Joseph Clair is director of the William Penn Honors Program and assistant professor of religious studies at George Fox University. His book on Augustine was released in May.
Augustine was born in the year 354 in the town of Thagaste in what is now Algeria. He lived in the waning years of the Roman Empire and experienced firsthand the tension between pagan and Christian Rome. Born to a Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan father, Patricius, he spent the first three decades of his life running from his mother’s faith and chasing ambition, pleasure, and spiritual enlightenment. At the ripe young age of thirty-one he found himself as imperial professor of rhetoric in the capital city of Milan (something akin to being the endowed chair of government at Harvard) and yet felt empty and unfulfilled. After long delay, he was converted to Christ and moved back to North Africa to pursue his newfound faith in solitude with a few of his closest friends. Eventually, Augustine was ordained—somewhat against his will—as pastor and then bishop of Hippo and spent the rest of his life there in ministry.
Augustine the Writer
Amidst his extensive duties as bishop—Augustine wrote. We have more of his writings—by far—than anyone else from the ancient world: more than 100 treatises, 250 letters, and 1,000 sermons. After Jesus and Paul, no one has done more than Augustine to shape Western Christianity. Born from real debates in the church, Augustine pioneered the great debates about faith and reason, grace and works, and church and state. And his Confessions stands tall among the many works that exert this influence. Today we are accustomed to the genre of spiritual autobiography and spiritual memoir, but the Confessions was the first work of this kind in Western history, an innovation and achievement of form and content that may never be matched.
Augustine knew that our knowledge of God is inextricably bound up with our knowledge of ourselves—and right there, that’s the problem: ourselves. The Delphic maxim “know thyself”—rehearsed time and again by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues—is particularly challenging, in Augustine’s eyes, because the self is opaque, a knotty tangle of snarled desires around the reel of our lives, stemming from an inherited problem that goes back all the way to Eden. “I have become an enigma even to myself!” he says (Confessions 10.50). Augustine offers his Confessions as a grand narrativization of this journey toward, what John Calvin calls true wisdom: knowledge of God and knowledge of oneself.
How does Augustine pull it off? He shows us first and foremost that the way toward true wisdom is to insert our own micro-stories into the grand narrative of God’s story given in Scripture.
Augustine and the Drama of Scripture
My 5-year old daughter Esme is a budding actress, or perhaps just a great lover of stories. Every day when I come home from work I find her trying on a different character. One day it’s Mary Poppins, the next it’s Dorothy with her stuffed, trailing Toto. This is how Augustine reads the Bible in the Confessions. He reads himself into Scripture. He is a character in his own story trying on the characters of the Word. He attempts to know himself first as Adam, created by God in the garden, good and fallen (Conf. 2.9). He envisions himself as David in the great penitential Psalms (Conf. 9.8). He understands himself as the Prodigal Son, wayward and wayfaring, but also beloved and welcomed home by his father (Conf. 1.28). He wants to read and to be read by the words of Scripture. Augustine reinterprets his own past—the 31 years leading up to his conversion in the garden at Milan—in light of the scriptural past so that he can make sense of his present life and shape his expectation and hope for the future.
He takes his whole self to Scripture—skeletons, secrets, honest questions, grim doubts, anxieties and all—so that he can know and understand its truth: a truth that both cuts and comforts. He seeks transformation by Scriptural truth that spans experience, intellect, imagination, and feeling.
Confession—the keystone of the book—is not just some dark closet where we bring our sins. It is the liberation of self-knowledge, revealed by the mirror of Scripture. Brimming with repentance and praise, lamentation and rage, thanks and jealousy—confession acknowledges the fullness of truth before ourselves and God. And the truth shall set you free, as the words of Scripture become your own.
Augustine and the Confessions
Augustine discovers this power in Scripture and thus gathers his own fragmented, fickle self and to present himself fully before God. For true confession, true praise, true love, requires us to bring our whole selves to God. There’s no way beyond the self, Augustine says, except through the self. “Out of love for loving you, Lord, I do this . . . I will try now to give a coherent account of my disintegrated self, for when I turned away from you, the one God, and pursued a multitude of things, I went to pieces” (Conf. 2.1).
The drama here is no Oprah-style tell-all. No racing news or disappearing snapchats. It’s the drama of the internal and eternal journey. Augustine presents his own life as an example to follow and imitate in the difficult work of achieving Scriptural self-understanding. The Confessions may very well be the antidote to our own self-saturated age of social media and the new Delphic maxim: Know thy selfie. To overcome self-absorption—and the whirling eddies of comparison and shame—we cannot merely scrap or empty ourselves in some Zen-like forgetfulness. Read the Confessions to discover a path toward whole selfhood oriented toward our true end, true fulfillment, and true completion in the praise of God. “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in You” (Conf. 1.1). The way toward this rest is confession. Follow Augustine’s lead. Take up and read. Take up and be read.