Augustine’s Confessions Unpacked
Back in 1990, I had the rare privilege of teaching in the honors program at the University of Michigan. The professor in charge was an accomplished classics scholar with a contagious zeal for the Great Books. Though not a believer, his dedication to finding goodness, truth, and beauty in the western intellectual tradition would put many Christian professors to shame. I still integrate some of his insights on Homer, Virgil, and the Greek tragedians into my teaching over a quarter of a century later.
But, like most of us, he had a blind spot. Despite the passionate perceptiveness of his lectures on ancient Greece and Rome, when he reached Augustine’s Confessions, his joy, insight, and objectivity went out the window. He didn’t just dislike the book; he hated—passionately, angrily, bitterly—its saintly author. I still remember the string of invectives that flowed, unexpectedly, from his lips, invectives that seemed to rise up from deep within him.
Though I’ve never forgotten the vehemence of that otherwise kindly professor against Augustine, it wasn’t until I read Peter Kreeft’s I Burned for Your Peace: Augustine’s Confessions Unpacked that I found a satisfactory answer for the origin of the vehemence. “Those who dislike Augustine,” writes Kreeft with his signature matter-of-fact brilliance, “almost always do so for one reason above others: that he believes in the reality of sin. And not only sin, but Original Sin.” Yes, that was it: exactly right.
Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, is a prolific writer whose diverse subject matter ranges from Socratic logic to practical theology, from virtue to prayer, from angels (and heaven) to devils (and hell), from C. S. Lewis to J. R. R. Tolkien. He has also proven himself to be one of the most successful explicators of classic works of philosophy and theology, particularly Aquinas’s Summa and Pascal’s Pensées. With I Burned for Your Peace, Kreeft tackles one of the most powerful, and difficult, works in the canon: Augustine’s timeless autobiography of a sinner turned saint.
Interlacing representative, essential, mostly brief passages from Confessions with a breezy but incisive ongoing commentary that explains both the contemporary context and the universal meaning of the passages, Kreeft navigates us through the mind of a man who, in changing his own world, helped lay the foundations for our own. “Almost single-handedly,” Kreeft assures us, Augustine “forged the medieval mind. Yet he is also quintessentially modern: introspective, emotional, self-doubting, complex.”
Kreeft does not use that string of four adjectives lightly. His book unpacks, with theological and psychological precision, the endless questions, the ongoing internal struggle, the yearning for clarity, and the unashamed emotionality that mark the Confessions as an autobiography with which our Freud-infected culture can relate. But there is a difference. Whereas most moderns are subjectivists whose gaze is ever turned inward, Augustine’s final orientation is objective and outward toward that God who is Life, Love, Joy, and Truth. Augustine does not search himself as an end in itself, but as a way of allowing God to search him and know his ever-anxious thoughts.
I mentioned above that Kreeft helped me see that my old mentor’s hatred of Augustine was likely linked to Augustine’s belief in Original Sin. Sadly, most moderns who practice introspection do so as a means of identifying other people, or institutions, to blame for their sinful behavior. (That is why moderns have identified guilt as the problem rather than as the signal that there is a problem.) Augustine does not allow himself that easy way out. He is fully aware both of his sinful nature and his sinful choices.
What we do always manifests what we are. Where else could our deeds come from? That is why God does not accept our lying excuses: “the devil made me do it” (Eve), or “the woman You gave me made me do it” (Adam), or “my apelike ancestry made me do it” (Darwin), or “my capitalist economy made me do it” (Marx), or “the hormones of my libido made me do it” (Freud).
Modern readers love to emphasize that the great Augustine was once a sexual libertine. That claim, though greatly exaggerated, is a true one, but not quite in the way that our post-sexual revolution era would like it to be. As Kreeft reminds us, Augustine was quite aware that the Christian faith of his mother toward which he was attracted held out only two options: celibacy outside marriage or chastity within marriage. Augustine knew that he was sinning with his mistress, even as he knew that his sin was a form of addiction—but he couldn’t pull himself out of his self-destructive lifestyle.
Augustine is seeking after love—ultimately, the love of God—but he keeps going astray, vainly trying to satisfy his yearning for love on lesser objects. Augustine knows this; that is why he is perpetually restless as he seeks to rest his heart in the one who placed the yearning within him. Augustine is at heart a rebel, but not a rebel against sexual morality; to the contrary, he rebels against his enslavement to sexual sin, to the horrible Pauline reality (Roman 7:15-20) that he continually does the very thing he does not want to do.
One of Kreeft’s simplest but most profound insights is that the Confessions is first and foremost a prayer to God. Indeed, unless we read it as a prayer, we will not understand it; we will only study it. Augustine “is not talking to us and letting God listen in; he is talking to God and letting us listen in.” Or, to put it another way, Augustine “wrote the book to help us look at him and at ourselves only through God’s eyes.” Those who read the Confessions as a tell-all book to satisfy their vain curiosity, and perhaps even to feel superior to Augustine, will miss completely its meaning and its purpose. If we are not convicted and inspired by Augustine’s transformation in Christ to seek our own true freedom and peace, then we might as well close the book and turn on Oprah.
Although I Burned for Your Peace offers a compelling narrative that draws the reader onward from chapter to chapter, it may also be profitably read as a devotional. Kreeft repackages Augustine’s wisdom for us in a way that makes it relevant for today without twisting or bending its original context or dumbing down Augustine’s philosophical and theological profundity. Here is a sampling of the rich banquet Kreeft offers us:
- If Augustine is sucked in by sexual sin, then his more innocent friend, Alypius, who is dragged to a gladiatorial match by his worldly friends only to become seduced by and obsessed with the mass hysteria of the ring, is sucked in by the “pornography of violence.” Kreeft skillfully compares Alypius’s addiction to some of our own, exposing the addiction, Augustine-like, as the perversion of a true desire: “Losing your ego and conscience during mass hysteria like this, like drugs, sex, and frenzied rock concerts, apes the mystical self-forgetfulness and self-transcendence in God for which we are all designed. But Alypius lost himself, not to God, but to ‘the crowd.’”
- Most readers of this book will be aware of the difference between kronos (the Greek word for chronological time) and kairos (the Greek word for an opportune time or climactic moment). Kreeft, via Augustine, deepens that distinction to contrast man’s ever-decaying time with God’s timeless eternity. In kairos, “the present does not separate past and future but contains them and brings them together. This is the eternal present, the full present. The present of kronos is contained by past and future, but the present of kairos contains past and future. Nothing is lost. Everything is transformed.”
- “Ancient pagans were cosmocentric: their gods were in the cosmos. Modern secularists are anthropocentric: their God is relative to their religious experience and needs.” How hard it is for we who live in the twentieth century not to fall prey to the subjectivization of religion. God, as Kreeft does well to remind us again and again, is not inside us. It is we who are inside God. “We cannot locate God; God locates us. God is not an object of our experience; we are objects of God’s experience.”
- The “conservative” and “reactionary” Augustine changed his (our) world radically for the better. This is not a paradox: “only if one believes . . . in unchanging absolutes can one have moral justification for a radical critique of one’s society, like the prophets of ancient Israel. If there is no higher law than human law, then one must logically be a stick-in-the-mud conservative. Logically, atheists must worship the State, or, in a democracy, ‘consensus,’ for there is nothing higher. If religion dies, politics takes its place.”
A sobering thought in the wake of an incendiary election between two candidates who both lacked a defined moral center. Oh how we need a modern Augustine to set us back on track!