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If you get why this image goes with this post, I have done well as a father.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapter 10

Confessions now turns from autobiography to philosophy. The next few chapters can come as a bit of a shock for people; they make for more difficult reading, and it can be hard for moderns to even understand why Augustine spends as much time as he does on topics like memory. However, Augustine still has the same focus here as in the rest of the book: he is concerned with the search for God. Just as he started the story of his life with his birth, so he starts his search for God from the very beginning. After all, how can he really know God without first knowing how he knows things?

What do we love when we love God?

But what do I love when I love you? Not the beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, not the brightness of light, so gladsome to our eyes; not the sweet melodies of various songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey; not the limbs that physical love likes to embrace. It is none of those that I love when I love my God.

I asked the whole frame of the world about my God; and it answered me, “I am not He, but He made me.”

Augustine interrogates each of his physical senses as he tries to determine just how it is he knows about God, and finds them all inadequate to the task. Finally, he turns inward, bringing him to the faculty of memory.

What is memory?

At its core, Augustine’s investigation of memory is really about epistemology. He wants to know how it is that we are capable of knowing things, so he can know how it is he is capable of knowing God. It should be noted that he is using “memory” in a broader sense here than we usually do.

He starts with the most basic type of memory: sensory perception. Augustine envisions his memory as a vast palace storing all kinds of images which he can retrieve with varying levels of ease. Somehow, these things can be experienced even without the original items being physically present.

This is not the only kind of memory, though. Augustine also remembers skills. These are different from sensory images in an important way: with skills, it is the thing itself that is stored in his memory, not an image of it. He moves quickly to our storage of ideas, where the thing itself is once again stored. He points out that he received many ideas by way of hearing Greek or Latin words, but the things themselves are distinct from the language they were communicated in, and it is the thing itself that he stored.

He is reaching at a deeper point here: as ideas get more abstract, many of the things he remembers are things he has never actually physically seen. Mathematical concepts illustrate this particularly well. Augustine understands quite well what the number “3” is, or what a triangle is, even though he has never actually seen them. (At this point, he is essentially talking about Platonic forms).

He has another, very Platonic concern here. Sometimes, we encounter ideas that seem self-evidently true. Plato held that learning was actually the process of re-remembering things which we forgot when we took bodily form. Augustine modifies this view a little; he implies that these things had been placed in his memory beforehand, and were just waiting for somebody to pull them out.

Emotional memory is next up, and here things start to get weird for Augustine. How can he remember emotions without feeling them? Sometimes some memories even give him the opposite emotion that they originally evoked (for example, his current sadness at his former fornication). He starts running into further contradictions. How can he remember forgetfulness? When he remembers memory, is it some image of memory that is present, or is memory itself present in his memory, that is, present inside itself? Augustine finds no answer to his questions.

Finding God

Augustine returns to the idea that some things were placed in his memory even without his having experienced them. This time, he considers the concept of a happy life. Recall how torn up he was prior to his conversion about his failure to achieve happiness. Yet, how could he know and long for a thing he had never actually experienced? Augustine is driving at much the same thing C.S. Lewis was when he said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” We find the idea of a happy life in our memory because God placed it there, to draw us to Him.

You were not in my memory before I learned of you. Where did I find you, that I might learn of you, but in yourself, above myself.

Too late have I loved you, Oh Beauty, ancient yet ever new. Too late have I loved you! And behold, you were within, but I was outside, searching for you there-plunging, deformed amid these far forms which you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you.

God, he says, was not in his memory before he found Him, but has pledged to dwell there ever after. Yet God is not a sensory object, a skill, an idea, or an emotion. He doesn’t fit in any of the kinds of memory Augustine has investigated so far. Thus, while the search for God is an inward search, it ultimately takes the searcher outside of and above himself.

Temptations sore beset him

Augustine moves on to a different subject now, pondering over how best to avoid sin without becoming too strict (Page 189). He begins with the example of the proper place of music in church, a debate that continues to this day. He later returns to the same issue as he thinks about his own struggle with pride and a desire for praise from others (Page 197):

To receive no praise we must live an incompetent life, abandoning all praiseworthy deeds and living atrociously. Then no one should think about us without despising. What greater madness than that can be said, or thought of? But if praise uses and ought to accompany a good life and good works, we ought to no more avoid its company that we do the company of a good life itself. Yet how do I know whether I am handling something sinfully or in proper balance unless I am without it?

Bonus Material: Memory and the Trinity

Augustine returned to subject of memory in his later work On the Trinity. There he uses the human mind as an illustration of the Trinity (man is, after all, made in God’s image):

Since, then, these three, memory, understanding, will, are not three lives, but one life; nor three minds, but one mind; it follows certainly that neither are they three substances, but one substance. Since memory, which is called life, and mind, and substance, is so called in respect to itself; but it is called memory, relatively to something. And I should say the same also of understanding and of will, since they are called understanding and will relatively to something; but each in respect to itself is life, and mind, and essence.

And hence these three are one, in that they are one life, one mind, one essence; and whatever else they are severally called in respect to themselves, they are called also together, not plurally, but in the singular number. But they are three, in that wherein they are mutually referred to each other; and if they were not equal, and this not only each to each, but also each to all, they certainly could not mutually contain each other; for not only is each contained by each, but also all by each.

For I remember that I have memory and understanding, and will; and I understand that I understand, and will, and remember; and I will that I will, and remember, and understand; and I remember together my whole memory, and understanding, and will. For that of my memory which I do not remember, is not in my memory; and nothing is so much in the memory as memory itself. Therefore I remember the whole memory. Also, whatever I understand I know that I understand, and I know that I will whatever I will; but whatever I know I remember. Therefore I remember the whole of my understanding, and the whole of my will. Likewise, when I understand these three things, I understand them together as whole.

Homework

Skim through the free will debate over the centuries. We’ll be talking about Augustine’s showdown with Pelagius.

Augustine and the Donatists

In 250, Emperor Decius initiated a brief but bloody persecution of the church. The majority of Christians renounced their faith or purchased a certificate saying they had renounced it. Once the danger was past, they began to rethink their decisions and wanted to rejoin the church. How should the church respond?

Back in Rome, the bishop had been martyred, and for a year there was nobody to take his place. In 251, Cornelius was elected and immediately offered penance to the lapsed. Novatian, who had helped lead the church in the transition, declared that this was impossible, and became the head of a rival church. Cornelius excommunicated them, and tension remained between the two groups for over a century.

In 303, Emperor Diocletian initiated what became known as the Great Persecution, and when it was over, the controversy arose again. This time, it was worst in North Africa, where the persecution had been lightest. All that had been asked of Christians there was to hand over their scriptures to be burned. Many Christians, particularly wealthy ones, acceded to this request, including clergy. These people were branded “traditores” (literally “those who had handed over”) and is where the word “traitor” comes from. The Donatists, led by Donatus, declared that any sacraments administered by traditore priests were invalid. They remained a force for centuries; it was only the Muslim conquest in the 7th century that put an end to the division.

Society of Saints vs. School for Sinners?

The questions raised in each of these schisms are very difficult, so much so that the church has continued to wrestle with them for the entirety of the past 2000 years. On the one hand, is the church not a pure, spotless bride? We cannot really claim to have faith in Christ if that faith doesn’t change how we live. On the other hand, we are all sinners; in the eyes of God we have all fallen short, and can we really claim that some other person’s sin is so much worse than ours as to put them beyond redemption? On the other hand, if we do not hold each other to account then aren’t we really just a bunch of hypocrites? On the other hand, we are specifically enjoined to be careful about judging, because the same measure will be applied to us. On the other hand, if we don’t judge and even expel some sinners from the congregation, we may indirectly cause others to sin who would have otherwise learned from the examples of those who were expelled. On the other hand, perhaps by staying in fellowship with a fallen brother, we can influence him back towards Christ and better behavior.

Wheat, Tares, and Augustine

As a bishop in North Africa, Augustine spent a lot of time combatting the Donatists. Sermon 23 succinctly lays out his view of sinners within the church, both among clergy and laity:

In the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, to burn them, but gather the wheat into My barn. Why are you so hasty, He says, you servants full of zeal? You see tares among the wheat, you see evil Christians among the good; and you wish to root up the evil ones; be quiet, it is not the time of harvest. That time will come, may it only find you wheat! Why do ye vex yourselves? Why bear impatiently the mixture of the evil with the good? In the field they may be with you, but they will not be so in the barn.

O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many. The winter will pass away, the summer will come; lo! The harvest will soon be here. The angels will come who can make the separation, and who cannot make mistakes. We in this time present are like those servants of whom it was said, Will You that we go and gather them up? for we were wishing, if it might be so, that no evil ones should remain among the good. But it has been told us, Let both grow together until the harvest. Why? For you are such as may be deceived. Hear finally; Lest while you gather up the tares, you root up also the wheat with them. What good are you doing? Will ye by your eagerness make a waste of My harvest?

I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world.

Consider how you would handle following in your church

  1. A man who sacrificed on the pagan altar to the emperor.
  2. A man who didn’t sacrifice, but bought a certificate saying he did.
  3. A Pastor who turned over scriptures to be burned.
  4. Church leadership which ordained a practicing homosexual.

Suppressing the Donatists

Augustine went beyond preaching, though. He called upon the state to help end the schism:

Again I ask, if good and holy men never inflict persecution upon any one, but only suffer it, whose words they think that those are in the psalm where we read, “I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them; neither did I turn again till they were consumed?” If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious. She therefore is blessed in suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake; but they are miserable, suffering persecution for unrighteousness. Moreover, she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she may correct, they that they may overthrow: she that she may recall from error, they that they may drive headlong into error.

Finally, she persecutes her enemies and arrests them, until they become weary in their vain opinions, so that they should make advance in the truth; but they, returning evil for good, because we take measures for their good, to secure their eternal salvation, endeavor even to strip us of our temporal safety, being so in love with murder, that they commit it on their own persons, when they cannot find victims in any others. For in proportion as the Christian charity of the Church endeavors to deliver them from that destruction, so that none of them should die.

The Donatist schism by his time had existed for nearly a century, and the division now went much deeper than the original controversy. It often turned violent. Sometimes, Donatists would loot and destroy Catholic churches. They also prevented people among their ranks from going over to the Catholic side by using violence. Does this change your view any?

And what are we to say of those who confess to us, as some do every day, that even in the olden days they had long been wishing to be Catholics; but they were living among men among whom those who wished to be Catholics could not be so through the infirmity of fear, seeing that if any one there said a single word in favor of the Catholic Church, he and his house were utterly destroyed at once? Who is mad enough to deny that it was right that assistance should have been given through the imperial decrees, that they might be delivered from so great an evil, whilst those whom they used to fear are compelled in turn to fear, and are either themselves corrected through the same terror, or, at any rate, whilst they pretend to be corrected, they abstain from further persecution of those who really are, to whom they formerly were objects of continual dread?

But if they have chosen to destroy themselves, in order to prevent the deliverance of those who had a right to be delivered, and have sought in this way to alarm the pious hearts of the deliverers, so that in their apprehension that some few abandoned men might perish, they should allow others to lose the opportunity of deliverance from destruction, who were either already unwilling to perish, or might have been saved from it by the employment of compulsion; what is in this case the function of Christian charity, especially when we consider that those who utter threats of their own violent and voluntary deaths are very few in number in comparison with the nations that are to be delivered?

What then is the function of brotherly love? Does it, because it fears the shortlived fires of the furnace for a few, therefore abandon all to the eternal fires of hell? And does it leave so many, who are either already desirous, or hereafter are not strong enough to pass to life eternal, to perish everlastingly, while taking precautions that some few should not perish by their own hand, who are only living to be a hindrance in the way of the salvation of others, whom they will not permit to live in accordance with the doctrines of Christ, in the hopes that some day or other they may teach them too to hasten their death by their own hand, in the manner which now causes them themselves to be a terror to their neighbors, in accordance with the custom inculcated by their devilish tenets? Or does it rather save all whom it can, even though those whom it cannot save should perish in their own infatuation? For it ardently desires that all should live, but it more especially labors that not all should die.

Consider the many people who are prevented from even hearing the gospel due to violent men who keep it out of their country. Now, imagine that you could change this by removing their oppressors by force. Would that be wrong?

Homework

Read Book 10.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapter 9

The biography is wrapping up now. Augustine has converted to Catholicism once and for all, and retires from his job as a teacher of rhetoric to devote himself full-time to philosophy, along with several of his friends. He is catechized and baptized by Ambrose.

Memento Mori, Monica

Augustine closes out the autobiographical portion of the book with his mother’s death in Ostia. The occasion prompts him to review a few significant events from her life. When she was a child, she had developed a habit of sneaking wine from her parents’ cellar. During an argument, a maid made a snide comment to her about this. Monica was so ashamed that she gave it up at once, prompting Augustine to remark “as flattering friends pervert, so reproachful enemies mostly correct.” Note that this follows the same pattern found in the earlier stories about Alypius’ circus addiction and Monica’s habit of making offerings to the martyrs. Augustine attributes much of Monica’s discipline later in life to this incident.

Monica’s relationship with her husband also stands out (Page 136). Augustine holds up her model of servitude to him, which is all the more impressive because Augustine does not for a moment pretend that his father was a good husband. Monica was clearly the better partner, and suffered a good deal of injustice and infidelity from her husband, yet was determined to be a good model of Christian humility and servitude, something that very few of us in the modern age would be likely to commend. However, the approach does bear fruit for her: she is reconciled to both her mother-in-law and her husband, and even wins him over to Christ in the end. By the end of their marriage, Augustine reports that “they lived in great harmony together,” and after her husband died, Monica took special care of the grave where she hoped to be buried next to him.

When the time came for her to die, however, Monica no longer considered it important where her body ended up. She was entirely focused on Heaven, and faced her death without fear. Augustine tried to do the same and hold back his grief, but was ultimately unable to (Page 147). He wraps the chapter up with a prayer for his mother.

Do you see what I see?

Monica and Augustine have a shared vision in Chapter X, the only instance of a shared vision that I am aware of. Now that Faith (Monica) and Reason (Augustine) are united, they are able to soar together above this world and glimpse the one beyond.

Post-Confessions

After his conversion, Augustine went back to his native Africa in 387, where he was ordained a priest in 391 and consecrated bishop of Hippo in 396. It was not his intention to become a priest. He was visiting the town of Hippo, was in church hearing a sermon, and the bishop, without warning, said, “This Church is in need of more priests, and I believe that the ordination of Augustine would be to the glory of God.” Willing hands dragged Augustine forward, and the bishop together with his council of priests laid hands on Augustine and ordained him to the priesthood. (The experience may have colored Augustine’s perception of such questions as, “Does a man come to God because he has chosen to do so, or because God has chosen him, and drawn him to Himself?”) A few years later, when the Bishop of Hippo died, Augustine was chosen to succeed him.

Timeline of Augustine’s life

Nov 3, 354 Is born at Tagaste
c. 371–373 His father dies, son Adeodatus is born
386 Is converted, retreats to Cassiciacum
387 Returns to Milan, is baptized by Ambrose. Monica dies at Ostia
391 Is ordained priest at Hippo (against his will)
396 He becomes bishop of Hippo
c. 400 Writes his Confessions
c. 403–412 The Donatist controversy
410 For health reasons, spends winter at villa outside Hippo
412–421 Pelagian controversy
413–426 Writes The City of God, On the Trinity, and The Enchiridion
427 Writes his Retractions
Aug 8, 430 Dies at Hippo

Homework

Read a little of what Augustine wrote regarding the Donatists. We will go into detail on who they were and how to respond to their challenge next week.

We also took some time this week to discuss Augustine’s principles for Scripture Interpretation, which I stole shamelessly from here.

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.