Into the Book

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How do I review someone’s diary? What right do I have to judge a diary based on story structure? How can I critique the lack of flow or plot? A diary is not meant to fit within an outwardly logical structure, for it is meant for the writer alone. It reminds me of what the main character states in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground: “I can ramble, because this is not meant for someone to read, it is meant for me.” While Augustine is meaning for others to read this, it is mostly for himself and for God. Augustine is writing out his prayers, his musings, his longings, and his confessions. As such, the ideas ramble and bleed together, some following to a logical conclusion and others being only touched upon. Yet, despite this occasional lack of coherence, Confessions should not be criticized, it should be applauded. Augustine, unlike Dostoevsky’s character, is a genius, and this is the story of his life.

I’m not going to attempt to relate or even cover the full plot of Confessions. At its base, this is a loose recollection of Augustine’s life, from his childhood to his youthful rejection of God to his eventual conversion. Yet, Augustine doesn’t dwell on the particulars of his life. He is far more interested in dissecting (confessing) his sins and in reasoning out answers to why he rejected God in the past. Though Augustine is best known as a theologian and philosopher, this journey through is life shows his human side. With Augustine the theologian I might have questions or philosophical differences, yet, I can relate to Augustine the man. For example, when Augustine relates his childhood interest in Latin tales, I can match that with my childhood interest in Tolkien or Lewis. However, rather than attribute that interest as merely a normal aspect of his childhood, Augustine questions his interest and critiques it. Augustine laments the fact that his younger self wept for the separation of Dido from her lover (in Virgil’s Aeneid), yet he cared not for the fact that he was separated from God. What an interesting question to consider of my own literary interests. Then, hitting even closer to home, Augustine describes his youthful misconduct: stealing pears off a neighbor’s tree merely for the fun of it. Augustine considers this act the worst one can do. Murderers kill out of anger or revenge, yet Augustine stole pears not for food or pleasure, but simply because he loved sinning. Ouch. I may not be guilty of pear theft, but I know of misdeeds in my own life that I have done merely for the love of sinning.

Yet, though the majority of Augustine’s work is theology and philosophy, which can be somewhat more abstract, here I found some of the best material. Augustine describes how, as a young man, he could not understand why God would act one way in the Old Testament and another in the New. Why would God change his ways if he is an immutable God? This is a question I myself have wondered. Yet Augustine answers this questions not by forming vast theological figures or ideals, but by looking at poetry. Poetry is consistent, yet the meter demands a difference in emphasis. Does this mean poetry is devoid of logic because it is not all the same? No! Rather, poetry’s consistency causes it to act differently in different places, just as God relates to humanity differently in the New Testament in comparison with the Old.

Again, Augustine struggled with an issue that I have wrestled with as well: the concept of evil. If God created everything, from where did evil come? Did God create evil? If God created it, how can it be called evil? Yet, as Augustine considered the question, he compares evil to corruption. Corruption does not make something into a new thing, it simply destroys that which already exists. Good things, when fully corrupted, cease to exist. Therefore, evil is not an entity, but the process of something being deformed. Here, Augustine actually makes a fascinating point about the nature of everything (one which, based on my scant prior knowledge of Augustine, shocked me): if something is being corrupted, there must still be good in it, for beings which are still being corrupted must still have goodness inside of them to corrupt. Therefore, that which is, must be good to some extent. Augustine in no way downplays the existence of sin, yet he acknowledges that humanity still retains the Image of God, and thus is in some way good.

However, despite the fact that Augustine uses his life story as a springboard into theology and philosophy, he abandons this framework entirely for the last four chapters. In these chapters Augustine really jumps into the deep end, and that’s when you are either lost or your mind is blown. Or both. During these chapters, I truly came to admire Augustine.

These chapters are mostly a contemplation of creation and of Genesis chapter 1. In a time where Creation and Evolution are pitted in a death match against each other, it was fascinating to know that even 1600 years ago, Christians still struggled with the same issues. Indeed, Augustine considers the supposed trump question of anti-Christians at that time: what did God do before the world was created? Was He just sitting around, twiddling his thumbs? To answer this, Augustine leaps into a discussion of what time is exactly. Humans refer to long time and short time. We say 100 years is a long time, but ten days is only a short time. Yet, how can that be? The past no longer exists. Therefore, how can we say that 100 years can be either long or short? Secondly, is the present a long or short time? The time in the last 100 years passed at the same rate as time does now. Therefore, how can it be long or short? Time itself is only a concept that humanity imposes, which only exists because God created them! Therefore, how can we say that God sat around a long time before creation if time itself is not something which existed before creation? It was all eternity and it was all no time. To attempt to impose linear ideas on a non-linear time (even that is the wrong word) is nonsensical. Confused yet? Me too. But I am amazed at what little I can grasp.

Augustine’s arguments are long, precise, and exhausting. They are so meticulously logical that it hurt my head just to read them. Yet, they are brilliant. Augustine was such an amazing thinker that it was truly glorious for me to read his work, even though I didn’t always follow everything he wrote. Really, that is what I would say for much of Confessions: I didn’t always understand what he was getting at, but I recognized his genius. For me, as someone who prior to reading held somewhat of a grudge against Augustine for his Just War and Original Sin inclinations (two ideas with which I struggle greatly), that is quite an accomplishment. In fact, Augustine and I are probably more alike than I would care to admit. Therefore, if you like Augustine or if you hate him; if you consider him a hero or a heretic; read Confessions. At the very least, you’ll come away with new insight on a truly fascinating figure in Church history, and maybe you’ll even enjoy it.

-Jesse

Published on 15 June, 2016. Last updated on

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