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.