Sunday, September 16, 2007

Book Review: Confessions, by Saint Augustine

Summer is almost over and I’ll thus be reading a lot less, at least when it comes to leisure reading. In any case, this is a famous Christian work by what many believe to be the greatest theologian in Christian history. To be quite honest, this was a very tough read for me, especially near the end. When Augustine was speaking about his life experiences, the book was great but when he started getting deep into philosophy, I lost interest. As the footnotes in my version make clear (Henry Chadwick was the translator) Augustine was very much influenced by Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy. His whole thought world was very different then our own. His philosophical musings were elaborate but eloquently irrelevant to me personally.

His entire outlook on his past sins, the virtues of his mother and the all pervasiveness of God’s grace were what gripped me the most about this work. Despite all his faults, God’s forgiveness brought by His grace touched Augustine profoundly. In one story from Augustine’s childhood he stole peaches from a neighbors tree just for the thrill of doing something wrong. He agonizes over this sin that most people would not have mentioned. Sin isn’t just about the wrongness of the crime itself but the state of one’s whole heart in committing particular sins. Jesus was correct when he spoke about an evil treasure coming out of an evil heart. Sin is a privation, a twisting distortion, something that is unnervingly banal, while living in the Spirit is truly living in the light of true goodness, beauty and life.

Augustine had a very metaphorical interpretation of Genesis that would rub a both young Earth and old Earth creationists the wrong way. Reading that reaffirmed by belief that Genesis and the Bible as a whole aren’t meant to be a science textbook but is the gift of God’s revelation to us. One does not have to take any type of literal reading of Genesis to be a Christian.

Overall, I recommend reading the biographical parts of this book and skipping most of it, unless of course you are a big ancient philosophy buff.


Jim Jordan said...

Hi Ron
Sounds like the Coles Notes version would be preferable to someone with my attention span.

His siding against literal interpretations of Genesis precedes modern science - I want to know what convinced him to see it that way. I'll have to read the whole book I guess.
Take care.

Jim Jordan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ron said...

Thanks for the comment, Jim.

Augustine truly lived in a different intellectual atmosphere then we do today. It was similar in that the elite of society were very religiously skeptical but when it comes to philosohy it was much different.

Augustine along with the earlier Church Fathers were very allegorical about their interpretation of scripture. Usually, this adds to the text rather than takes away from its literal meaning. Augustine interpreted Genesis figuratively because the spiritual truths were more important then what the scriptures literally said. He was arguing against people who had no respect for the Bible and openly derided it favoring their own religious/philosophical positions. Against such critics, Augustine sought to philosophical defend the main points of Genesis, mainly that God created the universe out of nothing by a free choice of His will. Reconciling this point with neoplatonic philosophy was one of his main tasks.

What really funny is when he denounces astrology saying that it is about time that people gave it up because it is stupid. sixteen hundred years later and its still with us.