freedom, he admonished me that, if I desired to continue as his friend, I must cease to say such things.

All of which raises for us the issue of just what baptism is. Modern Protestants don’t usually take it very seriously, but historically baptism has been a very contentious issue. Lancaster itself was settled by the Anabaptists, who were regarded as heretics in large part because they felt that people should not be baptized until they were able to understand their creed. While many of us now regard baptism largely as a rite we undergo because God commanded it, previous ages viewed it as having almost mystical powers, a view that seems supported by this story.

The friend died not long after, plunging Augustine into a great depression. Everything “looked like death” to him now, and seemed pointless. Augustine continues to delve into this in the next section.

Assignment

Read through Book 5. The first half of this section departs from autobiography and delves more into theology, dwelling particularly on how even good things like friendship can distract us from God. He also discusses the first books he wrote (he finds them foolish now), and we learn more about his interactions with the Manichaeans.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 1-2

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” -Psalm 51:5

The Innocence of Infants

Augustine starts his biography with his time as a baby (he actually goes even earlier, wondering if he had an existence before he was even conceived). Though he doesn’t remember this directly, he is able to deduce what he must have been like from his observations of other babies. The inherent sinfulness of man is a repeated theme in the first two chapters, and Augustine finds sin even in babies. He describes the selfishness he observes in them, and concludes that babies aren’t innocent, so much as they are weak. They struggle hard to hurt those who care for them whenever they don’t get what they want, but lack the strength to inflict any damage.

Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed? Thus, the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind. I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast. … Yet we look leniently on such things, not because they are not faults, or even small faults, but because they will vanish as the years pass. For, although we allow for such things in an infant, the same things could not be tolerated patiently in an adult.

Education before virtue

Though Monica is now regarded as a saint, she was far from perfect. We get the impression that she only awakened slowly to the importance of raising her son up with a solid Christian foundation, and she of course had no help from her non-Christian husband:

My Father had no concern as to how I grew towards you, or how chaste I was, as long as I was skillful in speech, however fruitless I might have been your cultivation of my heart, which is your field, O God. Although my mother had no fled out of the “center of Babylon,” she still went more slowly in the skirts of it. She advised me to be chaste, but paid no heed to what her husband had told her about me, so as to restrain within the bounds of married love what she felt to be presently destructive and dangerous for the future. She did not heed this, for she feared that a wife might prove a clog an hindrance to my hopes -not the hopes of the world to come, which my mother had in you, but the hopes of education, which both my parents were too anxious for me to acquire- my father because he had little or no thought of you and only vain thoughts for me, and my mother because she thought that the usual courses of learning would not only be no drawback, but even of some help towards my attaining you. And my iniquity grew enormous.

Don’t we do the same thing when prioritize sending our kids through college over getting them married?

The Great Pear Heist

Pears
Augustine’s view of himself doesn’t improve as he ages. As he describes his early years, he focuses particularly on an incident where he and a group of his friends steal some pears.

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.

Those pears were truly pleasant to the sight, but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had an abundance of better pears. I stole those simply that I might steal, for, having stolen them, I threw them away. My sole gratification in them was my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy; for, if any one of these pears entered my mouth, the only good flavor it had was my sin in eating it.

The incident is notable to him because he can come up with no justification for the theft. He wasn’t hungry, and he had better pears at home. Apparently, the only reason he stole was to do something wrong. Each of us have also done the same thing (for example, any time you’ve intentionally annoyed somebody simply to get a reaction out of them). He uses this as a starting point to explore both the nature of sin, especially how it usually consists in (poorly) imitating some aspect of God, and his own sinful nature. The entire section is well worth reading.

Augustine notes other ways in which his sense of morality was deficient as well. He liked to cheat at games, but then get very indignant when he caught somebody else cheating. Since he was just as prone to cheat, he really had no basis to complain when the same was done to him. We are all prone to being far more forgiving of our own sins than those of others.

Assignment

Read Book 3 to about halfway through Book 4. He begins to stray. Look out for the following:

  • Augustine develops a love of the theater, something he now regrets. What do you think of his view of fiction?
  • Augustine investigates astrology, but finds it lacking.
  • Augustine’s mother, who has grown fearful for his salvation, has a vision.
  • Augustine’s best friend died young. How does this affect him?

Confessions of St Augustine – Introduction

Augustine“The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” -Benjamin Warfield, Calvin and Augustine

Welcome, brave readers! For the next two months, we’re going to plunge into one of the oldest and most significant Christian writings, written by and about one of the most significant Christians: The Confessions of St. Augustine. Read along at home, and then show up to the class where we’ll discuss it in depth (or read along at home and telecommute to class when I post my notes online).

Why Augustine?

The modern church is woefully ignorant of its history and roots. To most of us, Christian history consists of the following: Jesus came, died, and rose again. Then Acts happened. Then Catholicism messed things up and the Reformation happened. And then our church was formed.

It is necessary to study those who came before us, both to understand who we are, and to get grounding for our beliefs. Augustine is a good starting point for a number of reasons. He is the first major Christian thinker after Paul (in fact, he is probably also the most important Christian thinker after Paul). Also importantly, he predates the major controversies which still split the church today, so nearly every denomination from Protestants to Catholics are happy to claim him. If you find an idea in Augustine, it may well be wrong, but it’s probably not heretical.

Augustine’s influence stretches throughout history; some even credit him with laying thr groundwork for the Reformation. Martin Luther was himself an Augustinian monk, and both he and Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other theologian. In turn, during the Counter-Reformation, St Teresa of Avila was inspired by her reading of Augustine’s Confessions to become a Carmelite nun, an order which she then undertook to reform. The theology he laid out still shapes our thinking today, and we can all stand to gain from reading his insights first-hand.

What to expect

We will be using a modern English, abridged version, and reading through the equivalent of 2 chapters each week. If you’re bold, feel free to get the full version, but try to stick with a modern English translation; many of the ones out there are essentially King James versions and can be very difficult to trudge through. The text is also available online in many places (even in the original Latin). If reading isn’t your thing, you can listen to it instead.

The first 9 chapters (they are usually referred to as “books”) of the Confessions are Augustine’s autobiography. The last 3 delve into philosophical issues, such as the nature of time, memory, and the creation of the world. Each chapter begins with a prayer to God, which may seem a little unusual to our modern sensibilities. In fact, the whole book is really a prayer to God (hence the title; Augustine is confessing to God and we’re just listening in).

Background

Augustine lived from 354-430AD. He was born less than 50 years after Emperor Constantine proclaimed religious tolerance, ending the extremely vicious persecution that had been prosecuted against Christians before then. (For comparison, if you were born in the 1980s, about the same length of time separates you and the Holocaust). He was born in Africa, in what is now Algeria, back when it was still part of the Roman empire, and was of Berber descent. His mother was a Christian; his father was a non-observant pagan (although he converted shortly before his death). The family was middle class, with enough money to give Augustine a good education (he later went on to become a teacher).

Though he was ostensibly raised as a Christian, it didn’t take, and as a youth he left it for Manichaeism. Manichaeism, then about 150 years old, was one of the more influential of the Gnostic religions that were cropping up at the time. In answer to the problem of evil, it posited a dualistic world, with both a Good God and an Evil God. The Good God was identified with light and the spiritual realm; the physical world was the domain of the Evil God. Humans had a soul made by the Good God, but it was trapped inside the evil body that belonged to the Bad God.

Manichean followers were divided into two groups: the hearers and the elect. The elect had to follow a life of extreme asceticism: they were completely celibate, could eat no meat, or even kill plants for food. They were entirely dependent on the hearers to cook and provide for them. When taking a meal, the elect would ritualistically deny all responsibility for having killed the wheat to make it. This would then allow them to ascend to the spiritual realm upon their death, while the hearer who had made the meal would have to do penance in the form of being reincarnated as a vegetable themselves in their next life.

The rules for hearers were much less stringent, and it was this group that Augustine belonged to. Not only were they allowed to marry; Augustine himself lived with a woman without marrying her for over a decade, and even had a son with her, without raising any eyebrows. He stayed with the sect for 8 years, but eventually became disillusioned with their hypocrisy and false claims of knowledge. He converted to Christianity and eventually became a bishop, and played a pivotal role in the Pelagian Controversy, dealing with Donatism, and picking up the pieces from the sack of Rome.

Assignment

For next week, read up to page 30, which corresponds to the first 2 chapters, and covers Augustine’s childhood. Keep an eye out for the following:

  • Though he doesn’t remember his own time as a baby, Augustine uses his observations of other children to determine what he must have been like. Note Augustine’s view of a baby’s “innocence.” He takes a dim view of human nature even from birth, which is a significant part of Christian theology.
  • Augustine recounts a very famous incident where he stole pears from a neighbor’s tree. This was significant to him because he stole them not because he was hungry or they were especially good pears; he stole them solely because it was wrong to steal them. This also informs his views on the fallenness of human nature.

Resources

You can't spell "Stupak" without almost spelling "Tupac." Coincidence?

The Day the Religious Left died

Note: I wrote this about a year ago and then never hit publish. It seems just as apropos today.

You may have heard that the Democrats have a religion problem. If that gives you a sense of deja vu, no wonder. There was a whole rash of articles with that same theme in the wake of the 2004 defeat. And the Democratic Party did in fact retool its message and engage in outreach to people of faith. 4 years later, they gained the White House, the House, and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Now? Now their speech writers delete the phrase “the least of these” thinking it must be a typo. How did we get from there to here? I’m here to tell you.

Wounds from a friend can be trusted (that’s from Proverbs, for the speech-writers among you), but only if those wounds are from an actual friend. You can withstand a thousand attacks from the enemy, blocking their arrows and parrying their blows. A false friend, on the other hand, can sidle up right next to you, quietly slide a shiv into your lung, and that’s pretty much the end for you.

In the wake of the Obama landslide, there were a lot of questions about how this new political coalition would shake out. Winning so many swing states meant having a lot of moderate Democrats in the coalition, a group that became known as Blue Dog Democrats. A lot of those Blue Dogs were religious. Some even had heterodox views on matters like abortion. How would the party chart a course that kept these people together?

All of this came to a head in the fight to pass Obamacare. The Senate had passed a preliminary version of the bill; the House had passed another one. The Senate version broke with the normal rule of prohibiting federal funds from paying for abortions; the House version followed precedent. Every vote was needed to pass these things, and there were enough pro-life Democrats to prevent passage if they so chose.

So now the Religious Left had a choice. Which was more important to them: “Religious” or “Left”? They had to choose between the two. If they stuck with their faith, and the Party would attack them for disloyalty. But if they stuck with the Party, who had chosen to package abortion in with everything else and put them in this quandary, then in what sense was their faith even relevant?

This was a big deal at the time, as the political world wondered just what this group, led by Representative Bart Stupak. In their hands, they held the fate of Obama’s signature achievement. What would they do? What concessions would they extract in return for their votes? Would they just kill the whole thing?

Well, you already know what happened: they caved. The photograph you see here is of the signing ceremony for Executive Order 13535. This was billed as a compromise addressing pro-life concerns, but was roundly condemned by every pro-life group, both because it was unenforceable and because it didn’t address the actual worrisome provisions even if it had been enforceable. It was a lie and everybody knew it.

And I do mean everybody. This picture shows you the exact moment the Religious Left died. Before this point, the political world was abuzz with talk of the Religious Left. After this point, nobody thought the topic worth discussing. It was clear to everyone that the religious left was a paper tiger, a spent force. It would provide no unique political perspective; just an echo of the party line. No future attempts were made to court their votes, and soon the Democratic coalition forgot they existed (indeed, most of them were voted out of office shortly afterward). Stupak, after 18 years in Congress, didn’t even bother to run in the next cycle.

The bill they signed on for? That was used to sue Hobby Lobby because they didn’t want to buy abortion pills. It was used to sue actual nuns because they thought they didn’t need contraception. Not even the scary nuns you see in Catholic schools, but rather nuns who were dedicated to taking care of old ladies. Such was the contempt that the Religious Left’s allies held them, that by the time of Obama’s second inauguration, they declared that any Christian speaker would be unacceptable.

Even today, look at those few stalwart people in your Facebook feeds you might consider religious left. Did they speak up when the Supreme Court reminded us again that we are not allowed to vote on the sacred issue of abortion? Can you predict with ease what else they won’t speak up on? Do they offer you any perspective that you can’t get from the Areligious Left, or are they just an echo?

I told you that story so I can tell you this one:

We on the right face this same danger. Nothing will kill us so quickly as becoming a mere echo of the Republican party.

I’m not saying we have to denounce Trump at every opportunity as our leftward brothers demand. But don’t jump to baptize everything he does either. God has used nastier tools than Trump. Be wise as serpents.

Elites

Ripped from the comments:

My objection to neoliberalism is, primarily, that capitalist globalism has bred either its own demise or will turn into tyranny of some form or another. I know people who are basically aspiring to be part of the international ruling class: future politicians, future political hacks, business types, think tankers, etc. I went to college with them, and I’m friends with some of them. They are leading us all to ruin.

Their cluelessness, lack of self-awareness, and lack of empathy for people they consider below them is absolutely breathtaking. “Let them eat cake” level stuff. They can’t understand that their high IQs are not earned, and that intellect is not a moral quality (as an aside, I think this is part of the appeal of blank-slatism to intelligent people: if they ignore that IQ is probably about 50% inherited, and most environmental factors are out of their control, they can pretend that their university degrees and so on simply show their high quality as individuals, instead of showing that they rolled well for INT at character creation). They can’t understand why all those factory workers who want to keep their jobs, or want the jobs to come back to town, instead of learning to code and moving to the Bay, or getting a business degree and moving to London or NYC, or getting a law degree and… etc. Their mastery of skills that allow them to pick up and move pretty much anywhere and earn well doing it mean that they have little consideration, respect, or loyalty for their countrymen who cannot. The people from all over the world working in finance in London feel loyalty to each other – after all, they are the best, are they not? – far more than they do to the peons from wherever they come from.

Their response to stuff like Brexit and Trump’s election is eye-opening. Absolute contempt for the great unwashed. I’m exempting visible minorities, Muslims, LGBT people, etc from this – because they actually stand to suffer from right-wing populism, real suffering, not in the pocketbook – but the fact is that the most spite I have seen has tended to come from straight white cis people. Their hatred and contempt for Brexiters and Trump voters is palpable, especially when it’s hilariously hypocritical – I have heard condemnation of Trump voters as racists … at parties that are overhwhelmingly white; I have heard more than one white guy use “white guy” as a term of abuse … and they throw parties that are 100% white. They don’t even recognize their hate and contempt as hate and contempt, they just project it onto those they despise. They do not recognize their own racial biases (I remember a wealthy young man explaining to me, to paraphrase, “it’s not racist to be afraid of black people, because they’re poor, and poor people are more likely to be criminals”) but instead project them onto those they despise (he now posts Facebook statuses excoriating straight white cis men, a group from which he apparently exempts himself, despite being 4/4 for those qualities).

Either this will lead to the demise of neoliberal globalism – because even if the Brexiters and the Trump voters are dumb, they’re not so dumb as to not notice the contempt, and will vote to put a thumb in the eye of the elites who despise them. Or, it will lead to tyranny of one kind or another, as the elites decide that, really, those rednecks in coal country and those losers in North England shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Bullets

Elevated from the comments elsewhere:

Eich was basically punished for being on the losing side of a partisan dispute, and having confidential records leaked.

We have an ordered system for resolving partisan disputes. Maybe it’s not a good system, but eich was playing by the rules of the game. A game which led to his loss. At this stage he accepted the ruling of the agreed on mediating process, and did not seek extrajudicial means to promote his cause or punish his opponents. He now lives in a land with that many more laws he disagreed with.

The people who went after him won, but they weren’t happy with that. They went after him for daring to oppose them. (This is literally terrorism).

That’s a hell of a bullet.

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It’s also a betrayal of the good faith people who were sceptical about gay marriage or worried about a slippery slope, but held their noses or extended some trust and voted in favour for the sake of equality under the law. 100% guaranteed, there are people who voted in favour, who would not have, if they thought they were handing out a license for people on the tide of history to purge their political opponents.

Good luck getting them to vote in your favour next time. (Maybe they’ll even vote against you to spite you, seemingly irrationally. Welcome to trump.)

It’s also a betrayal of those good faith liberals who assured people that there was no slippery slope on the books. The kind of eminently good and decent people who can change sceptical minds, and get things done politically. Well done making them into liars, and good luck mobilising them with the same enthusiasm next time. Welcome to trump.

In contrast, thiel took targeted revenge against a supposedly progressive organisation for outing him as a homosexual as, you guessed it, a punishment for sitting on the opposite side of a political divide.

That’s not part of the formal provisions for resolving differences, like donating is. There’s no symmetry there. Liberals were donating against eich. Thiel was not outing liberals.

Welcome to.. people thinking twice before they out someone.

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So Thiel took 1. carefully targeted revenge, against someone for 2. unilaterally attacking him, and 3. going out of bounds to do so. 4. in a normal, precedented manner. 5. not in contravention of any interpartisan Geneva convention. 6. in a direction for the better rather than the worse: We don’t want people attacking their political opponents just because they are their political opponents. We do want people to think twice before exposing people’s personal lives to hurt them.

The people who ousted eich took 1. indiscriminate revenge (this is huge, the main ) against someone for 2. participating in the normal political process, symmetrically, just like their allies. 3. They had not been attacked or harmed by eich, -in fact they had won. With 4. an innovative new way to strike at enemies outside accepted bounds 5. in contravention of the necessary civility and acceptance of the other side’s right to peacefully campaign that is the cornerstone of a peaceful democratic process, and if it comes to it, basic order and stability.

Batman in all things

No enemies to the right

If you keep an eye on the deeper, darker reaches of the political blogosphere, you will have noticed a certain phrase making the rounds: No enemies to the right. Indeed, I would put the single unifying belief of the many groups called “alt-right” as the following: self-policing and following the old political norms will only lead to defeat; the left will never follow the same rules, so it’s time to treat them the same way they treat us.

Looking over recent election results, it’s hard to argue. Trump did a thousand things that all the conventional wisdom thought disqualifying. He still won. And those deep, dark reaches I just mentioned are the only ones who saw it coming.

But consider the other side of all this: the complete collapse of the Democratic party. If Hillary had not thought herself so above the law that she completely ignored basic security rules, if her inner circle had not also included a man who feels compelled to send weiner pictures to anything over the age of 15, if Hillary’s staff had at least been self-disciplined enough to keep aforementioned classified information off of aforementioned Weiner’s computer such that both investigations didn’t intersect and bring themselves back up right before the election, if the Democratic party itself had been willing to let their voters pick the nominee instead of conspiring to sink Sanders, if the press had not conspired with them, if, failing all that, Podesta had the wherewithal not to fall for the same phishing emails all of us get regularly and subsequently expose the entire charade, if Hillary did not have a history of covering for her husband’s harassment of women (a history that includes credible accusations of rape!) which hamstrung her when attacking Trump’s boorishness, if the policies pushed by Democrats when they held all branches had actually worked as promised, if any Democratic politician with a snowball’s chance (sorry, that was never Bernie) had the courage (or even just ambition!) to throw their hat into the ring instead of meekly standing aside for Hillary, if any of those pieces had not fallen into place, we might well be talking about how it is impossible for Republicans to ever again win at the national level.

Those are the fruits of “no enemies to the left”: a party so riddled with corruption and incompetence that, when presented with a task of “don’t do the wrong thing at every single turn,” they failed.

They’re still digging, too. After losing in just about every race, the remaining Democratic Representative chose to reelect exactly the same leadership which had overseen their reduction from a historic majority to a historic minority. The average age of the House Democratic leadership is 76 (for comparison House Republican leadership ranges from 41-51). Reform will come not from within, but simply once the current leadership dies of old age. Virtue, once lost, is difficult to regain.

If we follow the same path of having no standards we will hold ourselves to, we will end up in the same place. Tread carefully.

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