This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
Confessions of a Sinner
by St Augustine (AD 354-430)
“I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.”
A journey from sin to epiphany and redemption, within the context of a palpable belief in the physicality of God but also the abstractness of the world.
As a child living in the Fiji Islands I learned that the first groups of missionaries to visit that tropical paradise were eaten; the Fijians then asked the Europeans to send more. For lo! They were delicious.
My own confession: I have never particularly understood Christianity. Whether this is because of being brought up by lapsed Lutherans who flirted with and at times dove into Hinduism and Buddhism, I don’t know. My faith has always been, as long as I can remember, a faith in the patterns, complexity, and sheer fecund density of the natural world. Any god that may exist slumbers behind the iridescent pattern on a beetle’s carapace or the spectacular specifics of collapsed lungs and reduced body temperature that occur during a dolphin’s dive. The exact curve and length of fin that release heat into the air upon its return. If the world is an unaware organism composed of a myriad of parts, then I am still part of this organism, and content enough with my place therein. There is no world beyond–this world has layers and levels enough. There is no reckoning–we self-judge every moment of our lives, and, if we sin in particularly grievous or foolish ways, the world punishes us eventually. Or our own laws do.
The closest I have been to understanding Christianity came from reading (don’t laugh) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As a child, I didn’t recognize Aslan as a Jesus stand-in. I just thought Aslan was majestic and brave and selfless. When I did realize Aslan stood for Jesus, I began to see the possible appeal of the religion. (Then I saw the movie, and it struck me that Aslan wasn’t very brave at all, at least in that version, as he clearly knew he would come back. He would die and it would be painful, but he had the expectation that This Was Not the End.)
St Augustine’s book, then, even in abridged form, reads as so alien to me that it seems overwrought, as well as too general and too hand-wringing in nature. Even as I recognize St Augustine’s journey has been comforting to many of the Christian faith for centuries–and that the central questions of the nature of sin and the nature of God’s hand in the world have bedeviled and occupied philosophers for forever and a day.
This is not to say that I didn’t have sympathy in a general way for St Augustine’s struggle–the importance of that struggle to him is paramount. It is everything and all. To the point of there seeming to be nothing else (at least for purposes of this book).
This is, of course, not a confession, but a Confession. The torment is evident. And yet I find myself wishing St Augustine could have sat down with Seneca or Marcus Aurelius, both of whom might have been able provide solace in showing him God’s presence in the details of the world. “Listen here,” Seneca might say (looking a lot like Slim Pickens in my vision, the two of them riding a very slow bomb toward oblivion), “I think yore overthinkin’ this a bit, Augustine. I think yore a little fix-ated. Maybe Gawd’s got more interestin’ things to do than oversee yore sin.”
This is facile, of course, and I know it. It’s also disrespectful, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful. But these are the kinds of thoughts I wrestled with while reading this abridgment.
Early on St Augustine writes about the sins of babies. If you have a baby or the experience of a baby, the reality of the details of the living, breathing human being eclipses St Augustine’s discussion. (And maybe this is wrong to say, but I can’t see a woman writing this section in the book.) In my case, I have been around my grandson Riley a lot lately. In that context, there is an irrelevant quality to the author’s discovery of sin in babies, and in closing statements like “This shows that, if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.” Well, okay. But I am, right now, at a different level of detail: the backward hand-wave he gives, how he says “Thank you” when he gives a gift, and how his face crinkles up when he smiles, a narrowing at the corners of his blue eyes. I don’t really know the capacity for sin in him, and I don’t really care. (And I know St Augustine may be speaking metaphorically.)
Those missionaries eaten by the Fijians (if it isn’t apocryphal)–they died horrible, bloody deaths. Very specific deaths, whose details were unique. They probably screamed. They probably begged. And in the end, they went into the pot. Dust to dust. Any black humor in the story as I told it occurs because of the distance of time and place.
The distances of time and place (and admittedly my own view of the world) have made St Augustine’s Confessions of a Sinner less reasonable, more histrionic, and more abstract in a modern context. It seems to me, unfairly no doubt, to demonstrate a fundamental dissatisfaction with or ignorance of the beauty of the world as it is, and an obsessive restlessness that is almost pathological.
To earn redemption, should you feel you need it, you should be specific in the cataloging of your sins. Expressing a mere generality of sin is to express a kind of lie. The Devil’s in the details. If you want the Devil out, deal in details.
Questions for Readers
If you have read this text, what is its appeal to you? If you have not, confess your sins instead (anonymously is fine).
Next up, Thomas a Kempis’ The Inner Life…