Potential Problems in Augustine’s Conversion Narrative, Part 2

This is Part 2 of two posts on the potential problems in Augustine’s conversion account. To see the post on the first question, see Potential Problems in Augustine’s Conversion Narrative, Part 1.

The Question

Our second question tries to sort out the timing of when Augustine first put his faith in Christ. At first, we simply scan for the life-altering moment of a religious conversion and easily locate it in the experience at the Milan garden. But, when we examine the text closer, we realize that there is evidence of faith sprinkled throughout his life prior to his garden experience. To fully grasp the puzzle of this question, we must do a brief overview of his wanderings toward faith.

As young child, he feels drawn to God through the teachings of his mother and the yearnings of his own heart. To avoid beatings at school, he would pray that God would protect him. And when he is very sick as a child, he asks to be baptized, but before the sacrament could take place, he quickly recovers. This yearning for Christ propels him on his search for truth, and he stumbles across Cicero. Upon reading Cicero’s Hortensius, he longs for true wisdom and even begins to turn back to God. He writes:

The book changed my feelings. It altered my prayers, Lord, to be towards you yourself. It gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart. I began to rise up to return to you (et surgere coeperam, ut ad te redirem). [1]

The last sentence in the Latin tells us that his intention or purpose in rising up (surgere) is in order that he may return to God. If he intends and plans to return to God, would this not be the beginning of his faith in God?

His desire for God appears unmistakable; he cries out: “My God, how I burned, how I burned with longing to leave earthly things and fly back to you.”[2] And yet, his response is perplexing, for though he rises up toward God and burns with desire for God, he keeps falling back into the mire:

For almost nine years then followed during which I was in the deep mire and darkness of falsehood. Despite my frequent efforts to climb out of it (cum saepe surgere conarer), I was the more heavily plunged back into the filth and wallowed in it.[3]

Despite his repeated attempts to climb, literally “to rise up” (he uses the same verb, surgere, again), out of the mire, he cannot consummate his conversion and instead, sinks deeper into the filth. His turn to Manichaeism, a gnostic religion of that time, reflects another attempt to pull himself out of the mire and hold on to truth. Again, his efforts are in vain, and his restlessness and emptiness continues to plague him.

After finally breaking off from the Manichees, he begins eagerly listening to the sermons of Ambrose. As the truth of Ambrose’s words slowly enters into his heart, Augustine realizes that the teachings of the church are not contradictory and irrational as he had believed; in consequence, he writes, “I was being turned around (et convertebar).”[4] In other words, he was being converted by someone or something outside himself, as indicated through the passive voice of convertebar, and not by his own power or effort. Referring again to the passage in Book VII, we find that this “turning around” does reveal some kind of faith, but it is unformed: “But there was a firm place in my heart 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.”[5]

What does it mean for Augustine to have faith, but for it to lack form or completeness? Is not any kind of faith, even faith as small as mustard seed, sufficient for conversion?

Tackling the Question with Help of Bernard Lonergan

We will again turn to the helpful three-part description of conversion by Bernard Lonergan. (To see an overview of Lonergan’s three types of conversion, intellectual, moral and religious, see Part 1 of this series).

If conversion is a dynamic, ongoing process, as we discussed previously, it makes sense for there to be evidence of faith early on in his life as he is being slowly pulled closer and closer to God’s love. He continually refers to something or someone who is outside himself (hence, the passive convertebar (I was being converted/turned around) is used) to show that this is a passive, gradual yet dynamic process. Like an hour hand on a clock steadily being turned by the wheels hidden behind its face (see image above), Augustine is slowly being turned by a hidden power greater than himself.

Though all of the conversions are connected to one another, the seeds of religious conversion, in a causal sense, must come first and begin this process of being turned around. Religious conversion is a “dynamic state that is prior to and principle of subsequent acts.”[6] Prior to any other cognitional acts, there is the gift of God’s love, the beginnings of a religious conversion.[7] Such love is what draws Augustine to the wisdom espoused by Cicero, to the name of Christ claimed by the Manichees and ultimately, to the church of Christ. Augustine continues to rise up (surgere) out of his pit because of the pull of this love, but he falls back because he has not received this gift as his own. He reaches for it, but does not put his belief or trust in it yet. He still refuses to beg for help.

In retrospect, he is aware of this: “By believing I could have been healed (et sanari credendo poteram).”[8] If he had only asked and accepted the gift of God’s love, the Lord would have turned and healed him, opened his eyes and set him free. Lonergan notes, “The acceptance of the gift of God’s love both constitutes religious conversion and leads to moral and even intellectual conversion.”[9] This gift, which manifests as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer, is what enables true faith and allows the believer to then fully implement the knowledge and values gained from intellectual and moral conversion. Augustine’s unformed faith is evidence of God’s gift of love, but it could not bear fruit until there was acceptance accompanied by unconditional, surrendering, unqualified, unreserved belief.

In summary then, by recognizing that conversion is an ongoing, dynamic process, his early faith and attempts to return to God reveal this gradual process. God’s gift of love early on in Augustine’s life, though not fully accepted until the moment in the garden, compels him to keep seeking until he finds.

Again, Lonergan’s vocabulary gives us further insight into understanding Augustine’s conversion (and conversion in general). However, as we noted earlier, a conversion still has elements of mystery in it that cannot be fully expressed. What exactly happened in the garden when Augustine crossed over from death to life? What does that look like? These questions are perhaps not explainable in words, but only understood through personal testimony and experience.

  1. [1] Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), III.iv (7), p. 39. Literally, we could translate the italics as, “I began to rise up with the purpose of or with the intention of returning to you.”
  2. [2] Ibid., III.iv (8), p. 39.
  3. [3] Ibid. III.xi (20), p. 50. Literally, we could translate the italics as, “Although I was often trying to rise up . . .”
  4. [4] Ibid., Vi.iv (5), p. 94. Convertere comes from the prefix com, meaning “with” or “together”, and vertere, meaning “to turn.” Thus, our word conversion contains this notion of “being turned all together” or, more colloquially, “being turned completely around.”
  5. [5] Ibid., VII.v (7), p. 116. Also, see VII.vii (11), p. 119, where he refers to the “faith which I held.”
  6. [6] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 240.
  7. [7] Ibid., 238, 243.
  8. [8] Augustine, The Confessions, Vi.iv (6), p. 95.
  9. [9] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 327.

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.