I started reading Augustine’s Confessions today, in conjunction with a chapter “about” him (and his theological positions) in my Church History textbook. I find myself growing more and more perplexed, being pulled in two separate directions.
On one hand, when I read what others have admiringly written about him, and when I read summaries and explanations of his doctrine and highly influential contributions to western theology, I dislike him intensely and am resentful at the direction in which he led the church.
And yet, when I read him in his own words, I can’t help but recognize a kindred spirit. I’m struck by his painstaking authenticity, his earnest search for understanding and relevance, and at his keen insight into humanity, psychology, education, and culture. To be sure, I see early traces of doctrines he developed in later writings (original sin, depravity, salvation by grace alone, etc.) and I still disagree with him. It makes me wonder how much my affinity toward Augustine has to do with his personability as a writer, and some shared circumstances — in addition to being a seeker-of-truth, he was a teacher, a rhetorician, student of literature, and devoted father to his son.
I’m also amazed by the intensity of Augustine’s need to write — his corpus is immense — and while Confessions is probably not the very first piece of world literature with an autobiographical bent, it is universally recognized as the father of that literary genre. That means he was willing to experiment in new styles of writing. It’s written in the first person, ostensibly directed to God, but he readily acknowledges that much of what he says is for the benefit of “my readers.” Mind that he wrote this while still relatively unknown, and in his early 30’s. Delusions of grandeur, self-confidence, or just a desire to share? In addition to a stack of books, he also wrote instructional “how to” manuals, soapbox sermons, and back-and-forth conversational letters to both contemporaries and heretics alike.
Any of that sound familiar? Augustine fits the profile of a typical blogger. I think he would have loved the interactivity of blogs, too, although he probably would have been a frequent violator of the “comments should be shorter than the original post” rule of blog etiquette.
I don’t know if I’ll ever quite come to terms with Augustine. In fact, the more I’ve been studying the “heresies” of the early church, the more I come to identify theologically with Pelagianism — the exact heresy Augustine spent the last years of his life combating. Still, he’s no longer a voice I can just ignore or dismiss out of hand. In addition to inspiring me to write this post today, Augustine’s Confessions was the inspiration behind the Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau, a profound influence on my own thinking and educational/social philosophy. Somehow, I don’t think Rousseau could have agreed with Augustinian doctrine that much either. But perhaps, like me, he was enthralled by the writer and the writings, if not by his conclusions. Come to think of it, Rousseau would have made an excellent blogger, too…