Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Confessions, by Saint Augustine


The well-known autobiography of the Bishop of Hippo, beginning with his infancy and ending with his conversion to Christianity, plus some philosophical musings on memory, time, and the creation of the world. The whole thing is written as a confession to God, addressed to Him directly.

I heard somewhere that someone (possibly R.C. Sproul?) once said that if you've been a Christian for two years or more and haven't read Augustine's Confessions, you're sinning.


Anyhow, better late than never, right? Though, to be fair, I did take a crack at The Confessions a few years back, but it was in audiobook format, and man, was that a slog. I pretty much bailed right around Augustine's toddler years. But it stayed on my 'to read' list and I finally got around to it. And I have to admit, I was kind of underwhelmed.

Granted, it's incredibly difficult to live up the hype that surrounds The Confessions. Christians have been heaping praise on it for centuries. And as a literary work, it is certainly remarkable. Arguably the first Western autobiography, it is--at least in translation--surprisingly readable.  Augustine is clearly a remarkable writer and thinker.

But I was expecting to be blown away by theological insight and I just ... wasn't. Augustine's earliest recollections were, to me, the catalyst for his most astute observations: that as an infant, he was not innocent, but merely powerless to impose his fallen Will on the world around him; and that as a youth he sinned for sin's sake, even when there was no appreciable benefit. His conversion experience is likewise both well known and moving. But there was a lot of other stuff to wade through along the way, and much of it wasn't exactly scintillating or eye-opening. Granted, I don't struggle with Manichaeism, or many of the other intellectual obstacles that Augustine engaged. So while his dissection of the flaws of such ideas may be excellent, it wasn't as mind-blowing to me as it might be to another reader. Then, too, the man has a penchant for repetition. He asks the same question in a dozen different ways for several paragraphs before reaching any sort of conclusion. Nevertheless, I enjoyed his (rather long-winded) discussions of memory and time, even if I found his allegorical reading of the creation rather unconvincing.

I'm told that The Confessions improves upon re-reading, and I believe it. It's a lot to take in on a first pass, and I think, as with many dense and meaty texts, it has more to offer than initially meets the eye. And I freely admit that I am no philosopher, and am nowhere near as bright as Augustine clearly was, so it may just be that some of his points are beyond me. So until I've mined a bit more of Augustine's depths, I can't honestly agree with Sproul (or whoever it was) that it's an absolute 'must read' for Christians. I do recommend reading it, if only because it's a truly remarkable work of literature, and because so many other thinkers and writers have been influenced by it. So do check it out, but if you aren't blown away by it the first time through, well, you're not alone.

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