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

“Confessions” – Book IX: Chapters 1 – 6

7/31/2016


Howard


Q: In Chapter 4, he writes about how moved he was when he read the book of Psalms in the Bible. He writes, “I quivered with fear, yet at the same time I was aglow with hope, rejoicing in your mercy, my Father.  All these emotions were revealed in the light of my eyes and the tremor of my voice, when I read the message of your Holy Spirit.”  What role or impact does emotion play in one’s faith?  Does an emotional response to something religious or spiritual make it more authentic or real?  Can emotions deceive you and others in regards to true repentance and conversion?

 

 

 

Emotions are tied into what we care about the most.  If we have no or little emotional ties to something, it doesn’t mean much to us.  Faith without much emotion is pretty lukewarm which makes God do a spit take (Revelations 3:16).  Love is an emotion.

 

Emotional response to something religious or spiritual does make it more authentic or real. In fact, a emotional response to anything makes it more real.  I saw the actor/comedian Omid Djalili do a routine where he declares that as a Persian he is hot-blooded and full of passion, and so he would cut off his and write a declaration of love to his wife in his own blood to show how much he loved her.  As a proper English woman, her response would be a quiet, “Oh, thank you.”  Or take the idea of an excited young child running to her father with a crude crayon drawing of him who gives a single glance and says, “That’s nice dear,” before looking back to his smartphone.

 

In the Eminem/Rihanna song “Love the way you Lie,” a friend of mine loves singing karaoke the line “Im’a tie her to the bed and set this house on fire” not because of the misogyny, but because it shows so much passion.  A bit of jealousy is flattering because it shows affirmation or evidence the person cares by being emotional.

 

The dark side of emotions is that it can deceive in regards to repentance and conversion.

 

Emotion short-circuits our reason.  We fall into the trap of, just because it feels good then it must be right.  Emotions are a powerful influence, and repentance and conversion in some ways are using reason and will to overcome it.  We can fall hard in love and rush into an elopement.  Sometimes a marriage is a decision to continue to love for worse, poorer and in sickness, and working through the hardships to remember the importance of love.

 

 

Chris #1

 

Q:  In Chapter 4, he writes, “The good which I now sought was not outside myself… For those who try to find joy in things outside themselves easily vanish away into emptiness. They waste themselves on the temporal pleasures of the visible world.”  How does the world and people look drastically different before and after conversion?  Does one see the world and others as black and white?  If so, what are some strengths and weaknesses with this dualist point of view?

 

I had assumed that conversion would make a person view things more black-and-white.

 

But then I started writing out some lists, and things that don’t seem that clear cut to me.

 

Here’s a list of how the world looks before/after conversion to converts:

 

Pre-Conversion Post-Conversion
“I have to make it in the world, whether by amassing wealth, success, fame” “The world is temporal; heaven is eternal” (more akin to Augustine’s views)
“The world is my oyster/playground – enjoy before my time is up” “The world is evil, avoid contamination”
“The world is scary – I have to hoard or fight to keep safe” “The world is training ground for the next life”
“The world is God” “The world is not God – it is to be used by us”
“The world is to be taken care of for the next generation” “The world is not us – it is to be taken care of by us for the next generation”
“The world is our Mother” “The world is the medium in which and by which God blesses me”

 

And here’s a list of how the people look before / after conversion to converts:

 

Pre-Conversion Post-Conversion
“Other people are my competitors in making it in the world” “Other people are to be converted so that they go to heaven and not be damned”
“Other people are for me to use, take from, or defend against” “Other people are to be avoided so that they won’t contaminate me”
“Other people are to be loved and honored universally” “Other people are heretics to be defeated in apologetics or eliminated otherwise”
“Other people are to be loved or hated, depending on whether they’re in or out of the group” “Other people are to be loved or hated, depending on whether they’re converts or not”
“Other people are to be loved and served universally regardless of whether they’re converts”
“Other people are opportunities through which God can bless and love me”

 

 

 

I’ve highlighted in blue the views that to me seem heavily dualistic. Many views are post-conversion but not all of them. And so I don’t think it necessarily follows that conversion makes you dualistic.

 

That being said, it does seem that Augustine’s Christianity does skew dualistic in many (but not all) aspects. So I still think it’s definitely relevant to discuss the strengths and weakness of dualism.

 

Strengths Weaknesses
Provides clear purpose, meaning, mission See everyone as either friends or enemies, to be used or fought against1
Provides strong “in” community Provides strong “out” community to demonize or save1
Provides clear worldview that provides criteria to make decisions with Can’t tolerate evidence or experience contrary to worldview, especially with fear that clear purpose would be lost

 


1 A bit controversial, but perhaps one potential weakness in post-conversion dualism is the risk to see people as either friends or enemies. This resembles the pre-conversion behavior of “I have to fight [others] to keep safe”, and so in at least one aspect pre and post can be similar.

 

 


 

Patricia

 

 

Q:  In Chapter 4, he writes, “Like a cur I had snarled blindly and bitterly against the Scriptures, which are sweet with honey of heaven and radiant with your light.” Throughout the Confessions he quotes the Bible many times.  Did you have a different view of Scripture before and after conversion? What is the role of the Bible in a believer’s life?  Should it be read as a spiritual devotional?  A self-help book?  A history book?  A work of Ancient Near Eastern myth?  What about those who lived before the Bible or did not have access to the Bible?  How did they connect with God?  How necessary or invaluable is the Bible to one’s faith or relationship with God?

 

I think that for a believer, the Bible can and/or should be all of the things mentioned above. Prior to conversion, the Bible is naturally whatever family, peers and/or society teaches it to be. After, it presumably becomes personal, carrying an individual understanding. But looking at it from different angles will necessarily deepen one’s understanding.

 

In that sense, knowing the Bible’s Ancient Near Eastern origins is important. This is especially true in a religious context, such as contemporary US, where meanings, theologies, and interpretations rage against each other in the public arena and social policy is disputed based on them. If a Christian engages in public discourse of religion and “biblical truth”, it should be his responsibility to know the historical background of biblical texts.

 

But I think quieter views of the Bible are also important. While intellect is a part of faith because information is processed in the brain, emotional responses are also valid. Here I would like to note that emotional responses are as valid as the framework on which they stand. In other words, emotion alone is easily dismissible because of its highly subjective nature, and rightly so, if not rooted in “substance”, presumably intellect or fact or some other quasi-verifiable measure. Devotionals connect one to the text and inform a particular knowledge of God. Should these views be based on a historical understanding of the text? Best case scenario, yes, absolutely, because it will inform the responses in a clearer way, especially as the Bible seems to contradict itself at every turn and interpretations are too many to count. But that’s a tall order. Most people have neither the time nor the capacity to delve that deep. It should be the responsibility of the Church to bring that knowledge among its ranks, but most preachers don’t go there either because of politics or because of the effort that it requires.

 

But God reveals Himself throughout His creation. The Bible is not an exclusive conductor to God, nor should it be. One can find God in a sunrise, in human creativity, in a kind gesture or in observing natural phenomena. In a sense, I think cultures that haven’t had the Bible as a guide historically, but have strong spiritual practices instead, have an understanding of God, by whatever name they refer to Him, that Bible-bound people lack. When the two understandings are weaved together, a more complete vision of God emerges.

 

 

Chris #2

 

Q:  Same as above

 

I was raised Roman Catholic, and so my experience of Christianity was of the sacraments and catechism, with only a minor emphasis on Scripture alone.

 

I converted to Protestantism in high school (a story for another time) and attended a Southern Baptist church in college that heavily emphasized reading Scripture and doing daily devotionals.

 

Looking back, it seems to me that their hermeneutic was a combination of two things:

 

One –  what Brian McLaren would call a “constitutionalist” reading of Scripture – looking for eternal truths/principles to follow, sorta like self-help.

 

Two – what I would call divination, namely seeking special revelation from God through the device of Scripture reading. This was difficult for me because part of my conversion was to get away from unintelligible ritual into a more rational and intellectually engaged faith, while devotional divination was getting away from rationality.

 

 

And yet Augustine read Scripture devotionally. His devotion and desire for God as recorded in the Confessions is achingly poignant, and while I can’t get on board with it right now nevertheless I’m envious.

 

I presently can’t read Scripture devotionally – it’s too close to the “constitutionalist” hermeneutic that runs afoul of biblical criticism. I read it as Ancient Near Eastern myth, more like great literature that speaks to the human condition, while hoping that the overall story is actually somewhat true.

 

And I honestly don’t have good answers to the question “how did those who didn’t have the Bible connect with God, and how necessarily is the Bible then?” I don’t know.

 

 

Michael

 

 

Q:  In Chapter 3, he talks about the hospitality of his friend Vercundus, who was not yet a Christian at that time in his life.  Augustine writes, “You will surely repay him for his goodness, O Lord, when the just are given their reward, since you have already awarded him the lot of the just.  For after our departure, when we were at Rome, he fell ill and died, but not before he had been received into the Church on his sick-bed.”  Do you believe that in the afterlife, a person’s good deeds will be rewarded regardless of whether or not he or she was a Christian?  In other words, are “heavenly rewards” only reserved for Christians after death? Why or why not?  What about non-believers?  Are their good deeds wasted and forgotten?

 

 

Like Chris, I was raised Roman Catholic in my early years of life and some of the essential teachings of the church in regards to the post-mortem existence was your diligent commitment to the sacraments on top of loving your God with all your heart, mind and soul as well as loving your neighbors as you love yourself.  I would also add that in Roman Catholicism your good works on Earth play a pivotal role in the “heavenly rewards” that you will receive in the afterlife.  This is indeed quite a stark contrast to the doctrines of Reformed Christianity which teaches that only God alone can justify and sanctify you, and that good works will not ensure you of your eternal salvation.  Those of you who know me well are aware that I have at times wavered between both views on salvation, and as of this moment, I can honestly say that our heavenly rewards are contingent on both God’s decree and our good works.

 

I think one of the questions that haunts every God believing Christian is the fate of non-believers who pass from this Earth before “receiving” Christ into their lives, and it has rightfully bothered me how so many mainstream Christian pastors, theologians, and clergymen come up with dismissive answers ranging from “it’s in God’s hands,” or the more depressingly common, “they are burning in eternal hell.”  The Bible’s views on heaven, hell, and the afterlife come mainly from the New Testament although you do see pockets of references to the heavenly realm throughout the Old Testament, but overall most of our understanding of the post-mortem existence is rooted in both the Gospels, Paul’s letters and the Book of Revelation.

 

Now, if you were to parse through the texts in the New Testament you’ll come to some rather interesting observations.  Hell language or references to the realm of the dead is exclusively relegated to the Gospels and specifically to Jesus Christ himself.  On the flip side, Paul mentions very little about hell or the underworld in his letters and he uses quite a bit of universalist language when he talks about saving faith.  In fact, Paul is the first biblical writer who discusses about what believers should expect after they die along with the heavenly rewards they should expect to receive.  It should be noted that neither Jesus Christ nor the Apostle Paul talks specifically about the fate of non-believers after they die, but rather they address most of their sermons and teachings to a predominantly Jewish crowd while from time to time they both make frequent outreaches to the Gentiles.

 

The Church’s teachings of the afterlife have changed and evolved dramatically through its history, but I do want to point out the fact that the idea of what constitutes being a Christian didn’t fully emerge until the fourth century or several hundred years after Jesus Christ and the Apostles.  What Jesus and the Apostles would have to say about Hindus, Buddhist, Animists, Muslims, and other non-Christian believers, we will never know for sure.  So are “heavenly rewards” only reserved for Christians?  I would say no, but I would also humbly submit that I don’t have specific answers as to why that’s the case.  Ultimately, I believe that all good deeds will not go to waste and be forgotten.

 

 

 

 

Danny

 

 

 

Q: In Chapter 4, he writes about how moved he was when he read the book of Psalms in the Bible. He writes, “I quivered with fear, yet at the same time I was aglow with hope, rejoicing in your mercy, my Father.  All these emotions were revealed in the light of my eyes and the tremor of my voice, when I read the message of your Holy Spirit.”  What role or impact does emotion play in one’s faith?  Does an emotional response to something religious or spiritual make it more authentic or real?  Can emotions deceive you and others in regards to true repentance and conversion?

 

 

 

In this chapter, Augustine devotes a good portion describing his emotions when encountering the book of Psalms in the Bible.  He writes, “How I cried out to you, my God, when I read the Psalms of David, those hymns of faith, those songs of a pious heart in which the spirit of pride can find no place!”  This book seems to have had a strong effect upon him after his conversion experience: “How I cried out to you when I read those Psalms! How they set me on fire with love of you!”  Here, he seems to read the Psalms not just for spiritual knowledge, but for the pure, almost, aesthetic pleasure of reading.  The book of Psalms is one of the very few books of the Bible where God does not speak directly per se, but is rather heavily saturated by other people’s thoughts and emotions toward God.

 

I believe that emotion plays a huge role- if not the most defining part – of a person’s faith.  As much as people would like to believe that they are rational people, it is almost always the case that emotions weigh heavily on what people think and decide upon than rationality does.  Same applies to faith.  People will react more strongly with a person’s testimony at times than with a sermon.  A sermon might be well-organized, exegetically sound, and hermeneutically fruitful in all aspects, and be technically accomplished and well-polished, but if it fails to emotionally engage the audience, then much of the effort will have been wasted for the most part.  I am sure Augustine, a professor of rhetoric, would have known this well.  Walk into any church and see how moved and engaged people are during praise and worship time as opposed to when the sermon is given.  People will more than likely remember more about how great the church music was as opposed to the sermon.  Of course, we all know how much more music affects us emotionally than speech, so this is not surprising at all.  Many Psalms in the Bible were used as worship songs themselves for temple worship, so since biblical times, people have understood the value of how music stirs up emotion when worshipping God.

 

There is a strong correlation with emotion and memory.  We easily remember experiences that produced strong emotions, like a first love, a first kiss, a loss of a loved one, and so forth.  Emotions reinforce and also almost always redefine how we remember events.  Augustine had an emotional conversion experience and is able to vividly recount it.  And many, many testimonies of converts to religion (not only Christians, even those who used to be Christian but converted to Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and even atheism) recount very emotional memories.  But we must bear in mind that not all conversion experiences produce strong emotions all the time.

 

Do emotions make a religious or spiritual experience make it more authentic or real?  Well, that’s hard to answer because the emotions produced by spiritual/religious experiences are by nature so subjective.  It is, at the very least, very real to the person experiencing it.  After a religious experience, there might be a radical personality change for the better or worse.  Some might take the emotion to the extreme and believe themselves to be Jesus or God.  But the emotional reaction of a person’s religious experience is no scientific or empirical litmus test for the validity or invalidity of a religion as a whole.

 

There can be cases where a person can be so moved and manipulated emotionally by a speaker he or she is listening to or the environment they are in, that they might respond to an “altar call” or a “come to Jesus moment” or pray the Sinner’s Prayer and instantly believe that they are saved or converted.  It might be a momentary, knee-jerk reaction to peer pressure or even mass delusion, and no true repentance having occurred on a person.  Hence, there is a strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s role in producing true repentance as opposed to a person’s sole decision-making ability in repentance in some traditions and practices.  Therefore, it is very possible to producing a false positive in personal conversions.  I believe Jesus was well aware of this when he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  (Matt. 7:21)

 

In summary, religion and theology can be very bland and dry that can produce a very sterile faith when it is heavy with rationality with little or no emotion.  Similarly, religion with a heavy emphasis on emotion can eschew rationality which can lead to gross errors of belief and behavior.  Emotions make us who we are and more often than not our reason is slave to the emotions or passions, as the philosopher David Hume once wrote.  Emotions in religious experiences and conversions have a strong and inescapable place in a believer’s life and should always be taken account of in any conversation of religious belief and practices.

 

 

 

 

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