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Entries in Augustine (6)

Thursday
Sep142017

The reality of the sanctified mind

I'm re-reading Confessions for my Church History class. I have an assignment to write a book review on a primary source document, and my choices were Confessions or City of God. I wonder how many in my class will read City of God, considering the review is due on October 13th.

I love Confessions. I loved it the first time I read it, and again last fall when I read it for a class on Augustine. This time, I have to be a more critical reader if I'm going to review it. 

The role of memory is obviously crucial in Confessions, and Augustine comments frequently that he sees it as God's sovereignty that he does remember things so that he can record them. I'm about to start Book X, where he really gets into the role of memory, but it is important even in Book VIII, where his dramatic conversion is found.

In Book VIII.5, he continues on a theme of recounting the conversion of a man named Victorianus. He is moved by the account and wants to do the same, but still struggles:

I longed to do the same, but I was held fast, not in fetters clamped upon me by another, but by my own will, which had the strength of iron chains.

So these two wills within me, one old, one new, one the servant of the flesh, the other of the spirit, were in conflict and between them they tore my soul apart.

The whole of Book VIII leading to Augustine's point of crisis is filled with similar emotionally charged language. It is obvious that Augustine was torn. The first time I read Confessions, many years ago, I recognized similar experiences; knowing that something was wrong, but not being able to understand exactly what. That was the reality of a mind which had not yet been converted, which had not been changed by the Spirit.

Works of memoir such as Confessions are not written as if the author is right in the moment. Their very nature is that they are reflective. Any memories he has of the events will naturally be processed through his own current state of thinking. Augustine wrote Confessions at least ten years after his conversion, and he didn't write it all at once, but over a period of three years from 397-400. There was no journalist following alongside Augustine, recording his thoughts. Augustine wrote Confessions through a sanctified mind. So, while his descriptions of his reactions are vivid, there is a very good chance that at the time, he didn't fully understand what he was going through. Anyone who has been a Christian long enough recognizes in the second quoted passage above echoes of Romans 7. We don't call into question the veracity of the narrator's account, but we do understand that his words cannot help but be influenced by the present.

This does not mean that we can't rely on the words of Augustine. But as a work of memoir, we have to recognize that it cannot be a complete reproduction of the past. Augustine, at the time of writing, had become a mature Christian and a bishop. He was changed. Augustine cannot help but see his past through his present. The transformative power of the gospel is such that we begin to see everything as the new creatures we have become. Before conversion, it was the same: we saw the world through our current condition. After conversion, we are changed. That is one of the best things about Confessions is that we see the power of conversion.

I share Augustine's wonder at how I can remember certain events which were ultimately crucial to my own conversion. And like Augustine, I marvel at God's sovereignty in putting each piece into place. God has given me the ability to name the condition I faced prior to my conversion. But at the time, I suspect I really did not know what my ailment was. Praise God for his timing in revealing everything, leading to my conversion.

Tuesday
Nov152016

Stop the world, I want to get off!

Have you felt like that? I think we all have. This past few weeks, I've felt it acutely. Fortunately, for those who belong to Christ, we will get out of this world, and a new one will be ushered in. In my Augustine class, on November 4, we talked about City of God, and the discussion about the Kingdom of God and what that entails was so encouraging.

And then the U.S. election happened; and all that entails. You know what I mean; the rancor, the condescension, the crowing of the victorious, and the despair of the defeated. I know the truth of the ultimate ruler of the universe. I know the eschatological hope. But my heart goes out to those who honestly fear what will happen. There has been a fair bit of jeering (and some if it is deserved) toward those who are very fearful of what is to come, but I wonder how many of those people are minorities. My kids live in a very multi-ethnic city, and they have friends from many different backgrounds, and the fear is real. I am reluctant to mock fear. 

It does feel like the world has gone crazy. When people I once respected reveal an ugly side, it bothers me. It also makes me re-evaluate myself. Have I come across like that? Lord, I hope not. I am torn between wanting to rant at the top of my lungs or retreat entirely.

We are so distracted by the world around us. Things are enticing. We end up wasting time, partaking of the mundane, the ultimately useless. "Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things" (Ps. 119:37). How much of our time is spent on things that are of no eternal value? And how many of those are dressed up as if they are "Christian?" Sometimes, I feel as if Christian commentary is more about pop culture or politics than Christ. Yes, I know we have to engage with those things, but honestly, I don't see a lot of good coming from either location. Some of it is not worth engaging.

We are studying the origins of humanity in my theology class. This has led to a discussion of being made in the image of God means. You see that phrase a lot these days, done up in Latin for good measure: Imago Dei. I thought that the few things I'd read on the subject were useful. Millard Erickson digs deep, and asks questions I have never thought of. This encourages me in a world where I want to get off. I encourages me to ponder who God is, and by extension, who I am. This is comfort to me. And quite serendipitously, much of the course material in Augustine is dovetailing with the theology class. I'm reading Augustine's book on the Trinity. Those ancient writers knew how to ponder God well.

I've also picked up The Valley of Vision for another read, and I'm following along with a daily reading schedule that I got from Joe Thorn's blog years ago. I want to ponder God more deeply. In the face of a crazy world, he is the one to whom we turn. Only he will suffice. He is our hope. Looking to people, things, and earthly kingdoms will only provide the most fleeting hope.

I do want to get off this world, whenever God ordains that to be. It often discourages me to think about what the future holds for my kids and their kids, but I guess I'm not the first woman to ponder such a quesion. All I can do is rejoice in the Lord, see his goodness, be grateful in the small things, and cling to the hope of the coming kingdom.

Tuesday
Oct182016

Augustine's Worship War

In Book X of Confessions, Augustine probes the matter of the pleasures of the senses. He does not want to allow his senses to control him, whether it is sight or sound. He recognizes that when his senses refuse to take "second place," there can be a problem. This applies to what he hears, including Church music. He is concerned that the music will overtake the message. He is concerned that he will love the music more than he will love the content. He leans to approval of the matter, but still is cautious:

So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the sense and the benefits, which as I know from experience, can aaccrue from singing. Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approvae of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess thiat this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.

The issue of music in Church is not a new one. While Augustine struggled with the temptation to let his senses take control and seek more the music that the content, we today experience something similar with being tempted to be more caught up in the presentation of the music than the content. Augustine was concerned that his senses not be in control. Have we ever thought of our response to worship music in such terms? It is possible to really be caught up in a song, thinking it is really powerful, but in reality, it is only the music we are drawn to. Writing good worship music is the marriage of a singable, pleasing melody with rich words. We have a lot of church music today that have great melodies and appalling words.

Augustine considers it a "grievous sin" when the song is more important than the truth. That's a strong statement. There are some songs I have sung in church which musically, are pleasing to the ear, but promote terrible doctrine. Would I be willing to consider that sin?

It's interesting to see that even back then, music was an issue in church.

Wednesday
Oct122016

The love of praise

In Book X of Confessions, Augustine spends time reflecting on the love of the praise of men:

I am poor and needy and I am better only when in sorrow of heart I desert myself and seek your mercy, until what is faulty in me is repaired and made whole and finally I come to that state of peace which the eye of the proud cannot see. Yet in what others say about us and in what they know of our deeds there is grave danger of temptation. For our love of praise leads us to court the good opinion of others and hoard it for our personal gratification. And even when I reproach myself for it, the love of praise tempts me. There is temptation in the very process of self-reproach, for often, by priding himself on his contempt for vainglory, a man is guilty of even emptier pride; for this reason his contempt of vainglory is an empty boast, because he cannot really hold it in contempt as long as he prides himself on doing so.

Ouch. 

There are quite a few things in that passage that rather hits one between the eyes. 

Monday
Oct032016

Even trolls can speak truth

Before he was converted, Augustine was a follower of the Manichees. After a while, though, he began to question it. There was one Manichee, Faustus, whom Augustine particularly longed to speak to in order to settle some of his questions. When he finally met Faustus, he was disappointed. Ultimately, he found Faustus to be more appearance than substance. He was a congenial man, but wisdom was lacking. This led Augustine to ponder the reality of wisdom and folly, and how it resides in people:

. . . a statement is not necessarily true because it is wrapped in fine language or false because it is awkwardly expressed. I believe that it was you who taught me this, because it is truth and there is no other teacher of truth besides yourself, no matter how or when it comes to light . . . I had learnt that wisdom and folly are like different kinds of food. Some are wholesome and others are not, but both can be served equally well on the finest china or meanest earthenware. In just the same way, wisdom and folly can be clothed alike in plain words or the finest flowers of speech.

Augustine learned the valuable truth that the package in which wisdom or truth comes does not determine its truthfulness. Even the most hesitant of speakers can speak profound words. I learned this teaching women. In my class, for about five years, I had some of the quietest, most reluctant speakers among the women in my church. It was work to get them to speak up. But when they did, it was wisdom worth listening to. 

We are a very visual culture. We like to know what people look like. Blog pages have space for the picture of the writer, and book jackets often have a picture of the author on the back. Some authors even like to emblazon their toothpaste-commercial-worthy smiles on the front cover. We believe the old addage not to judge a book by its cover, but we all do it at times. We like to think of those who speak truth to us as being among the beautiful people. With the ease of technology these days, and a good cellphone, one can take professional-looking photos of him or herself, and paint a very beautiful picture. But that doesn't mean the individual speaks truth or wisdom. I can't help but wonder if we would respond the same to the face of a troll as we would to the face with the perfect smile and carefully matched outfit.

Learning to discern wisdom begins with us. We must learn wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom is something not difficult to attain, because God will give it to us if we ask. We only need to scour the pages of the Bible to learn the truth that leads to wisdom. And it also means being patient and listening well. We are often quick to judge both in the positive and the negative. The truth is getting to know someone has to go beyond the surface.