Reflections on Augustine’s Confessions, Book 1

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April 3, 2014 by mattwilcoxen

Augustine_Confessiones“The house of my soul is too small for you to enter: make it more spacious by your coming. It lies in ruins; rebuild it” (1.5.6).

Augustine says that God has made us for praise and that right now, at this very moment, God is drawing us toward praise. This is the interpretation Augustine will make of his own life as he reads it through the lens of the gospel. He offers it to us as a template for interpreting our own lives.

The first book begins with a mysterious question about the possibility of approaching God at all: How is it possible to call upon God without first knowing God? But on the other hand, how can one know God unless one calls upon God? The embedded premise is that knowledge of God is not something we have automatically. It is not intuitive for us to know God. Augustine does not take up this premise at this point, but it is worth noting that he recognizes some sort of basic inability to know God. He does not say, “of course I can call upon you, because I already know you!” Faith is a gift.

The notion of calling upon God (Latin, invocare, “call into”) leads Augustine to reflect on the nature of God. It is in fact, impossible, that God could come in to us, since if any use of spatial language is accurate, it is that we exist in God. Existing in God is not identical with existing in the universe, though, since God is not spread throughout creation, but exists wholly in every location. God is everywhere in his whole being, but nothing can contain God. This means that God’s relation to everything is one of radical lordship over all things. God’s relation to creation must be construed positively–actively–with no hint of passivity on the part of God. It also means that every attempt at linguistic definition is itself inevitably partial. True perhaps, but partial. This is because God is the source of all things, whereas we can only praise him from the perspective of all things.

As the source of all existence and all things, God is the one who can bring something from nothing, and change disorder to order. Augustine’s own life-history is a disordered mess, and he longs to have it brought into the divine order once again. His chaotic past cannot be undone, but it can be incorporated into the divine order by reading it into the biblical narrative of the gospel. That is why he “confesses”–it allows him (as in his life-history) to be completely engaged in the praise of God. No part of him can be lost and everything can be saved if it is brought before God in prayer and praise.

And so Augustine goes so far as to contemplate his own infancy through family stories and by looking at other infants. He sees the way that even there he showed a longing for goodness, received the providential gifts of God, and yet turned them into idols. He tells the story of learning language, and then learning literature, and how these things only took him deeper into “the stormy world of human life” (1.8.13). Linguistic skills: these were goods, but Augustine only knew them in the service of prideful attainment and lustful indulgence. They initiated him into a world characterized by these two realities: “this was the arena in which I was to struggle.”

In a classically Augustinian statement on sin, Augustine balances the goodness of created things with the evil to which they are put by disorderly human beings:

“In this lay my sin, that not in him was I seeking pleasures, distinctions and truth, but in myself and the rest of his creatures, and so I fell headlong into pains, confusions and errors” (1.20.31).

For Augustine, confession is at one and the same time the expose of sin as well as the praise of God as the one who creates form from nothing, calls light from darkness, and orders chaos. It is the activity that allows sinners to be integrated, ordered selves. Confessing brings our lives into God, allowing them to be remodeled by his presence to them (or rather their presence to him).

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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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