Confessions: I Don't Blush

But that’s how I was, and I don’t blush, my God, to testify to you about your mercies and to call on you; after all, I didn’t blush back then to profess my blasphemies to human beings and to yap away at you.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 4.31

Thus far, Augustine has made a number of redactions from his book The Beautiful and the Fitting. The first to go was the dedication to Hierius. As we have already seen, this retraction was made because of his realization of hubris.

The second was his neo-platonic conception of God’s nature, human nature, and evil, which he calls “monad” and “dyad."[1] The third was his claim that the soul is not itself the fundamental truth or good (4.25.2).[2] From Augustine’s perspective, both his errors about evil and the soul together constituted the arrogant characteristic of Manichean belief that that evil exists due to God's impotence, rather than human impotence.

Next, Augustine moves from what he was writing to what he was reading, Aristotle’s The Ten Categories.[3] At the time he tried to conceive how God could have “substance” as human beings have a substance, which lead Augustine further into the problems of trying to imagine God. However, by the time of his Confessions, Augustine had come to understand Aristotle’s work as the Neoplatonist did, as a system applicable only to this world, but not to God. In his own words, “in reality, your magnitude and your beauty are you yourself.” (4.29.1)

All this might sound very boring and abstract. We might even find ourselves asking ourselves why any of this is important? We might even find Augustine’s wrestling stupid. But that would miss the point, and misunderstand the power of world view and presupposition. Augustine was a Manichean philosopher with a Neoplatonic worldview who was trying to become a scholar in a Roman world. He was trying to understand God from that perspective, not from a Biblical one. And as he drew near to God, he had to peel back the layers of his valued education that was not valued in his world. To use modern parlance, he was deconstructing.

Augustine knew he was a smart guy. He recounts how he understood science, geometry, music, and mathematics “without great difficulty, and nobody in the world needed to convey it to me.” And he credited his intelligence as a gift of God, “both speed in understanding and sharpness of discernment are gifts from you.” (4.30.2) As a reader, we must recognize the lesson in his realization: that unless an incredibly intelligent person humbles him or herself, he/she will find no need to deconstruct preconceived notions of God that fed the ego rather than the soul.

What good is intelligence if we cannot humble our reason to God? “So what good to me then was the brilliant mind that could prance right through all those branches of learning? What good was the unknotting of so many of the knottiest books without any human teaching to help me jimmy it all apart? What good was that when, with shameful, with unsightly indecency, I went astray when I should have been taught reverence?” (4.31.2)

And in his deconstruction, he finds reason for reverence and repentance. As silly as we might think his journey is, Augustine proudly proclaims that he is not embarrassed to testify of God’s mercy toward him. To use his own words, “I don’t blush.” And why does he not blush? “I didn’t blush back then to profess my blasphemies to human beings and to yap away at you.” (4.31.1). If we can shamelessly sin, then surely we can also shamelessly proclaiming God’s grace. Because ultimately where does true intelligence bring us? To reverence and repentance.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.— 2 Corinthians 12:9

“Oh, Master, our God, we must find our hope in the shelter of your wings: cover us over and carry us. You’ll carry us even as lowly children, and you’ll carry us until our hair is white, because when you are our firm support, then we truly have that; when the “firm support” is our own, it’s weakness.” (4.31.4)

[1] In Neo-Platonic philosophy conception of the divine being the Monad (One) is transcendent and ineffable. The Monad has two emanations: the Dyad (two) and the world soul. The Dyad divides the Monad into ideas (intellect), and the World-soul expresses the ideas in physical forms. Augustine retracts how he identified the Monad with the "good" God of Manichaeism, and the Dyad with the Manichaean concept of evil as a substance. [2] The soul participates in God, but is not itself God or some small piece of God. [3] It is the first workl of Aristotle’s Organon, a collection of writings on logic.

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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