Augustine’s “Confessions”: Model for Conversion Stories

Augustine’s “Confessions”: Model for Conversion Stories January 18, 2016
(6-10-09)* * * * *

1) St. Augustine critiqued many belief-systems and practices in his famous spiritual autobiography. He critiqued, for example, astrology:

I then turned my thoughts to those that are born twins, who generally come out of the womb so near the one to the other that the short interval between them–whatever importance they may ascribe to it in the nature of things — cannot be noted by human observation or expressed in those tables which the astrologer uses to examine when he undertakes to pronounce the truth. But such pronouncements cannot be true. For looking into the same horoscopes, he must have foretold the same future for Esau and Jacob . . . (Book VII, Chapter 6; Outler translation, as throughout)

2) The Manichaeans, as we would expect, are strongly criticized by Augustine:

Thus I fell among men, delirious in their pride, carnal and voluble, whose mouths were the snares of the devil — a trap made out of a mixture of the syllables of thy name and the names of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Paraclete. These names were never out of their mouths, but only as sound and the clatter of tongues, for their heart was empty of truth. Still they cried, “Truth, Truth,” and were forever speaking the word to me. But the thing itself was not in them. Indeed, they spoke falsely not only of thee — who truly art the Truth — but also about the basic elements of this world, thy creation. (Book III, Chapter 6)

3) He spoke of discovering particular objective truths in Catholicism; for example, concerning substance:

As I increased in years, the worse was my vanity. For I could not conceive of any substance but the sort I could see with my own eyes. I no longer thought of thee, O God, by the analogy of a human body. Ever since I inclined my ear to philosophy I had avoided this error — and the truth on this point I rejoiced to find in the faith of our spiritual mother, thy Catholic Church. (Book VII, Chapter 1)

4) He makes general statements about “the truth”:

. . . though I had not yet grasped the truth, I was rescued from falsehood. (Book VI, Chapter 1)

Such perplexities I revolved in my wretched breast, overwhelmed with gnawing cares lest I die before I discovered the truth. (Book VII, Chapter 5)

I should have more readily doubted that I am alive than that the Truth exists — the Truth which is “clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” (Book VII, Chapter 10)

For when I inquired how it was that I could appreciate the beauty of bodies, both celestial and terrestrial; and what it was that supported me in making correct judgments about things mutable; and when I concluded, “This ought to be thus; this ought not” — then when I inquired how it was that I could make such judgments (since I did, in fact, make them), I realized that I had found the unchangeable and true eternity of truth above my changeable mind. (Book VII, Chapter 17)

I have had experience with many who wished to deceive, but not one who wished to be deceived. Where, then, did they ever know about this happy life, except where they knew also what the truth is? For they love it, too, since they are not willing to be deceived. And when they love the happy life, which is nothing else but joy in the truth, then certainly they also love the truth. (Book X, Chapter 23)

Thus, thus, truly thus: the human mind so blind and sick, so base and ill-mannered, desires to lie hidden, but does not wish that anything should be hidden from it. And yet the opposite is what happens — the mind itself is not hidden from the truth, but the truth is hidden from it. Yet even so, for all its wretchedness, it still prefers to rejoice in truth rather than in known falsehoods. It will, then, be happy only when without other distractions it comes to rejoice in that single Truth through which all things else are true. (Book X, Chapter 23)

For where I found Truth, there found I my God, who is the Truth. (Book X, Chapter 24)

In this discord of true opinions let Truth itself bring concord, . . . (Book XII, Chapter 30)

5) He distinguishes Catholic truth from the errors of philosophers and other false teachers on various subjects:

. . . I had no hope of finding in thy Church the truth from which they had turned me aside, . . . (Book V, Chapter 10)

I felt quite ashamed because during the long time I had been deluded and deceived by the [Manichean] promises of certainties, I had, with childish petulance, prated of so many uncertainties as if they were certain. That they were falsehoods became apparent to me only afterward. However, I was certain that they were uncertain and since I had held them as certainly uncertain I had accused thy Catholic Church with a blind contentiousness. I had not yet discovered that it taught the truth, but I now knew that it did not teach what I had so vehemently accused it of. (Book VI, Chapter 4)

For myself, I must confess that it was even later that I learned how in the sentence, “The Word was made flesh,” the Catholic truth can be distinguished from the falsehood of Photinus. (Book VII, Chapter 19)

6) He condemns heresies:

But when he later learned that this was the error of the Apollinarian heretics, he rejoiced in the Catholic faith and accepted it. . . . For the refutation of heretics makes the tenets of thy Church and sound doctrine to stand out boldly. “For there must also be heresies [factions] that those who are approved may be made manifest among the weak.” (Book VII, Chapter 19)

Let them perish from thy presence, O God, as vain talkers, and deceivers of the soul perish, who, when they observe that there are two wills in the act of deliberation, go on to affirm that there are two kinds of minds in us: one good, the other evil. They are indeed themselves evil when they hold these evil opinions — and they shall become good only when they come to hold the truth and consent to the truth . . . (Book VIII, Chapter 10)

Else they must be converted to the truth, and no longer deny that when anyone deliberates there is one soul fluctuating between conflicting wills. (Book VIII, Chapter 10)

For he was not yet a Christian, and had fallen into the pit of deadly error, believing that the flesh of thy Son, the Truth, was a phantom. Yet he had come up out of that pit and now held the same belief that we did. (Book IX, Chapter 3)

For it was only about a year — not much more — since Justina, the mother of the boy-emperor Valentinian, had persecuted thy servant Ambrose on behalf of her heresy, in which she had been seduced by the Arians. (Book IX, Chapter 7)

7) He acknowledges partial truth in other belief-systems:

For he did not create them, and then go away. They are of him and in him. Behold, there he is, wherever truth is known. He is within the inmost heart, yet the heart has wandered away from him. Return to your heart, O you transgressors, and hold fast to him who made you. Stand with him and you shall stand fast. Rest in him and you shall be at rest. Where do you go along these rugged paths? Where are you going? The good that you love is from him, and insofar as it is also for him, it is both good and pleasant. (Book IV, Chapter 12)

So I began, and I found that whatever truth I had read [in the Platonists] was here combined with the exaltation of thy grace. (Book VII, Chapter 21)

And though he was not as yet initiated in any of the sacraments of thy Church, he was a most earnest inquirer after truth. (Book IX, Chapter 3)

8) He deliberately aims to persuade others, based on his own odyssey:

But, because “love believes all things” — at least among those who are bound together in love by its bonds — I confess to thee, O Lord, so that men may also hear; for if I cannot prove to them that I confess the truth, yet those whose ears love opens to me will believe me. (Book X, Chapter 3)

Why, then, does truth generate hatred, and why does thy servant who preaches the truth come to be an enemy to them who also love the happy life, which is nothing else than joy in the truth — unless it be that truth is loved in such a way that those who love something else besides her wish that to be the truth which they do love. (Book X, Chapter 23)

For if anyone arrogates to himself what thou hast bestowed on all to enjoy, and if he desires something for his own that belongs to all, he is forced away from what is common to all to what is, indeed, his very own — that is, from truth to falsehood. (Book XII, Chapter 25)

And yet, O my God, thou exaltation of my humility and rest of my toil, who hearest my confessions and forgivest my sins, since thou commandest me to love my neighbor as myself, I cannot believe that thou gavest thy most faithful servant Moses a lesser gift than I should wish and desire for myself from thee, if I had been born in his time, and if thou hadst placed me in the position where, by the use of my heart and my tongue, those books might be produced which so long after were to profit all nations throughout the whole world — from such a great pinnacle of authority — and were to surmount the words of all false and proud teachings. If I had been Moses — and we all come from the same mass, and what is man that thou art mindful of him? — if I had been Moses at the time that he was, and if I had been ordered by thee to write the book of Genesis, I would surely have wished for such a power of expression and such an art of arrangement to be given me, that those who cannot as yet understand how God createth would still not reject my words as surpassing their powers of understanding. And I would have wished that those who are already able to do this would find fully contained in the laconic speech of thy servant whatever truths they had arrived at in their own thought; and if, in the light of the Truth, some other man saw some further meaning, that too would be found congruent to my words. (Book XII, Chapter 26)

For just as a spring dammed up is more plentiful and affords a larger supply of water for more streams over wider fields than any single stream led off from the same spring over a long course — so also is the narration of thy minister: it is intended to benefit many who are likely to discourse about it and, with an economy of language, it overflows into various streams of clear truth, from which each one may draw out for himself that particular truth which he can about these topics–this one that truth that one another truth, by the broader survey of various interpretations. (Book XII, Chapter 27)

9) He joins objective and subjective truth together:

Indeed, it actually speaks to all, but only they understand it who compare the voice received from without with the truth within. (Book X, Chapter 6)

It is not because they are godly men and have seen in the heart of thy servant what they say, but rather they are proud men and have not considered Moses’ meaning, but only love their own — not because it is true but because it is their own. Otherwise they could equally love another true opinion, as I love what they say when what they speak is true — not because it is theirs but because it is true, and therefore not theirs but true. And if they love an opinion because it is true, it becomes both theirs and mine, since it is the common property of all lovers of the truth. . . . And therefore, O Lord, thy judgments should be held in awe, because thy truth is neither mine nor his nor anyone else’s; but it belongs to all of us whom thou hast openly called to have it in common; and thou hast warned us not to hold on to it as our own special property, for if we do we lose it. (Book XII, Chapter 25)

My Confessions, in thirteen books, praise the righteous and good God as they speak either of my evil or good, and they are meant to excite men’s minds and affections toward him. At least as far as I am concerned, this is what they did for me when they were being written and they still do this when read. What some people think of them is their own affair [ipse viderint]; but I do know that they have given pleasure to many of my brethren and still do so. (From the Retractations, II, 6; written in A.D. 427)

Catholic conversion stories (including my own and especially those in the Surprised by Truth series) exhibit all these things. If people don’t care for that, then they should also condemn St. Augustine for committing all the same “transgressions.”

St. Augustine espoused the notions of possessing a greater measure of truth and attempting, out of charitable motives, to pass it on to someone else. His very famous book has continued to do this these past 16 centuries, and many Catholic converts (particularly the apologetics-minded) try to do the same today.


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