Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Summary of Book VII - Part 1

God. Evil. Firminus. All things good.

In perhaps the most philosophical chapter so far, Augustine gives an account of his intellectual struggle towards professing Catholic faith. Part of his confession involves admitting that he did not understand the Catholic faith. He struggled with how to conceive of God. How could God be anything other than ‘something physical occupying space diffused either in the world or even through infinite space outside the world.’?

The biggest problem that remained was the problem of evil. If God was the creator of all things what was the origin of evil? If God was holy free and immune from creation, how could a fallen imperfect creation be philosophically justified? This question was perhaps the issue which finally undermined the teaching of the Manichees. But Augustine still had to work through the questions on his own terms. He was beginning to realize that his own will chose to sin. But the consequences of this thought depressed and suffocated Augustine’s soul. Despite the unhappiness involved, Augustine confesses that the faith was to be found within his heart and mind. Hesitant and unformed, this faith was developing and growing as he took in more and more Catholic teaching.

Another friend helped confirm Augustine’s rejection of astrology. Firminus told the story of two infants born at the identical time. So the infants shared the same horoscope. One of the infants was Firminus himself, the other was the child of a slave girl. Firminus went on to enjoy a successful career, while the slave child grew up into the service of his owners. Astrology is mere chance. It did not offer any solution to the problem of evil.

Augustine believed that God existed. He believed that God was an immutable substance who cared for humanity and judged humanity. He also believed that through Christ and the scriptures God had provided a way of salvation. But he was suffering internally as he struggled with the problem of evil. His friends did not see or hear, but Augustine confesses that the Lord heard everything. The Lord was merciful even though Augustine was full of pride and conceit.

Platonist writings furthered Augustine’s intellectual and spiritual progress. They spoke of the eternity and immutability of the Word of God, God’s Son. But they did not speak of the Son’s death, his humility. The Platonist books contained descriptions of idols and images. But they helped Augustine to see within his own being another Being, a light ‘utterly different from all our kinds of light.’ Platonic thinking influenced Augustine’s understanding of things. ‘That which truly is is that which unchangeably abides.’ However any thing that exists exists because it is good in some measure. God created all substance. Any substance is good, because God has made ‘all things very good’ (Gen.1.31)

Evil, therefore, was not a substance. In this sense evil has no existence. Augustine’s thinking moved towards thinking about the totality of all things, ‘…all things taken together are better than superior things by themselves.’ Wickedness and evil were perversity twisted away from God towards inferior substances. Augustine saw within himself this struggle. He loved God as God truly was. But his love, as yet, was not a stable love which he could enjoy fully.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Summary of Book VI

Monica. Ambrose. A Beggar. Companions. Frustration.

Monica moved to Milan to be with Augustine. But she was not over excited on learning that he had stopped being a Manichee. All the more she prayed for that thing which had been promised to her. As yet Augustine had not attained to the truth of the Catholic faith. Monica was impressed by Ambrose. Because of his influence, she was able to curtail her custom of bringing offerings to the memorial shrines.

No opportunity allowed for Augustine to spend significant time in discussion with Ambrose. But through hearing Ambrose ‘rightly preach the word of truth’ each Lord’s day, Augustine started to realize that he had not understood the Catholic faith. His objections about the nature of God’s being were false: ‘Being ignorant what your image consisted in, I should have knocked and inquired about the meaning of this belief, and not insulted and opposed it, as if the belief meant what I thought.’ The Catholic Church did not teach what Augustine had supposed her to teach.

Augustine still could not give assent to Catholic teaching. He was searching for certainty when only faith was the key to understanding and healing. Little by little the Lord touched and calmed his heart. The Bible started to impress Augustine more for its content than its form. The accessible words of the Bible and its humble style did not diminish ‘the dignity of its secret meaning for a profounder interpretation.’

A destitute beggar became an illustration of Augustine’s condition at this time. Although the beggar did not have true joy, he was happy in his drunkenness. For all Augustine’s privilege and effort, he was worse off than the beggar. He was unhappy because he used his education to the wrong end. Augustine shared this perspective on life with companions. Alypius and Nebridius shared the frustrations of seeking after truth and wisdom. They discussed the ultimate nature of good and evil. Plans for a community dedicated to the life of contemplation collapsed.

The quest for happiness was confused between the ideal and the actual. Augustine struggled over the marriage question, stuck fast in the glue of sexual pleasure. A lawful marriage was arranged. His concubine was sent away. Augustine took another woman while he awaited marriage. But the wound of parting with his concubine and son did not heal. As Augustine became unhappier, God came closer to him. Without God’s mercy, without God putting Augustine back onto the righteous path, the road ahead was bound to be tortuous.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Baptism in Confessions - Part 2

The account of progress towards full membership of the Catholic Church continues. Augustine tells stories which help us to understand how baptism was viewed in general. At least two of these stories are about illness and 'emergency' baptism. In one of the stories Augustine himself is ill, but he expresses no desire for baptism.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Summary of Book V

Restlessness. Faustus. Hidden providence. Illness. Ambrose.

God is always everywhere. So those who try to flee him fail. God knows all things too, so Augustine’s prayer and confession is praise. The entire creation never ceases to praise. Those who flee are encouraged to (re)turn. But God finds them even before the lost turn. They cannot find themselves far less God.

Augustine is now 29. His reading in science and philosophy was beginning to undermine some of what the Manichees taught him. But none of the philosophers knew the Way, the Word. They turned the truth into a lie, and worshipped the creation rather than the Creator. Nevertheless the truth they had made Mani appear foolish. Augustine had heard that Faustus would be able to answer his questions. But for all his style he could not. Fine style does not make something true. Faustus appeared prudent and wise because he charmed people with his talk.

God is the only teacher of the truth. God was teaching Augustine in wonderful and hidden ways, and Augustine was learning. In discussion it turned out Faustus was limited in his knowledge of the liberal arts. All this was God’s hidden secret providence to show Augustine the error of his ways. Faustus was likeable and good company. Spending time with him actually turned Augustine against progressing in the ways of Mani. God, in his hidden providence, was intent on remaking Augustine.

Providence saw Augustine move to Rome. Monica did not realise that the absence of her son would bring her joy. On arriving at Rome Augustine experienced the ‘scourge of physical sickness’. In a remarkable section (paragraph 16), Augustine describes his peril during this time. He was still carrying the burden of his sins. He still was trapped by the chain of original sin. He had not yet been forgiven. As the fevers became worse Augustine was on his way to the underworld. Unlike his childhood illness, during this illness Augustine had no desire for baptism. God did not allow death in ‘this sad condition of both body and soul.’ The prayers of Monica were being answered according to God’s predestinating order.

Augustine was still a sinner in sin. Yet as a Manichee he denied any such connection. The Manichees had turned Augustine away from the Church. He could not believe humanity was in God’s image. Neither could he imagine anything other than the material. God was some form of physical mass. Evil was a material substance. Augustine was trapped in a form of dualism.

Teaching in Rome turned out to be a disappointment. Students were dishonourable in not paying their fees. Through friends and contacts Augustine secured an appointment in Milan. Here he encountered Ambrose. He liked him at first, not as a teacher of truth, but as a person who was kind. Ambrose taught the sound doctrine of salvation. That doctrine drew Augustine closer to salvation. Rhetoric remained the chief attraction. Eventually the doctrine and rhetoric could not be separated. Truth gradually entered Augustine’s heart breaking down objections to the Catholic faith. The philosophers undermined the arguments of the Manichees. But they were without Christ. They could not heal the soul. Augustine chose to enter the Church as a cathechumen. He was waiting for clear light to direct his course.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Baptism in Confessions - Part 1

Augustine was brought up by a devout Christian mother, but his father was only baptized on his deathbed in 372. As a boy Augustine therefore took part in the life of the church. At birth he was signed with the sign of the cross and seasoned with salt. These rituals sanctified and exorcised people and marked them as catechumens preparing for baptism, trainees in the life of the church. It is interesting to note that Martin Luther retained these symbols in his baptismal service. Catechumens were entitled to call themselves ‘Christian’ but they were not full church members until baptism and their first participation in the eucharist.

Augustine recounts his experience of illness in childhood. He writes about begging for baptism, and he attributes this to faith. But although preparations were made for baptism, Augustine recovered from his illness. Baptism was postponed on the assumption that Augustine would be sure to commit post-baptismal sins. After the ‘solemn washing’ of baptism such guilt would be ‘greater and more dangerous’. Even though he was not baptized Augustine considered himself, and was considered to be, a believer at this stage in his life. Given the narrative of Confessions it is not clear how Augustine understands this statement. Was he merely a believer in some formal sense? Or does Augustine mean us to understand that his childhood faith was genuine, to be fulfilled after years of faithless living?

Confessions, Book I, paragraph 18, suggests that although Augustine acknowledged God’s faithful oversight, he did not fully understand the human reasoning in deferring his baptism. There was confusion inherent within the common assumptions and beliefs about baptism. Augustine himself wrestled with the practice and doctrine of baptism as a bishop, shaping the Catholic tradition forever with special reference to original sin and the salvation of infants.

The meaning and value of baptism in relation to God’s grace are seriously undermined if both the baptized and the unbaptized remain in peril. Baptized people were in peril of sinning their way beyond salvation, so they must have been liable to living a life of fear. Through deferring baptism people ran the risk of missing out on grace and favour, to what exact end no-one seems to know. It appears Augustine’s mother feared for her son in his unbaptized state as much as she feared the consequences of post-baptismal sin (Book II, para 6,7).

Early chapters in Confessions present an unsatisfactory view of baptism. To remain unbaptized was to remain unsaved. But baptism did not guarantee salvation. In the event of certain post-baptismal sins, baptism actually heightened the prospect of damnation and eternal loss.

Augustine would reform the Catholic view of baptism. The next post on baptism in Confessions will continue looking at references in the text. Subsequent posts will discuss Augustine's views on baptism. A final post will evaluate these views in relation to the nature of salvation and Baptist understandings of baptism.

Summary of Book IV

Concubine. Astrology. Death of a friend. Reflections on salvation, beauty, learning.

Augustine accounts for his years as a twenty-something. In public he followed a career as a teacher and man of rhetoric. In private he professed a false religion. He confesses his shame and folly in order to glorify and praise God. He sees his life then as ‘falling about on slippery ground’. Every area was false or incomplete because of his lack of knowledge and desire for God. Although the relationship with his concubine was monogamous and socially acceptable, Augustine now viewed it through his Catholic understanding of marriage. In rejecting and despising animal sacrifices, his motives were not pure and holy because he knew nothing about love for God.

Astrology fascinated Augustine. A man of good judgment helped Augustine to investigate its value. But he was not able to persuade Augustine to abandon it. That would come in relation to discovering true Christian piety. For the time being Augustine was to himself a vast problem. He did not understand his friend’s baptism. He did not understand the impact of his friend’s death. The bitterness was more important than the friend. Yet the experience of loss threatened everything, as if death was going to engulf all humanity. Emotions overwhelmed Augustine at the time. He became a place of unhappiness from which he could not escape.

Reflection on death turns into reflection on love, restoration, salvation and beauty. The love that we find in friendship is from God. God cannot be lost nor can God be avoided. To abandon God is merely to move from under his serenity to his anger. But the Word of God cries for people to return. All the parts of the universe make up its whole. Far superior to those things is God who does not pass away. To trust and love God is to lose nothing, knowing that all that you lose ‘will be given fresh form and renewed’.

Augustine relates these things – salvation and restoration - to the incarnation of the Word. His confession is that he did not know this relation at the time. Instead he loved beautiful things of a lower order. He wrote a book about such things, dedicating it to a hero ‘of the type which I so loved that I wanted to be like him.’ Because he did not know God, he did not really know the things he was writing about. Indeed he was in gross error about the true nature of creation, allowing for a dualism between good and evil.

The soul needs to be enlightened by light from outside so that it can participate in truth. Augustine’s learning made him proud rather than wise. God remained true to his word and resisted that pride. Augustine tried to understand God through Aristotle. For all his learning Augustine asks in confession the value of his learning. It only holds value in returning to God. Our good life is with God and suffers no deficiency because God is that good.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Summary of Book III

Carthage. Cicero and scripture. False seeking. Justice. Reading.

Love remains a major theme as Augustine gives an account of his time in Carthage. But so does confusion about the true nature of love. The account of his student days continues the story of how created things failed to satisfy a hunger within. Theatre provides an opportunity to analyse the nature of true compassion. Love of theatre led to a life that was not real life at all. Yet even though God punished, the punishment was not equivalent to the guilt. Mercy hovered over Augustine even as he wandered far from God.

Study involved textbooks on eloquence. Cicero captured Augustine, and encouraged a return to God. He discovered a longing for the immortality of wisdom. His values and priorities changed. Reading Cicero encouraged Augustine to seek wisdom wherever found. Yet the lack of Christ’s name in Cicero’s work dampened enthusiasm. This deficiency led Augustine to read the holy scriptures to find out what they were like. In his youthful pride what he discovered disappointed him. The scriptures seemed unworthy of comparison with Cicero.

This disappointment explains the attraction of the Manichees. They combined “slick talk” with reference to Christ. They spoke much of truth but actually knew nothing about it. Augustine continued in confusion. Desire for God was frustrated through seeking God in created things. Just as food in dreams does not nourish the body, so the wisdom of the Manichees did not satisfy. Augustine was seeking God, yet he was travelling further away from the truth he sought.

One consequence of this waywardness was ignorance about the nature of justice. The art of poetic composition becomes an illustration of how justice is prescribed at various times in different contexts. Augustine’s youthful and foolish reading of the scriptures made him highly critical of biblical heroes. They simply acted according to God’s timely commands. What God commands has to be done, even if it has never been previously done.

There are proper good actions that people do not approve. And there are many actions praised by humankind which on God’s testimony are to be censured. For Augustine, a just human society is one which submits to God. Happy are those people who know that God is the source of moral precepts. As a young man Augustine was not happy.

Monica’s vision pictured her son’s restoration. But for nine years he would remain in the deep mire and darkness of falsehood. Seeking advice from a bishop, Monica is told that her son remains unready to learn. Earlier we read Augustine confess how unprepared he was to read and understand holy scripture. Monica is told to pray. She is encouraged to think that by his reading her son will discover the error of his ways. Reading becomes a significant theme in Augustine’s salvation and success.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Summary of Book II

Wicked ways. Streets of Babylon. Stealing pears. Friendship a dangerous enemy.

Perhaps the key idea is described in the opening line of paragraph 2. As a young man Augustine wanted to love and be loved. This desire was the motivation for all of his wicked ways as he walked the streets of Babylon. All his sinful acts were ways of seeking to fulfil a need for companionship. In order to avoid being despised and rejected Augustine would pretend to acts of depravity.

Love was confused with lust. There was conflict between acceptable human solutions to the problem of lust, and God’s design for holy marriage. To be chaste and virginal was beyond Augustine. Yet he had no desire to fulfil what he perceived to be the obligations of holy matrimony. Augustine’s monogamous relationship with his concubine would last for several years. The son from that relationship no doubt inspired the infancy narrative in Book I. Far from being a sex crazed maniac before his conversion, as a young adult Augustine would settle into a socially acceptable domestic relationship.

But God’s anger was upon him without his awareness of it. It was as if God was silent. The words of Monica to restrain his disorder were God’s words. In Augustine’s waywardness God was always present, “mercifully punishing” with the intention of turning his desires to purer objects. For all that Monica was concerned for Augustine, this concern was not a pure concern. Augustine’s parents were more concerned for his worldly success than his devotion to God’s ways. Although Monica had fled from the heart of Babylon, she still lingered in the outskirts of the city.

Augustine’s confession and recalling of his wicked ways suddenly shifts from lust to theft. The sole reason for his crime was the wickedness of his heart. There was a love of falling into ruin and sin. What good thing was being perverted in the sin of stealing pears? If all sin is some perversion of good, what was the motive in this seemingly pointless misdemeanor? Augustine had access to better pears. If all the perverted ways of humanity imitate the Lord in some manner, in what way was stealing the pears a reflection of God’s high and true goodness?

Augustine was conscious at the time that he would not have committed the crime alone. The crime was committed for a laugh. Bad company corrupts good character. But in Augustine’s experience it was wickedness not goodness below the surface. At the end of his analysis of the crime, Augustine admits that he is unable to understand the foul affair. Yet he now knows the forgiveness and joy of God. He is no longer fearful of that wrath which once hovered over him.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Summary of Book I

Prayer. Nature of God. Infancy. Childhood and early education.

Each book in Confessions begins with a prayer. The opening prayer of Book I is fuller than most of the other prayers. It leads into a brief discussion of the nature of God. From the opening paragraph the reader is confronted with Old and New Testament verses, in particular references to the Psalms. Prayer is a call for God to come to (even to enter into) the one praying. The act of prayer requires some sort of pre-existing faith and belief.

However to call on God is to request something beyond comprehension. The one who calls only exists because of the presence of the One called. The One called is the One who fills all things already. In asking who God is Augustine introduces a minor theme of the whole work. He calls on God the Lord, citing Psalm 17:32. He describes the One he is calling by listing attributes of the Lord God. But then Augustine hints at the impossibility of communicating anything about God. God is unique. God cannot be fully described or known. The whole creation cannot contain God fully, even though God is fully present everywhere in all space and time. How, then, can words contain God?

Yet Augustine writes words and sentences. And he quotes words and sentences from Scripture. And he prays to be given words. Words can be signs of what the indescribable God is. Early in the account of infancy, Augustine writes of speechless infants making wordless signs in communication. As the infant grows the mind learns to recognise and understand humanly determined word signs. The infant learns to use them to enter “more deeply into the stormy society of human life.” Human society is stormy because of the battle between sinful wills trying to gain supremacy. In his early education, and even in his infancy, Augustine thinks he was a sinner trying to persuade people to bow to his will: “so tiny a child, so great a sinner.”

Though the content of his education included vanities (his exercises “mere smoke and wind”) Augustine asks the Lord to turn his learning to good use. God the Lord gave him good gifts. Augustine then used those good gifts for sinful ends. Although the Lord reigns in silence, He will not always be silent. In fact, the passions and delights of men in their judicial word games are signs of the penalty of God’s law. And so Augustine prays to be kept through the proper use of his gifts.

Much of the writing appears mere rhetoric. We are not provided with theories of God, language, infancy, education or sin. But every paragraph contains subtle qualified statements of wisdom. Comments on this post can take up some of those statements. Group members should feel free to contribute their own posts. For the moment let’s stick with themes and content from Book I. I've posted this summary a little earlier than originally planned. Expect my summary of Book II before the end of October 2010.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Plan

Confessions is divided into 13 Books. It is a narrative of conversion, but it is more than that… it is also a polemical work. As well as confessing the faults and failings of his early life, Augustine offers the reader a defence of his current standing as a believer and bishop within the Catholic Church.

Confessions was written over the period 397 to 400, just after Augustine’s appointment as a bishop. Many of his great polemical and theological works were written and published later in his life.

Confessions contains more than enough material for us to take time in our reading and reflection. I will provide summaries of each book... one book at a time over the next ten months or so. Expect the first such summary to be posted mid to late October 2010.

Group members should feel free to read Confessions at their own pace. They can post their own blogs on any matter related to the content of the book. Comments will be enabled to allow discussion on each blog post.

Niamh and I are sharing administration of the blog. We will moderate the blog discussions, and we will delete any posts or comments that we think are irrelevant or unduly offensive. Group members are reminded that the blog is public and can be read by anyone online.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Welcome to Tipperary Confessions

Tipperary Confessions is an online reading group. Members join the group by invitation. All members can contribute to the blog and comment on posts. For the moment the blog will be public.

There are many ways to read Augustine's Confessions. I'll be using Henry Chadwick's translation in the Oxford World's Classics series. It is possible to find the text online too.

The design of the blog may change but the purpose is simple: to provide a forum for the members to share thoughts and reflections as they read Confessions.