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Confessions: Backward Imitation


In these ways the soul goes whoring, when it turns away from you and seeks beyond you those things it can’t find in clean and clear forms, unless it returns to you. It’s the kind of backward imitation of you performed by all the people who place themselves far from you and try to exalt themselves at your expense. But even by imitating you in this way, they disclose that you’re the creator of all the natural world, and that therefore there is, in every sense, nowhere for anyone to draw back from you.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 2.14



In 2:13 Augustine makes several contrasts that I encourage you to read. In short, Augustine makes a list of divine traits that we pervert or do not consider enough. We mask pride with the desire to know but God knows all things. We have ambition for glory but God is the only one with glory. We desire power to be feared, but God but only God is worthy of fear. We talk to be desired but God is true desire. We claim ignorance of God to acquit ourselves of our responsibility toward him but God is simple enough to understand. We become lazy to seek repose rather than take on the yoke of Jesus for true rest. We overindulge ourselves for satisfaction and the good life rather than seek it in God. We spend money and think it makes us generous, but God empties himself. Greed seeks to own a lot, but God owns all. Anger seeks to punish but only God is just. We fear experiencing loss and waste away in grief when we do experience it, but God has never had something taken away from him.


When we turn away from God to find meaning, purpose, direction, satisfaction, character, virtue, joy, and justice our soul whores itself. For Augustine, we are a pale reflection of the divine, but a reflection nonetheless. And when we search in the wrong places, all our divine traits become a “backward imitation” that exalt ourselves rather than God. According to Augustine, there are no ungodly characteristics. Only perversions of divine ones. For even in the perversions we are “imitating [God] in this way” thus we “disclose that [God is] the creator of all the natural world, and that therefore there is, in every sense, nowhere for anyone to draw back from you.” We would be wise to consider the entirety of our lives. When we desire, when we fear, where do we seek? Do we seek in God or do we whore ourselves? Do we imitate God or are we a mere backward imitation?


For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee.

—Psalm 73:27 (KJV)[1]


Lord, may I consider where I seek, that I may seek only in You.


[1] The KJV translates the erotic language of the Latin Bible.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.

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