A Quick Note on the Confessions

I’ve been rounding the bend on Augustine’s Confessions – I just hit Book XI – and I’ve been struck by several things, which I will comment on in a brief and somewhat fragmented way.

– I will need to reread this book, probably more than once.  Augustine was an astonishingly deep, rich thinker, steeped in Scripture, and responsive to the influences of his time.  The insights that can be gleaned from his pre-modern tradition and worldview alone make anything he has written worth going through more than once.  But in addition to that, he’s just a fine, sharp, righteous theologian and philosopher who is worth listening to on any subject on which he opened his mouth.  I know there’s a lot in the Confessions that has whizzed over my head so far, so I look forward to the chance to engage in a more careful reading in the future.

– Augustine was definitely more sacramental than a lot of evangelicals today.  It would be a stretch to say that his doctrine of the sacraments sprang fully-formed from the Council of Trent, but he definitely seemed to believe in baptismal regeneration and the real presence in the Eucharist, at least in some sense.  This doesn’t inspire me to drift toward Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.  However, it does make me, as a Reformed Protestant, think that a deeper study of the sacraments might be in order, as well as a reconsideration of what views of the sacraments are acceptably Protestant and evangelical.

– It is striking to read the writings of a Christian from seventeen hundred years ago and find so many of the same issues that believers discuss today.  It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is a reassuring and strong reminder of my connection to the most ancient Church traditions.  Idolatry, the affections, worship, distractions, difficulties in prayer, temptation, justification, sanctification, the Scriptures, the Church, the sacraments, the Psalms, grief, lust, friendship, chastity, marriage, and a number of other issues make pointed appearances in the Confessions.  I was particularly struck by the end of Book X, which seemed to be structured similarly to Romans 7-8: Augustine starts by lamenting his struggles with sin and temptation, and concludes the section with allusions to Romans 8 and his hope for righteousness in Christ.

– I may have more to say about this book anon.  Ironically, another book I’ve started recently is a biography of Jacques Derrida, who was influenced deeply by Augustine (for better or worse, I will have to see).  I may have something to say about that book, too, since this will be my first engagement with Derridian deconstructionism in any depth.

Finding the Burning Tree in the Winter Desert

A little earlier this school year I read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.  I would never recommend the book to anyone; I didn’t find any great moral dangers in it, even in the descriptive scenes of violence, but it was for the most part a rather boring and repetitive book that was dragged down past the halfway point by McCarthy’s excessive windbaggery.

There were, however, a few moments of brilliance, and one of them will serve as the subject of this post.  There’s a point in the story where the kid (yes, that’s the only name we get for him) is cut off from his main entourage of scalp-hunters and left to his own in the winter cold.  There’s a very lengthy sequence of him stumbling through the landscape as darkness grows and the temperature drops. He’s freezing and almost dead when he sees this:

“It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before the torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.”

It’s hard to explain the impact of this scene if you haven’t read the previous three-fifths of the book.  Most of the story is filled with random and unrelated vignettes of violence, dissipation, and death.  The only innocent characters get killed.  Nevertheless, at this point, the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the urgency of the kid’s situation.  Then, all of a sudden, there is the above sequence.  It’s startling to the point that I almost felt the heat coming from the burning tree as I read.

The power of this scene would have been greatly vitiated had the kid not been in such desperate straits immediately beforehand.  Had the kid not been cold, the heat would not have been so soothing, had he not been tired, the rest would not have been so sweet.

In his Confessions, Augustine makes a similar point.  Food and water are satisfying because we first grow hungry and thirsty.  We rejoice when a friend recovers from an illness and appreciate him even more than when he was alive.  And: “It is also ordered that the affianced bride should not at once be given, lest as a husband he should hold cheap whom, as betrothed, he sighed not after.”

The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 rejoiced in his weaknesses because it allowed him to experience and display Christ’s grace in ways that would not be possible otherwise.  Our brothers and sisters who are being cut down for the faith in foreign lands experience the goodness of God in precious and unique ways that those of us who have been blessed with peace don’t.  Missionaries working in third-world pagan nations report many supernatural displays of the power of God that we here in the decadent West see much less frequently.  Hymns sung by the deathbed of loved ones take on deeper meaning than those sung in the church aisles.  Modern medicine is a miracle, not a humdrum fact, to the sick and infirm.

The point here is not to elevate human suffering as being somehow better or more pleasant than its opposite.  But all these realities are ones that I have reflected on as I have been reading through Augustine’s The City of God (where he deals with the disaster of the fall of Rome) and dealing with my own bodily infirmities and pain.

There is, as John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead says, a dignity in suffering that should be acknowledged, reverently, soberly.  But 2 Corinthians 12 reminds us that suffering only has that dignity when we allow it to be an opportunity for the grace of God to be further revealed in us.  It is not valuable as an end in itself.  But as a means to the end our blessed Lord giving us more of Himself, it can be tremendously important and formative.

Much more could be said about this, but I’ll leave it there.  Thank you for your attention.  Discuss amongst yourselves.

Soli Deo Gloria,

David

I’ve got to say something about what will be happening with this blog, because not much has been happening lately, and the action isn’t exactly going to be chugging for the next eight or nine months or so.  The reason being, I’m on the quad, man, and college necessarily drains away most of my writing juices.  However, I’d like to put up a somewhat longer post every month or so, and I’m tossing around doing some short “Reflections on the Psalms” type pieces every Sunday, since I’m currently making my way through the Psalms as a sort of church warm-up routine.  

I’d like the focus of the longer posts to probably be on Leftism, be it presented in theology or politics.  There are at least two reasons for this.  The first is that the topic just riles me up, and that means I have the energy to write about it.  The second is that, unfortunately, when many of my fellow Millennials hear words like “tolerance,” “equality,” “inequality,” “redistribution,” “fair share,” “the 1%,” “gay rights,” “anti-gay,” “social justice,” and all the rest of those terms, their hearts get gravitationally pulled through their esophagi to their brains, and the resultant mess is their consequent ideology.  Since I am a Millennial, and since I’m really cynical about Millennials, and since I’m being told with the rest of my peers that all these terms are great ideas, I feel an obligation, both intellectually and pastorally, to try to make a few ripples in my very small pool to try to show the emptiness of the Leftist ideology to my peers.  

I find this emptiness especially the case when it applies to theology, and this is where I think we should perhaps be most concerned.  America and the Western world in general are close to fading to that upside-down float at the top of the aquarium that dead goldfish do, and this Millennial generation will, unfortunately, probably play a significant part in either speeding or slowing that process.  It is my submission that Leftism is part of the problem here and not the solution.  

So, briefly, my first entry in this endeavor will have to do with Western society itself, since that is what I just said we should save and so it should be something valuable enough to save, right?  

The false dilemma that is sometimes posed by Leftists (I am particularly thinking of my college Intro to Sociology textbook here) is that our attitude toward the West and the rest of the world is either ethnocentrism or cultural relativism, viz., we either say that we are awesome and everybody else are losers, or we say that no society is more or less of a loser than any other.  Faced with these two options, the best choice seems of course to be relativism.  The example illustrating how relativism is cool is usually something really benign, like how in some countries people eat sushi and in another they eat pizza and of course neither is more right than the other.  It’s never something about how in some countries you can buy pop music without any legal repercussions and in other countries you get publicly scourged for buying pop music and of course neither is more right than the other.

My point here will simply be that it matters what ideology shapes your overall cultural context.  It matters whether your cultural history has been molded by Christianity, the Reformation, the Qu’ran, the Tao, Hinduism, or something else.  These ideologies aren’t going to produce equal results any more than one builder who lays the foundations with concrete and another with cream of mushroom soup.  

This is a straightforward judgment that does not imply obnoxious jingoism or condescending bigotry.  I would say this implies saying which side is up.  

There is much more that could be said about this subject, but I’m done for now.  Thank you for attention.

Soli Deo Gloria,

David