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Home » Theology » “Confessions” by St. Augustine » Book III: Chapters 1 – 6

Book III: Chapters 1 – 6





In Chapter 2, he writes about his love and passion for the theater.       What does he say about the link between passion and compassion in the arts? How does art and media affect us, particularly our emotions?       He seems puzzled by the theater when he states, “But what sort of pity can we really feel for an imaginary scene on the stage? The audience is not called upon to offer help but only feel sorrow, and the more they are pained the more they applaud the author. Whether this human agony is based on fact or is simply imaginary, if it is acted so badly that the audience is not moved to sorrow, they leave the theater in a disgruntled and critical mood.” Why are we so drawn to performances (whether in plays, movies, concerts, youtube, etc.) even though we know that it’s fake? Do you agree with his assessment here that whatever compassion watching a play may evoke within you, it’s not true compassion that you’re feeling since it really doesn’t move you to help another person out; therefore, compassion becomes denatured when elicited by the fictions of theater.


We are drawn to theater and arts for various reasons.  One I believe is that we have a need for Culture similar to physical needs for food and such, it is not enough to simply fill our bellies.  Redeemer church sponsored cultural missionaries of performance artists of music and dance to be sent to Japan after the devastating tsunami.  Even though they did appreciate shelter and hot meals, their was still an almost metaphysical need that still needed to be met that most were probably not even aware of.


To paraphrase MacCulloch, truths from Shakespeare on human nature seems more real than what was actually eaten for breakfast.  When we are moved by a well written and acted performance it reflects our real emotions.  There’s a fictional account of the skill of a storyteller, how people were amazed that a stoic man had openly cried at a particularly moving story when he did not even cry when his daughter died.  Was the the storyteller somehow exceptionally gifted to make even stones cry? Or did the story reflect life that allowed the man to grieve.


Movies can also act as a fantasy outlet.  A social worker out works with troubled teens and has seen his fare share of tragedy actually enjoy violent movies as escapism. He has seen real life bloodshed and movies are tame by comparison.  Curiously during the Great Depression in America where money was so tight for so many, the movies were a booming business.  What was popular? Stories of the downtrodden? No, depictions of wealth and opulence.





The arts can also be a tool of social change.  Artists have long used their mediums to get the word out and criticism of those in power.  “The Daily Show” and its successors have used humor to do so.  Protest songs such as Bob Marley’s “Get up, Stand up” was a call to action to the masses to not let corrupt authority have their way.





In Chapter 1, Augustine talks about, “I had not yet fallen in love, but I was in love with the idea of it, and this feeling that something was missing made me despise myself for not being more anxious to satisfy my need.”       What does he mean about being ‘in love with the idea of [love]’? How does one idolize love when you take a look at the nature of love and human desire? Is love just a bunch of chemicals swirling in your brain, or is it something more? Why do we crave it so much? Is it just the ‘warm’ or ‘euphoric’ feelings we get from it that attracts us to it? Furthermore, he writes, “For although my real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul, I was not aware of this hunger. I felt no need for the food that does not perish, not because I had had my fill of it, but because the more I was starved of it the less palatable it seemed.       Because of this my soul felt sick.”       Though God is supposedly ‘everywhere’ ( i.e. ominpresent), it is very hard to detect him with our physical sense, but how can we can we still love him? Or are we just deluding ourselves into thinking that we can?


Love is one of the oldest subjects of literature and art. Books, movies, philosophies have been written/made about love. Though love can mean different things and it manifests itself in different ways at different stages, there is something primal and instinctive about it, and in the great need that humans have for it, they both fetishize and routinely misinterpret it.


There is love for a parent, love for a child, love for a pet, for a favorite toy, a calling/career, activities, ideas, nature; there is friendship, tough love and shallow love, activism, love of power, money, celebrity… The list can go on and on for pages. (Incidentally, one of the best essays on love I have ever read was written by a 20-something year old man for his car).Then there is romantic (new) love and old, mature love.  Despite love’s great variety and its omnipresence, our cultural obsession tends to revolve around romantic love, as it clearly also did during Augustine’s time. There’s an easy explanation for this.


Romantic love understood at a cultural or peer level is a reductionist approach to love, one that is visible and flashy. In many ways it is simple, highlighting the object of the love’s best features while usually hiding the less flattering ones; it comes with brain chemicals-induced highs and lows; it diverts attention from everything else, fixating on one alone, and it usually lives on a short fuse that either transforms into something bigger and deeper, fizzles out, or explodes. As a teenager living in a new city and enamored by the theater, Augustine is no less susceptible to the idea of being in love than a teenager bombarded by the media is today. He can surely see it in his friends and classmates, and the yearning for it is just as strong as the feelings he would have for his beloved would be. What attracts him is the extravagant, accessible nature of this type of love, and this leaves him without the awareness for the “food that does not perish.” In other words, he is eating junkfood that does not nourish. But he is too young to understand anything bigger, which is why as an adult looking back he laments to the real object of his life’s love, God.


But his yearning comes from something fundamental. At its most basic, in human beings love is both a need and a motivator. From the infamous Romanian orphanages of the 1980s and ’90s I know that babies left without human contact (aka, love) grow up with very serious developmental emotional and even physical issues. Many parents who adopt such children, even at an early age, often struggle through a string of problems that almost never go away. We are built to need to love and to reciprocate it, not only to other human beings but to everything around us. God’s commandments throughout the Bible result from love and they demand love: love of neighbor, love of creation, the loving-kindness of God’s care for his people, and, first and foremost, God’s very own love for creation and his need for our love for him. Mark 12 boils down the entire message of the Bible: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”


If creation is God’s, then it makes sense that there would be a biological component to love. But I think that calling love simply by its chemical name is like calling a good glass of wine fermented grapes. The chemicals are part of the equation but they do not define it: love also involves choices and action. And if the entire creation is his indeed, the awareness that all cultures have for some notion of a divine, or another, is a part of the love design. Loving God is an act of trust first and foremost. I’ve seen it manifested in care for other people and for creation. I’ve also seen it manifested in the desire for and the acquiring of knowledge about God and creation at every level and discipline. Even the most legalistic manifestations of religious zeal, when done with the authenticity of a real desire to please God (as opposed to people), are an act of love. I don’t think it’s a delusion to think you love God.





Same question as above.


This chapter really hit home for me from the second sentence: “I loved not as yet, yet I loved to love.”


When I grew up, both mentally and spiritually, I noticed that the Holy Spirit cultivated a deep love in me for God Himself, for Jesus for who He is, and for the Bible and what it is in itself.


But when I went to study theology at a secular university, I noticed that many of my fellow students’ faith was challenged. They often started to waver, yet mine did not.


What was the difference? I loved God for God’s sake, Jesus for Jesus’ sake, and the Bible for the Bible’s sake.


Of course my fellow students claimed to love God and Jesus, but they loved things about them, not their own sakes. They loved Jesus because He preached ‘love and tolerance’, but whenever Jesus spoke of hell, that was rejected. They loved it when Paul spoke about… well, they loved very little about Paul to be honest and they cherry picked the Old Testament for small soundbites they liked, a few Psalms (but then only the first half), for that part of God they loved; they loved the loving part of God, but they did not love God.


So, what is love? Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.





Brain chemicals? No, I totally follow C.S. Lewis’ metaphor that we are amphibians, half spirit, half animal. Psychology and neurology in no way diminish who we are, I have no problem seeing body and spirit being one and intimately connected.


As for being able to love God, it is like being in a long distance relationship, I happen to be some sort of expert on that, with two girlfriends, adding up to like a year and a half of it.


Of course Skype makes it a little different, but otherwise whatever message you get from your lover will obviously be the very thing you will cherish the most of all the things in the world. That is why I believe a strong love for God cannot be without a strong love for the Bible.


I have of course been accused to turning the Bible into an idol replacing God, but how else am I supposed to even know anything about God?





In Chapter 5, describe Augustine’s first encounter with the Bible. As he looked back, what did he say was his problem for his first reading of the Bible?

Augustine was trained in the art of rhetoric and as a student he read Cicero, and that famous Roman orator encouraged Augustine to seek out wisdom rather than eloquence, and to seek to find it in Scripture. But Augustine didn’t find beautiful language or power of persuasion in the Scriptures, he dismissed it, preferring Cicero.


Was your first encounter with the Bible like his?

My first encounter with Bible was that it’s a long novel written and passed from generation to generation.


What were your first impressions of the Bible? 

Some stories seemed incomprehensible and unfinished.  Some scriptures seemed loving while others seemed cruel and strict.


What are some difficulties with reading the Bible?

I would say a lot of old English and vocabularies I don’t understand and people don’t use those vocabularies in the modern days.  There was a story in “Judges” about Jephthah and his daughter.  Jephthah promised the Lord that if he won the battle he will sacrifice his virgin daughter.  His daughter begged him to let her spend her last two months in the mountain with her friends before her die.  That story was weird.


Do you approach the Bible as the literal ‘Word of God’ (i.e. a supernatural book or work)? Or as a ‘love letter’ from God? Or a work of fiction? Poetry?

For me, Bible is more like a historical fiction. It seems to be the one and only journal of human history that’s read and authenticated by most people.


If you read the Bible as a devotional for your spiritual life, do you separate that from a more scholarly or critical type of reading from the Bible?  In other words, you can read it to nourish your spiritual soul, but if you’ve been exposed to the historical-critical method of reading and interpreting the Bible, how does it affect your reading and view of the Bible as a whole?

I’ve read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation a few times but never really dug into the details of every book or chapters.  From time to time, I would just pick some inspirational verses or scriptures to read as my quotes of the day to encourage or calm myself.  No, I’m not intellectual enough to criticize the Bible.  Nonetheless, I do feel skeptical about the contents and I would watch documentaries like “Mysteries of the Bible” or “Secrets of the Bible” or turn to friends for explanations. I was told that since the Scriptures were written in Greek or Latin back in the days, some translations might be misleading.  I was referred to a Bible study website “http//net/” but the font of that website is so small and it gives me headache when looking up scriptures on that website.





In Chapter 4, describe his encounter with Cicero’s book Hortensius and his views about philosophy he shares here. What was it about philosophy that so intrigues the soul even till this day? What is the relationship between philosophy and theology? He also quotes Paul[1] here in Colossians 2:8-9: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” In what ways can philosophy be full of ‘empty deception’ or is Paul (and maybe perhaps Augustine) over-reacting here, or should we take heed of his warning when studying or reading philosophy?  


As was the educational custom of his time, Augustine would have studied the works of classical Latin writers by reading extracts of Terence, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Juvenal, and the great Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BC) as he was being taught the principles of oratory and debate. This was to lay the foundations for Augustine’s own speaking, writing and preaching for years to come. He writes that reading these great works of Latin literature would occasionally move him to tears. Around 373, Augustine had been at Carthage for about two years when he read Cicero’s Hortensius as he describes it in this chapter. This work is now lost, but certain fragments have survived to give us an idea of what Cicero’s work. It was written in dialogue form and it expounded the importance of philosophy. Cicero was arguably the greatest Roman orator of his day, and he wrote numerous books on politics and rhetoric. He was later murdered by his political opponents.


Augustine writes that his encounter with Cicero’s Hortensius “altered my outlook on life.” He writes passionately that this work had set him “burning with fire” like no other work had done before, prior to his encounter with God and the Bible. Furthermore, he writes that this was his first real encounter with philosophy (literally meaning ‘love of wisdom’ in Greek). The greatest lesson he took away from this book was “[Cicero’s] advice not simply to admire one or another of the schools of philosophy, but to love wisdom itself, whatever it might be, and to search for it, pursue it, and embrace it firmly.” This passion to search for wisdom and truth would later translate over to his faith in God. This is great advice from Cicero that resonates still to this day, where he tells the reader to pursue and love philosophy for its own sake, because it has its own intrinsic worth, and not for selfish gain, a better grade, to show off, or brag about. Cicero calls the reader to see philosophy as an aesthetically beautiful and pleasing way of life, not just abstract theorizing. He basically calls philosophy to be a religion or even a spiritual quest to find truth, something that Augustine took to heart and enflamed his soul to do.


Interestingly, Augustine attributes the reading of Hortensius to be like his first spiritual ‘conversion’ (that is, a major turning point) experience for him. Oddly enough, what triggered this first (incomplete) conversion was a book of pagan philosophy. He writes that “It changed my prayers to you, O Lord, and provided me with new hopes and aspirations. All my empty dreams suddenly lost their charm and my heart began to throb with a bewildering passion for the wisdom of eternal truth.”


I believe that people still are intrigued by philosophy till this day because it causes us to ponder, question, and provide clarity (not always answers per se) to basic questions about life and our existence that are intrinsic to any person. Questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? Why is there a universe? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a purpose and meaning in life? These are all questions that I’m sure most people have asked or pondered about at least once in his or her life. Certain people might lean towards science as answering all these questions, but science only takes us so far as to what we can measure and detect with our technology. Philosophy often questions the assumptions and motivations and ethics that scientists engage in.


The late Diogenes Allen, professor of Philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in one of his books that there were two main sources of Christian theology: the Bible and Greek philosophy. Christian theology (literally meaning, ‘study of God’) is inherently Hellenic because it could not exist as a discipline without the kind of intellectual and systematic curiosity which was unique to ancient Greece. They were the first culture to search for reasons (or the logos) for almost anything and everything. The Church Fathers would adopt the methods and discipline of Greek philosophy to formulate the discipline of theology. They applied fundamental Greek questions like, “How and why is that so?” to questions about God, creation, the Bible, and ourselves. Augustine himself would come up with a rather simple, yet philosophical definition of theology by saying that it was ‘faith seeking understanding.’ Through the lens of faith and our (intellectual) understanding of God, we would understand life and the world.


In the context of the verses Augustine uses here on Colossians 2:8-9, we must bear in mind that when Paul (or the author) wrote this, he was writing to the church in Colosse in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) in order to address the problem of false teaching within the church. Problems in that church ranged from Gnosticism, Jewish mystical asceticism, syncretism, or legalism. Whatever the false teaching was, it attacked the centrality of Christ (Col 1:15-19; 2:9-10), encouraged asceticism (2:18), Jewish legalism (2:16, 21) and focused on speculative philosophical traditions (2:8). In Colossians 2:8-9, Paul wanted to shoot down any teaching that taught that Jesus was merely an important visionary or religious leader. The church must understand that Jesus was divine and that this should be the foundation for true spirituality. The context emphasizes “as you received Christ Jesus” and “as you were taught.” He warned against false teachers who taught these things at church and told the church to “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy.” And the cure for any false teaching was to witness and acknowledge the full deity of Christ in whom “all the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form.” We must bear in mind that the ‘empty’ and ‘deceptive’ philosophy Paul talks about here is different from the careful, critical thinking of Greek intellectuals. It was more likely that he was referring to religious groups using magic and mystical customs that offered called their teachings “philosophy.” Augustine may not have had the same thing as Paul had in mind here, but he writes, “There are people for whom philosophy is a means of misleading others, for they misuse its great name, its attractions, and its integrity to give color and gloss to their own errors.” He goes on to call these persons (whom I’m certain he came into contact with on many occasions) ‘so-called philosophers.’


Paul and Augustine are not over-reacting here in that I believe that they were both very aware of how the human mind and heart can be easily swayed to believe in false teachings or philosophies. As we all well know today, many cults and even churches today will manipulate people’s emotions and minds in order to exploit them spiritually, emotionally, economically, financially, sexually, and physically. There are also other forms of speculative philosophy that can unnecessarily confuse people’s beliefs and shipwreck their faith. Everyone should be wary of such philosophies full of ‘empty deceptions’ as Paul warned. I do not think either Paul and or Augustine would object to a person’s learning of philosophy in its proper manner – in fact, I believe they would wholeheartedly encourage it as a way of loving God with all our mind (Luke 10:27). Augustine, would later identify ‘wisdom’ with God and devote himself to seek after God by reading the Bible. In the Old Testament, ‘wisdom’ is the personification of the godly way of life; a theme that Paul finds fulfilled in Jesus Christ, “who became for us wisdom from God.” (1 Cor 1:30)


[1] There are some scholars who believe that this epistle wasn’t written by the Apostle Paul himself, but someone writing in Paul’s name rather.




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  1. […] our our essays on Chapters 1 – 6 of Book III in Augustine’s […]

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