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).
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).
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.
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.