In which I “discover” a book that’s required reading for literally every Western Civ class.
For most of my adult life I’ve been working on a puzzle. I’ve been been trying to figure out how to understand my own faith, and how to articulate it to others. Like many Christian millennials, I want to know: how do we talk about God and creation? Good and evil? Judgment and redemption? Most of the answers coming out of mainstream evangelical culture are just a little too “watertight,” to quote a friend. Everything fits together too neatly in a way that treats the Bible like a math textbook. In my search for a different approach, I stumbled on another puzzle piece, hiding in plain sight: Augustine’s Confessions.
While it certainly contains the stories of Augustine’s struggle with sin, Confessions’ title actually refers to the much broader sense of the word: the work is a confession of praise, faith, doubt, anger and sorrow. It is widely considered one of the great works of the Western canon. But as famous as Confessions may be, it wasn’t until I had spent several years asking those big questions for myself that I actually picked it up and read it all the way through.
A few pages in, it became clear to me that this North African bishop from the 300s had thoroughly earned his reputation as one of the greatest minds of history. Much of what I found compelling in Confessions was also largely absent from what I’d experienced as a Christian in twenty-first century America. But his understanding of sin, salvation and human destiny was clearly rooted in the most basic of Christian teaching. It was ancient, but fresh; new, yet familiar.
I think this reaction would have made Augustine happy. He was heavily influenced by Plato and other Platonist thinkers, who came up with this idea they called anamnesis, or “recollection.” Basically, in their minds, all learning was simply remembering the truth that has been in us from the beginning. So it’s there; it just has to be awakened. “Late have I loved Thee,” prays Augustine as he describes his own awakening, “O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved Thee! For behold Thou wert within me, and I outside…Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do now pant for Thee.” (Book 10, Chapter XXVII)
These words are not just beautiful. It’s clearly an emotional prayer for Augustine, but it’s also rich with theology and his own experience. Frank Sheed, in the foreword to his excellent translation of the classic work, attempts to nail down just what made Augustine unique. He brings up Augustine’s self-perception, his beautiful writing, his psychological insight. Ultimately, Sheed arrives at something more subtle, but instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever sat under the instruction of a great teacher. He writes that Augustine “gives us his teaching and he gives us himself with it…he does not skim the truth off the experience and give us that.” (Introduction to Confessions, p. xxix) A friend of mine called it “weaving truth with autobiography.”
This was what I was looking for. The missing ingredient. Augustine clothes the truth he is trying to communicate with the story of his own experience. The truth about who God is and what he is doing has to be ‘clothed’ in order for us to truly understand it; this is why God gives his voice to wild desert prophets instead of simply uploading a message directly to everyone’s brains. It’s why Jesus speaks in parables. Something about stories helps us to absorb meaning more effectively than by rote memorization–we live in the story for a moment, and that moment often produces an effect more powerful than simply listening to someone read off a list of principles.
In Luke 24, Jesus goes incognito and walks with two friends who are reeling from witnessing the Crucifixion. Without revealing himself, he retells the whole story of Israel, explaining that everything in the Law and the Prophets was leading up to his death and resurrection. After Jesus breaks bread with his friends, Luke writes that their “eyes were opened”, and they ask each other: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
Stories awaken in us the truth of who we really are.
There is a part in Confessions that will stand out to any lover of stories. It is one of the best examples of what a good story can do in the heart of the reader or listener. And just like all good stories, it isn’t just a parable or a metaphor; it stands as an invitation, acting upon the reader, not content to simply be read.
Some context: Milan, 386 A.D. At thirty-one years of age, Augustine is coming to believe the claims of Christianity, but he can’t yet bring himself all the way to complete commitment. During this in-between stage he is visited by a ‘fellow countryman’ from North Africa–a Christian, named Ponticianus. This new friend is pleasantly surprised to see the works of the apostle Paul lying open on the table, and wanting to help Augustine along in his journey of faith, he sits down and tells a story.
In the story, two Roman state officials chance upon a book about the life of St. Anthony. Stirred by reading of Anthony’s faith, one official thinks of their efforts to curry favor with the emperor, and says to his friend, “Tell me, please, what is the goal of our ambition in all these labors of ours? What are we aiming at? How long before we are there? But if I should choose to be a friend of God, I can become one now.” (Book 8, Chapter VI)
Hearing this produces a response in Augustine similar to that of the two friends in the story, touching off a Woody Allen-level internal dialogue summed up by his famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
Considering that these are the confessions of Saint Augustine, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that Augustine is pushed further toward God because of this inner turmoil. He calls it “going mad on the way to sanity, dying on the way to life.” And so just as Anthony inspired the two friends, and the story of the two friends invaded the mind of Augustine, Augustine’s own story invites us to join him on his winding, slightly mad path to God.
My experience with Confessions was not without a few bumps in the road. As readable as he is, Augustine is still very much a fourth and fifth century Catholic, and as such his thoughts will sometimes seem alien to a twenty-first century Protestant. That gulf of history is at times helpful, acting as a kind of mirror. It may also be jarring to the reader.
Here is one example. On one hand, his emphasis on the power of baptism forced me to think of how many Western strains of modern Protestant Christianity have been denuded of power of the sacraments. In my tradition, there are often thick dividing lines between symbol, meaning and experience. I don’t know if that’s the result of modernism, the Enlightenment, or the Reformation, but it’s a far cry from the mystical, effectual power that Augustine sees in the baptism of a dying friend in Book 4, Chapter IV.
On the other hand, Augustine’s mother is clearly one of the most faithful, righteous people in Augustine’s life. And yet after her death, he prays for her soul, seeming to worry that some sin of hers committed after she was baptized would hold her eternal salvation in jeopardy. (Book 9, Chapter XII) This was particularly frustrating to read, as it directly contradicts the Apostle Paul’s assertion in Romans that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”
Augustine lived during the overlap between the periods of Late Antiquity (100s to 600s AD) and the Middle Ages (400s to 1500 AD), and the otherness of Augustine’s early medieval Catholicism surfaces frequently, from his embrace of the church’s use of relics to his attitude toward women and sexuality. When I read his thoughts on music in worship, I almost threw the book across the room. He writes: “I am inclined to approve the custom of singing in church, that by the pleasure of the ear the weaker minds may be roused to a feeling of devotion.” (Book 10, Chapter XXXIII) I am both a musician and a music leader at my church, and needless to say, this…irked me.
Equally baffling–to a modern perspective–is his approach toward curiosity about the natural world. Unlike the writer of Proverbs, moved to amazement by the way of a serpent on a rock or an eagle in the sky, Augustine fears that such a diversion will “draw me off from some serious thought and concentrate me upon itself, forcing me from my path.” The example he gives is of seeing a dog chasing a rabbit in a field, or a lizard catching flies on a rock; for Augustine, to be distracted by such things would be sinful. (Book 10, Chapter XXXV)
His antagonism toward both emotional response and curiosity begins to make sense, however, when you take into account the Platonism that features so prominently in his thought. Augustine readily admits the influence of Plato and Plotinus. That influence comes out clearly in his emphasis on the spiritual world over the physical. He especially privileges the cognitive worship of God by way of the reasoning mind. Continuing his thoughts on worship, he writes, “Whenever it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by the thing that is sung, I admit that I have grievously sinned.”
The primacy of the mind is on full display in the latter parts of Confessions. Augustine spends whole chapters musing on memory, time, creation and what these things must reflect about God’s divine nature. His writing has come under some flak over the centuries, particularly from the Eastern church, and a line has been drawn from his thinking to the problems some see in the Reformed tradition. From my own experience, I have found some Reformed systematic theology to be over-formulated. The sovereignty of God, the exchange of sin and righteousness between Adam, us and Christ, and the distinction between justification and sanctification are just a few examples of doctrines that I’ve heard explained with a mathematical precision that I can’t find in scripture. Without going into too much detail, this kind of ‘logical reasoning’ into the mystical works of God bears a striking similarity to the way Augustine attempts to reason out God’s divine nature.
Platonism seems to be at the root of many of the passages I found to be troublesome, distasteful, or downright boring. But ironically, it’s that Christ-infused Platonism (or Plato-infused Christianity?) that acts as both the canvas and the paint for some of the most beautiful passages in the book. “And what is this God?” Augustine asks, in dialogue with creation. “I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they answered: ‘We are not your God; seek higher.’” (Book 10, Chapter VI)
Christianity and Platonism overlap in some significant ways, especially in the writings of Paul. To both Paul and Plato, our corrupted earthly reality is a signpost pointing to a perfect, incorruptible, spiritual dimension. Similarly, for Augustine, God is (among other things) an “incorruptible substance from which every substance has its being.”
Like Augustine, C.S. Lewis is known for bringing Platonist ideas into his articulation of the Christian faith. One of those ideas is that when it comes to our relationship with our Creator, our very being hangs in the balance. In The Great Divorce, Lewis tells an allegorical story of ghosts who take a bus trip from Hell to the ‘outskirts of Heaven’, where to their dismay they learn of their own ghostliness. One attempts to eat a heavenly apple, but since the ghosts are nowhere near as “real” as the stuff of Heaven, he can barely lift it, let alone eat it. As he tries to carry the apple back to the tour bus, an angel stops him. “’Fool,’ he said, ‘put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples.”
Lewis referred to Augustine as “a great saint and a great thinker to whom my own glad debts are incalculable.” We see that debt in this passage where Augustine meditates on the heavenly food offered to Christ’s followers:
“Then indeed I saw clearly your invisible things which are understood by the things that are made, but I lacked the strength to hold my gaze fixed…so that I returned to my old habits, bearing nothing with me but a memory of delight and a desire as for something of which I had caught the fragrance but which I had not yet the strength to eat.
So I set about finding a way to gain the strength that was necessary for enjoying you. And I could not find it until I embraced the Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ…who brought into union with our nature that Food which I lacked the strength to take: for the Word was made flesh that your Wisdom, by which you created all things, might give suck to our souls’ infancy.”
But while Christians and Platonists speak in similar tongues, Plato only takes us so far. The Platonist frame does not quite fit the picture that begins in the Old Testament and continues into Augustine’s day (and ours). Augustine admits as much, reminding us that Platonism is not enough:
“But what shall unhappy man do? Who shall deliver him from the body of this death, save the grace of God by Jesus Christ our Lord…in whom the prince of this world found nothing worthy of death yet killed Him; and the handwriting was blotted out of the decree which was contrary to us.
The writings of the Platonists contain nothing of all this. Their pages show nothing of the face of that love, the tears of confession, Your sacrifice, an afflicted spirit, a contrite and humbled heart, the salvation of your people, the espoused city, the promise of the Holy Spirit, the chalice of our redemption.” (Book 7, Chapter XXI)
The gospel believed by Augustine is not a sterile, watertight three-point sermon, starved of all beauty and mystery. This is a story, rich with images–the Espoused City! the Chalice of Redemption!–that leap off the page.
When I read the evocative language in Augustine’s summary of the Christian narrative, I was again reminded of C.S. Lewis. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy Pevensie finds a book containing a captivating, life-giving story. But after reading it, she can’t remember the specifics, other than that it was “about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill.” Of course, Aslan shows up, and she asks him, “Shall I ever be able to read that story again, the one I couldn’t remember? Will you tell it to me, Aslan? Oh do, do, do.” Aslan replies: “Indeed yes, I will tell it to you for years and years.”
Forgetting, and then slowly remembering over the course of a lifetime – this should sound familiar. It’s Plato’s anamnesis again. Except that for Lewis and Augustine, that ‘innate’ knowledge that is regained is not some disembodied wisdom, but the tangible imago Dei: the image of God made from the physical dust of this world. It is the communion Adam had with God that was lost, and through our redemption is being remembered and restored. It’s no coincidence that Augustine spends as much time as he does on the subject of memory. Our anamnesis, individually and collectively, is movement toward fully remembering and restoring our humanity as it was originally created, now in glorified form.
We often keep Plato and Augustine in the university; you don’t really run into them out in the street much these days. But when Christians think of the Jesus’ gospel as simply a set of truths to be accepted, instead of a grand story being told by God with and through his people, the consequences are devastating. Try putting a child to sleep with a story that goes, “Once upon a time, God saved the world. The end.” You can imagine the kid’s response: “That’s not a story! Tell me the whole thing!”
Of course, it’s not just a kid asking for a bedtime story. It’s a family recovering from abuse, a homeless woman looking for a safe place, or a college kid stuck in porn addiction. They need the whole gospel story. To quote Frank Sheed again, if we “skim the truth off” the story, and simply give them that, they might get the basic vitamins, but in reality we starve those who are already starving.
Augustine gives us the whole feast. His life and words stand as a reminder that the story told by Jesus is far richer and far greater than any story we might be currently living. Augustine lived with crippling doubt and constant questions in the face of death, pain, lust, fear, and sorrow. In the midst of all of that, he invites the reader, regardless of century, into this story–like Ponticianus, like Anthony, like Jesus on the road to Emmaus–in the hopes that it will awaken something in us. The stakes are high. This is about remembering who we are, and what we are becoming. Lewis says that in the incarnation of Christ, when God’s Word was clothed in flesh, “myth became fact.” If we follow in the footsteps of Augustine and clothe the truth of God with our own story, we become a living Confession.