Tuesday, November 17, 2009

St. Augustine: The Confessions

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) was one of the most important church fathers in the development of Christianity. He grew up in Algeria, near Carthage which was then part of the Roman Empire. At this point in history, the Roman Empire was in steady decline and Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths. While Rome fell, Christianity was ascending and Augustine's writings, teachings and rhetoric provided a foundation for its development.

His two well-known books are the "The Confessions" and "The City of God". The former is an autobiography describing Augustine's sins before the Lord saved him, and the latter depicts Augustine's vision of a heavenly "New Jerusalem" which he contrasts with the base needs of earthly pleasures and politics.

Reading the "Confessions" is unique in that we have Augustine basically listing all his sins, transgressions, and lack of faith. Augustine was a follower of Manichaeism, a pagan religion which promulgated the idea of a cosmic struggle between equally powerful good (light) and evil (darkness). Augustine was also a follower of Plato, which led him to consider an ideal good, one without evil (which led Augustine to consider Christianity).

Augustine details his inability to control his passions, his many affairs, children out of wedlock, theft, drinking parties and his love of plays. He watches his friends turn toward Christianity, and Augustine's mother, Monica, desperately wants Augustine to find salvation through this new religion. Augustine travels from Carthage to Rome, then to Milan to meet the bishop Ambrose who will later be recognized as one of the four doctors of the church (which includes Augustine)

Augustine keeps slipping deeper into debauchery and iniquity even as he moves closer to God. He finds himself wanting to accept Jesus but he cannot divorce himself from his earthly pleasures. At one point he cries out to God (quite wryly) , "Give me chastity and continence, only not yet!" Who hasn't wanted to make this bargain?

Finally Augustine collapses in a sobbing heap at the age of 32 and accepts Jesus as his savior.

It seems that Augustine's confessions were probably designed as a selective autobiography to be a tool and a guide. Augustine does quote from the bible very frequently, especially from Psalms. However, it is intriguing to think that this is a man sharing his private conversation with God. Also of interest is Augustine's idea that everything is good, since it is made by God. There is no "evil", only degrees of goodness. Plays, drinking and sex are good, but not as good as obeying God, showing temperance and being faithful. Augustine's concept of degrees of goodness is interesting and provocative.

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