What type of literature is Augustine’s Confessions? Most of us would be tempted to call it an autobiography in the form of an extended prayer.
But in a brilliant essay on Book One of the Confessions, Charles Mathewes, Carolyn M. Barbour professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, argues, “Not only do our expectations of autobiography as a genre mislead us about Augustine’s aims in the Confessions; they positively obstruct our apprehension of its purposes.”
The problem beneath our urge to autobiography, he argues, it “our presumption of beginning.” And Mathewes argues that throughout his work, Augustine is targeting this very presumption:
He takes as his task not so much to help us directly to escape from the tendency to narrate ourselves . . . , but rather to tell a story that is ultimately legible only from the perspective of salvation, from the perspective of one whose understanding has been redeemed from the ceaselessly futile task of trying to tell one’s own story. In doing so, he urges on the reader’s reconsideration of not just the propriety, but the very possibility of imagining that one can tell one’s story from within it. The Confessions is the story of a life, but it is a life still in via, and until death or (better and more appropriately) the eschatological consummation of that life, its meaning remains, for us and for Augustine, unknown. The work is not in fact merely not autobiographical, it is properly speaking anti-autobiographical. Yet this, Augustine seems to be saying, is what any true “autobiography” should be: it is the story of a life from the inside, and from the insider, our lives are not yet narratable.
The aim of this anti-autobiography is pedagogical and psychological: it wants not directly to reshape our dispositions (it has no hope that a text alone can do that; such is the work of God alone), but rather to vex our comprehension until those dispositions begin to be reshaped. Rather than seeking to comprehend our lives better, Augustine hopes his readers will more appropriately fail to comprehend them; and insofar as one fails to comprehend in the right way, one is blocked from understanding the deep character of what the Confessions is all about. This is a crucial exegetical fact about the Confessions, though one rarely noticed.
Both positively and negatively, Mathewes argues, Augustine wants us to see our lives as much less intelligible than we usually think they are:
Negatively, we are to come to see the absolute unintelligibility of our sinful lives as sinful: we must unlearn the false explanations we give of our corruption, and we must come to be shocked that we are as corrupted, as messed up, as we are—and we must come to be humbled and mournful about it.
Positively, we should be bewildered by the sheer gratuitousness of our bare existence, by cultivating our recognition of our inability to explain our existence as “merited” by anything self: we must unlearn the false explanations our existence, the stories we tell ourselves about how we got to be the way we are, and see our lives instead as a great gift to us, wholly unmerited by anything we have or could have done—and we must come to wonder in gratitude at the sheer gift of our existence. In undertaking this quest for greater self-understanding, we discover that instead we gain a deepened incomprehension of our lives.
Mathewes notes that two things follow from this:
First, in terms of genre, the Confessions may be the least apologetic text Augustine ever wrote, despite all those who try to read their way to faith through it; it is not meant for those outside of the church, but for those inside, to help them in their quest to become more fully Christians.
Second, we can properly read the Confession only if we fully accept the eschatological dimensions of human understanding; we must accept that our “beginnings” will only be comprehensible (insofar as they will be comprehensible) from the perspective of the end, and that therefore much more of our lives as currently lived must seem to us to be mysterious. Our lives are not our own, and not yet even fully given to us; we will be given to ourselves only eschatologically.
Mathewes shows that Augustine is trying to reorient and recalibrate our inclinations away from self-orientation:
. . . We begin to reconceive our lives not so much as self-starting, but as “being begun,” and begun by another—namely, God. The crucial move in the Confessions . . . is to resist our presumption that we are our own beginnings. One may understand the work as the story of Augustine growing in the knowledge of that presumptuousness, and as the story of Augustine finally surrendering his sinful desire to be his own author. It is by trying to be “the beginning” that we sin; such is the lesson of the fall of the rebel angels. We must learn to see our lives, and the actions that constitute them, as reducible, without remainder, to response.
The entire essays is worth reading: Charles T. Mathewes, “Book One: The Presumptuousness of Autobiography and the Paradoxes of Beginning,” in A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, ed. Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 7–23 (8–9 quoted above).