Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book Review (#18 of 2014) Confessions by St. Augustine

Confessions of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (free). Some books are best listened to, particularly ones translated into Elizabethan English from Latin. By listening, I'm able to cover more ground and not get bogged down in word choice, and I'm able to connect the streams of thought more seamlessly.

I'd not read this classic, even though I long intended to "get around to it." Had it not been mentioned by Dallas Willard and Richard Foster as a great source for meditation and devotional (along with City of God which I will now read expediently), then I might not have gotten it done this year.  Confessions is one of the first "Western" autobiographies and I was fascinated that it could have been written in the 1800s just as well as 398. Has the same raw quality of pre-20th-century memoirs that haven't been edited for their PC content and revisionism.

Augustine lives somewhat of a privileged boyhood with good schooling, discipline, and a devout mother. He loves to sin, particularly struggling with lust and theft just for the sake of theft. As a teenager, Augustine joins a cult of Manicheans for 9 years. Like any cult, he finds it intellectually stifling-- he's discouraged from asking questions, or trying to use science or reason. The leaders he is under are not as well-educated as himself, and this makes it difficult. Many of the Manichee, like Mormons or JW's today, were devotees to the writings of Mani, but had not read all of his thoughts or understood them. There appear to be some appeals to astrology in Mani's writings, and the people Augustine is around don't really understand all of what they speak of. Among these were Faustus who was supposed to have all the answers, but Augustine finds generally disappointing. Nonetheless, Augustine finds their message liberating-- "it is not I who sin." Manicheans were dualists--Gnostics -- who believed that Jesus did not inhabit a physical body, and that our souls cannot be corrupted by what is done by our flesh. Even after Augustine rejects their teachings, he does not want to choose Scripture as Truth.

So, Augustine remains fairly closely associated with Manichees while himself a professor of rhetoric both in Carthage and in Rome. Meanwhile, his mother is a devout Christian who prays earnestly for his salvation and implores him to repent.

She follows him to Milan, where Augustine encounters Bishop Ambrose (whose own life seems fascinating), who Augustine respects; he attends every Sunday service. (I found some of the description of church life interesting, there appears to have been some struggles with what role wine should play in the life of the believer-- Ambrose apparently being opposed to Augustine's mother's use of wine in an act of worship.) Augustine is a philanderer, has a child by a "concubine" who he loves, but rejects in order to marry at his mother's behest. He generally hates married life and continues a life of adultery.

Augustine converses with Simplicanius, spiritual father of Ambrose, who tells Augustine of  Victorinus, a Roman philosopher and respected teacher of rhetoric in Rome, who toward the end of his life forsakes his career (it was illegal for Christians to teach rhetoric) to become a Christian. Augustine had read books translated by Victorinus, and this makes an impression on him.

"But when that man of Thine, Simplicianus, related to me this of Victorinus, I was on fire to imitate him; for for this very end had he related it. But when he had subjoined also, how in the days of the Emperor Julian a law was made, whereby Christians were forbidden to teach the liberal sciences or oratory; and how he, obeying this law, chose rather to give over the wordy school than Thy Word, by which Thou makest eloquent the tongues of the dumb; he seemed to me not more resolute than blessed, in having thus found opportunity to wait on Thee only."


Augustine also hears of Antony Eventually, Augustine has a conversion experience and repents.

"I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: 'Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence.' No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away."


His son is baptised with him. His mother is jubilant, and dies some time afterwards.

Modernly, Augustine's book is also seen as literature, with and it appears from reading around that modern scholars maintain that looking at his work from our modern lenses misses the overall purpose and meaning. Augustine's book is not some confession and testimony of a sinner, but rather his work was intended to convert Manicheans. After all, the biographical part ends in Book 9 and Augustine launches on a range of topics, including memory and the meaning of time. (Physics tells us that all moments in time already exists, and this is what I hear Augustine saying in Book 11.) It's plausible to me that his intended audience are Manichees since they were interested in times, planets, and creation as Augustine spends a great deal of time on these. He engaged in a lifelong battle against the Manichees in Hippo, and this work certainly seems part of his larger writings to that end. Augustine's philosophical musings are still of great interest today. I would like to read Brian Greene's take on his philosophy of time.

Confessions really drives home the importance of Scripture to me; Augustine was 40 when he wrote it and knew the Scriptures well. Augustine took part in important church councils, and my understanding is that by the time of his ascension to Bishop, the accepted Western canon of scripture was already considered closed. I really enjoy how he writes/prays Scriptures when pouring his thoughts out. He prays the prayers of David, Jesus, Paul, etc. in relation to his own life and salvation. Opens every book with a heartfelt prayer/confession. I would like to read books on the theology of Augustine.

It also inspires me to read more church history. People like Simplicanius could probably trace their spiritual lineage back to the Apostles. Christians like Antony were well-known in Augustine's circles, having also published works (Dallas Willard has a nice critique of Antony and the secular-sacred dichotomy that was probably popularized by Augustine's mention). What can we today learn from these and the controversies faced by the authors? Why aren't we Christians today more scholarly about our ancient heritage?

5 stars out of 5, of course.

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