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A Brief Exploration of St. Augustine's Confessions
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-04-11 10:26:42
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St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

Augustine, the first great doctor of the Church, titled his deeply philosophical and theological autobiography The Confessions to implicate two aspects of the form the work would take. To confess, in Augustine's time, meant both to give an account of one's faults to God and to praise God (to speak one's love for God). These two aims come together in the Confessions in an elegant but complex sense: Augustine narrates his ascent from sinfulness to faithfulness not simply for the practical edification of his readers, but also because he believes that narrative to be itself a story of God's greatness and of the fundamental love all things have for Him. Thus, in the Confessions form equals content to a large degree—the natural form for Augustine's story of redemption to take would be a direct address to God, since it is God who must be thanked for such redemption. (That said, a direct address to God was a highly original form for Augustine to have used at the time).


This idea should also help us understand the apparently lopsided and unusual structure of the text. The first nine Books of the Confessions are devoted to the story of Augustine's life up to his mother's death, but the last four Books make a sudden, lengthy departure into pure theology and philosophy. This shift should be understood in the same context as the double meaning of 'confessions'—for Augustine, the story of his sinful life and redemption is in fact a profoundly philosophical and religious matter, since his story is only one example of the way all imperfect creation yearns to return to God. Thus, the story of the return to God is set out first as an autobiography, and then in conceptual terms.

This idea of the return also serves as a good access to the philosophical and theological context in which Augustine is thinking and writing. The most important influence here (besides the Bible) is Neoplatonism, a few major texts of which Augustine read shortly before his conversion. The Neoplatonist universe is hierarchical, but things lower on the scale of being cannot be said to be bad or evil. Everything is good in so far as it exists, but things lower on the scale have a less complete and perfect Being. In contrast to God, who is eternal, unchanging, and unified, the lower levels of being involve what we know as the visible universe—a universe of matter in constant flux, in a vast multiplicity, and caught up in the ravages of time.

Augustine's lasting influence lies largely in his success in combining this Neoplatonic worldview with the Christian one. In Augustine's hybrid system, the idea that all creation is good in as much as it exists means that all creation, no matter how nasty or ugly, has its existence only in God. As Berkeley puts it later on: to be is to be perceived. Because of this, all creation seeks to return to God, who is the purest and most perfected form of the compromised Being enjoyed by individual things. Again, then, any story of an individual's return to God is also a statement about the relationship between God and the created universe: namely, everything tends back toward God, its constant source and ideal form.

A question to which much of the last four Books of the Confessions is devoted is how this relationship between an eternal God and a temporal creation could exist. How could the return to God be a process that takes place over time, if God is an eternal essence to which we already owe our very existence? How did God create the world (and 'when' could this have happened) if God is eternal and unchanging? The solution, for Augustine, involves a deep understanding of the simultaneity of eternity and time. It is not a question of either or, either time or eternity, transcendence or immanence but of both/and. Time, he argues, does not really exist—it is more of an illusion we generate for ourselves for unclear reasons (fundamentally, we fall into time because of our distance from God's perfection). Past and future exist only in our present constructions of them. From God's point of view, all of time exists at once--nothing comes 'before' or 'after' anything else temporally.

God created the universe not 'at' a specific time, but rather creates it constantly and always, in one eternal act; hence creation is not a once and for all act of God, it is more like a constant creation and the theory of evolution is quite compatible with a creating God. What is incompatible is the pantheistic idea that all is God and it is eternal. As Karl Sagan put, if the universe is eternal God is unemployed and has nothing to do, which ultimately is the equivalent of saying that he does not exist; what exists is a material eternal universe. So much for New Age Spirituality to which even those who do not believe pay lip service while proclaiming rampant materialism! Spirituality becomes instrument; a tool to better serve economic, political interests.

This idea puts both the Neo-Platonic worldview and Augustine's own act of 'confessing' in a new perspective. There no longer needs to be any conflict between the idea of a return to God over 'time' (as with the young and sinful Augustine) on the one hand, and everything's constant existence in God on the other. Since time is simply an illusion of the lower hierarchy, it means the same thing to wander and return to God as it does to owe one's existence to God at every moment—these are just two aspects of the same thing, one aspect told as a story and the other told in religious and philosophical terms.

Thus, again, Augustine's text is remarkably and complexly coherent, despite its apparent eccentricities and shifts in content. He is laying out the story of his life, opening himself as completely as possible to God and to his readers. In this aspect he much resembles modern confessional writers. But in so doing, he is praising God for his salvation. Further, he is illustrating, with a temporal example, a specific view of the universe as unified across all time in an unchanging God.

Christ remains crucial to Augustine to reconcile eternity and time, immanence and transcendence. He is God made human or the incarnated God, the point where immanence and transcendence meet. For Augustine Christ is the mechanism by which the return to God is effected. For Augustine, it is through Christ that a human can come to know his or her existence in God. Augustine also suggests that Christ is  wisdom itself in flesh and blood, since wisdom too is a kind of intermediary between God and the lower levels of creation. As John renders it: in the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It is in this wisdom, in the context of this 'Christ,' that God created the universe, and it is through this wisdom, Christ, that the universe can return to Him. Without him we are left with a mere abstract “nous,”  an impersonal stoic “cosmic intelligence.” Indeed, the idea of God is ultimately an idolatrous narcissistic idea in as much as it is a rather abstract idea created by man, not to be confused with a providential personal God who cares deeply for his creation, and with whom man can have, if he so chooses as a co-creator created in God’s image, have a deeply personal relationship. That is not “nous” or the cosmic designer or intelligence, but rather, the providential God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

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