Following my post from last week, my friend James sent me a pdf of Augustine’s Confessions. I’ve never read the Confessions, but in light of my observation from last week that one of the things I’m beginning to find comforting is the idea that faith is practiced in dialogue with generations of thinkers trying to suss out what they think God is like. Augustine is pretty foundational to Western Christianity, so his Confessions seems like a good place to start.
The first thing that immediately springs to mind in starting the Confessions is that Augustine seems to have an immense love of paradox. The first four chapters of Book I are entirely standalone, dense paragraphs where Augustine is waxing philosophical about the nature of God. The third chapter goes on at length about the paradox of God’s omnipresence, leading Augustine to meditate on whether this means that God is located within Creation or outside it, and if the whole of God can be simultaneously contained in everything or if individual parts of God exist in individual things. There’s also an interesting bit where he ponders if the size of the object impacts how much of God exists within it (does a blade of grass objectively have less God than a person?). This whole exercise is weird and discursive and feels like it’s somehow diminishing the quality of God; I don’t think most people are accustomed to thinking about a person in terms of amounts that fill different sized vessels. That I still think of God in personal terms and find it odd that here at the beginning of the work Augustine is playing with ideas that de-personify God strikes me as… weird. Maybe this is just a bit of strangeness that will be easier to grok when I get further into the text; it seems that wanting to think of God in personal rather than quantifiable terms would be a foundational part of a faith that’s predicated on believing that God incarnated as a person.
Of course, when I say all this I’m overlooking the fact that the translation I’m reading makes exclusive use of the familiar “thou” when Augustine addresses God. Yes, it’s a translation, and no, I don’t know enough about Latin to make a judgment about if Augustine is intentionally using a more familiar form of address. This feature of the text could either be an artifact from the translation being published in 1955 by a scholar who appears to have a relatively conservative view of Christianity if the introduction is anything to go on, or it could be a reflection of the Western Christian tradition I’m grappling with; either way, it does indicate a rhetorical stance where Augustine, even as he knows these thoughts were going to be published, treats God as something of a conversational partner. This sort of posture isn’t one with which I’m totally comfortable; I grok the concept of prayer as direct address to God, but writing my thoughts towards God down for others to read is a different sort of animal. Like I wrote last time, I feel much more comfortable with the idea of the faithful sussing out the nature of God among themselves rather than the direct conversation model that I recognize as being from evangelicalism. It’s probably worth recognizing for myself that that tradition has much deeper roots.
Augustine’s decision to write his text as a direct address to God likely ties in tightly with his decision to title the writings his Confessions. Confession to God of sin is a major part of Christian practice, and since much of the Confessions are ostensibly about Augustine’s own journey to conversion and realization of his own sins, the format makes sense. I’ve been pondering the significance of confession in a more modern sense, and one idea I’m playing around with is the concept of confession as understanding of self. To be able to identify one’s own faults is not precisely an easy task, especially if one’s faults have inflicted a lot of harm on other people. No one likes to feel like they’re in the wrong, and the act of confession forces them to confront that reality. In terms of good Christian practice, I’m trying to understand confession as a parallel for the act of self examination. The assurance that God is supposed to offer as a person of infinite love and acceptance helps ease the difficulty of confronting our flaws and trying to pursue a better example.
One last note before I wrap this post up: in the seventh chapter of Book I, Augustine goes off on this discourse about how even though he doesn’t remember being a baby, he’s totally sure that babies are full of sin, seeing as they cry when they want something, regardless of whether what they want is good for them or not. He’s sure of this because he’s observed babies being jealous of each other. This sequence is amazing because he assumes that the motivations of infants are more complex than just wanting the things they need to survive, and that the fact that they cry means they are being manipulative little sinners. In what I’m sure will be the first of many such moments, I have to disagree with him completely just based on a rudimentary understanding of childhood development, but also because seriously, he’s saying that babies are sinners who deserve to go to hell. One of the fathers of the Western church, folks.