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.

A Starting Point for Metaphysics: Kant and Lonergan

Immanuel Kant’s famous distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal world naturally poses problems for metaphysics. The noumenal world is the intelligible world or the world of things-in-themselves where, if we had access to it, we would be able to understand our sensible experiences in the phenomenal world. Access to the noumenal world would include understanding pure ideas such as justice and courage as well as an understanding of causes and effects seemingly found in our world. But, according to Kant, we do not have access to the noumenal world and are stuck in the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, where we can only make speculations about what is really going on. We cannot make synthetic a priori judgments; in other words, we cannot make any universal truth claims based on our experiences in the world. Our link between experience and truth is cut off. In light of this, Kant must reject metaphysics since we are unable to make any metaphysical claims about reality. Metaphysics may exist but we have no way of knowing anything contained in it.

However, Kant appears to take a step closer to the noumenal world in his third critique, Critique of Judgment. In this Critique, he discusses how aesthetic judgment links art to morality. As Wood puts it, “Our shipwreck in the theoretical order points to the real purpose of our faculties: moral action in this world” [1] Art brings out our act of judging and through this act which reflects both freedom and nature, Kant may be finding a unity between the world of appearances and the world of truth. Wood argues, “The whole region of reflective judgment – the beautiful, the sublime, and the organic – points to the possibility of the insertion of causality through concepts into the mechanical world of nature and thus serves to bring together the fractured halves of the field of thought . . .” [2]

Though Kant would not claim that human judgment is a starting point for metaphysics, others, such as Bernard Lonergan, do offer such a proposition. Lonergan seeks to understand the human faculty of judging (along with the other human faculties) in order to first, find a method for how we come to know things (epistemology) and second, to discover a starting point for metaphysics. In his carefully structured 700 page masterpiece, Insight, he slowly finds that the capacity to judge or “revise” the world is where we can find truth about the sensible world. In the Chapter 14, “Method of Metaphysics,” he states, “Bluntly, the starting point of metaphysics is people as they are.” [3]

Sadly, Kant was unwilling to make such a claim, although perhaps he was drawing closer to it in his third critique. Lonergan, in contrast, offers this rather simple starting point for metaphysics: people as they are. People have the unusual capacity to judge the world around them, have insights, revise insights and slowly build up a dynamic set of metaphysical principles. Though all other metaphysical principles are able to be questioned, the fact that we are questioning is unquestionable. Thus, the fact that we are revisers cannot be revised: “for there is no revision of revisers themselves.”[4] It may seem like an obvious principle to grant, but as Lonergan attempts to do, from it, one can begin to discover many other metaphysical principles along the way.

This is not to say that this principle is the only starting point for metaphysics. Certainly, there are many other points on which to begin as philosophers have shown over the centuries. For, if there really is a metaphysics, there will be more than one way to find it.

  1. [1] Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 125.
  2. [2] Ibid., 145
  3. [3] Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 422.
  4. [4] Ibid., 302

Technology: Demonstrating Our Detached, Disinterested Desire to Know

(This abstract was recently accepted by the Institute for Faith and Learning for the 2012 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture where this year’s conference title is: Technology and Human Flourishing. The conference will take place at Baylor University, October 25-27, 2012 where I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

Technology has become the most tangible proof for the validity of scientific knowledge owing to the prodigious complexity of its products and to our daily reliance on their efficiency and functionality. Whether or not we understand how a product works, we take for granted the credibility of the knowledge used to engineer it and expect it to function according to our needs. Technology’s products have been more than successful demanding that there must be something valid in the knowledge and method behind their creation. In other words, the method for producing technology works, because we can see its concrete results all around us. With the success of this method staring us in the face, our curiosity cannot help but be piqued. What kind of method is capable of producing such results? What catalyst is responsible for our great advancement in technology?

In this paper, I will explore the answers to these questions by drawing upon Bernard Lonergan’s work on method in Insight. We will begin by looking at the steps of the scientific method, which fuel the production of technology. Though the steps seem simple enough: asking a question, making a hypothesis, gathering and testing data and then reaching some kind of solution, they reveal something deeper about our humanity. Taking the first step, for example, we see that the method has to start with a human being asking a question; why do humans ask these questions? Certainly, some ask questions motivated by greed hoping that the results will turn out a product for their own financial gain. Others ask questions motivated by selfishness hoping that their findings will bring about their own glory. But, in order for the scientific method to be successful, these questions must come from a pure, unrestricted desire to know; a desire for knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself. The seeker must be open to the answer being different from what he or she expects and be willing to discover something that he or she has never even considered. Just as Archimedes discovered the principle of buoyancy while taking a bath and pondering whether the king’s crown was made of gold, we stumble across knowledge unexpectedly and often find answers when we are willing to think outside the box. Though our biases will obstruct us, every human does have this desire to know: we desire knowledge simply because we are curious and simply because we wonder.

Lonergan calls this uniquely human trait: a detached, disinterested desire to know. Any method, but especially the scientific method, can reveal this desire to know and thus, Lonergan’s formidable goal is to create a method, which will foster this desire to know and lead us to true knowledge. In our investigation, we will, first, see how our desire to know is the root of method, specifically the scientific method as demonstrated by technology; secondly, we will consider this human desire in depth by looking at its biases; and thirdly, we will learn how to cultivate this desire in order to find true knowledge in other aspects of our lives.

Lonergan: Genuineness is Necessary for the Pursuit of Truth

One of the most lucid and beautiful sections in Lonergan’s Insight is on the idea of genuineness. Lonergan describes,

Genuineness is the admission of that tension into consciousness, and so it is the necessary condition of the harmonious cooperation of the conscious and unconscious components of development. It does not brush questions aside, smother doubts, push problems down, escape to activity, to chatter, to passive entertainment, to sleep, to narcotics. It confronts issues, inspects them, studies their many aspects, works out their various implications, contemplates their concrete consequences in one’s own life and in the lives of others. If it respects inertial tendencies as necessary conservative forces, it does not conclude that a defective routine is to be maintained because one has grown accustomed to it. Though it fears the cold plunge into becoming other than one is, it does not dodge the issue, nor pretend bravery, nor act out of bravado. It is capable of assurance and confidence, not only in what has been tried and found successful, but also in what is yet to be tried. It grows weary with the perpetual renewal of further questions to be faced, it longs for rest, it falters and fails, but it knows its weakness and its failures, and it does not try to rationalize them. Such genuineness is ideal.[1].

Though the quotation is rather lengthy, I felt compelled to put the whole paragraph as each sentence offers a unique description to the idea of genuineness. Genuineness is a bridging of the conscious and the unconscious through the organic organization of development. When we engage in genuineness, we do not suppress the questions that are slowly eating away at us. We face them full on, with a knowledge that sometimes they will be scary, but with the passionate desire to know, leaving no stone unturned. What we find will change us completely; it will be uncomfortable and even painful but we crave the unity of thought.

For Lonergan, this ideal genuineness is the foundation for possessing good will. Good will is a “willingness to follow the lead of intelligence and truth.”[2] This willingness comes from our whole being and includes our whole person. Lonergan states, “For the appropriation of truth even in the cognitional field makes demands upon the whole man.”[3] A genuine pursuit of the truth is demanding. Not only does it take a lot of work, but, based on what we discover, we have to be willing to completely change our lives and even who we are. It may mean tossing out ideas or habits that we love and training ourselves into new ways of thinking and acting. This reminds me of St. Paul’s words,

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Pursuit of truth demands a sacrifice of the whole person. Only when we lay our whole being on the altar is truth able to transform our lives and renew our minds. For followers of God, this means allowing our wills to be changed to His will. His will is the truth in our lives and we desire to align our will with His.

But, can we truly develop a harmony between the unconscious and the conscious? Will the tension always make us perplexed? Can we actually eradicate our individual or group bias? Is this ideal genuineness possible? I believe Lonergan would say that while we cannot perfectly attain it, we should continue to strive for this attitude when we pursue truth. For, unless we have the humility which comes from genuineness, we cannot have our minds renewed and we cannot gain the deeper insights of truth.

  1. [1] Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 261
  2. [2] Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 269
  3. [3] Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 269