Monday, September 28, 2009

What Was Augustine's Conversion From and To, and When Did It Happen?

The conversion of Augustine, both in a moment in a Milan garden but also torturous and belabored over a great length of time, was in essence a radical liberation from slavery to the distorted self to free submission to the truthful Lord of all things, Jesus Christ. It is unhelpful and overly assuming to lay on Augustine any number of “better” religious or philosophical labels prior to his conversion, whether drawn from his own account or supposedly discovered “behind” his telling of the story. Similarly it is of no avail to find a “true” point of conversion at or after (or long after!) Augustine’s experience in the garden, not only because there does not exist some “pure” faith to which one can point and say Augustine did or did not convert, but also because we must not fall for the fallacy either that conversion is in fact a singular moment in time or that in conversion one immediately switches from “100% pagan” to “100% Christian.” Faithfulness in interpreting rightly in this case is judged by our willingness to take Augustine’s own account, and the form of that account, seriously, or merely as a later matrix grafted onto an unassuming narrative for the sake of audience and theological purposes. Books VIII and IX of the Confessions narrate the theological climax of this rich telling of the lifelong conversion, by God, of a stubborn creature bent toward lies finally ordered to the pleasure of rest in the truth.

Of course, the lead up to Book VIII, in which the moment of conversion actually happens, is the necessary context for understanding what happens in Milan. The restlessness of which Augustine speaks in his infamous beginning phrase (OUP; p. 3) sets the stage for a God-neglecting life haunted by the pursuit of a God who will not let up until his beloved finds true rest in him alone. From infancy to boyhood, from philosophy to Manichaeism, from second thoughts to Milan to Ambrose: Augustine frames his entire life retrospectively through the lens of an unscratchable itch, the relentless draw of the Christian God, given voice retroactively through the words of the Psalms. On the cusp of Book VIII, Augustine has been drawn to Christian Scripture by the pagan evangelistic preparation of the Neo-Platonic writings, and finds himself caught in between the sins of the flesh and the call of the spirit.

The reason for Augustine’s fleshly struggle was, in his words, being “still firmly tied by woman” (p. 134). To choose God ultimately meant for Augustine to give up sex—to embrace, as he had prayed before, “chastity and continence, but not yet” (p. 145)—but he “hesitated” (p. 134). Slavery is the self-chosen condition: “I sighed after such freedom, but was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice. The enemy had a grip on my will and so made a chain for me to hold me a prisoner” (p. 140). Passion is “the consequence of a distorted will,” and the “violence of habit” (p. 141) results from slavery to passion, eventually becoming necessity. The judgment of God is just, for the choice was his own, but similarly there is no self-made escape, for self-chosen habit has become servitude.

In the midst of the “single soul…wavering between different wills” (p. 149), the Lord “put pressure” on Augustine “with a severe mercy wielding the double whip of fear and shame,” lest he “again succumb” and “relapse into [his] original condition” (p. 150). The only answer, counseled “the dignified and chaste Lady Continence,” was to “[c]ast yourself upon him, do not be afraid. He will not withdraw himself so that you fall. Make the leap without anxiety; he will catch you and heal you” (p. 151). And so, alone in tears in the garden of Milan, beneath a fig tree Augustine obeyed the voice of the child and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ…mak[ing] no provision for the flesh in its lusts” (p. 153; Rom. 13:14). The God of Monica, of the Catholic Church, had in Augustine’s words “converted me to yourself” (p. 153).

Book IX recounts the aftereffects of Augustine’s formal conversion, now the Lord’s servant (p. 155), pierced by the arrow of God’s love (p. 156), granted pardon and remission for sins (p. 157), “trembl[ing] with fear and…burn[ing] with hope” (p. 160), finally no longer loving vanity and seeking after a lie (p. 161: six times in a single paragraph!). If one were only to read Books VIII and IX, they might be taken as “before” and “after” snapshots of Augustine’s conversion. But set in the context of Books I-VII and X-XIII, there is much more to the story! On the one hand, without a doubt the instantaneous changeover from death to life, from pagan to Catholic, is manifest in the liberation of Augustine’s habitual slavery to the distorted will into new and free life in happy service to the Lord Jesus. On the other hand, the re-telling and re-interpretation of his own life story gives the reader new eyes to see how God was always at work in his life—wooing and calling, disciplining and teaching, through as varied of instruments as his mother Monica, his friends from home, the folly of the Manicheans, the philosophy of the pagans, the lure of lust, the deceit of ambition, the rhetoric of Ambrose, the voice of a child.

Thus the Confessions are, quite literally, conversion in long-form. Because God was never absent—indeed, because God in Monica was never absent—conversion began at the beginning. And if later baptism was the actual washing away of sins (p. 157), and if Augustine’s literary works written at Cassiciacum, though in service to the Lord, “still breathe[d] the spirit of the school of pride” (p. 159), then conversion continued into the future as well. The conversion, then, was, as Paul says in Romans 6, from slavery to sin to slavery to righteousness. Only in worship of the true God can worship of the false self be liberated from distortion and death. Only when Augustine refuses reliance on himself, casting himself instead upon the mercies of God (p. 151), are “[a]ll the shadows of doubt…dispelled” (p. 153).

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