Wednesday, October 26, 2011
The Confessions of St. Augustine
This morning to Laurie I likened it to the first time I saw Casablanca. I think I was about 18 at the time, and I had heard so often what a great film it was, one of the best ever made, by many people whose opinions I trusted on such matters. I then saw the film and thought, "Huh. I don't get it. It was just an average 1940s noirish film, the likes of which I've seen dozens of times." It was a revisit years later, viewed with the benefit of a modicum of maturity, in which I realized the perfection encapsulated in that film as well as it being the source and inspiration of so much other great material in popular culture. I realized in reading St. Augustine that I had been reading St. Augustine for years, although through the filter of many other minds, some of which may not have even realized the wellspring of their thought. He is so ingrained in my religious path and in our culture as to possess the attributes of invisibility and postulation. Indeed, much like reading Dante and Milton, I came to understand how much of reality has been formed by this man's thinking. I came to understand through my reading that he served to mold a great deal of Christianity, and this wasn't even City of God.
Before I go any further, I should probably elaborate on what specifically I found. Augustine came out of the Gnostic religious path called Manichaeism. Manichaeism was a Gnostic religion and was, in fact, one of the most popular religious paths of the day. It followed the teachings of the Persian Gnostic Mani. Augustine reacted very strongly against Manichaeism after his conversion and there is an argument one can make about perhaps going a bit beyond the call of duty with his objections.
I am inclined to agree with Augustine's rejection of the Gnostic sort of "salvation through knowledge, learning, or wisdom." I might suggest that Augustine's rather severe doctrine of Hell might stem both from coming out of dualism and also a reaction to the "ebb and flow" view of good and evil in Manichaeism. But, to be honest with my own reaction, I also have to lay my Annihilationist cards on the table. I would also mention at this point Augustine's admitted heavy influence by the writings of Plato (a heavy influence which I share), with the specific intention of recalling my reaction to Socrates' view of the afterlife and how much it resembles the popular Christian view of Hell (which was, in essence, Augustine's as well. Yeah, I said it.)
I should probably also state that I am not saying that Augustine formed early Christianity in his own image, rather that he monkeyed with the hues a bit.
As for the difficulty with the text itself, I find it difficult to express why it took me four months to read 300 pages (except that I was also reading other things in the meantime including Proust and the Diaries of Andy Warhol.) Augustine did have a cyclical style of writing, possibly a translation glitch, which ground me down a bit. I also found myself disagreeing with the man, again more in matters of hues than with specific points. At the risk of an ad hominem explanation and speaking as one who sets up camp in the grey area of radical grace which often gives off the appearance of antinomianism, Augustine could and did smack a bit of the Pharisaical at times. He also made a few moves that made me uncomfortable. I thought his expulsion of his mistress (and mother of his son) was a bit callous. Still, being faced with such moments gave occasion to check my judgmentalism, so there may have been some profitable humility exercises to be mined from the work. Although I would hasten to add that it wasn't that I didn't like Augustine as a person. I liked him quite a bit. I just suspect that he would have grossly disliked me.
The biographical section was the easier part of the text. The real challenge came in the last three Books where Augustine mainly talked around and about Creation. This could also be a bit excruciating to me at times, especially as one who has no problem reconciling contemporary science with his religious path. For example, Augustine talked about time for what seemed like an eternity, and his pre-Einsteinian, pre-quantum, heck, pre-Newtonian and pre-Copernican view of time and the universe I found to be some of the most challenging wading of the entire project.
Of course, there was a lot to love about Augustine as well. His early but solid Trinitarian view I found quite lovely and engaging. I especially loved how his expressions were so steeped in scripture. He spends a great deal of his work "praying the scriptures" to God. His example in that regard may have been one of the greatest lessons I gained from reading Augustine.
Would I recommend Augustine? Do I think Dr. Eliot was correct in including the work in this series? I would recommend it with a few provisos. I would not recommend it to a non-Christian, nor would I recommend it to the sort of young zealous types who are captivated by The Law. I would recommend it as an important work in Christian history. It was an exceptionally challenging read and clearly one of the most influential works in Christian history, ranking it high as one of the most influential works in human civilization. I would speculate that this was Dr. Eliot's reasoning. I, however, was more joyful back when I was basking in William Penn.