60 in 60 – #3: St Augustine’s Confessions of a Sinner (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

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)

Memorable Line
“I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.”

The Skinny
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.

Relevance? Argument?
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.

Nobody’s perfect.

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…

25 comments on “60 in 60 – #3: St Augustine’s Confessions of a Sinner (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

  1. Steve says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I have heard that Augustine was writing during the collapse of the Roman Empire … perhaps this coloured his perception of things?

  2. It might also be because it’s an abridgment, I suppose. I freely admit this particular one was not my thing. Did I regret reading it? Absolutely not. In fact, my reaction to it makes me want to revisit it in more detail after I’ve finished all 60.

  3. Bill Ectric says:

    I like the Slim Pickens image!

    The whole concept of “sin” in babies is stupid. Humans are naturally self-centered, which is, I think, what Christians mean about “original sin” in children. But being self-centered is not always a bad thing. Sure, we should teach kids appropriate behavior by our actions, and hopefully they will learn to respect and care about others, but that can also be taken too far. Too much restraint stunts kids’ initiative to delve into whatever they want to do with their lives, because they are made to feel selfish for pursuing their dreams.

  4. David Wesley says:

    It’s great to have Thinkers in the world. They can open up so many new possibilities. But they can also complicate things needlessly. The brilliance of Jesus is that he swept away all the old laws and rules and boiled it down to a simple set of commands: Love God, and love each other. Augustine went the other direction and created new rules, or new “truths” which (in my opinion) ultimately get in the way of the original commands. Your love for Riley would only be tainted and hindered by looking for evidence of a sinful nature when all you can see is innocence.

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Oh, Riley can definitely be a stinker!

    Yes–the story of Jesus without the complications is very compelling, I think.

  6. Derus says:

    I read this abridgment in 2005. I quiet liked it. As a casual reader I found the formal translations to be a bit hard to follow. The great Christian thinkers tend to be a bit obsessive. Martin Luther was the same way. I liked hearing his story. It’s similar to the Apostle Paul’s. He’s a great thinker of his age. He has a late life spiritual experience that changes the course of his life. He then writes some books that become staples in the Christian tradition.

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on The Inner Life. That’s another one I read awhile back.

  7. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Derus–Thanks for that. I’m glad to have comments from people who enjoyed it more than I did.

  8. Bill Ectric says:

    Well said, David.

  9. Derus says:

    Hey so it is a dark wet December day and i still have my copy of the inner life. I’m totally going to read it today. :)

  10. Larry says:

    I’ve read the entire Confessions and The City of God (albeit over 10 years ago), so perhaps I can help a little bit with the backdrop.

    St. Augustine was the product of a two-religion family (mom was a Christian, dad a traditional Roman pagan) who grew up in Carthage in the province of Africa. He was a hedonist in his youth, tried out Manicheanism (dualism) for a while, then was converted to Western Christianity (even then, the Eastern Orthodox and Catholics were splitting on issues revolving the nature of the Host, the proper title of Mary, etc.). You know how it goes with converts – more holy than the holiest, most eager to fight evil (especially the ones they used to love doing, like fucking like hormonal teen rabbits), and so forth.

    If approached as being a tale of remorse and an explanation of how the world has “fallen” and thus needed the divine intervention of Christ’s sacrifice, then St. Augustine’s work becomes an exploration not just of his life and how he’s changed, but also a look at the various ways that led to the fallen state of the world. Infant sin is discussed because St. Augustine believed in Original Sin, or Adam’s Sin (because Adam and Eve ate that apple, then all humans after them were born separated from God, mortal and prone to screwing up when not screwing without a license). Thankfully, Catholic thought has evolved away from strict Original Sin in recent decades, if not totally.

    What I liked about it was St. Augustine’s willingness to bare his soul for examination, to explore the whys and hows of what he came to believe, and how he illustrated his own life journey and its changes. Just be thankful the excerpt wasn’t from The City of God, as that takes a lot of knowledge of the main theological debates of the time (Origien, Tertullian, etc.)…

    As for a sin confession, well…I’m writing this while my students are taking a mid-term ;)

  11. Thanks, Larry. I’m more than willing to admit the text is just not for me. But that gives more context. I’m going to stick with not doing prior research on the books I haven’t read previously in my life, since I think the tunnel vision produces a more interesting blog post, even if it means I will misinterpret at times.

  12. Larry says:

    I agree, as it is more fascinating than reading things like mine (then again, I happened to like reading hagiographies some years ago…)

  13. My St. Augustine is pretty long. I honestly have never read more than four pages at a sitting, as it is really packed with info. Generally though, I think as far as “ancient” writers go, the non-Christian ones are far more enjoyable.

    St. Augustine paritally appeals to me though in part because he had been a Manichaean (haven’t we all?) and because I have been living not too far from where he lived (Milan). So, I sort of feel like I am reading a local author.

    There is actually a film about him by Rossellini that is sort of fascinating.

  14. Mark says:

    Jeff. You state it seems emphatically, “There is no world beyond–this world has layers and levels enough. There is no reckoning…” Can I ask how you know this?

  15. It’s what I believe, not what I know. Any personal essay comes with a silent “in my opinion”.

  16. Confessions of a Sinner is the antithesis of Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life.

    Whereas the latter has a tendency towards satisfaction of the Self, the former represents Self as containing the bad seed, incapable of happiness unilaterally. St. Augustine would say to Seneca, ‘been their done that, and still not happy’, and Seneca would say to St. Augustine, ‘keep trying.’

    Both are fascinating perspectives that point out my own general view of : every man for himself.

  17. Jim Bullock says:

    You don’t understand “Christianity” or “Christians” to start with, because you are treating something varied as something singular. There are near irreconcilable divergences in doctrine, practices & organization even now, and divergences at least as great among the dominant strains in different eras.

  18. Owen says:

    I personally found Augustine terribly compelling, but not in this abridgement, which in an attempt to look to the facts misses out the more important setting.

    He does assume a good understanding of the ideas he discusses, a naked reading could lead you to some pretty funny ideas.

    The sin of babies is a good example. Here in some ways he is on shaky ground, he is trying to demonstrate something which he knows primarily because it is revealed. If we consider original sin not just to be our culpability, but also our affliction, it perhaps makes more sense. Look to your Grandson, do you ever shudder to look at the world he is growing up in? Yet grow up he will, and take his place in this world. To understand it better, if you do return, read this alongside the discussion of original sin in the City of God.

    Finally, I would have been interested to know what your thoughts were regarding the final chapters, I cannot remember how much they are included in this abridgement. I believe they are startling for their modernity, fitting in with both modern and ancient discussions of, e.g. time.

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