Confessions Book 6

[For links to the rest of this series, click here.]

In contrast to the last few books, Book 6 moves the plot only slightly, featuring instead backstory, introspection, and character development. Augustine relates the influence of three others – Monica, Ambrose, and Alypius – upon his road to conversion. As always, Monica is praised for her faith, prayer, and sincere obedience. Ambrose is the oracle of God, disabusing Augustine of his wrongheaded notions about Christianity. Alypius is a friend and sort of junior partner to Augustine, noble in spirit but easily influenced.

These relationships among these four characters provide the material for a reflection about the role of human influence in  forming beliefs or practices. Love emerges as one of the more powerful influences. Monica so loves Ambrose that she is willing to submit to his ban on her religious practices. Augustine doubts that she would have obeyed such a command from any other. Alypius, for the sake of friendship, takes to heart a rebuke from Augustine. The fact that Augustine did not even consciously intend the rebuke highlights Alypius’ willingness to take correction from him.

Negatively, pride – the desire to be praised by others – is a perversion of love. It can overcome love and stifle joy. When Augustine considers the drunk beggar, he recognizes that even the beggar is better off than he; though his joy is false, at least he has some happiness. In contrast, Augustine’s love of glory weighs him down with cares and results in him casting off his concubine of over 13 years, a woman whom he sincerely loved. Alypius allows himself to be taken to the games and, in a moment of weakness, surrenders to the enthusiasm of the crowd.

Augustine for the first time in his life sees the value of belief based on testimony. He recognizes that much of history, culture, and even personal identity is known or formed on the basis of others’ reports. The Manichees claim to base their faith on reason alone, but end up smuggling in fable and fideism through the back door. The many permutations of Cartesian and post-Cartesian non-Christian ideologies operate the same way, promising freedom from the fantasy of religion but resting on the shaky assumptions of naturalism, historicism, economic determinism, or a similar construct.

The most important testimony is that of the Scriptures themselves. The material in Book 6 is useful for clearing up a misreading of Augustine’s theology. In one of his Anti-Manichaean writings, Augustine declaimed: “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church” (Against the Epistle of Mani, 5.6). Often, this has been used by Roman Catholics as a club to beat Protestants. Yet, if this statement says more than Protestants appreciate, it says much less than Romanists claim. Backing up a chapter, Augustine says this:

The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age.  The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate.  And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained. (4.5)

When Augustine appeals to the authority of the church, he is not thinking about the personal authority of a pope, nor of a catechism, nor even of priests, though he does recognize apostolic succession in the episcopate. Rather, this statement is congruent with the account in Confessions:

So since we were too weak to discover the truth by pure reasoning and therefore needed the authority of the sacred writings, I now began to believe that you would never have conferred such pre-eminent authority on the scripture, now diffused through all lands, unless you had willed that it would be a means of coming to faith in you and a means of seeking to know you…. The authority of the Bible seemed the more to be venerated and more worthy of a holy faith on the ground that it was open to everyone to read, while keeping the dignity of its secret meaning for a profounder interpretation. The Bible offered itself to all in very accessible words and the most humble style of diction, while also exercising the concentration of those who are not light of heart. It welcomes all people to it generous embrace, and also brings a few to you through narrow openings. Though the latter are few, they are much more numerous than would be the case if the Bible did not stand out by its high authority and if it had not drawn crowds to the bosom of its holy humility. (v.8)

The authority of the Catholic church is the power of the Scriptures to inspire the belief of multitudes of people around the world from different classes and backgrounds. The Church is the vehicle through which the faith of the Scriptures is transmitted to people. The Manichaean Scriptures have inspired no comparable devotion or piety. For a more complete summary of Augustine’s views on authority, see the article “Authority” in Augustine Through the Ages (available through Google Books).

Finally, I must point out Augustine’s radical God-centeredness: “If we were immortal and lived in unending bodily pleasure, with no fear of losing it, why should we not be happy? What else should we be seeking for? I did not realize that that is exactly what shows our great wretchedness” (xvi.26). The contemporary Church is afflicted with the pursuit of a Godless heaven. Whether codified in liberation theologies or disseminated through sentimental gospel hymns, the idea that the goal of salvation is an eternal life of comfort and indulgence is poison to Christianity. Salvation brings many gifts, but none greater than the Giver.

Published in: on November 1, 2010 at 10:40 am  Leave a Comment  

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