Thursday, November 13, 2014

When a non-Answer Is an Answer

When St. Augustine wrote his Confessions, he had a lot of questions. He can’t even start confessing without asking whether he needs to confess guilt for being self-centered when he was a baby. So, after a brief prayer, the books begins with questions. As another example, later in the book, he ponders time. What is now? he asks. By the time we say the word, now has become the past and so no longer is now.

Questions about life, questions about matter and substance, about friendship, about relationship to God, about the senses. Augustine almost systematically sets out the problems of each branch of philosophy and theology. He opens up the book of aesthetics by asking, Why do we enjoy sad plays? We usually avoid the feeling of being miserable, so why do we seek it and even pay for it by going to a show? We can’t really explain the strange habit by saying that we feel bad not for ourselves but for the characters on stage, because characters don’t actually suffer and we don’t get up out of our seats to help them. (Although I did hear a story once of a many at an opera who yelled out during the performance, “Somebody help! The soprano is murdering the baritone!”)

Questions and more questions. Joining theology and ontology (which happens when you believe in the Creation), Augustine asks how God can come into him when he cannot contain God. And aren’t you already in me, he asks, since you made me? The last realization reveals a whole new line of questioning. When I went away from you, where exactly did I go? I have existence only because You created me and sustain me, so You are always present with me. How then can I have left You? I turned to other things in my futile search for joy, but You made all those things as well. So how is it that I was apart from You?

Augustine has an answer to this conundrum about departing from God in a world which God fills with his sustaining power. He doesn’t say this explicitly, but it seems to me that he explains moving away from God by exchanging the notion of moving place to place with the notion of turning in place. I can say that the word turn occurs frequently in the Confessions. Those who abandon God, he says, “turn their back to Thee, and not their face.” He confesses to turning toward created things for satisfaction and describes the situation as having “my back to the light, and my face to the things enlightened.”

Another answer comes in Augustine’s exploration of his motive for stealing some peaches when he was a teenager. The philosophers say people do evil things for some perceived good. But what good did I get out of stealing those peaches? he asks. I didn’t want the peaches and threw them away after a couple of bites. Did I really enjoy this misdeed because it was evil? Although he seems to break with traditional philosophy for a moment and say that he indeed was perverse enough to love evil and not good, he eventually succeeds in finding an illusory good in the theft: the boys with him approved of the act, and the shared experience gave him companionship and affirmation. This insight about the communal rewards of sin may have led him to describe unbelievers as citizens of the City of Man in his other most famous book, a book named for a rival city.

But the great teacher (the most influential Christian teacher since the Apostles?) didn’t always have answers to all of his questions. “What is time? . . . If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.” But even without all the answers – in fact because he lacked the answers – the act of questioning itself led him to a conclusion. In asking all these questions in order to find out what he needs to confess, Augustine finds that he needs to confess that he is a man who cannot answer every question.

So ultimately, the book is not about confessing guilt. Whatever may have been Augustine’s first intention in writing, the Confessions ends up an admission of frailty and an acknowledgement of God’s grace. It can’t be about confessing guilt: Augustine even “confesses” all the sins he hasn’t committed. “To Thy grace I ascribe also whatsoever I have not done of evil; for what might I not have done, who even loved a sin for its own sake? Yea, all I confess to have been forgiven me; both what evils I committed by my own wilfulness, and what by Thy guidance I committed not.” Have I confessed that? I’ll leave that question unanswered.

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