Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Confessions of St. Augustine

This was by far the book that took me longest to read in this series so far and also almost as long as any book I can remember.  Walden took me a few months as well, but that was because I loathed Thoreau.  I found a lot to love about St. Augustine, but it was still a long haul.

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.


  1. I have not (yet) read this book. But very much enjoyed your review. Thanks!

  2. Paul,

    I bought this book when my son was in India upon his recommendation - that's been almost two years now. Still haven't read it but definitely hope to soon. Thanks for the great review. Could you explain a little more what you mean by "nor would I recommend it to the sort of young zealous types who are captivated by The Law. " Is it because you saw something a bit Pharisaical in Augustine and fear that Augustine's leaning in that way would only fan the zealot-for-the-law's zeal more so.

    Close to 20 years ago I had a good friend who had just lost his Grandfather. He feared for his Grandfather's eternal salvation and began to search the scriptures on the doctrine of hell. My friend was persuaded at the time towards annihilation. He called me from his new home several states away from me, actually it was California and told me of his new position. He was open to challenge on his new position and so I undertook my own study in what I hoped would be of help to him. I Compiled my results in letter-form and sent them to him . I preserved that letter which represents I think three months of my own life of continuous study. I was taken places in that time I never knew before. The consideration of eternity is very solemn, and I know I saw or rather tasted somewhat of eternity beyond my previous experience as a young believer in Christ. I was young then, I hadn't yet come to embrace "the doctrines of grace" or even heard the word reformed much less had a category for it. If you choose to read it you will probably find some of my own naivete and youthfulness on that score. here is the link:

    Also, your mentioning of watching Casablanca as teen and unable to appreciate it at that time as you did years later with maturity and experience reminded me of a thought I had yesterday. At 18 years old I watched the move "The Elephant Man" with my girl friend now my wife. The movie had just come out, it was recommended by a college acquaintance. We watched and had no comprehension as to what we were seeing. We totally didn't get it, were disturbed by it and very sorry we had watched it. Not having thought of this movie since 1980 yesterday I read a review of the same. And it made me think how hard it is as a young man with no experience and shallow thoughts and shallow reading and unsaved to SEE. Were I to see the same movie today I hope and believe I would appreciate it and see somewhat what this reviewer saw.

    Grace and Peace to you,


  3. Yes, that is precisely the reason why I would discourage some younger, more zealous types from jumping right into Augustine.

    Yes, I can totally relate to that response to that exact film. This is a shared experience.

    Thank you for your comments!