Confessing With Augustine, Part I

This is part of a series; you can find the other parts here. I found an excuse to read through a Christian literary classic this fall. The hosts of a great podcast, Mere Fidelity, are discussing Augustine’s Confessions (Henry Chadwick’s translation) more or less each week. Here I’ll submit some thoughts on each “book” of Confessions after reading and listening to the most recent discussion. Each part of the series will correspond with a book. Perhaps my brief reflections here will give you an excuse to pick up this 1,600-year-old masterpiece.

Most Merciful

Confessions is a strikingly human work. The very title reveals much of our condition. Confessions of what? Sin? Truth? Guilt? Confessions by who…and confessions to whom exactly? It’s not The Confessions either, as if one man could put down on paper the sum total of his confessions.

It’s only appropriate then that Augustine begins humbly with two quotes from the Psalms: “You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised” (47:2) and “great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable” (146:5). To even start to confess anything to a holy God, one must know the inherent goodness and otherness of Him. We do not have an equal on the other end of our prayers. This is both bewildering and comforting.

Lord, I would seek you, calling upon you—and calling upon you is an act of believing in you. You have been preached to us. My faith, Lord, calls upon you. It is your gift to me.

After referring to even his own faith as God’s gift to him, Augustine moves into some of his most poetic reflections on the nature of God. I’ll quote a large section here because, as Derek Rishmawy pointed out in the Mere Fidelity discussion, this is one of the best passages outside Scripture on the doctrine of God — who He is, His very nature.

Who then are you, my God? What, I ask, but God who is Lord? For ‘who is the Lord but the Lord’, or ‘who is God but our God?’ (Ps. 17:32). Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and ‘leading’ the proud ‘to be old without their knowledge’ (Job 9:5, Old Latin version); always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking; you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you ‘repent’ (Gen. 6:6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You will a change without any change in your design. You recover what you find, yet have never lost. Never in any need, you rejoice in your gains (Luke 15:7); you are never avaricious, yet you require interest (Matt. 25:27). We pay you more than you require so as to make you our debtor, yet who has anything which does not belong to you? (I Cor. 4:7). You pay off debts, though owing nothing to anyone; you cancel debts and incur no loss. But in these words what have I said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity, they have nothing to say.

There’s no mistaking it. Augustine writes of the God of the Bible, the God full of mercy in Christ. As other commentators have noted: following this God is free, but it will cost us everything. Reading this passage has a similar effect as reading Isaiah’s firsthand account of the throne room of God in Isaiah 6. Woe are we to speak. Woe are we. And yet, God’s mercy answers.

Later, in a turn of subject towards his own infancy, Augustine describes exactly what or Who he is addressing: “Nevertheless allow me to speak before your mercy, though I am but dust and ashes. Allow me to speak: for I am addressing your mercy, not a man who would laugh at me.”

This humility may sound to our modern ears unhealthily anxious. We may reflexively assume Augustine needs to find some self-worth, some affirmation. But I’d characterize his posture as closer to fear of the Lord than needless self-deprecation. Where on this earth can a man find self-worth, self-esteem? Apart from the dignity of being created in the image of God and apart from the freedom of being redeemed by Christ…from what wellspring does a person’s worth come? Augustine rightly recognizes the goodness of God’s otherness, and his response is fear and trembling. Our modern sentiments don’t immediately empathize, but neither did Augustine’s contemporaries as we’ll see in successive books.

Some describe Confessions as Augustine’s autobiography. That’s fine, but I don’t think the author’s primary aim is to recount his life. The mercy of God from the quote above (“I am addressing your mercy”) is a kind of prism through which Augustine shines the events of his life. From Augustine’s infancy onward, his life reveals God’s great mercy. This is the beginning and response to Augustine’s confessions of sin and belief. God’s mercy is Augustine’s prism or lens, because only through it can he understand life itself. Again, Confessions is a strikingly human work. And its author understands humanity through understanding God in His mercy.

Utterly Good

After refelecting on God Himself, Augustine does turn the subject to his own life. Even still, Augustine addresses God — his “holy sweetness” — while recounting time in the womb, infancy, and later primary school. Augustine addresses the Lord because he sees all good in his life coming from the Lord. There’s a stark contrast between the immense goodness of God and the polluted motivations of the world, and yet God brings His goodness into the world. Describing nursing from his nurses as an infant, Augustine writes:

For the good which came to me from them was a good for them; yet it was not from them but through them. Indeed all good things come from you, O God, and ‘from my God is all my salvation’ (2 Sam. 23:5).

All good things, even milk.

The goodness Augustine describes in the rest of Book I is not simply an attribute ascribed to different things found in the world. It is an insurgent goodness reclaiming what has been corrupted. “You made [man] but did not make sin in him.” The good that Augustine saw and experienced in childhood had its sole origin in God, not in Augustine. God’s otherness, His distinctiveness, is a good thing.

Much of Book I is discussion of education, literature, and what it means to love good things. Children are, actively or passively, taught what to love on their journey to adulthood. Augustine laments over parts of his childhood education. Augustine angrily mourns for being taught to love destructive stories that separated him from the Lord.

The author describes a cruel irony of education better than I could:

I was later forced to learn about the wandering of some legendary fellow named Aeneas (forgetful of my own wanderings) and to weep over the death of a Dido who took her own life from love. In reading this, O God my life, I myself was meanwhile dying by my alienation from you, and my miserable condition in that respect brought no tear to my eyes.

What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying for his lack of love for you, my God, light of my heart, bread of the inner mouth of my soul, the power which begets life in my mind and in the innermost recesses of my thinking.

Can we not say the same thing of adult stories of love, wandering, and death? While marching headlong into such worlds of life and loss, we do not watch our own tragedy. Moreover, we neglect our own hero in Christ.

Little boys and girls do not only love distracting, empty stories. They also love play. Adults love play too, but “‘the amusement of adults is called business’”. In both childhood and adulthood, the playing field can be a breeding ground for sin.

The schoolmaster who [disciplined] me was behaving no better than I when, after being refuted by a fellow-teacher in some pedantic question, he was more tormented by jealousy and envy than I when my opponent overcame me in a ball-game.

Stories, play, and education are inherently neutral. They are merely the vessels of either good or bad things.

I bring no charge against the words [taught in literature lessons] which are like exquisite and precious vessels, but the wine of error is poured into them for us by drunken teachers.

(Matthew Anderson rightly laughed at Augustine’s melodramatic tone here in the Mere Fidelity discussion). Envy, altruism, faithfulness to the Lord, anger, deceit, humility. Every combination of these and more are fostered through the means of raising children. And adults, with or without their own children in the home, have a unique responsibility to teach love for good things in younger generations.

Through schools, the church, family devotions, hospitality, play — there’s one thing more important and good to foster love for than anything else: “eternal life promised to us through the humility of our Lord God, coming down to our pride”.

Adults cannot make children Christians any more than adults can make other adults Christians. But children do look to their mentors to learn what to love. We ought not waste opportunities to demonstrate and foster love for the Lord.

My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings.

The Lord Himself is the source, perfecter, and end of all that is good. That’s a big statement, and it’s worth saying because of its implications. Augustine’s early years of life reveal how merciful God is and how good those implications are.