Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part Two)

Denied his Baptism in Christ, Augustine began to cope with the polarity between his mother and father, caught between their personal systems of belief. This resulted in a tangle of juicy psychology as Augustine links his feelings about God to his feelings about his mother, Monica. She, as God’s instrument, agreed to deny him his baptism. Yet, as he writes, if it weren’t for:

she (who) did all that she could to see that you, my God, should be a Father to me rather than he. In this you helped her to turn the scales against her husband, whom she always obeyed because by obeying him she obeyed your law, thereby showing greater virtue than he did. (I, 2)

This dichotomous statement is intriguing and sheds light upon Augustine’s view of a virtuous sin committed by his mother, which seems to be in direct conflict with what we have already learned about his views of sin. How can it be that all sins are equal in the eyes of the Lord, even an infant’s cries, but it is somehow virtuous for a woman to “turn the scales against her husband”? He witnessed his mother walking a theologically fine line as she thwarted his paternal father’s influence while somehow still abiding in God’s Law. She never disobeyed her husband except through her enduring piety to the Christian God and her prayers for her son. Augustine credits his mother's piety as the one constant in his life which lead to his ultimate salvation and, in so doing, he estabilshes a repeating pattern in his early life which involved turning his back on his mother and God alike.

Augustine continued his studies, having been sent to Madaura, where he found that he disliked Greek and preferred Latin writers over his other studies. He found himself lost in the stories, another example that he gives of turning away from God and into a world of falsehood and fiction; “a ferment of wickedness.” (II, 2) Coming upon his adolescent years, Augustine began to yearn for the sin of lust which, he claims, would continue to haunt him until his conversion. His studies of literature and public speaking were interrupted when:

my father, a modest citizen of Thagaste whose determination was greater than his means, saved up the money to send me farther afield to Carthage…no one had anything but praise for my father who, despite his slender resources, was ready to provide his son with all that was needed to enable him to travel so far for the purpose of study..Yet this same father of mine took no trouble at all to see how I was growing in your sight or whether I was chaste or not..Both my parents were unduly eager for me to learn…my mother because she thought that the usual course of study certainly would not hinder me. (II,3)

This is how Augustine “construe[d] the character of his parents” and there is conflict in this belief. He describes himself as spoiled and self entitled, both bitter about his parent’s desire for his education and unequal in his forgiveness of one of them despite their equal roles. In a feat of impressive mental contortion, he recognizes his mother’s part in this stage of his development as God’s hand in his life and yet he offers no such accolades to his father because he is pagan and not a believer.

All of this is but a preamble to the parable about sin to come. While waiting for his journey to Carthage, at the age of 16, he had free time to spend with unruly friends. Augustine claimed that he fell prey to peer pressure and gave in to the grievous sin of theft. He and his buddies had a habit of engaging in games out of doors after dark and these games involved committing anything that might be forbidden, such as stealing pears from a tree near a local vineyard. Augustine took these pears not because of need and cannot recall if they ate more than a few. He stole them for the sake of committing a theft and fed most of the pears to the pigs. What some might consider a simple adolescent prank, Augustine elevates to such a degree that it might be better interpreted as a symbol for original sin. For “if any one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavor.” (II,6) It can be assumed that there were other pranks committed by these “ruffians” but Augustine chooses specifically to tell us his story of stealing fruit from a forbidden tree.

Augustine’s inner reflections about the reasons he commits his version of original sin are quite innovative and compelling. He attempts to converse with his crime of theft as if it “were a living thing” (II,6) in order to gain a greater understanding of that which he considers to be the plight of all descendents of Adam and Eve. Augustine believes the source of all sin can be boiled down to three states of the human condition: anger, fear and grief and that sin translates or is “hatched” by a “lust for power, gratifications of the eye and gratifications of a corrupt nature.” (III,8) He goes on to converse with this disembodied sinful part of himself in an attempt to reason through the process of sin. This dialogue regarding the nature of sin suggests that he (and all of us who sin) continuously experience all the human corruptions that lead to the first sin in every act of sin committed since our removal from Eden; whether cruelty, lustfulness, inquisitiveness, ignorance and stupidity, sloth, extravagance, and envy, to name but a few.

And now, O Lord of my God, now that I ask what pleasure I had in that theft, I find that it had no beauty to attract me. I do not mean beauty of the sort that justice and prudence possess, nor the beauty that is in man’s mind and in his memory and in the life that animates him…It did not even have the shadowy, deceptive beauty which makes vice attractive-pride, for instance, which is a pretense of superiority, imitating yours, for you alone are God, supreme over all; or ambition, which is only a craving for honour or glory, when you alone are to be honoured before all and you alone are glorious for ever.(II, 6)

Ultimately, however, Augustine uses this mental exercise as a means of discovering that the reasons for sin are of no consequence, writing that if “it was not the fruit that gave me pleasure, I must have got it from the crime itself, from the thrill of having partners in sin.” (II,8) He, like Adam, was lured by others to commit his grave act of eating the forbidden fruit and thus “wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.” (II,10)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confession Books 1-8 (Part One)

This essay uses the Great Books edition of Augustine's Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. As this translation is still under copyright, a translation by Albert C. Outler can be found here.

Augustine’s Confessions were written in the year 397 CE during his early 40’s and is somewhat inaccurately considered to be one of the West’s first autobiographical accounts despite the fact that there are many other classical writers who worked in the same medium previously. It is not a complete autobiography, obviously, since he would live to the ripe age of seventy-six. However, it does represent the most detailed account of any individual living in the 4th and 5th centuries. Augustine’s life stands upon the precipice between dramatically shifting times in human thought and in many ways both his life and his Confessions can be seen as products of this transition between historical ages. It has been suggested that Augustine is both the last Classical thinker as well as the first Medieval writer.

Undoubtedly, his autobiography was highly influential on writers during the Medieval period. Augustine’s Confessions take the reader on his spiritual journey from a state of sinfulness to his salvation in Jesus Christ. The intentional structure of his autobiography allows for Augustine to pick and chose personal events from his life that illustrate an archetypal spiritual journey.

Augustine utilizes an innovative structure within his Confessions that involves personal and sometimes brutal self-admonition interspersed with direct quotations from the Bible and lyrical passages in praise of God. The personal sins he discusses seem, on the surface, to be of little consequence, in comparison to, for example, murderers, and yet his descriptions of those sins are offered in caricature, as if he had literally sold his soul to the devil. At first reading, it can be interpreted simply that all sins are equal in the eyes of God; however, this juxtaposition also raises questions within the reader’s mind and encourages a deeper reading of the text where we ultimately see his life and his conversion as a teaching story or parable in itself. This metaphorical writing style is used repeatedly throughout the Confessions, revealing Augustine’s background in Platonic thought, the writings of Paul of Tarsus and his own deep studies of scripture.

This analysis will cover only the first eight books of the Confessions which takes us from his infancy to the moment of crisis that pushes Augustine to make a full conversion to the Christian faith. As mentioned in his Author Sketch, Augustine would be profoundly influenced by his mother Monica and his writings illustrate quite clearly his feelings of being torn between the pagan beliefs and morals of his father and the Christian beliefs and actions of his mother. This is, perhaps, the reason he begins his story with a very dualistic worldview that is not reconciled until the moment he finds his peace in Christ. Augustine touches upon many great ideas throughout the Confessions but we will be focusing on his discussions of Sin, Good and Evil, and Will.

Books I and II of the Confessions deal specifically with Augustine’s infancy and his early childhood. He offers an interesting perspective on infants and their capacity for sin as he attempts to recall this distant time in his life. “And if my wishes were not carried out," he writes, "I would get cross with elders, who were not at my beck and call, and with people who were not my servants, simply because they did not attend to my wishes; and I would take my revenge by bursting into tears. By watching babies I have learnt how they behave... and know that I behaved in just the same way myself.” (1:6) This passage illustrates Augustine’s belief that we are all, as descendants of Adam, born of sin and that “if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.” (1:6) It is striking that his opinions on the sinful nature of babies are so strong considering that he spends so little time defending his ideas about a period that he admits he cannot truly recall. He does take the time to lament as he contemplates his infancy, “I ask you, Lord, where or when was I, your servant, ever innocent?” (1:7)

His early childhood is dealt with briefly, in much the same way, but with intuitive observations about the hypocrisy of small boys being punished for playing games instead of attending to their studies by the same masters whose livelihood depended upon even more sinful games. He terms this period of his life as one of suffering and humiliation. Yet, he views this natural tendency of young boys to enjoy playing games quite straightforwardly as further indications of inherent sin.

And yet I sinned, O Lord of my God, creator and arbiter of all natural things, but arbiter only, not creator, of sin. I sinned, O Lord, by disobeying my parents and the masters of whom I have spoken…I was disobedient, not because I chose something better than they proposed to me, but simply from the love of games. (1:10)

During this period of Augustine’s life, it is important to note that he was attending Christian schools and was as close to the faith as he would be for many years to come. It was also during this time that he developed a grave stomach illness (the first of many) which left him close to death. There is much consternation in these next passages as he describes his conflicting feelings of being passed over for his baptism when, instead of dying, he quickly recovered.

You, my God, were my guardian even then, and you saw the fervor and strength of my faith as I appealed to the piety of my own mother and to the mother of us all, your Church, to give me the baptism of Christ your Son, who is my God and my Master…So my washing in the waters of baptism was postponed, in the surmise that, if I continued to live, I should defile myself again with sin and, after baptism, the guilt of pollution would be greater and more dangerous. (1:11)

Even when Augustine wrote the Confessions at the age of forty-three, he had yet to reconcile what contour his life might have followed if he had been baptized in his early boyhood. This incident seems to set Augustine upon his spiritual quest and his search for truth. As we will see, Augustine searches for this truth in many ways but, firstly, by engaging in sin for sin’s sake.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Author Sketch: Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo (also known as Saint Augustine, Augustinus, St. Augustine the Blessed)
Born 354 CE in Tageste, Numidia
Died 430 CE as a retired Bishop of Hippo
Works under consideration: The Confessions

Events that occurred during Augustine’s life:

Pics and Scots cross Hadrian’s Wall and attack Britain
Roman Legions begin to evacuate Britain
The Huns invade Europe
Accession of Theodosius the Great – the last Emperor of a united Roman empire
Scrolls begin to be replaced with books
Hymn singing is introduced by St. Ambrose of Milan and “Hallelujah” is born
The first written records of Japanese history
Alchemy begins with the search for the Philosopher’s stone and the Elixir of Life

Saint Augustine was born in the small village of Tageste on November 13, 354. Tageste was located in the North African Roman Provence of Numidia, present day Souk Ahras, on the eastern border of Algeria. Both of his parents were of Roman descent with possible Numidian genetic lines and Augustine is thought to have been a native Punic speaker. His father, Patricius, was a Roman administrator of Tageste but due to the village’s small size was only able to provide modestly for his family. Augustine’s mother, Monica, was a devout Christian and a constant influence on Augustine’s life. He was highly educated in the liberal arts and ultimately became not only a transitional literary and theological figure in his time but was also torn between dueling cultural belief systems caricaturized by his pagan father and his devoutly Catholic mother. Christian schools framed the beginnings of his educational influences; however, Augustine was not baptized during his early childhood. Perhaps it was the stress of living between two ideologies or the fact that, as he later believed, God allowed him to anguish upon a path of sin in order to show him the true faith, the ardent search for truth became Augustine’s life-long pursuit.

At the age of 11 or 12, Augustine journeyed 20 miles south from his birth place to Madaura where he began his study of grammar and literature. He excelled in his studies, especially Latin, and his father was so inspired by his son’s aptitude and his own hopes that Augustine would become a lawyer that he endeavored to gather the necessary funds for Augustine to continue his education. Ultimately, a local benefactor named Romanianus sponsored Augustine to study rhetoric at Carthage. During this time, Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius which he described as the foundation upon which he built his life-long interest in philosophy. At Carthage, he became a member of the Manichean cult whose claim to “reconcile religion with philosophy” must have been very appealing to a young man of 17, caught between a mother who despaired for the salvation of his soul and his own youthful appetites, both of the body and the mind. He shared a relationship with a concubine for ten years who bore him a son named Adeodatus. By all accounts, he loved this woman deeply though they would never marry. During and after his studies at Carthage he lived his life as an “intellectual pagan” and a teacher of rhetoric.

Lamenting the lack of discipline of his students in Tageste, Augustine spent a year in Rome where he began to formally break from the Manicheans and embrace neo-Platonist concepts. He was also introduced to St. Ambrose who later performed Augustine's long awaited baptism into the Christian faith. His full conversion occurred in 386 and, after the death of his mother, he journeyed back to Africa with Adeodatus and other pupils to lead a monastic life. However, a skilled orator and prolific writer would not long live an isolated life. Also, around 391, he assumed what he called the “burden of the episcopate” when he was made a priest of Hippo. He would later hold the title of Bishop for thirty five years. He died of natural causes at Hippo in 430, in the midst of a Vandal invasion.

It is speculated that Augustine wrote over 232 separate titles not including personal letters and sermons. The Confessions and The City of God are two of his most known works but the totality of his written contribution to the western canon is quite impressive. He would later inspire such scholars as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin among others.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Great Books: Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Part Three)

The first two portions of this essay can be found in the archive to the right under October 2009.

Intertwined into Paul’s discourse on the nature of sin and the judgment that must accompany it is the difficult question of how redemption under the Law (for Jews) and redemption through Faith (for non-Jews) can be reconciled. The early Christian congregations were largely composed of what Luke repeatedly refers to as God-fearing pagans. As Jews, and thus the worship of the One God, spread throughout the Mediterranean, peoples who prided themselves on being universally religious (and universally tolerant) saw little reason to exclude the Jewish God from the potential options of gods to be acknowledged and, under certain circumstances, worshipped.

The unique covenant between the Jews and their God, however, made it impossible for non-Jews to fully participate in worship and the process of going from Gentile to Jew was a perilous journey, especially for adult men. What Paul was providing, through his Gospel, was an opportunity for those God-fearers not only to participate fully and more easily in the worship of the Jewish God but also to do so in a manner that he puts forward as inherently superior to the original model. None may hope to fully obey the law but all who would believe can receive baptism and salvation in the name of Jesus Christ.

Still, it would be both impolitic and a little ridiculous for him to assert that the Law was always an inadequate tool for salvation. After all, Jesus himself was a Jew who observed the Law as were all of Paul’s ancestors. Consequently, he must create a model that both embraces and repudiates the Law. He begins, writing that:

All who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. [Acts 2:12,13]

Despite his assertion here that there is an equal dispensation of grace for those who follow the law as those who might, instead, become righteous through a belief in Jesus, he continues later to suggest that the law was only given by God so that humanity might understand that it was sinful. It did not free anyone from their sinful nature as Paul laments that though “I delight in God’s law…I see another law at work…waging war against the law of the mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work in my members” [7:22,33]. As long as the mind remains trapped in the body of sin, it, at best, remains in a constant stalemate with impure urges. Righteousness achieved through belief in Jesus, however, yields something different and, by Paul’s reckoning, better.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. [8:1-4]

The last of Paul’s central themes in his Epistle to the Romans is Love. Paul’s first examination of love focuses God’s love for humanity. God’s wrath is directed at the sin, though his judgment upon it is meted out upon the sinner. His love, however, is saved for his obedient creations and, Paul writes, that God “has poured out his love into our hearts” [5:5] and that He “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” [5:8]. It is because we are beloved by God that He has slowly unfolded a plan for our redemption, despite Adam’s disobedience that allowed sin and death to reign in His stead.

Paul’s primary concerns about love, however, reside in his assertion that believers should espouse and manifest it as evidence of their transformation through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. “Love,” he insists, “must be sincere” [12:9] and the believer should:

…let no debt remain standing, except for the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law…whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. [13:8-10]

Love, for Paul then, is not only an expression of the Holy Spirit at work inside of an otherwise turbulent human nature but is a pathway to peace. This stands in ideological opposition to the prevailing Roman ideology that Peace might only be obtained through Victory. As such, Christianity is offered not only as an alternative to a half-righteousness through a half-observance of the law but also to a world seemingly consumed by never-ending war in search of a peace that never comes.