Slideshow image
Slideshow image
nav image
nav image

In the world of Christian writing, the only one quoted more than C.S. Lewis is Augustine. Recently, I decided to read one of his books. It bears the unimaginative title "Confessions."

It's Augustine's autobiography, with a bunch of other stuff thrown in. He was the product of a mixed marriage. His Christian mother wanted him to embrace the faith, but his non-Christian father wanted him to make lots of money. His education centred around his father's wishes. Augustine, in pursuit of selfish gains, became very successful in the 4th-century Roman world, but by his testimony, he also became a very wicked sinner.

His conversion was heavily influenced by the preaching of the educated and highly regarded Ambrose, who gave Christianity the intellectual street cred Augustine needed to cross over into belief. But his conversion was also underpinned by divine interventions: God healed him of a toothache. The power of a song in a church service "entered his ears and filled his heart." He witnesses a season of persecution end when the bodies of two ancient martyrs are discovered and paraded through the streets. The healing powers of these holy corpses cast out demons, healed a blind man, and stopped the persecution in its tracks. Augustine couldn't deny these miraculous experiences. He became convinced that the love of God was real and open to him, so he entered into it and never looked back.

At last, my mind was free from the gnawing anxieties of ambition and gain, from wallowing in filth and scratching the itching sore of lust.

The problem of pleasure:

Augustine's love for God and the Scriptures is evident. He understood that joy in God was the principal thing, but what one was to do with all the lesser pleasures the world had to offer? His answer, be very afraid of them all; they are traps!

Sex is a trap — Augustine recounts with disgust how one day at the public baths, his father noticed the "signs of active virility coming to life in me." His dad, a non-christian, joked about the possibility of grandchildren one day from his embarrassed 16-year-old son. Augustine's mother did not see the humour in the innocent erection. She told her son with great fear and seriousness that he was never to "commit fornication and above all, not to seduce any man's wife." Augustine did not take his mom's advice. Instead, he "tossed and spilled, floundering in the broiling sea of my fornication" Years later as he recounts those tumultuous days of sexual excess. He strings together several Scriptures to help him, and his readers see what would have been the better way.

"That a man does well to abstain from all commerce with women, (I Cor 7:1) and that he who is unmarried is concerned with God's claim, asking how he is to please God; whereas the married man is concerned with the world's claim, asking how he is to please his wife. (I Cor 7:32-33) These were the words to which I should have listened with more care, and if I had made myself a eunuch for love of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:12), I should have awaited your embrace with all the greater joy.

As for all the Bible passages that talk about sex, well, he was quite ready to reinterpret them, in light of his sex free world view. One of his most creative attempts was his reinterpretation of God's command for Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply if this command couldn't be about sexual relations, then about what was God talking? Augustine is ready with his answer!

"I take the reproduction of humankind to refer to the thoughts which our minds conceive because reason is fertile and productive. I am convinced that this is what was meant, O Lord when you commanded man and the creatures of the sea to increase and multiply."

Eating is a trap — In one section of his book he laments the danger of eating for reasons other than mere sustenance. Augustine loved meat but did not want to give it up, even though he felt as though he might be putting the lesser joy of food in front of God. He wrestles through several Scriptures where characters eat vegetables or meat, and somehow he decides that it is not necessarily more Biblical to be a vegetarian; you can almost feel his sense of relief. In the end, he asks God for mercy, promises too fast regularly, and imagines what it might be like to be that special saint to whom food has no pull.

But is there anyone, O Lord, who is never enticed a little beyond the stick limit of need? If there is such a one, he is a great man.

Singing is a trap

So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know from experience, can accrue from singing.

Augustine "knows the great value" of the practice of singing in enhancing his affection towards God. But he also confesses the great trap that lies before him when he partakes of music. If he inadvertently gets caught up "with the singing itself more than the truth which it conveys," Augustine is convinced that he falls into "grievous sin." He is terrified at the possibility of enjoying music for music's sake. He concludes that it's better not to sing at all than to have this happen. — His prayer to the great conundrum of Christian music reveals the heaviness that dwells upon his over this.

Have pity on me and heal me, for you see that I have become a problem to myself.

Even Wet Dreams are a trap?

You have to give it to Augustine; no area of human living escaped his sensitive conscience or avoided his commentary on the matter. Even a mans dreams

By your grace, I will no longer commit in sleep these shameful, unclean acts inspired by sensual images… (He goes on, but I'll spare you the details)

He is so focused on restraining himself from any kind of sensual pleasure that even his wet dreams fall under his critical rebuke. For Augustine, sexual restraint is the penultimate example of what it means to find joy in God alone.

What am I to make of this? Frankly, I think it's all wrong. Sex, and eating and singing and even wet dreams are not traps first of all, though they can be. Why not view these lesser pleasures as welcome gifts from a good giver? They should be.

Interpretive free-for-all — Augustine seems to be pulling interpretations of Scripture straight out of his thumb all through this book. I've never seen anything like it, but he is ok to do it, it's how it's supposed to be.

(Scripture) may be understood in several different ways without falsification or error, because various interpretations, all of which are true in themselves may be put upon it.

Augustine does not wish to "impose a single true meaning so explicitly (on a passage of Scripture) that it would exclude all others.” So the Bible, to Augustine, becomes a tool with great interpretive flexibility, and at the same time, he shouts so loudly for its authority.

For it is not right for a man to call such sublime authority in question, or upon your book, even if there are passages in it which may not be clear for we submit our intelligence to it and do not doubt that even those parts of it which are hidden from our ken are right and true.
…I wish to have no dealing with any who think that Moses wrote what is not true.

We may have no clue what Moses was thinking, and we may have an abundance of legitimate interpretations, but what we don't have is the opportunity to conclude that anything in the Bible is false. What am I to make of this? On the one hand, interpretive flexibility sounds pretty handy, especially if you come upon undesirable passages, but on the other hand, don't you forfeit any sort of authoritative meaning when you go down this road. It seems like it to me.

It's just a poem for crying in the sink! — Augustine goes on and on and on about what all the first 2 or 3 verses of the Bible must surely mean. He dumps truckload after truckload of possible meaning into these few words that we find at the front end of the Bible. It's exhausting reading it all! I look at it, and I conclude that it's a simple poem designed to help the reader see that God is the creator of all that is. — For Augustine, no passage of Scripture could ever be so simple.

How Wonderfull are your Scriptures! How profound! We see their surface, and it attracts us like children. And yet, O my God, their depth is stupendous. We shudder to peer deep into them, for they inspire in us both the awe of reverence and the thrill of love.

Augustine loved his Bible, but to him, it was more of a mystical thing it seems. It was something that had multiple meanings. The real treasure had to be mined. The Bible wasn't just what it said; that was the surface stuff. Real meaning, real power, the stuff that set Augustines heart on fire was not accessible through merely by comprehending the Biblical words. God wanted to reveal the more profound truth of Scripture for those willing to search, pray, listen, and meditate. This was the Biblical fine dining that Augustine loved. Is he right? Is this the way it's supposed to be? Is God teaching us deeper truth from his word regardless of authorial intent or original meeting? I would say at least one half of Augustines Confessions is precisely this sort of mystical, multi-layered kind of interpretation. — This freedom feeds his soul but also allows him to conveniently remove the possibility of sexual relations from "be fruitful and multiply."

Not a fan of science: men are led to investigate the secrets of nature, which are irrelevant to our lives, although such knowledge is of no value to them and they wish to gain it merely for the sake of knowing

Not a fan of charismatics: And it even invades our religion, for we put God to the test when we demand signs and wonders from him, not in the hope of salvation, but simply for the love of the experience.

Not a fan of tears: When his mom died, he says, "it did not bring me to tears, and no sign of it showed in my face, but I knew well enough what I was stifling in my heart. It was misery to feel myself so weak a victim of these human emotions, although we cannot escape them since they are the natural lot of mankind" — he was tormented by a "twofold agony" he says the pain of loss for his mom, and the guilt he felt about wanting to cry about it. To which I would say, "Dude, cry already, it's ok to cry!"

Not a fan of Women's rights:

"She told them that ever since they had heard the marriage deed read over to them, they ought to have regarded it as a contract which bound them to serve their husbands, and from that time onward, they should remember their condition and not defy their masters."

Augustine is bragging about his mother's virtue in correcting the negative gossip and criticism of a group of women whose "faces had been disfigured by blows from their husbands." The picture of a godly woman, at least to Augustine, is the one that stands by her man, even though he rearranges her face.

Quotables:

  • For our love of praise leads us to court the good opinion of others and hoard it for our personal glorification.
  • Men love the truth when it bathes them in its light: they hate it when it proves them wrong.
  • Humans are an inquisitive race, always anxious to pry into other men's lives, but never ready to correct their own."
  • But I wish that words of praise from other men did not increase the joy I feel for any good qualities that I may have. Yet I confess that it does increase my joy.
  • It is the desire to be feared or loved by other men, simply for the pleasure that it gives me, though, in such pleasure, there is no true joy. It means only a life of misery and despicable vainglory.
  • The devil has a firmer hold on men in high places because of their pride in their rank.
  • It would be unthinkable that men of wealth and power should be more welcome in your Church than those who are poor and unknown.
  • You were some kind of bodily substance extended in space, either permeating the world or diffused in infinity and beyond. — Clearly, this is where Buzz Light year got his line, straight out of Augustine!

I love reading these ancient minds. Augustine is wide open and honest. It’s more like you are reading his personal journal than anything, that feels special. There is plenty to learn from him and plenty to scratch your head about too!