Potential Problems in Augustine’s Conversion Narrative, Part 1

As many readers have expressed, the experience of reading Augustine’s Confessions is irrefutably powerful, but also brings with it several confusing, at first conflicting, accounts of conversion. In a series of two posts, I will be addressing two questions which often arise upon reading The Confessions. In this post, we will encounter the first question: how can Augustine be simultaneously certain of the Christian faith, but unwilling to adhere to it?

The Question

This question stems from a passage in Book VIII where Augustine records:

My desire (cupiebam) was not to be more certain (certior) of you but to be more stable (stabilior) in you. But in my temporal life everything was in a state of uncertainty (nutabant omnia),[1]and my heart (cor) needed to be purified from the old leaven. I was attracted to the way, the Savior himself, but was still reluctant to go along its narrow paths.[2]

At this point in his journey, Augustine’s quest for certainty has been satisfied due to his readings of the Platonist books and the compelling expositions of Scripture and Christian doctrine from Bishop Ambrose. Although he acknowledges the truth of Christianity, he is not secure in his faith because the things of this life cause his heart to waver and remain impure; he is still on his quest for stability.[3] The use of the comparative adjective, stabilior, coming from the verb, stare, meaning “to stand, stay or remain,” gives us a clue on what kind of stability Augustine desires. To be more stable, then, is, as Robert O’Connell puts it, “to take a ‘stand’ and maintain it.”[4] Like a man attempting to find a firm foothold in the strong current of a river or in the oncoming tides of an ocean, Augustine’s feet keep shifting away from the faith as he is being pulled and pushed by the waters of his other desires. With his certainty of Christianity, he has the tools necessary to stand strong, to plant his feet firmly in the river, but, for some reason, he remains divided and cannot access them.

His conflicted nature is clearly seen when he recalls in Book VII:

But there was a firm place (stabiliter) in my heart (corde) for the faith within the Catholic Church, in your Christ, our Lord and Savior. In many respects this faith was still unformed and hesitant about the norm of doctrine. Yet my mind (animus) did not abandon it, but daily drank in more and more.[5]

His heart is not completely devoid of stability (thus, the adverb of stabilis: stabiliter, is used) as he has some kind of stable or firm place for this unformed faith. But this stability is not enough to push his heart toward embracing doctrine and enduring purification. His mind, on the other hand, is gulping down truth in increasing quantities. We are led to ask then: if he were truly convinced that Christ is the only true source for goodness and truth, would not his whole being, heart and mind, reach out to take hold of such goodness? Why do his feet keep slipping?

Tackling the Question with the Help of Bernard Lonergan

Lonergan writes of three different types of conversion in his Method in Theology. I believe that his differentiation between conversions will help us address this question. First, we will briefly look at his three types and then see how they relate to Augustine’s conversion narrative.

Lonergan’s three types of conversion are intellectual, moral and religious. Intellectual conversion is a “radical clarification and, consequently, the elimination of an exceedingly stubborn and misleading myth concerning reality, objectivity and human knowledge.”[6] This myth, which Lonergan repeatedly counters throughout his writings, is that knowing is solely looking at the world and the real is only what it out there right now. Upon rejecting this myth, our minds are turned and converted to the proper way of grasping the world, a world that is mediated by meaning.

Moral conversion “changes the criterion of one’s decisions and choices from satisfaction to values.”[7] This is where we decide on what standards we will employ to determine whether an act is good or bad.

Religious conversion is “being grasped by ultimate concern,” “a other-worldly falling in love,” and “a total and permanent self-surrender without conditions, qualifications, reservations.”[8] We are taken with what is most important because we have fallen in love with Someone outside of this world, the Creator of the universe. This love compels us to surrender our whole being to Him without limits.

Using Lonergan’s description, we can now differentiate between Augustine’s conversions: intellectual, moral and religious. First, we recognize that Augustine has experienced the beginnings of an intellectual conversion through reading Platonists and listening to Ambrose. He turns from his false beliefs in materialism to embrace a world, both visible and invisible, mediated by meaning. As a result of this intellectual turn, he is able to claim certainty in the Christian faith. Thus, even before the garden experience, his mind starts to engage in the truth of God, “ . . . my mind (animus) did not abandon [my faith in Christ], but daily drank in more and more,” but his heart, though it has enough stability to have unformed faith, is still reluctant to give up the sinful pleasures and plunge completely in God.[9]

Augustine’s intellectual conversion brings about rumblings of a moral conversion as well. He realizes that his moral decisions need to be made according to the values of the Christian faith and not according to his own sensual desires. Even though he has chosen his standard and has made his decision, he does not act upon it. He prays, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet,” fearing that God may cure him too quickly of his sexual disease.[10]

Through experiencing and understanding the world, Augustine begins both his intellectual conversion, where he is able to judge reality more appropriately, and a moral conversion, where he can decide on what is good. And yet, he cannot find the stability because it must come from the highest conversion, the religious conversion. For, as Lonergan comments, “Deciding is one thing, doing is another.”[11] Without a religious conversion, Augustine does not have the power to implement his other two conversions. A religious conversion provides the “power of love to enable” a person to do what he or she knows is right.[12] Though Augustine has met with both intellectual and moral conversions and has become convicted of the truth of Christianity, he needs the power of God’s love to obtain the stability for which he longs.

An experience, such as a conversion, can never by fully systematized (as we will discuss in the next post). But, upon referring to Lonergan’s description of conversion, we have been provided helpful vocabulary in order to engage in Augustine’s conflicted state. Through this engagement, we can more clearly identify the elements which push him toward certainty and the elements which hold him back from stability.

In the next post, we will address a second complexing issue: when did Augustine actually put his faith in Christ?

  1. [1] Chadwick’s translation of omnia nutabant as “everything was in a state of uncertainty” can be misleading. It is important to note that this “certainty” does not refer to the certainty (certior) mentioned in the previous sentence. Literally, we could translate it as “all things were wavering,” referring not to the need for certainty, but the need for stability. Augustine is not contradicting himself; though his mind is certain, his heart is wavering and unstable.
  2. [2] Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), VIII.i (1), p. 133.
  3. [3] Robert O’Connell uses the helpful terms: “quest for certainty” and “quest for stability/gift of stability” in differentiating Augustine’s journey. See his Images of Conversion in St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996).
  4. [4] O’Connell, Images of Conversion in St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” 192.
  5. [5] Augustine, The Confessions, VII.v (7), p. 116.
  6. [6] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 238.
  7. [7] Ibid., 240.
  8. [8] Ibid.
  9. [9] Augustine, The Confessions, VII.v (7), p. 116.
  10. [10] Ibid., VIII.vii (17), p. 145.
  11. [11] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 240.
  12. [12] Ibid., 242.

Marcel’s Metaphysics of Hospitality

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Toward the end of his Mystery of Being, Volume 1, Gabriel Marcel speaks of the mysterious presence that one person has to another. This presence goes beyond mere ability to reason, perform or accomplish, but simply communicates to us a sense of value or worth. He gives an example of a sleeping child, someone who is completely vulnerable and unprotected and yet we deeply feel its valuable presence. The fact that the child is “utterly at our mercy” is what gives this presence a sense of sacredness.

From the point of view of physical activity, or at least in so far as the notion of physical activity is defined in relation to the possible grasping of things, the sleeping child is completely unprotected and appears to be utterly in our power; from that point of view, it is permissible for us to do what we like with the child. But from the point of view of mystery, we might say that it is just because this being is completely unprotected, that it is utterly at our mercy, that it is also invulnerable or sacred. And there can be no doubt at all that the strongest and most irrefutable mark of sheer barbarism that we could imagine would consist in the refusal to recognize this mysterious invulnerability. This sacredness of the unprotected lies also at the roots of what we might call a metaphysics of hospitality.[1]

Though it is difficult to clearly define the mysterious presence of another human, it is intrinsic to every human interaction. Almost all of us can attest to this sense of presence in our everyday experiences with others. In fact, to disregard the sacredness of the unprotected, as Marcel says, is the most barbaric act we can possibly do. We no longer recognize the mystery of the human and seek to categorize such a being only according to what it can do or perform. The perpetrators of the Holocaust did exactly this: they no longer recognized the presence of another human, relegating them to unheard of treatments, tortures and experiments. The worst crimes in history come from this lack of recognition and this refusal to honor the sacredness of the weak.

We must ask ourselves: Who are the weak today that are being stripped of their dignity? Who are the vulnerable that are being relegated to mere objects for our own gain?

Because we often ignore the mysterious presence of the human and instead define a human based on its “efficiency and output,” we begin to overlook those whose efficiency and output is limited or even non-existent. With an emphasis on what the human can produce rather than its mysterious presence, a metaphysics of hospitality becomes absurd. Marcel writes, “. . . the more this attitude of reverence towards the guest, towards the wounded, towards the sick, will appear at first incomprehensible, and later absurd: and in fact, in the world around us, we know that this assertion of the absurdity of forbearance and generosity is taking very practical shapes.”[2]

Chilling examples of those who find this reverence incomprehensible are not only located in the Holocaust, but in our own cities. The defenselessness of a child, for example, is constantly being taken advantage of and as a result, there are those, like Dr. Gosnell (pictured right), who find children merely dispensable. (Dr. Gosnell is on trial for eight murders, seven babies and one woman, at his horrific medical center. To read more on what he is accused of, see the CNN article here.)

Living out a metaphysics of hospitality means honoring the mysterious presence of the humans around us. And since such presence is often ignored, it means championing the worth of those who are overlooked, the weak, the vulnerable, the defenseless. Such a championing of the weak is beautifully displayed in the recent photo of the new Pope embracing the young boy with cerebral palsy. Embracing the weak is recognizing the mysterious presence which each human, regardless of age or health, embodies.

  1. [1] Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Volume 1: Reflection and Mystery, trans. G.S. Fraser (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 217.
  2. [2] Ibid.