Augustine: Conversions and Confessions

Augustine is one of those figures—like Shakespeare or Darwin—who is impossible to keep up with. The fourth century Bishop and author of the Confessions and The City of God is so influential, both historically and today, that the stream of new literature about him never seems to slow down. Some, including the philosopher Charles Taylor, have suggested that Augustine invented the modern, inward looking sense of self, displacing a traditional emphasis on the created order.[1] Others contend that the modern self predates Augustine. Scholars debate whether The City of God accurately portrays Rome as its empire tottered and why Augustine emphasized some features of his life and gave others short shrift in the Confessions.

What is a non-specialist, someone who is interested in Augustine but does not have time to master the scholarly literature, to do?

For the past generation, the short answer has been: read Peter Brown. In a masterful biography of Augustine first published in the 1960s and with two substantial chapters on Augustine in his recent book Through the Eye of the Needle, among other writings, Brown, an emeritus professor at Princeton, has incorporated the scholarly literature on Augustine and his era into books that bring Augustine fully to life.

Brown is great for non-specialists, but not so great for other Augustine scholars who would like to reach a popular audience with their work. How do you escape Brown’s shadow, and persuade lay readers they should venture beyond Brown (or at most, Brown plus the well-received biography by James O’Donnell)?[2] The only hope, it seems, is to come at Augustine from a surprising new angle, or promise clever or counterintuitive insights that will alter our understanding of who Augustine was.

In Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, Robin Lane Fox, an emeritus Reader at Oxford University and longtime classicist and Augustine scholar, tries a little of both. He advertises Augustine: Conversions to Confessions as a backstage look at The Confessions, an intimate biography of the book. Lane Fox focuses entirely on Augustine’s his life up to his commencement of the Confessions in 397 at age forty-three. This, along with Lane Fox’s emphasis on the “conversions” and “confessions” in Augustine’s life and his introduction of two secondary characters into the story, are the new angles. Lane Fox also promises to update Brown’s work and to provide surprising new insights into and theories about the Confessions and some of the famous events it recounts.

Lane Fox is a well-respected scholar who tends toward revisionism. The erudition and revisionism are plain to see, but Augustine is too often marred by Lane Fox’s love of speculative theories, his attempts to be racy or clever, and his disdain for the faith that animated Augustine’s life.

I.

By the time he began the Confessions, Augustine had left his native town of Thagaste in North Africa to study in Carthage; become a professional teacher of rhetoric; moved to Rome; secured an appointment as a public speaker in Milan; been baptized by Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan; returned to North Africa; been ordained (against his will) as a priest; and been promoted to co-Bishop of Hippo.

Most readers of the Confessions, including this one, read it as the spiritual autobiography of an early church father who had cycled through a series of enthusiasms during his early life before his dramatic, final conversion to orthodox Christianity. Augustine’s conversion is foreshadowed in the Confessions by Augustine’s statement to God that “our heart is restless until it finds rest in you,” and triggered by the words of a child Augustine hears as he agonizes in a garden: “take it up, read it.”

Lane Fox’s first startling claim is that Augustine’s famous conversion wasn’t a conversion to Christianity at all. Augustine had long considered himself to be a Christian. What he converted to after his garden epiphany was abstention from sex and worldly ambition. He converted to celibacy, Lane Fox assures us, not Christianity. Lane Fox views this as the last of a series of “conversions” that Augustine underwent. The story of these conversions occupies the first three of the book’s five major parts, and is followed by two parts recounting Augustine’s post-conversion “confessions” (by which Lane Fox means Augustine’s commitment to and “blessing” of God, not just his repentance of his earlier misbehavior).

If you’re going to play a conversion-counting game, you obviously need to start by defining just what you mean by conversion. Under Lane Fox’s definition, a conversion “requires a decisive change whereby we abandon a previous practice or belief and adopt exclusively a new one. It involves a ‘turning which implies a consciousness that the old way was wrong and the new is right.’”[3]

With this definition as his guide, Lane Fox chronicles the conversions in Augustine’s life. Augustine experiences his first conversion while studying in Carthage—a conversion to wisdom—under the inspiration of Cicero’s Hortensius. Augustine next embraces Manichaeism—the gnostic interpretation of Christianity that viewed matter as evil and encouraged its adherents to cultivate the sparks of light within them. It’s not entirely clear whether Lane Fox sees this as a conversion, since he believes that Augustine saw himself as a Christian and Manichaeism as a form of Christianity, and Lane Fox usually but not always omits it from his summaries of the conversions. Augustine next converts from rhetoric to philosophy, and finally experiences conversions away from worldly ambition and from sex.

Augustine thus converts to wisdom, to philosophy, to humility and to celibacy. The only thing he never converts to is Christianity itself. Augustine’s spectacular garden experience is “not a conversion to Christian faith, let alone to ‘Catholic’ faith,” Lane Fox argues. “It is a conversion away from sex and ambition.”[4] Even Augustine’s subsequent baptism by Ambrose—which Lane Fox recounts in detail, taking obvious relish in the fact that Augustine and his peers were baptized naked—somehow doesn’t count as a conversion in Lane Fox’s reckoning.

Lane Fox’s story does offer some useful correctives to a simple understanding of the transformations Augustine underwent—he plausibly argues, as have others, that Augustine’s garden experience gave him a stable view of the Christian God, rather than an entirely new one-- but it also is extraordinarily frustrating. One problem is that his suggestion that a conversion to wisdom or humility is the same as a conversion to Christianity or another religion is highly misleading. I suspect Augustine himself would have viewed his embrace of wisdom, philosophy and humility as steps toward a conversion to orthodox Christianity, or as conversions with a small “c”. (Lane Fox occasionally seems almost to endorse a version of this perspective himself, describing the last three of Augustine’s conversions as a single three-part conversion, rather than three different conversions as he does elsewhere in the book.)

This isn’t to say that all Christians experience a conversion with a capital “C”. Even within my own tradition, evangelical Protestantism, which places particularly strong emphasis on conversion, we recognize that many Christians do not come to faith through a single, definite moment of conversion. Some may grow up in a Christian family and context, and never know a moment when they did not see themselves as a Christian. Others experience their conversion as a process that includes more than one step and occurs over a period of time.

Perhaps Augustine viewed himself as someone who was a Christian from his earliest childhood, as Lane Fox suggests. Christianity does seem to have been an ongoing theme in Augustine’s adult life. “The ‘name of Christ,’” as Peter Brown puts it, “had always been present in whatever religion he adopted.”[5] But Augustine’s system of beliefs underwent radical change. Under Lane Fox’s own definition of conversion—the conviction that an old way is wrong and the new one right—Augustine surely converted at one point to Manichaeism and then, as chronicled in the Confessions, converted to (or possibly back to) Catholicism.

Lane Fox’s claim that Augustine didn’t experience a conversion to orthodox Christianity in the garden would be slightly less dubious, though only slightly, if Augustine never took Manichaeism seriously. But Lane Fox clearly believes that he did, as do most other scholars. Although Augustine never became one of the Elect, the highest rank of Manichees, he was a Hearer for roughly a decade and was instrumental in converting others—including his patron Romanianus—to Manichaeism.

A Protestant friend of mine plans to join the Catholic Church this fall. He was a Christian before and he will be a Christian after. But I am quite confident that he will describe the step in the future as a conversion. Surely someone who took the much larger step from Manichaeism to Catholicism in the ancient world converted too. Lane Fox’s attempt to suggest there is no conversion here is revisionism gone badly amok.

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