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Questions for ‘Confessions’ Book I: Chapters 1 – 10

 

Infant sinner

Don’t let this baby’s unbearable cuteness deceive you. She’s a helpless, natural born sinner according to Augustine.

 

Hi everyone, we will be covering Book I, chapters 1 – 10.

 

Augustine titled his deeply philosophical and theological autobiography Confessions to implicate two aspects of the form the work would take. To ‘confess’, in Augustine’s time, meant both to give an account of one’s faults to God and to praise God or to speak one’s love for God. These two aims come together in the Confessions in an elegant but complex sense: Augustine narrates his ascent from sinfulness to faithfulness not simply for the practical edification of his readers, but also because he believes that his narrative itself is really a story about God’s greatness and of the fundamental love all things have for Him. Thus, in the Confessions form equals content to a large degree—the natural form for Augustine’s story of redemption to take would be a direct address to God, since it is God who must be thanked for such redemption. (That said, a direct address to God was a highly original form for Augustine to have used at the time).

 

The first nine Books of the Confessions are devoted to the story of Augustine’s life up to his mother’s death, but the last four Books make a sudden, lengthy departure into pure theology and philosophy. This shift should be understood in the same context as the double meaning of ‘confessions’—for Augustine, the story of his sinful life and redemption is in fact a profoundly philosophical and religious matter, since his story is only one example of the way all imperfect creation yearns to return to God (a concept he gets from neoplatonic thought as we have seen). Thus, the story of the return to God is set out first as an autobiography, and then later on in conceptual terms.

 

Wasting no time in getting to the philosophical content of his autobiography, Augustine’s account of his early years leads him to reflect on human origin, will and desire, language, and memory.

 

Please write a one-page essay on one of the following questions:

 

  1. In Chapters 1 – 3, Augustine begins each Book of the Confessions with a prayer in praise of God, but Book I has a particularly extensive invocation. The first question raised in this invocation concerns how one can seek God without yet knowing what He is. In other words, how can we look for something if we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for? Can a non-believer ‘seek’ after God even without the person not knowing who or what God is? Why or why not? If we seek God at all, is God obliged to reveal himself to us? State your reasons as to why or why not.
  2. In Chapter 3, summarize Augustine’s position on God’s omnipresence (that God is present everywhere in the universe). How does this attribute of God enable Him to engage with His creation and to people? Is Augustine’s view of God’s omnipresence close to what you ‘envision’ God to be?       Do you believe God is ‘in’ everything? If so, is he in ‘evil’ things as well? (We haven’t gone into Augustine’s philosophy on evil yet, but please state your thoughts.) Is God in cases of people suffering from cancer? Car accidents? Earthquakes? How do you ‘envision’ an omnipresent God in the first place? How can something infinite inhabit something finite? (Bonus: Describe the Neoplatonic ideas Augustine shares here.) State your reasons carefully.
  3. In Chapter 4, Augustine launches into a highly rhetorical discussion about God’s transcendence (i.e. how He is far above and beyond everything) and imminence (i.e. that He is within or very close to everything as well).  Summarize this particular description of God by Augustine (and as a bonus, how it relates to neoplatonism).  In Augustine’s discussion here, is he giving numerous contradictions when describing God?  Is it a paradox? How so? Is He a ‘mystery,’ a term that Christians use about God all the time?  If that is a term you use to describe God, what do you mean by it? (Or if you don’t, what do you think the phrase means when other Christians mention it?) Is that a cop-out answer in describing God or is it legitimate? Describe what Augustine is trying to get at when he is describing God here.
  4. In Chapter 6, he writes: “For all I want to tell you, Lord, is that I do not know where I came from when I was born into this life which leads to death – or should I say, this death that leads to life?” As he would continue to do throughout his life, Augustine here follows the Neoplatonists in refusing to speculate on how the soul joins the body to become an infant. Following Plato, Augustine leaves open the possibility that life is really a kind of death and that true “life” is enjoyed by the soul when it is not in this world. Do you believe in this statement? Why or why not. How is it possible that ‘living’ is a kind of dying? Does one truly begin to ‘live’ when one focuses on the soul and not on the world? How is this possible?
  5. In Chapter 7, Augustine writes: “How wicked are the sins of men! Men say this and you pity them, because you made man, but you did not make sin in him. Who can recall to me the sins I committed as a baby? For in your sight no man is free from sin, not even a child who has lived only one day on earth.” Here we begin to see the inklings of Augustine’s famous (or infamous?) doctrine of original sin. Describe Augustine’s argument for babies (including himself of course) being sinful. (For instance, he writes, “I have myself seen jealousy in a baby and know what it means.”) Is he being too harsh here? Do you believe that infants are ‘born’ sinful? Why or why not? Does a baby or infant have the will or desire to sin? State your reasons. Overall, do you believe that Augustine is giving a case for a universal human condition? Are there exceptions to being born ‘sinful’?
  6. In Chapters 8 – 10, as Augustine describes his early childhood, explain how his learning and education prepared him to take “a further step into the stormy life of human society…” (end of Chapter 8) Furthermore, in the beginning of Chapter 9, he states that his education “was the way to gain the respect of others and win for myself what passes for wealth in this world.” Later on he also writes about the pleasures of playing childish games and observes that, “However, grown-up games are known as ‘business’, and even though boys’ games are much the same, they are punished for them by their elders.”       Are these observations about education and adult life the same today? What do you think Augustine is saying here about the state of education and adult life in general in terms of gaining respect from others in relationships (personal and professional)? What ‘games’ do we still play as adults? Do we play ‘games’ in our spiritual lives (at church in particular) as well or in our relationship with God? How so and why?
  7. In Chapter 10, Augustine mentions his love for games, sports, and stage plays.  At the end of the chapter, he prays that God will free us from ‘such delusions.’ How have games, sports, and other forms of entertainment deluded us today? How are they related to sin? Is it a sin to enjoy such things? Why or why not? Do you think that we need to be ‘delivered’ from them by God?

 

 

We will give our written submissions after next Thursday.

 

 

 

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