St Augustine is one of the intellectual giants of the Christian tradition. Unfortunately, this comes with its downsides. One of those downsides is that because he wrote such a wide array of texts, he is subject to a wide array of interpretations and caricatures. His literary career was enormous, with roughly 100 books, 300 letters and 500 sermons still surviving.
It also means that it’s difficult to know where to begin with Augustine, or if you should begin at all. Many people have bones to pick with Augustine for all sorts of reasons, some of them legitimate and some of them less so. One of the beautiful things about the Catholic tradition is that it is a lively debate extended through time. Some parts of the debate get settled – through authoritative teaching – but many other parts don’t and there is freedom to disagree or be a bit unsure. Whatever you think you like or don’t like about Augustine, one thing is certain: he is a monumental figure in the history of Christianity and a man of brilliance.
How do we find our feet with St Augustine, then? Where should we start? Without a doubt the best place to start is with his Confessions, arguably his most famous work. Below are three reasons for you to finally dust off your copy and dive deep into this incredible text.
Even though he wrote this book later in life, it is the best place to start. It is something like a spiritual journal; an introspective and reflective look over his life and an exploration of who God is. It is widely regarded to be the first of its kind. These days we take personal memoirs for granted but there was nothing like that in Augustine’s time or prior to it. This alone is reason to read it. In his Confessions, Augustine – in a musing, meandering and profound way – takes us through his life and conversion in dialogue with God himself.
Rather than looking back and seeing his life as a period of “not having God” and then “having God”, the way in which Augustine threads the narrative with God’s presence is supposed to tell us that God was always working in his life even when he didn’t see it; even that God was already having mercy on him before he ever confessed a thing. This was because God was not someone external to him but someone always and intimately close:
Thou wast more inward to me than the most inward part of me’ (3.6.11).
Augustine’s Confessions are, more than anything else, a confession of God’s mercy towards a soul desperately searching for peace. The most famous line Augustine has ever written begins the book:
for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee’ (1.1.1).
Sin, in many ways, is a symptom of this restlessness. The journey of Augustine is one of finally coming to find the peace and rest for which we were created. His Confessions puts us in touch with this truth in vivid and powerful ways.
Many philosophies of the ancient world were trying to grapple with the mystery and origin of evil. This is not a new topic of conversation by any stretch of the imagination. What we might call “Gnostics” (even though they didn’t know themselves as Gnostics) were really people trying to answer this problem. Since God is infinitely good, they reasoned, no evil could possibly come from him. Evil, therefore, is a principle and force that exists outside of God. Since creation was defined by corruption and decay and sin, the physical world itself became associated with this evil; it could not have come from God but from a more wicked creator.
Throughout his Confessions, we see Augustine in search of the answer to the problem of evil and falling in with a group – the Manicheans – who held to this idea. Part of this searching is autobiographical. Augustine reflects on his own harmful tendencies – whether it was thievery as a child or his sexual promiscuity as an adult (he had a mistress or two) – and sought to answer where they come from.
What Augustine came to see, however – and what the Christian tradition has broadly recognised – is that evil is not a thing at all. Instead, everything that exists, even the material world, is good because it comes from God. Evil itself is a corruption of what is good and doesn’t have any real substance of its own.
Think of it this way: if evil was a force of some substance (if it was a "thing"), it would have its origin in God because God is the source of all things. The problem is that this would make God the creator of evil itself, making him partly evil. But there is no evil in God. He is infinitely good, Goodness itself. Therefore, evil does not exist in the way we think it does. It only exists as a corruption of what is good (7.12.18). Augustine takes us on a journey of coming to understand this.
To give ourselves over to God, then, is not to lose the integrity of who we are as material creatures, but to be healed from what corrupts our essentially good being:
Commit to truth whatever you have received from the truth, and you will lose nothing. What is decayed will flourish again; your diseases will be healed; your perishable parts shall be reshaped and renovated, and made whole again’ (4.11.16).
It is one of the most positive and exciting perspectives on the created world that has ever emerged.
The third reason is a bit of a pivot: Augustine finishes his Confessions with an interesting reflection on the interpretation of Scripture and the book of Genesis. Scriptural interpretation is a vexed topic even in the public arena. You have people who are called “literalists” and take Genesis as a word for word scientific description of how the world was made; you also have people who allow more flexible and symbolic interpretations based upon the nature of the text itself. Literalism is definitely a more modern approach to Scripture. Augustine witnesses to a more ancient way of interpreting the Bible in the final couple of chapters.
Augustine uses the analogy of a dammed up spring, overflowing into multiple streams and watering more of the earth than a single stream can by itself. The Bible is like this, a bountiful spring of water that
overflows into various streams of clear truth, from which each one may draw out for himself that particular truth which he can about these topics’ (12.27.37).
It is possible, Augustine is saying, to have multiple true interpretations of a passage of Scripture. It is not necessary for people to be in constant uncharitable arguments with each other over whose interpretation is the true interpretation of Scripture. Now, Augustine is no relativist. He wouldn’t say that any interpretation of the Bible is just as fine as the others. But he does hold this dynamic position whereby truth is seen to be multivalent and it overflows in the text in different and varied ways, even when coming from the same passage.
There is also an important principle at play in Augustine’s thoughts here. For Augustine, the whole purpose of life is summed up in the commandment Jesus gave us: to love God and to love our neighbour. The Bible is supposed to furnish us so that we can live a life of ‘pure love’ (12.30.41). If our interpretations of Scripture are used to beat our neighbours over the head, or are used in other uncharitable ways, we are violating the very reason we have the text to begin with – we ‘violate love itself’ (12.25.35). This is a very powerful and dynamic approach to Scripture that Augustine introduces us to. Anyone wrestling with the biblical text should read these chapters from Augustine and sit with them for a good long while.