Yes, we’re back from a month long hiatus. We will finish Book V of Augustine’s Confessions.
In 383, at the age of 29, Augustine sailed from Carthage with his partner and their son, along with his two close friends Alypius and Nebridius, to Rome for a teaching position where he hoped to engage with better behaved students. By that time, Rome was no longer the center of the western empire; the emperor resided in Milan.
The next year, after winning a competition for a post as public teacher of rhetoric, he moved to Milan. It was there that he first encountered the formidable figure of Ambrose the bishop of Milan. He was to have a profound influence on Augustine’s life and thought.
Choose one of the following questions:
- In Chapter 8, Augustine describes how his mother Monica would constantly pray for him, in this case, specifically not to go to Rome. He would tell her a white lie in order to get on a boat to Rome. How does Augustine interpret this scenario during this part of his life? How does he interpret God’s will for his life at this time? Does prayer really change things? What about prayers that don’t seem to get answered? There’s a strong theme of God’s divine Providence running throughout Augustine’s theology- that all that is happening is because of God unfolding a plan for his life. Do you believe that God has a specific plan for everyone’s life? Why or why not?
- In Chapter 9, upon arriving at Rome he fell ill in which he interpreted as being a punishment from God for his sin against lying to his mother. Here, he makes one of his first references to “original sin, by which we all have died with Adam” where he quotes from1 Corinthians 15:22. What are your thoughts about original sin? Do you believe that people are born sinful, without a shot of believing God on his or her own will? Do you agree with his theology? Why or why not? If so, what about those born with mental/cognitive disabilities or serious genetic defects – those who may not have cognitive capacity to understand God or the gospel message – are they doomed to go to hell?
- In Chapter 9, he credits the recovery of his illness through the faithfulness and ceaseless prayers of his mother. He says that it was because of her humility, gentleness, and chastity that God looked favorably to answer her prayers. Do you believe that one’s way of living, level of morality or spiritual obedience influences the effectiveness of getting prayers answered? Why or why not? What about the volume of prayers to God – does the amount of prayers you repeat or the multiple times you pray to him have an effect?
- In Chapter 10, describe what he means when he writes: “I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us… I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me.” Compare this with Romans 7:15, 17, and 20: “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate… So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me… But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” Are Paul and Augustine saying the same thing? Is sin something that is external to our being or is it intrinsically a part of our being? Augustine writes, “My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner.” Is this the general thinking of most people? Do most people not consider themselves sinners?
- In Chapter 10, he describes how he once believed that God had a human body or the shape of a human body, following Manichean beliefs. When you envision God, do you ‘see’ God in human form? Does God have a physicality or physical substance to Him? Is the universe God’s body? In a similar way, Augustine believed that evil had a physical substance too, “a shapeless, hideous mass, which might be solid.” Is it wrong if a believer envisions God with a physical body? In essence, the general Manichean belief was that the physical universe was evil. How did Manicheans view Jesus? Could the Manichean belief of evil be equated with the Christian belief of a duality in the universe in regards to God vs. the Devil/Satan? Why or why not? Do you visualize evil in this manner? Is it an entity or a concept? How does it exist in the world? Can evil be applied to the natural world (i.e. with animals) itself, or is it applicable with humans only? Why or why not?
- In Chapter 10, he began to dabble with a school of philosophers known as “Academics” who were Platonists who maintained that they were the true successors of Plato’s Academy in Athens. They claimed that true philosophy must follow Socrates’ way of philosophizing. Socrates was known for his skepticism and line of questioning, and therefore suspended the beliefs most common people held on to. They believed that “one ought to exercise doubt in all things and that nothing true can be definitively grasped by human beings” as Augustine described. Much of this aligned also with the writings of Cicero and Greek Stoic philosophers who believed that one had to live a life with dignity and integrity despite the absence of God or any assurance that life had meaning. The Stoics believed that one had to live a life without hope for reward, salvation or afterlife, and yet show a detached consideration, respect and selfless goodwill towards all creatures. What is the role of doubt or even skepticism in faith? Is there any room for them in faith? What are the strengths and weaknesses of incorporating doubt and skepticism into one’s belief system about God? Must a person remove all aspects of doubt to come to a point of absolute certainty and true faith in God? Is there an element of Stoic philosophy within Christianity? Could Christianity survive without a belief in eternal rewards or a blessed afterlife, and is its foundation based on it? In other words, is Christianity meaningless without a belief in an afterlife? If so, that begs the question as to people believe on the basis or hope for rewards or an afterlife rather than a true love or faith in God.
- In Chapter 13, Augustine encounters Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. Briefly describe who he was and why he was such an important figure in church history. Augustine was impressed by Ambrose’s gift of preaching. How important is a preacher’s rhetorical, public speaking or performance skills? Does it trump intellect or knowledge? Was there ever a preacher or speaker who really captivated or challenged you to look at the world or God differently?
- In Chapter 14, Augustine describes how the Old Testament was “death” to him when he read them literally, but when Ambrose introduced to him to interpret the Scriptures in a more spiritual or allegorical way (in the same manner as Stoic philosophers had centuries before who were troubled by the way Homer had depicted the Greek gods acting in immoral ways), it liberated him and was a major breakthrough for him accepting the Christian faith. Identify a biblical passage that was “liberated” by a non-literal interpretation for you. In what grounds should we take the Bible literally and at other times non-literally? Or should we take the Bible literally all the time? Augustine also describes how, in light of the evidence growing before him, he moved away from Manichean philosophy. What belief system that you held in the past did you have to leave behind eventually in light of the evidence (scientific, philosophic, experiential, existential, etc.)?
Please submit an essay for our next meeting.