A clip from the movie “Restless Heart: The Confessions of Augustine.” Bishop Ambrose is depicted here embracing Augustine and later baptizing him.
This week, we will finish the rest of Book VIII – chapters 7 – 12 of Augustine’s Confessions.
In these final chapters, we encounter the monumental moment when Augustine finally devotes himself to the Christian faith as he recounts in great detail in these writings.
Write an essay on one of the following questions:
- In Chapter 7, Augustine writes of the turmoil he felt as he was facing the decision to convert to the Christian faith. He writes that God had “bought me face to face with myself once more.” He reminisces and reflects upon his past memories on how far he has come since his early days of reading Cicero at age nineteen, his adolescence, his early search for happiness, and his attraction to Manicheism. In terms of memory and the persistence of identity, do you believe you are who you are because of your personal memories? Is your old self (i.e. when you were a child, a teenager, a young adult, etc.) still really you as you are right now? If so, in what way? To look at it another way, was Augustine’s pre-conversion self the same as the Christian self or identity he was to possess? Or are you truly a “new creation in Christ Jesus?” (i.e. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” – 2 Cor. 5:17) If so, what happened to your old self/identity? Has that been “erased” away? If your memories are wiped away, what remains of your identity? Are you replaced with a new one as you gain and experience new memories? Who are you or do we possess multiple you’s throughout our lifetimes? Is human identity fractured or fluid as time passes?
- In Chapter 7, describe why Augustine was so filled with anxiety to convert. Why did he fight back these convictions in his conscious? What main fears or anxieties did he have about converting? Are they legitimate concerns? What is the role of shame in conversion, if any? Does everyone go through an inner conflict prior to conversion?
- In Chapter 8, he writes, “I was dying a death that would bring me life. I knew the evil that was in me, but the good that was soon to be born in me I did not know.” Do you believe that there is a goodness within us that God brings forth in conversion, or is there nothing good within us to bring about (i.e. “total depravity”). And in this “new life” Augustine writes about, does that equate with having a new mind? Do you believe there is a cognitive or neurological change (i.e. actual physical change that happens in the neurons of your brain) during conversion or is it all spiritual and has little or nothing to do with the physical? State your reasons why you believe this to be so.
- In Chapter 8, he writes, “I locked my fingers and hugged my knees; and I did all this because I made an act of will to do it. But I might have had the will to do it and yet not have done it, if my limbs had been unable to move in compliance with my will. I performed all these action, in which the will and the power to act are not the same.” Do you agree with his assessment at the end where he states that “the will and the power to act are not the same”? Furthermore, he writes: “For in this case the power to act was the same as will. To will it was to do it. Yet I did not do it. My body responded to the slightest wish of my mind by moving its limbs at the least hint from me, and it did so more readily than my mind obeyed itself by assenting to its own great desire, which could be accomplished simply by an act of will.” Is there a disconnect between the mind and body or are the two inextricably linked? How much free will and nolition do we really have or is it an illusion? (If you’re ambitious, refer to the neurologist Benjamin Libet’s experiments on free will and incorporate it to your answer.)
- In Chapter 9, he wonders: “O Lord in your mercy give me light to see, for it may be that the answer to my question lies in the secret punishment of man in the penitence which casts a deep shadow on the sons of Adam…The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted.” Here, he may be hinting at “Original Sin”. Was the human will or mind corrupted or limited by the effects of the “Fall”? Do you really believe that humans were without sin at a moment in time in the distant past, but then because of the rebellion and sin of one man against God this “sin nature” gets passed down to every single human being from then on? How is this sin passed down from one generation to generation? Is it a genetic problem that is passed down? If so, then is it something that can be treated medically? Or is this strictly a spiritual problem? If so, how is it just for God to pass this punishment of Adam’s sin to all his descendants when his unborn descendants had nothing to do with his decision to disobey God? Wouldn’t it be more just to punish Adam (and Eve) only, instead of cursing the whole earth and all of creation – i.e. subject it to evil, hardship, disease, death, etc.? (In the words of one skeptic: “Why did God have to punish all the innocent bunny rabbits? What did bunny rabbits have to do with Adam’s sin?”) Or must this longstanding doctrine of original sin be done away with? If so, what are the implications with the church moving forward?
- In Chapter 9, he states: “Yet the mind is mind and the hand is part of the body. But when the mind commands the mind to make an act of will, these two are one and the same and yet the order is not obeyed… The mind orders itself to make an act of will, and it would not give this order unless it willed to do so; yet it does not carry out its own command.” Do you have two minds or a consciousness spit in two? Why is it that your mind does something that another part does or does not want to do? Why is that so? Or is it fully integrated? Is that what Paul is referring to in Romans 7:15? Does this relate to the effects of sin? Or is the mind in conflict with the soul or spirit? How do you distinguish between mind, soul, or spirit? Or are they the same word for the same thing? Do we have split personalities? What is Augustine’s reason that he gives?
- In Chapter 10, describe what the Manichean position is as to why there is an inner conflict or opposition of the wills within us. What was his response to this view? In your view, which view – Augustine’s or the Manichees – makes more sense or has the stronger argument and why? He writes, “So I was at odds with myself. I was throwing myself into confusion. All this happened to me although I did not want it… It only meant that my mind was being punished. My action did not come from me, but from the sinful principle that dwells in me.” He was quoting Romans 7:17. Read that verse and explain what Paul is saying there. (Remember to be mindful of the context, intent, and audience Paul was writing to.) What does it mean that it was “sin” that lead people to actions that are against God’s will? Is there a duality within us that is in constant conflict with one another? If it is sin, if it acts as an external force, then how is one responsible for one’s actions against God?
- In Chapter 10, he writes: “It may be that both the wills are bad. For instance, a man may be trying to decide whether to commit murder by poison or by stabbing.” Does a person with an evil mind have no choice but commit evil deeds? For instance, there are certain psychopaths who may feel no empathy because parts of the brain responsible for empathy are not responsive. Do they have free will if they do not have the cognitive abilities to be empathetic toward others? And if they have no free will or choice other than commit acts of evil, then how can they be responsible or guilty of their crimes? On the opposite end, Augustine writes that, “It is the same when the wills are good… All these different desires are good, yet they are in conflict with each other until he chooses a single course to which the will may apply itself as a single whole, so that it is no longer split into several different wills.” Can the will only choose to do good as in this case presented here by Augustine? What about Jesus? If Jesus was born without sin and could only do good, then in what sense did he have free will? Or did he have a choice between doing good and evil? If so, does that mean that he was sinful on at least an existential sense (i.e. he wasn’t perfect). Questions may arise in your answer in terms of whether or not Jesus had a dual nature of being both human and divine, or if the two natures were mixed, or one nature superseded the other, etc.
- In Chapter 10, he writes: “The same is true when the higher part of our nature aspires after eternal bliss while our lower self is held back by the love of temporal pleasure. It is the same soul that wills both, but it wills neither of them with the full force of the will. So it is wrenched in two and suffers great trials, because while the truth teaches it to prefer one course, habit prevents it from relinquishing the other.” What Neoplatonic themes do you pick up in this paragraph? Do you believe that it is because there is free will that suffering exists or that we suffer? Would it be true that if there was no suffering, perhaps there would be no free will? Or to put it another way, could love truly exist without free will or the possibility of rejection? Would it still be called love if the only option was to love?
- In Chapter 11, he writes: “I was held back by mere trifles, the most paltry inanities, all my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, ‘Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again… Habit was too strong for me when it asked ‘Do you think you can live without these things?’” One of the things that Augustine was so fearful about conversion was that all his worldly pleasures would have to be put away once he became a Christian. Does conversion limit your options or increase them? Or do they remain the same? In conversion, must you give up your earthly desires for more spiritual desires? If so, then why are spiritual desires better than earthly desires?
- In Chapter 12, he writes how he finally surrendered to God after much internal struggling. He describes a sequence of events such as hearing the voice of a young girl or a boy urging him to read a “random” verse in the book of Romans that completely changed his life. Do you believe that this was divine intervention or just the natural course of events in his life? Was it pure chance that he landed on the verses of Romans 13:13-14? Was it by chance or was all this predetermined (i.e. “predestined” in the traditional Reformed definition) by God? If everything is predetermined, then how can there be free will and personal responsibility for one’s own actions? Does God override one’s free will upon conversion? Did Augustine have a choice to reject God then and there, or did he have no choice whatsoever at that specific time and place (i.e. “irresistible grace”) but to receive God’s grace? Does a person’s will cooperate with God’s will upon conversion? Or is it all done by God? Or is it all done by the person?
- In Chapter 12, he writes about how God had led him to Romans 13:13-14. After reading it he writes, “I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” In many ways, he believes that this is how people are converted: by hearing the word of God, the way God speaks. Does God’s “voice” or “word” truly reside in the Bible? Does the Bible have “miraculous” (i.e. “magical”) abilities? Or does it become the Word of God as we read, interpret and engage with it? Does the Bible become revelation at the time or moment someone is reading it? Is divine inspiration of the Bible an ongoing process? (This is known as the “Encounter View” or “Neo-Orthodox” or “Barthian” view of Scripture, after the Swiss theologian Karl Barth.)
Please submit your essays by this Saturday.