Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Confessions - A Reflection

Augustine's Confessions is perhaps one of the most widely read works of medieval theology and philosophy that continues to be read and endure today among theologians, philosophers, those within and without the Church.  Noted for its uniqueness at the time for its autobiographical style, Confessions is a remarkable work that has both challenged and inspired its readers for over 1600 years.

Augustine was born in 354 A.D at Thasgate to Patricius, an official of the local government, and Monica his devout Christian mother.  Initially schooled at Madura, Augustine moves to Carthage to continue his studies and it's here that he finds himself 'in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.'[1]  The starkness and truthfulness of Confessions enables the reader to understand Augustine's theology in an incarnational way; to commit our lives to God is to love him with all that we are and to find all that we do done for the praise and glory of his name.[2] Confessions forms a narrative of his life that take us on a story through his own perceived transformation that is ushered in through his conversion to Christianity.  Writing in such a way challenges the reader to see that transformation is required for all people and that the narrative of Augustine's own story actually causes the reader to reflect on their own story.  Augustine is a skilled rhetorician and so this autobiographical account, fused with philosophy and theology, written as a extended prayer to God, is masterful and captivating to read.  From Carthage we are taken on a journey through his teaching of rhetoric at Thasgate, his disillusionment with the Manichees, his move to Rome and then Milan, his final conversion to Christianity and baptism and then the death of his mother Monica. Although autobiographical Confessions ultimately is not about Augustine but about the God who makes his life and this life and love possible.

Augustine had devoted nine years of his life to the Manichees believing they had the key to understanding the way of the cosmos and had the answers to 'the problems which perplexed me.'[3] However it became clear to Augustine that this was simply not the case.  His attraction to Christianity was in part that he could not exhaust the theological and intellectual depth of Christian doctrine and the Bible as he had done with the Manichean books.  This continued amazement and theological questioning is a key theme throughout Confessions and has attributed to serious reflection on my part in regard to our theological discipline within the life of the Western church. 

Augustine writes about his meeting with Faustus, a bishop of the Manichees,and his disappointment with how uninformed Faustus was 'about the subjects in which I expected him to be an expert'.[4] However, Augustine respected him for his honesty in admitting that 'he did not know the answers to my questions and was not ashamed to admit it, for unlike many other talkative people whom I have had to endure, he would not try to teach me a lesson when he had nothing to say.'[5] This, however, I have begun to see as a problem within the Western evangelical tradition in that we have plenty to say even though the reality is that what we are saying may not have much to say into our communities that we are seeking to minister into.  This having plenty to say but actually having nothing to say, added to the lack of mystery, lack of theological questioning, lack of lament and a intellectual shallowness has led me to increasingly become concerned that much of what we are saying is 'tedious fictions'[6] that are less to do with the Gospel and Kingdom of God and more to do with sentimentality and self-help idolatry.[7] Too often the Church can fall into the trap of appealing to some universal or general notion of 'love' as a way of engaging more broadly and widely with the communities that we are a part of and ministering in.  So we use the language of 'cross', 'forgiveness' and 'God' but make an appeal out a sentimental abstraction and notion of 'love' rather than love so defined by the Trinitarian life. An example of this is the appeal to 'invite Jesus into your heart/life' as the most common way of understanding conversion.  A natural outworking of this is that, for many, the feelings and understanding of our hearts is how we define our relationship with God and our understanding of God.  Furthermore, discipleship then becomes a series of thoughts and habits that are designed to make me feel a little bit better about my life.  All of this stands in stark contrast to discipleship so defined by the Gospel whereby we are baptised into the death of Christ in order that we might be raised with him (Romans 6:3-4).  This baptism calls us to share in the sufferings of Christ, deny ourselves and be ready to die.[8]  Again and again in Confessions Augustine challenges the reader, through his own prayers to God, to surrender all to God and be faithful to the discipleship he demands.

The defection in our theology and discipleship and the cause of it is, as Augustine says, 'like trying to see darkness or hear silence.  Yet we are familiar with darkness and silence, and we can only be aware of them by means of ears and eyes, but this is not by perception but by absence of perception.'[9] 

This absence of proper discipleship sharpens the focus as to a Gospel orientated life and the call of God upon the Church to such a life. Confessions serves as a reminder that the call of the minister is to see and understand the world according to the Light of Christ rather than through the self-deceptive lens of a culture of people who believe they are independent, self-made and self-confident.

[1] Augustine, Confessions, 55, 3.1
[2] See Deuteronomy 6:1-19, Matthew 22:34-40, John 17
[3] Augustine, Confessions, 98, 5.7
[4] Augustine, Confessions, 98, 5.7
[5] Augustine, Confessions, 98, 5.7
[6] Augustine, Confessions, 98, 5.7
[7] 'The principle crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgement, is idolatry.' Tertullian, On Idolatry, 2.1
[8] See Mark 10:35-40, Romans 6, 1 Peter 4:12-17
[9] Augustine, City of God, p 480

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