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“Confessions” – Book IV: Chapters 1 – 8

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome

At the start of this book, Augustine had returned home to Thagaste only to be kicked out by his mother for his Manichaen beliefs and less so for his mistress. However, he was able to launch his career as a professor of rhetoric due to his patron, Romanianus, who had provided liberally towards his education. Augustine would stay with him after his mother had kicked him out.

Pick one question to write an essay about:

  1. In Chapter 2, he writes about how he took a mistress for himself during this time. Is there any biblical mandate against co-habitation or living with a person outside the bounds of marriage? Can it ever be justified in Christian culture or is it an antiquated and prudish belief that has no belonging in the 21st century? If you do believe that co-habitation is acceptable, then what place does biblical authority have in today’s church and in her future?
  2. In the latter half of Chapter 2, he encounters a sorcerer who offers to perform some rituals and sacrifice for him to win a competition for a price.  Looking back, Augustine laments this encounter and the sorcerer’s superstitious practices. However, Augustine warns, “ For if we play shepherd to the wind, we find pasture for the devils, because by straying from the truth we give them food for laughter and fill their cup with pleasure.” Do you believe that certain actions provoke demons? Name some traditions or practices in Christianity that might be considered superstitious or pagan. Or are there none?
  3. In Chapter 3, he writes about how he became involved in astrology. Why are people so attracted to astrology today even in our scientific and advanced era? Is there some validity to astrology? Would you consider some beliefs and practices of particular Christian denominations as practicing a form of astrology, like those who want to predict the end of the world through certain “blood moons” or eclipses or other omens? Why or why not? What about the “star of Bethlehem” that guided the eastern kings to Jesus in the narrative of the gospel of Matthew? Is that not a form of astrology that Christians seem to accept even though most Christians widely condemn astrology? Are Christians being inconsistent here?
  4. In the latter half of Chapter 3, he writes about his conversation with an astrologer. He writes, “I asked him why it was then that the future was often correctly foretold by means of astrology. He gave me the only possible answer, that it was all due to the power of chance, a force that must always be reckoned with in the natural order.”   What is the role of chance (and randomness) in relation to God’s providence? Or are either one of them an illusion? Do things happen completely randomly even without God’s knowledge or control? Or is everything – every outcome – predetermined by God? Can it be both? In another instance, he writes about how some people believe that they can open up to a random page of a book and just so happen to come across a passage that they believe “speaks” directly to their situation. There are many Christian testimonies of people randomly turning to a verse or story in the Bible and saying that the Bible ‘spoke’ to them about their specific situation that they were going through and felt that God had answered them through that “random” verse.  Do you believe that this actually happens or is this just a form of wishful thinking on the part of the believer?
  5. In Chapter 4 he writes about the great friendship he had with a person whom he had known since childhood. What constitutes true friendship? He writes, “No friends are true friends unless you, my God, bind them fast to one another through that love which is sown in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us.” Do you agree with his theological interpretation of friendship?    Do you believe that God (or in this case, specifically the Holy Ghost/Spirit) is involved in forming your friendships, especially your closest ones? How do friendships affect a person’s spiritual beliefs?
  6. In Chapter 4, he writes about how his friend had come close to death because of a high fever. His friend decides to get baptized just in case he died of the illness.  What are your thoughts about death-bed conversions or baptisms? What is its history? Is it biblical?
  7. In Chapter 5, he asks a series of existential questions about life’s troubles, especially after having experienced the death of someone close to him. One of the questions that he asks is, “How then can it be that there is a sweetness in the fruit we pluck from the bitter crop of life, in the mourning and the tears, the wailing and the sighs?” Is there a “sweetness’ in the “bitterness” of life at times?       How do tears, in themselves a bitter thing most of the time, become a source of pleasure for us? Why do some people feel better after a catharsis? Do you believe that a period of mourning discloses something about the state of the soul prior to its loss?
  8. In Chapters 4 – 7, he writes about how his first “real” encounter with death profoundly affected him. Why does death affect us so? Is there anything “mysterious” about death? How do most people, do you think, deal with their own sense of impending mortality? Do you believe most people fear death? Or can we welcome it? Do you see death as being something “unnatural” in relation with God’s creation? Or do you strictly see it as a rightful or just punishment for the sinfulness of mankind (i.e. “For the wages of sin is death.” – Romans 6:23)? Can death be a “gift” from God at times?   Does faith or a belief in a future Resurrection of the Dead (in the Second Coming of Christ) give any real existential or tangible consolation to a person or are they deluding themselves?  Does God mourn the death of people, animals, plants, or his creation in general? Is He affected or even changed by the reality of death?  Did Jesus’ death have any impact on God’s inner life? Or does he remain unaffected and impassionate?
  9. In Chapter 6, while he is in a state of grief and mourning after the death of his best friend, he writes, “I lived in misery, like every man whose soul is tethered by the love of things that cannot last and then is agonized to lose them.” Augustine investigates the unreliability and transience of things and the permanence of God. Misery, he writes, is due to an unreasonable attachment to “mortal things.” Do you agree with him here? Why or why not? What neoplatonic views is he expressing here? Do you believe that the very loves that a life in the flesh engenders, born out of the beauties of the created order, are destined to bring sorrow at the end?
  10. In Chapter 8, he writes, “For the grief I felt for the loss of my friend had struck so easily into my inmost heart simply because I had poured out my soul upon him… loving a man who was mortal as though he were never to die.” Is this what happens when you idolize a friend or friendship in general?   Many Christians might tend to agree with Augustine that we must place our hearts upon eternal and spiritual things rather than transient things and even people who will all ultimately perish one day. However, just what does “friendship” with God look like? Can Jesus or God truly be your (best) “friend”?       Why or why not? What does it mean to call God your friend? (Cite Bible verses about whether or not it is possible to have a friendship with God.) But how is it possible to relate intimately with a being who is ontologically so different and so transcendent from us? (His “invisibility” as well as his intangibility to our natural senses isn’t much help as well.)  Is a “friendship” with God or a “personal relationship with God/Jesus” merely just sentimental talk within the church?

We will present our essays next week.


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