Augustine’s Problem Is Our Problem

Christianity is not a philosophical abstraction, filled only with interesting ideas. It revolves around a Person who must be embraced.

 “To the very last every problem is a problem of free will.”
—G.K. Chesterton

Among my earliest memories of St. Augustine—prompting an immediate deep dive into his Confessions, one of the greatest memoirs ever written—was a tantalizing passage from Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, recounting the decisive moment in Augustine’s life when, having discovered that “the famous philosopher Marius Victorinus had become a Christian,” his whole world suddenly fell apart. For he, too, had been there and done that. It was just that, unlike the repentant philosopher who broke free of his pagan past, Augustine continued to cling to it. 

“Victorinus had long refused to join the Church,” recalls the future pope, “because he took the view that he already possessed in his philosophy all the essentials of Christianity.” What’s the point in becoming a member of an organization whose essence you’ve already absorbed? Wouldn’t it be a kind of fifth wheel to sign on with a Church all the salient features of whose life and thought you’ve managed to figure out already? “Like many educated people both then and now,” Ratzinger writes,

he saw the Church as Platonism for the people, something of which he as a full-blown Platonist had no need. The decisive factor seemed to him to be the idea alone; only those who could not grasp it themselves, as the philosopher could, in its original form, needed to be brought into contact with it through the medium of ecclesiastical organization.

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But, of course, all that will collapse the very moment Victorinus, the far-sighted sage of the Roman world, chooses to be baptized and thus submit to a rule and discipline of faith none of whose contours had he intuited in advance. Only a movement of God’s grace could account for so dramatic and unexpected a change. 

Ratzinger explains:

The great Platonist had come to understand that a Church is something more and something other than an external institutionalization and organization of ideas. He had understood that Christianity is not a system of knowledge but a way. The believers’ “We” is not a secondary addition for small minds; in a certain sense it is the matter itself—the community with one’s fellow men is a reality that lies on a different plane from that of the mere “idea.”

The most that Platonism can provide, in other words, is an idea of truth, not truth as a way, not as a habit of living to which others are invited to submit, indeed, to accept joyfully the yoke of obedience that it lays upon them. “Thus belief embraces,” says Ratzinger, “the entry into the community’s worship of God and so finally the fellowship we call Church.

Christian belief is not an idea but life; it is not mind existing for itself, but incarnation, mind in the body of history and its “We.” It is not the mysticism of the self-identification of the mind with God, but obedience and service: the outstripping of oneself, liberation of the self precisely through its being taken into service by something not made or thought out by myself, the liberation of being taken into service for the whole. 

After all, if Christ does not come to us as an idea but as the Incarnate Word of the Father, who sent Him into the world to suffer and die, then we must approach Him in the same way. We’re not wedded to an abstraction, are we? And if we were to anneal ourselves merely to an idea of faith, a faith prescinded from the very flesh in which God Himself first came among us, how would we be any different from the Platonists who sought to escape the flesh, convinced that it yielded neither insight nor salvation? A Church of Christ without Christ, how does that work? After all, if Christ does not come to us as an idea but as the Incarnate Word of the Father, who sent Him into the world to suffer and die, then we must approach Him in the same wayTweet This

Well, how does Augustine know all this about Victorinus? Who tells him? From a bishop named Simplicianus, who knew Victorinus well, the story is told. And why does he tell Augustine? Because, as we learn from Augustine’s own words set down in Book VIII of the Confessions, he had himself for a long time been hanging fire, unsure whether or not to take the plunge into that same font in which Victorinus had found new life. 

And so, writes Augustine, “to encourage me to follow Christ’s example of humility, which is ‘hidden from the wise and revealed to little children,’’ he tells me about Victorinus.” Allow the example of this worthy man to shore up, as it were, his own want of courage and resolution. Also, as Augustine himself will often remind the reader of his Confessions, “because it shows the great glory of your grace and for your glory I must tell it.”

Of course, in telling it, Augustine reveals his own shamefully irresolute heart. But isn’t that what precisely endears us to him, this willingness to lay bare the baseness of his own heart? “When your servant Simplicianus told me the story of Victorinus,” he tells us (and God for whom the Confessions are really intended), “I began to glow with fervor to imitate him. This, of course, is why Simplicianus had told it to me.” Augustine longs to go and do likewise.  

So, what’s keeping him? Knowing the script, he surely knows the part he must now play. Yes, he does, and yet, finding himself in the grip of a kind of moral paralysis, he does nothing. 

I was held fast, not in fetters clamped upon me by another, but by my own will, which had the strength of iron chains. For my will was perverse and lust had grown from it, and when I gave in to lust habit was born, and when I did not resist the habit, it became a necessity. 

Meanwhile, the wish to turn all things over to God, to flee the fetters that bind him, does not go away; it persists, only it is not strong enough to prevail. And yet, he tells us, 

it was by my own doing that habit had become so potent an enemy, because it was by my own will that I had reached the state in which I no longer wished to stay. Instead of fearing, as I ought, to be held back by all that encumbered me, I was frightened to be free of it. In fact I bore the burden of the world as contentedly as one sometimes bears a heavy load of sleep. My thoughts, as I meditated upon You, were like the efforts of a man who tries to wake but cannot and sinks back into the depths of slumber.

Augustine is quite certain, you see, that it is a far better thing, as he puts it, 

to give myself up to Your love than to surrender to my own lust. But while I wanted to follow the first course, and was convinced that it was right, I was still a slave to the pleasures of the second.  

And so, like the apostle Paul, who speaks for all of us in his Letter to the Romans (7:24-25), Augustine, too, will exclaim: 

Pitiable creature that I was, who was to set me free from a nature thus doomed to death? Nothing else than the grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Grace will come to him, to be sure, falling like dew upon the parched and eviscerate soil—but in God’s time, which only He can measure. But few will have written so thrilling an account of its descent as Augustine has, who tells the unforgettable story in the Confessions—written near the end of the fourth century—whose application to our own confused and confusing century could hardly have been more prescient.

[Image: The Conversion Of St. Augustine by Fra Angelico]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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