Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Confessions – Book 1

This year, the Bible study that I’m leading at my church is on the theme of “Christian Classics”, and we’re reading through four great works: Augustine’s Confessions, The Imitation of Christ, G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  At the moment, we’re in the middle of the Confessions, and I’ve been jotting down my thoughts on each book as we go through it.  Since I haven’t posted much else on my blog recently (besides some rabble-rousing stuff on Silverlight), I thought I’d post some of these notes.  Just don’t expect great writing: these really are just notes.

Chapters 1-6 - Introduction

The Confessions is a prayer, and it begins with an analysis of what prayer is. Augustine is saying, in effect, “I desire to praise God,” and then tries to understand what that means. It turns out that each element of this triad (“I”, “praise” and “God”) is problematic.

Augustine examines the last two elements first.

Augustine begins by confessing that he doesn’t understand what he means by “God”. Although he wants to pray to something he calls “God”, he knows that he needs God’s attention to do this successfully. But before he can do that, he needs to be sure that this is the right God, that, in fact, he knows enough about this God to be sure he’s addressing the God, and not some figment of his own imagination. But Augustine can’t know he’s addressing the right God, unless God Himself enlightens him. But how can Augustine request to be enlightened, unless he first prays to God (a God whose identity Augustine cannot know)? Augustine’s response is to acknowledge the circularity: “I shall seek you then, Lord, by calling for you, call for you by believing you exist” (quaeram te, domine, invocans te, et invocem te credens in te). This faith, of course, does not come from Augustine, but from God, through His Son. Still, this is admittedly circular, and Augustine will return to the question of God’s identity before he’s finished with his introduction.

Augustine similarly confesses that he doesn’t understand what he means by “praise”. Augustine desires to be in relationship with this God, to call this God to himself – but what would that look like? Augustine specifically picks apart a spatial metaphor: “What in me is large enough for my God to enter?” (et quis locus est in me, quoveniat in me deus meus?) But before we smile at Augustine’s naïveté, we should take a closer look at our own preferred metaphors. “God, be with me.” “God, help me.” Even more abstract language would fail Augustine’s test: “God, I would be in relationship with you.” Think about what we mean by “relationship”, and you’ll see pretty quickly that it’s just as much a metaphor as, well, anything else we can come up with.

Augustine acknowledges this in his masterful description of the divine paradoxes: “Then what are you, God – what, I inquire, but simply God the Lord?” (Quid est ergo deus meus? quid, rogo, nisi dominus deus?) “You love without lust, you’re jealous and secure, you repent without sadness, you’re angry and at peace” (amas nec aestuas, zelas et securus es; paenitet te et non doles, irasceris et tranquillus es).

In other words, even if there were no other issues, language would be completely inadequate to grasp either the reality of God, or even His relationship with us. But there is more than that at work. The first term in Augustine’s triad, Augustine himself, is equally problematic. Augustine needs God ‘in’ him, but he is a completely inappropriate vessel for God’s indwelling. “My soul is too cramped for you to enter it – widen it out. It is in disrepair – restore it” (Angusta est domus animae meae, quo venias ad eam: dilatetur abs te. ruinosa est: refice eam). In order to begin this impossible journey towards God, therefore, Augustine must be reformed; but before he can be reformed, he must first understand himself. And that is precisely what he spends the rest of the work (or at least books 1-9) attempting to do.

Chapters 7-12 – Infancy

The introduction, without ever quite saying it, is all about the inadequacy of language as a medium for exchange with the divine. The rest of book 1 is basically all about language as a medium for exchange between humans, and Augustine the rhetorician is at pains to describe the origin as well as the appropriate and inappropriate uses of language. Language is critical to Augustine partly because it was his specialty: he had been trained and had made his living as a master rhetorician. But even more, language was critical because God Himself had appeared to bless language when the second person of the Trinity was termed “the Word” (verbum).

Infancy is specifically interesting to Augustine, because he can’t quite imagine being human without language. Our identity is tied up in our memories, of course, but our memories can’t be expressed or even understood without language. A human who can’t speak, therefore, is not all that a human is meant to be, and the result is what we have all seen in infants and toddlers: “When I was frustrated, because I was not understood or was demanding something harmful, I threw a tantrum because adults did not obey a child, free people were not my slaves, and I inflicted on them my revenge of wailing” (et cum mihi non obtemperabatur, vel non intellecto vel ne obesset, indignabar non subditis maioribus, et liberis non servientibus, et me de illis flendo vindecabam).

Chapters 13-24 – Childhood

Augustine’s description of his childhood is again tied up with his concern for language, specifically, for how language is learned. Interestingly, Augustine is clear that he taught himself language, that it wasn’t something imposed on him from the outside.

Chapters 19-31 – Schooling

Augustine contrasts how he learned Latin, his mother tongue, with how he learned Greek, the academic language of the day. He highlights the significant role that love played in the former, and the extent to which it was missing from the latter. He makes clear that it was sinful for him to neglect his lessons in Greek, but he’s not very subtle in his implication that if love had played as great a part in his Greek as in his Latin lessons, his response might have been very different.

Language is also the medium by which society “keeps its own in line” (euge, euge dicitur, ut pudeat, si non ita homo sit). Society (mos) is fundamentally a community of those who share the same language, and language forms the boundaries for appropriate behavior in any given community. The literature of a society, therefore, serves as a justification for that society’s behavior, a role which Augustine lamented in his own case.


- Are children inherently good, only corrupted by society? Or is there some sort of corruption inherent in human beings from their birth?

- In what ways does Augustine see his infancy reflecting the good world that God created? In what ways does it reflect original sin?

- What can we learn from Augustine about the best way to raise children? How would an ideal Augustinian education differ from contemporary public education?

- How did culture/society/custom influence Augustine? How does contemporary culture/society/custom influence us?

- However much he loved pagan literature in his youth, Augustine clearly was not a fan by the time he wrote Confessions. What do you think of this judgment? Is there any benefit, or danger, to Christians participating in secular entertainments?

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