Wanting God: A Very Short Guide to Reading Confessions as a Christian
Are you reading Augustine's Confessions this semester? Teaching it? Picking it up because it's one of the best possible books Christians can read? There’s no more tried and true guide to the good life than Augustine of Hippo, whose life story has guided generations of Christians in thinking about what it means to live for God.
I wrote this guide to help students (or anyone who wants to learn with Augustine) get a sense of the whole of Augustine’s great work and sort through some of the key themes and questions of the book. This guide is neither comprehensive nor scholarly. It’s simply offered as a help to readers of the Confessions. The guide focuses on Sarah Ruden’s recent English translation (a little about this translation, below), but readers of any translation should still be helped.
My personal favorite translation, for its beauty, is Maria Boulding's.
Most students are not assigned books 10-13 of the Confessions, and so those receive very, very little coverage here, in a guide which is already very short.
I love the Confessions and find it a great spiritual resource in my own life. I hope this guide might help you to love it too.
AIM AND GENRE
The genre of Confessions is disputed.
Is it the first autobiography?
A spiritual memoir?
Was autobiography even possible in the ancient world, or does the category depend on modern and individualistic conceptions of the self? (After all, Augustine’s story is also Monica’s and Alypius’s and the church’s….)
Perhaps it’s a sermon pretending to be a memoir but really trying to convert the reader?
Is it a conversion story? (And what is a conversion story? And if Confessions is one, where, exactly, is the conversion?)
Maybe it’s mostly philosophy? Or theology?
There is truth in all these, but I think it’s best to think of Confessions as a confession, which also makes it a prayer.
But it is a public prayer, a testimony, and so the addressee is not only God but also us. Augustine confesses to God and also to his fellow believers. The term confession comes from the Latin confiteri: to acknowledge, proclaim, or praise. The book bears witness.
Augustine confesses who he is and what he has done, but more than that, he confesses who God is and what God has done. Here, a prominent and respected Christian leader pulls back the curtain on his life and exposes his weakness and God’s mercy. Imagine Billy Graham or Ann Voskamp writing such a revealing and vulnerable account.
Augustine’s life becomes a stand in for every human life, and the book may serve as a model for the Christian life. Despite the text’s ancient strangeness, it also has resonated with Christians through the centuries and continues to resonate with us. We can see our lives in Augustine’s life and so see what God can do in our lives.
Augustine recounts deep concerns and experiences which are common to many of us: wrestling with the faith of his parents in a process in which that faith becomes his own, being formed by an aspirational education, career ambitions, intense focus on sexual desire, reveling in communities of friends, and many other experiences should not be foreign to us. Augustine’s testimony to God’s transformative power to change lives has the potential to set us on fire for transformation.
In Confessions Augustine finds the good life in God, despite having sought it in so many other places;
“how do I seek you, Master? When I seek you, my God, I seek a happy life” (10.29).
Augustine recommends, to us as his readers, that we too seek the good life in the only One in whom it can truly be found.
AUGUSTINE’S THEOLOGY AND INFLUENCE
Even if we have have never heard his name, Augustine is in our heads and, likely, in our hearts. His influence is immense and cannot be overstated. He’s placed his stamp on Christian thought throughout the centuries, from his own time through the middle ages and the Protestant Reformation, up to today.
Augustine is, after Paul, the great theologian of grace. He sees grace as the very center and heart of Scripture, and his way of reading Scripture has been decisive for the church. When Martin Luther had his insight into salvation by grace alone, that experience was connected to Augustine’s similar insight about a thousand years earlier. We could even read the Reformation’s return to grace as a reclaiming of Augustine’s heritage.
Augustine’s central reading of Paul is that 1) we are sinners, who are powerless to save ourselves and 2) we are saved by the free gift of grace made available in Jesus Christ.
This reading of Paul remains the core reading of the Western church from Augustine through (the best of ) medieval Catholicism through the Protestant Reformation all the way through to contemporary Evangelicalism (though complicated in various conversations through the centuries, including contemporary conversation about the new perspective, but Augustine is fundamentally right here [which does not, by the way, discount the usefulness of that new perspective.]).
Augustine served as pastor and bishop in the North African Hippo Regis. There, he worked out his theology in and with the church and in response to the needs of God’s people.
He’s definitely a pastor-theologian. His theology was shaped in response to a series of controversies or heresies which he saw as threats to the church in his day. In Confessions, the major heretical pressure comes from the Manicheans, who attracted Augustine in his youth (more below) and against whom he upholds the goodness of God’s creation.
When he was faced with people struggling with something Protestants would later call “works righteousness” (the Pelagian controversy), he turned to Scripture to speak about the brokenness of human nature and to remind us that we cannot save ourselves but stand in desperate need of the healing grace of Christ our savior.
Grace, then, is the basis of one of the most famous teachings of Augustine: original sin. When some wanted to separate from the accommodated, sinful church in order to start a pure community (the Donatist controversy), Augustine turned to Scripture to speak of the brokenness of anything humans can do in the church and to remind us that the church is a place for sinners. When we speak of the church as a “hospital for sinners” and not a “museum for saints,” we’re claiming Augustine’s insight about the church as a church of grace.
In Confessions, we see Augustine searching for and laying claim to that grace in his own life.
Augustine’s theology won’t always feel familiar to us, and, like every human theology, it isn’t always right, but it is full of wisdom. It’s a theology born of deep love for God’s Word and God’s people and a theology which reminds us of the depths of God’s grace.
337 death of Constantine and division of Roman Empire
354 on Nov. 13, Augustine born to Patricius and Monica at Thagaste (present day Algeria in North Africa)
365 goes to school in Madaura
370 spends a year at home while his father saves for his education. His year of too much adolescent freedom is recounted in Book 2.
371 goes to study rhetoric in Carthage (book 3)
c. 371–373 his father dies, son Adeodatus is born
373 Ambrose becomes bishop of Milan
375 returns to Thagaste to teach rhetoric
376 begins teaching rhetoric in Carthage
376 unnamed friend, who was baptized, dies (recounted in book 4)
383 sails to Rome with son and son’s unnamed mother (book 5)
384 becomes professor of rhetoric in Milan
386 is converted (book 8), retreats to Cassiciacum (book 9)
387 returns to Milan, is baptized by Ambrose; at Ostia, he and Monica have vision, Monica dies there (book 9)
388 goes to Rome
390 returns to Carthage, then Thagaste; his son dies
391 is ordained priest at Hippo
396 becomes bishop of Hippo
c. 400 writes his Confessions
c. 403–412 the Donatist controversy (about church unity and brokenness)
410 sack of Rome
412–421 the Pelagian controversy (about original sin)
413–426 writes The City of God, On the Trinity, and The Enchiridion
430 Aug. 28, dies at Hippo. North Africa ravaged by Vandals
STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
Part I: Sinful Nature
Book 1 Infancy and childhood
Book 2 Adolescence (including the famous pears)
Part II: Searching
Book 3 Seeking wisdom
Book 4 Friends, loves, and lovers
Book 5 From Faustus to Ambrose, from Carthage to Rome to Milan
Book 6 Convinced in theory but not in practice?
Book 7 Neoplatonists and Paul
Part III: New Life in Christ
Book 8 Take up and read (Augustine’s conversion in the garden of Milan)
Book 9 Baptism and new life
Books 10-13 Memory, time, creation, and interpretation of Scripture, especially the creation narrative in Genesis
Augustine encourages us to read our stories into his story, identifying with him in our own sinful nature, our restless hearts which have sought or are seeking God, and our potential for new life in Christ.
Above, I’ve divided Confessions into a three part story, but there are a variety of ways to think about the overall structure. Confessions can be read as fairly straightforward narrative autobiography (as noted above, this is contested). It also tends to be divided into two large sections where A) Books 1-8 tell of Augustine’s unredeemed past and B) Books 9-13 tell of his present and future as a child of God. If we divide the work this way, book 8 becomes the hinge, Augustine’s conversion, on which the story turns. If this basic division corresponds to all humans, then books 1-8 are all of us, “in Adam” and books 9-13 are all of us “in Christ.”
On this division, it’s interesting that most readers stop at book 9. Are we more fascinated by sin than by redemption? Maybe, but there’s also little doubt that books 10-13 are not the page turners 1-9 are. It’s worth noting that the end of the book, even if you aren’t reading it, testifies to Augustine’s experience of God’s healing in his life and his continued wrestling with questions that plagued him before his conversion.
RUDEN AS TRANSLATOR
Ursula K. LeGuin called Ruden's translation of the The Aeneid
“The best translation yet, certainly the best of our time.”
LeGuin appreciates language, and Ruden seems to live for little else.
Ruden’s translation is striking in its liveliness.
She tells us that her,
“main justification for this new translation…is the previously hidden degree to which Augustine makes his life and ideas vivid in the style of his Latin” (xxiii).
Ruden succeeds in making Augustine’s prose more vibrant and vital than other English translations have done (though I still have a soft spot for the poetic beauty of Maria Boulding’s translation). For example, from 1.21,
“I didn’t love you, and I cheated on you like a true slut…”
On that note, Ruden highlights Augustine’s use of erotic language in describing his journey. She notes how Augustine uses feminine gendered nouns to depict,
“himself as erotically repelled by or attracted to an abstract quality or a general situation, as if it were a woman” (xxiv).
The category of desire is central to Augustine’s understanding of both sin and salvation. As sinners we desire wrongly, lusting after all that is not God. God heals our desire, directing our love to Him. For Augustine,
“My love is my weight. I’m carried by it wherever I’m carried” (13.10).
Love for God carries us to God, and disordered love carries us away from God. This erotic language is found throughout the work, and Ruden helps us to see it. As you read, pay attention to language about love, longing, desire, and wanting.
It’s worth looking at the glossary of specific terms Ruden provides in her introduction (xxxi).
For the Latin term Dominus, Ruden uses “Master” instead of the usual “Lord.” She’s seeking to highlight the household imagery of Scripture over and against the political images we tend to attach to “Lord,” but I’m not nuts about “Master’s” resonances with slavery and the often unjust authority of the Roman paterfamilias.
Augustine does make much of slave resonances for thinking about the Christian life, but the God he comes to know in his maturity is far more Lover than Roman Master. (See the Peter Brown review in the resources below for more). I’d like to think the biblical “Father” gets at household imagery while pointing us to the biblical rejection of the hierarchical violence of Rome.
For convertere and conversio, Ruden chooses “to turn around” over “conversion.” I love that she wants us to move out of the strictly religious sense we tend to attach to “conversion” and see Augustine playing with the physicality of the image.
Ruden chooses to name the “universal” rather than “Catholic” or “catholic” faith, a translation choice I affirm, as the early church at this point in history is not yet the medieval Roman Catholic church, though most Roman Catholics would, of course, disagree. Thinking of Augustine as a representative of the “universal” faith is certainly more Protestant-friendly than the translation “Catholic” would be.
BOOK 1: INFANCY AND CHILDHOOD
1.1-1.6 Confessions begins with prayer, and Augustine’s prayers will continue throughout the work.
Notice where the voice shifts into direct address to God. Try praying some of Augustine’s prayers or writing your own prayers inspired by Confessions.
In 1.1, We find the famous line,
“our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Augustine’s story will be the story of his restless heart and the restless hearts of his readers. It’s a story of longing.
1.7-1.12, Reflections on his infancy and on sinful human nature.
Augustine’s comments on babies are often considered remarkable. He observes other infants and draws conclusions about himself (and, presumably, about all humans). His observations about infants jealous of their nursing partners are an interesting window into breastfeeding in the ancient world. We do not have to conclude that certain behaviors (e.g. crying babies, a behavior I think we’re right to deem developmentally appropriate rather than sinful) are sinful in order to appreciate Augustine’s insight into the sinfulness of human nature from the very beginning of human life.
1.13-1.31, Childhood and critique of his education.
It is possible to seize on Augustine’s critique of his education to advance a kind of anti-intellectualism. It may be helpful to remember Augustine’s concurrent conviction that we should use our intellect for God;
“I used the mind you gave me, my God” (1.13).
His critiques of his education are tempered by his sense that he sinned by slacking off in school.
Original sin and sinful human nature
Books 1 and 2 contain many observations on the sinfulness of human nature.
“Original sin” refers to the belief that all humans share in the first sin of Adam and Eve.
“Sinful nature” is a description of fallen human beings. It highlights our brokenness and inability to save ourselves.
Many Christians have misconceptions about original sin and sinful nature. These doctrines do not mean that human beings are trash, that there is nothing good in us, or that we are as bad as we could possibly be. They do mean, for Augustine and Christians after him, that we are completely unable to save ourselves. Augustine highlights his own inability to love God as he tells the story of his sinful nature.
Augustine is usually considered the author of the doctrine of original sin, though it certainly has roots in both Scripture and theology before him. This doctrine became increasingly important to him later in his life (after writing Confessions), as he wrote against the Pelagian heresy. Pelagius taught that human nature is capable of choosing God and of living in right relationship with God. Augustine thought this was a cruel lie, and he emphasized our incapability and thus the necessity of supernatural intervention—salvation by grace.
How does my understanding of humanness and identity shape my vision of the good life? How does sin create false conceptions about the good life? For Augustine, we can’t achieve the good life on our own. Humanness without Jesus is fallen humanness, and human nature requires healing grace before we can come to God as our true Good. In our sinful nature, we seek the good life in all kinds of things that are not God;
“My sin was that I sought not in God himself, but in things he had created” (1.31).
How Does Education Contribute to Our Pursuit of the Good Life? Augustine is very critical of his education. What are his critiques? How does he see education as directing him away from God as the true Good? How does his education compare with the kind of educations we have received?
BOOK 2: ADOLESCENCE
2.1-2.4, Prayer and reflection on dissolute love.
Here, we get a striking image that recurs throughout the work; the sinful human is disintegrating, being torn apart, as sinful desire pulls her in a thousand different directions. God’s work in our lives is integrative. It makes us whole as it directs us and our love toward the One Love Who made us;
“I recollect the paths of my depravity in the bitterness of my inspection of myself, so that you grow sweet to me, with a sweetness, a charm that’s not deceitful but blessed and safe, binding me together against the scattering force that ripped me to pieces as long as I turned my back on your singularity and disappeared into multiplicity” (2.1).
For Augustine, lust is never just sexual. It’s spiritual. And lust is not just for sex. It’s for anything that is not God.
2.5-2.8, A year a home without supervision.
Augustine is having a ball with his friends, and he is looking at all the beautiful people, and he is doing a lot of lustful wanting.
2.9-2.18, Stealing pears and reflection on sin.
Ah, the famous pears! People often ask, “what’s the big deal?” Some boys make off with some worthless fruit; can it really matter?
Some suggest the pears are there as a symbolic stand-in for some more obviously heinous sin (sleeping with a married woman?), but I’m in the majority camp which takes Augustine’s face value explanation as a much better fit with his theology.
He’s already told us of his sexual sin, but it’s the pears that get the most words of any incident. Things we might see as small-scale sin continue to occupy Augustine’s thoughts even after his conversion and after he has received a certain kind of freedom from sexual sin (book 10).
The big deal of the pears is sin for sin’s sake. The pears weren’t even attractive; the attraction lay in the sheer pleasure of sinning. Augustine doesn’t think it takes a dramatic sin (like adultery) to make us sinners or to cut us off from loving God aright. The point of the no-count pears is exactly their no-count-ness.
We don’t need a juicy sin to see that we are sinners. Dry, shriveled pears will do. The point is that Augustine’s sinful heart wanted sin. This incident shows us Augustine’s diagnosis of human beings defined by desire. We are what we want, and sinners want sin.
We also shouldn’t miss the socially-implicated nature of sin in this incident. Augustine’s desire for sin is socially amplified. His is caught up in sin together with his friends, and he wonders if he even would have stolen the pears had his friends been absent.
What is the good life? As long as our desires are unredeemed, can we even know what the good life is? Are we likely to mistake it for some puny pears? Augustine certainly thinks that we can’t want that good life without God transforming our wanting. Are we, like Augustine, “looking for love [or satisfaction or happiness or the good life] in all the wrong places?”
Does the good life depend on what kind of person you are? How does sociality, especially friendship, shape what we want? Can we think of concrete examples of this in our lives or experience? What do our friends want? How do we know what they and we want? How are we shaped and directed by our deepest level wantings, longings, desires?
BOOK 3: SEEKING WISDOM
3.1-3.6, Move to Carthage, temptations of the city.
Ah, the temptations of the big city, that,
“center of a skillet where outrageous love affairs hissed” (3.1).
Augustine is a
“lover of loving,” (3.1)
and he continues to try to find love in created things instead of in God. Desire remains a primary category.
3.7-3.9, Reads Cicero’s Hortensius, an appeal to live a philosophical life.
It’s a professor’s dream. What can compete with the temptations of the city but a truly amazing book?
Later in Augustine’s life, other books will be important to him, but it is in reading Cicero that he becomes someone determined to seek wisdom. He thrills at the excitement of what he is learning.
The searcher will one day find what he seeks, but he’ll chase wisdom down many false trails before he finds it in God.
Because of his mother’s faith, he looks to Scripture now that he is a wisdom-seeker, but at this point in his journey he despises Scripture as,
“not even worth comparing to the excellence of Cicero” (3.9).
This problem will stick with Augustine for years, and finding better ways of interpreting Scripture will be prerequisite to his conversion. We’ll see this thread of Augustine’s changing understanding of Scripture throughout Confessions.
3.10-3.18, Attraction to Manicheanism.
Augustine turned to the group as a possible source for the wisdom he was seeking. They asked questions he couldn’t answer.
3.19-3.21, Monica’s tears and hope.
Monica weeps over her son Augustine’s association with the Manicheans, and she prays for him. She is reassured through a vision and through a priest’s statement,
“It’s impossible that the son of these tears of yours will perish” (3.21).
Manichean life and thought, the problem of hierarchical dualism, and explanations of evil
Augustine’s rejection of Manicheanism is one of the most important driving forces in his story. The Manicheans were a Gnostic group (teaching salvation comes from elite, in-group knowledge or gnosis) which borrowed some language and categories from Christianity.
Hierarchical dualism was the most central tenet of Manichean thought and practice: all of reality was understood as divided into two (dualism between material and spiritual), and the material was understood to be problematic, disgusting, evil (this is the hierarchical aspect of this dualism. Matter/material/the bodily/stuff is evil and can have nothing to do with God).
This dualism came with a cosmology, which underpinned the Manichean explanation of evil Augustine found compelling for a period. The Manichean god (lower case g, because a false god as understood by Christian faith) created spiritual reality or light. Physical reality was not this god’s creation but a problem, created by Satan or an evil force. When evil materiality came into being, bits of light/spirit were trapped in this physical world, and the Manichean understanding of salvation was to free the light from enmeshment in gross materiality. Manicheans had two levels: the elite elect lived a strict ascetic life and chewed vegetables intending to release the light trapped therein. The outer circle of auditors served the elect. Augustine was one of these auditors for about a decade.
Now, this sounds pretty crazy. Why would the sharp Augustine be attracted to skinny folk chewing turnips to release light? He mocks them in similar terms later on, but he was attracted by the Manicheans’ clear explanation for the existence of evil. He knew that God cannot be the author of evil, and so he was drawn to the Manichean explanation of evil as a result of materiality, which was created by one-other-than-God.
I read the young Augustine’s gut reactions as deeply sympathetic to hierarchical dualism, a kind of unbiblical dualism which would have to be trained out of him later through a long process of reading and living with Scripture. This dualism allowed Augustine (and us?) to shift the blame for sin off of ourselves and onto materiality, and that probably fit with Augustine’s sense that sex—an obviously material reality—was a primary temptation for him.
Hierarchical dualism allows a kind of scapegoating; Who is a sinner? Not me, surely? Not the real me. It’s just my body that’s the problem. My real self, my spirit, is pure. This Manichean scapegoating of sin misses the necessity and reality of grace. It’s an attempt at self-justification, and grates against the main point of Augustine’s mature theology, that we cannot save ourselves.
We stand in utter need of the grace of Christ. Young Augustine’s disdain for Scripture also fits this pattern of hierarchical dualism. His distaste for Scripture was precisely because it was too material, too fleshy, too focused on physical stuff.
Augustine learns the goodness of creation from Scripture, and he does not hate bodies or creation. Augustine’s later Christian Platonism will have to become a Platonism corrected by Scripture on just this count (and I believe it is so transformed. Augustine takes a lot of hits in popular Christian discourse for being an unredeemed Platonist, but this reading seriously lacks nuance. See below, when he reflects on the books of the Platonists).
Against hierarchical dualism, Scripture gives us a Christian holism. There is a difference between matter and spirit, body and soul, but both are God’s good creation, both are integral to the human person, and both are used b