Posted on December 7th, 2011
The previous reading of Augustine’s Confessions ended with the dissolution of plans for a philosophical community. Today’s reading (schedule here) begins with Augustine dismissing the woman he had lived with for about fourteen years, who had given birth to his son. He appears to have greatly loved her (“So deeply was she engrafted into my heart that it was left torn and wounded and trailing blood”) yet takes another lover until the delay of two years could pass and he could enter a respectable marriage. During this time he ponders the meaning of happiness and continues his ruminations on the nature of beauty. But he is tormented, and anyone who has suffered from insomnia will recognize a companion in that torture: “Toss and turn as we may, now on our back, now side, now belly—our bed is hard at every point, for you alone are our rest.” And there is also the only true long-term remedy for insomnia: finding the One in whom is our rest. Thus concludes Book VI.
Book VII takes up Augustine’s problem of the substance of God. His entrance to that discussion is agonizingly beautiful: “By now my misspent, impious adolescence was dead, and I was entering the period of youth, but as I advanced in age I sank ignobly into foolishness, for I was unable to grasp the idea of substance except as something we can see with our bodily eyes.” He is now freed from his former Manichean (and Mormon!) delusion that God has a body like a man’s, but was not yet able to grasp God as spirit: “Even though I was no longer hampered by the image of a human body, I was still forced to imagine something corporeal spread out in space, whether infused into the world or even diffused through the infinity outside it.”
Wrestling with these problems, he makes progress, but runs into a more formidable problem in seeking to understand the source and cause of evil. If God is omnipotent, and good, then how can evil still exist? He begins grasping around the answer: “I strained to see for myself the truth of an explanation I had heard: that the cause of evil is the free decision of our will, in consequence of which we act wrongly and suffer your righteous judgment; but I could not see it clearly.” As difficult as he finds this problem, he asserts that he never succumbed to the worst error (which I think is still a great problem today): “People would rather hold that you suffer evil than that we commit it.”
During this time, Augustine confirms what he has long suspected: astrology is a farce. The astrologer “could speak the truth only by chance, [and] not by skill.”
Having come to a rudimentary acceptance of the authority of Scripture and the catholic* Church, Augustine still is struggling with the nature of God, and is helped by reading books of the Neo-Platonists. There, he encounters the doctrine of the Logos (“word”), by which the far-removed God of the Platonists interacts with the world. Thus, he finds in these philosophical writings some things expressed in John’s Gospel (the Logos is life and light, and is the cause of creation) but not the great truth found in John: the Logos becomes incarnate. “I also read in [the Platonists] that God, the Word, was born not of blood nor man’s desire nor lust of the flesh, but of God; but that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, I did not read there” (bold emphasis added).
*Not to be confused with the Tridentine Roman Church
In retrospect (of course, the Confessions are all “retrospect”), he realizes how close to the truth these philosophical writings were bringing him, and finds in them the same witness that St. Paul identified on Mars Hill: “So you told the Athenians through your apostle that in you we live and move and have our being, and that indeed some of their own authorities had said this, and unquestionably those books I read came from there.”
Summary: I found today’s reading challenging in the philosophical excursions into the substance of God, but well worth the effort. We are drawing very close now to his discovery of Truth.