Early & Medieval Church History: Augustine's Confessions

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In the text of Confessions that we have been assigned, people and events that Augustine refers to readily establish dates, specifically events in chapter IX surrounding the struggle between Ambrose and Justina ca. Easter, 386<ref>Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 164.</ref>. Several place identifiers are given directly by Augustine, most notably Milan<ref>Ibid., 143.</ref> and Ostia<ref>Ibid., 166.</ref>. I cannot find anywhere in the text where Augustine is identified by name, but in secondary texts neither the validity of his authorship, nor the reliability of the text seem to be in question<ref>The two secondary sources I have consulted are Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) and Mark Ellingsen, Reclaiming Our Roots: An Inclusive Introduction to Church History, vol. 1: The Late First Century to the Eve of the Reformation (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1999).</ref>. The existence of manuscript variances, however, is evident from Chadwick's footnote concerning the voice Augustine hears immediately prior to his conversion experience<ref>Augustine, Confessions, 152.</ref>.

The importance of context in the Confessions—cultural, historical, and geographical—cannot be overstated. Perhaps it would not be too much to suggest that some of Augustine's influence in Christian tradition stems from having lived and written at the right time and place. The relative stability of the Roman Empire, even in its twilight, afforded Augustine educational, literary, and temporal resources that would have been difficult to access in subsequent centuries. Conversely, Constantine's peace of the church in 313 made possible public acts of worship, baptism and profession described in the Confessions that would have been more problematic in preceding centuries.

Augustine frequently interrupts the narrative of his faith journey to address and comment upon issues specific to his cultural context, ranging from Arian, Appolinarian, and Manichee heresies, to astrology, Roman politics and gladiatorial games. In these issues as well as his more general struggle with the nature of good, evil, form and substance, he is influenced by the Hellenistic worldview and platonic philosophy prevalent at the time. Even prior to his rejection of Manicheism and excursions into Neo-platonism, Augustine committed himself to the Greek notion of philosophia, and Greek-inspired writings of Cicero<ref>Ibid., 39.</ref>. Consequently, both Augustine's initial difficulties reconciling himself to Christianity, as well as his eventual understanding and practice of it, stem from the heavy influences of Platonism in his own life and in the intellectual circles of his era.

In fact, it is this tension between Christianity and Platonism that serves as catalyst, climax, and central concern of the Confessions. Augustine moves from the childhood faith inherited from his mother to the ideologies of Cicero and philosophia. From here, he makes a first attempt at synthesis in the religion of Mani, which seems an early and crude attempt at reconciling Platonism with Christianity by rejecting the Old Testament and Christ's Jewish Origins<ref>Ibid., 40-43.</ref>. Once he becomes disillusioned with the Manichees, it is the church and the sermons of Ambrose that provide his first counter-argument, drawing him once again (temporarily) back toward the direction of Christianity. The pendulum swings again, as he discovers the books of the neo-Platonists, although this time he does not entirely abandon Christianity, and is finally able to successfully reconcile the two, after the example of Victorinus.

A recurring theme, as well as the first and final barrier to Augustine's conversion, is his sexuality. This too, contains the tension between the two worldviews: The Platonic "hierarchy of being" subordinated physical pleasures to purely intellectual ones, placing sex in opposition to spiritual pursuits<ref>Paul Rorem, “Augustine, in Context” (lecture, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ, October 27, 2008).</ref>. Despite the example of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, it is arguable that "continence" was not a central feature of early Christianity, especially given its familial Jewish origins and God's imperative to be fruitful and multiply. However, by the time of Augustine, enthusiasm for asceticism and the monastic movement had relegated married Christians to a lower status, as evidenced by Augustine's married friend, Verecundus, who "did not wish to be a Christian except in the way which was not open to him." Indeed it was the discovery of monasticism, Anthony and other ascetics that prompted Augustine to finally cry out that, "Uneducated people are rising up and capturing heaven, and we. . . roll in the mud of flesh and blood." With Platonic distaste for sex in such harmony with the notion and example of Christian asceticism, Augustine's conversion to Christianity was soon to follow.

The more monumental synthesis at the core of the Confessions, and the one that seems to have characterized Augustine's subsequent theology, is his reconciliation of the eternal, immutable nature of the Platonic "One," with the God of Christianity. From this flows his explanation good and evil, will and grace, the nature of Christ, heresies, and the Church. By positing God as the "highest substance," incorruptible, unchanging, and infinitely good, evil then becomes simply a function of increasing mutability—not a "substance but a perversity of will twisted away from . . .God, towards inferior things<ref>Augustine, Confessions, 126.</ref>. Augustine finds that in Paul "all the truth I had read in the Platonists was stated here," with the added remedy of grace to reconcile unchanging God with ever-changing man<ref>Ibid., 130.</ref>. In this synthesis, grace is through Christ, identified with the Greek logos, and united in flesh, soul, and mind: Any deviation from this formula constituted heresy, which, when denounced, only served to further highlight and illustrate the sound doctrine of the Church<ref>Ibid., 129.</ref>.

Although the tension between Christ and Plato permeates the Confessions, it both preceded Augustine and continued after his death. In it can be found many related tensions, each emblematic of a general shift in culture: Judaism vs. Hellenism, East vs. West, Constantinople vs. Rome, Empire vs. Desert. But when Augustine steps into this milieu, he weaves forms and ideas together seamlessly and eloquently in a manner that has broad appeal. His ideas may not seem entirely original, but as voiced in the Confessions, they are well-reasoned, authentic, and timely. At the very least, they were enough to launch the church into the next millennium and beyond.

Within this synthesis of worldviews rests not only Augustine's central theme, but also my own greatest misgivings. For, what to Augustine and his admirers may have appeared harmony and commonality between Christianity and Platonism, seems to me to have altered the face of Christianity, creating something new and unlike the uniquely Jewish religion of Jesus and his early followers. Largely because Augustine's views have proved so influential, and to a lesser extent because the process of Hellenization stretches back even before him, it is sometimes difficult—perhaps impossible—to separate the Platonic influence from Christianity. Concepts like soul, word, chastity, substance, unchangeable, and eternal are so ingrained in our creeds and culture that challenging them almost seems like introducing something new and dangerously heretical into the faith equation, not something ancient and once widely accepted.

While total celibacy among Christians is no longer quite as prized as it was in Augustine's time, I think his characterization of sex as belonging among the "lowest of things" and personal rejection of a married state has had negative repercussions in our own culture<ref>Ibid., 25.</ref>. The mere fact that most sermons and books I've encountered on Christian sexuality feel obligated to begin by dispelling the notion that "sex is bad" indicates that it remains a prevalent view in our churches. In ancient Jewish culture, (the stories of Rachel and Hannah come to mind) both marriage and reproduction were seen as an honor and blessing from God, a fulfillment of the universal command to be fruitful and multiply. The Apostle Paul does not advise those with strong sexual appetites to pray for continence—he advises them to marry. This is more consistent with a view of sexuality (even intense sexuality) as a blessing and gift from God to be embraced and used for the benefit of creation, rather than to be painfully denied. Had the great father of Western Christianity taken this scripturally acceptable path for himself (and I counted no less than three opportunities in the Confessions, two presumably after his baptism), it would have been considerably more difficult for the Roman Catholic Church to advocate celibacy among its priests, perhaps in turn fostering a more favorable climate to both women and sexuality in the modern church.

Much of Augustine's thought seems to hinge on the immutable nature of God—a notion that seems at odds with the Old Testament, where God is manifested in a variety of tangible substances, from the burning bush, to a cloud, and even bodily form to converse with Abraham, who incidentally negotiates with God and appears to change God's mind. The Manichees simply rejected these stories from the Old Testament in order for their synthesis to work, and I think Augustine was right to abandon their approach. His solution, on the other hand, seems to have been to relegate much of the Old Testament to the status of allegory<ref>Ibid., 94.</ref>. But even the notion of allegory, of "literal" and "figurative" meaning, itself presupposes an acceptance of the Greek concept of forms vs. underlying substances. I wonder if ancient Jews made such distinctions? In the incarnation, God undertakes the most dramatic "change" of all, becoming a human being, made of flesh, mind, and spirit. Did ancient Jews make distinctions between flesh, mind, and spirit? If not, many of the heresies Augustine goes to great length to refute become irrelevant. Is it possible the heresies were self-created problems posed by an attempt to reconcile two conflicting worldviews? I can accept that Augustine's synthesis may have been necessary in order for the church to grow and thrive in the Empire, middle ages, and reformation. But sometimes I wonder if the synthesis truly gave equal footing to both parties—or have we simply inherited Plato, clothed in the ill-fitting garments of Christ?

Despite all of these misgivings, I still find myself drawn to Augustine the individual. I’m struck by his painstaking authenticity, his earnest search for understanding and relevance, and at his keen insight into humanity, psychology, education, and culture. I feel a kinship with Augustine as a fellow seeker-of-truth, teacher, musician, rhetorician, devoted father, and student of literature, philosophy and theology—even as a prideful intellectual male too often distracted by strong sexual desires. Perhaps it is because of this that while I can disagree with Augustine, while I can be frustrated with him and critique his synthesis and his legacy legacy—what I cannot do is dismiss, ignore or bypass him. For better or for worse, I too, live in the world Augustine created.