True Friendship and the Search for Meaning: Teaching Augustine’s *Confessions*

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Most of my students have never heard of Augustine of Hippo. Very few of them have read a 5th-century text. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when we discussed parts of Augustine’s Confessions in my Created and Called for Community course at Messiah College.

Confessions is the third reading in our “community” unit. The first two readings–Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone“–focused on community in the United States. The excerpts we read from Book II and Book IV of the Confessions focused on Christian friendship as a form of community.

As always, we started by sourcing the text. Here is a taste of my colleague Richard Crane‘s introduction to Augustine and his Confessions:

If you are a Christian, your faith has been profoundly influenced by St. Augustine, even if you have never heard his name. St. Augustine’s theology has set the agenda for theology in Western Christianity since the fifth century.  Born Aurelius Augustinus in AD 354 in what is present day Algeria, Augustine’s mother Monica was a devout Christian.  His father, Patricius, was a pagan who converted to Christianity late in his life. Augstine was of the Berber ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, but his family adopted the ways of Roman culture including the language of Latin.  Augustine is best known for his church leadership and theological writings during the period in which he served as the Bishop of Hippo

The Confessions…is most similar to the contemporary literary genre we would identify as a memoir. The Confessions is a classic of Christian spirituality and theological reflection and is most likely the book that has been read by more Christians than any other Christian writing apart from the Bible itself. St. Augustine narrates the story of his conversion to Christianity and the course of his sinful life of selfish career ambition and sexual immorality prior to his return to God. He tells the story of his life before Christ as, paradoxically, both a flight from God and a disordered and misguided search for God.  But the most important part of the story for Augustine is his conviction that in spite of his flight from God, God was in pursuit of him all along and had so ordered his life as to lead him back to God.

I began class by reading from the opening prayer of Augustine’s Confessions: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” Why are our hearts restless? I challenged the students to draw upon past readings to try to answer this question. A few of them connected Augustine’s search for meaning to the effects of sin in the world, referencing what we learned earlier in the semester from Bruce Birch, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Alice Walker in our “Creation” unit. We are broken people, living in a broken world, but one day God will make this world whole (shalom) again. In the meantime, we find meaning, purpose, and happiness by patiently resting in God’s promises to us. This, it seems, is what we mean when we talk about Christian hope.

I used one of my favorite songs to remind students that we are all “tramps” trying to “get to that place where we really wanna go,” where we can one day “walk in the sun.” About 75% of my students had never heard this song:

I don’t know if Springsteen ever read Augustine during his Catholic school days, but I am sure that Augustine would have recognized the Boss’s yearning for something “real.”

If Springsteen did not help my students connect with Augustine, the opening lines of Confessions Book II, chapter 2 did the trick. Augustine writes: “My one delight was to love and be loved.” Such a statement speaks to both the 5th-century and the 21st-century soul. As we moved through the text, we talked about how Augustine tried to satisfy his quest for true love with sexual lust. (At this point I couldn’t help but reference our culture’s addiction to online pornography and casual sex). But just in case some of my students could not relate to Augustine’s disordered sexual life, I asked the students to read the text carefully and name some other ways people pursue happiness apart from God. In Book II, chapter 5, Augustine mentions a few: personal appearance, the accumulation of wealth (“gold and silver”), sensual pleasures, and “worldly success.” Human beings have been trying to find happiness through these things for a long, long time. Augustine was now starting to resonate with some of my first-year college students.

Even certain kinds of “friendship,” Augustine argues, cannot satisfy our restless longings for meaning and purpose in this life. He writes,:”The bond of human friendship is admirable, holding many souls as one. Yet in the enjoyment of all such things we commit sin if through immoderate inclination to them–for though they are good, they are of the lowest order of good–things higher and better are forgotten, even You, O Lord our God, and Your Truth and Your Law.” (Book II, chapter 5).  What does Augustine mean by a “lowest-order” friendship?

I asked my students to talk about the values or ideas that ground some of their own friendships. Some of them said they had friendships based on common interests–music, sports, hobbies, video-games, etc.  Others said that their closest friends were people they grew-up with, went to school with, or met in their college dormitory.  Augustine says that theses kinds of friendships are good. In fact, in Book IV he writes about one of his own friendships, a relationship cultivated through childhood companionship and “the ardour of studies” in school. When this friend died of an illness, Augustine grieved his loss.

But as Augustine reflects on the loss of his friend, he simultaneously pushes his readers–including my students–to consider a deeper or higher kind of friendship. In Book IV, chapter 4, he writes: “there is no true friendship unless You weld it between souls that cleave together through that charity which is shed in our hearts by our Holy Ghost who is given to us.” I think this was a tough pill for some of my students to swallow. They did not like Augustine’s suggestion that some their friendships–good friendships–were built upon “lower order” things and were thus not “true.” But I also got the feeling that some of them were willing to listen, or at least take seriously, Augustine’s invitation to foster a deeper kind of friendship.

In our remaining time, I tried to connect our readings on Augustinian friendship to our previous readings in the community unit. Was there a difference between Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship and the kinds of social bonds that Robert Putnam believes are essential to a thriving democracy? A few students argued that Augustinian friendships, built upon Christian love and the power of the Holy Spirit, could certainly contribute to a thriving democracy and create what Putman calls “social capital.” But most agreed that a strong democracy did not require such “true” friendships. “Lowest order” friendships would work just fine. In other words, Augustine was calling Christians to something higher than mere democratic friendship and the creation of “social capital.”

My students thought that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” offered a vision of community that was closer to Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship. They believed that friendships rooted in social justice and the dignity of the human person were essential to a healthy society.  Yet even these kinds of friendships did not meet the Augustinian standard of friendship unless they were guided by a love of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

After class, a couple of students approached me and asked if they could switch the topic of their upcoming “community essay” to  Augustine’s Confessions. I was pleased to hear this.

Thanks for following along.  We are on Spring Break next week and then our focus turns to Exodus 19-20, Matthew 5-7, Acts 1-4, and the Apostles’ & Nicene Creeds. Messiah College has moved all courses online until after Easter. To be honest, I am not sure how I am going to reproduce these kinds of conversations in an online format, so this may be my last post for a while.  Stay tuned.

Does the United States Have the Moral Fortitude to Respond to the Coronavirus?

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I hope so.  But I am not very optimistic.

As Dahlia Lithwick writes at Slate, social capital is at all-time low. We don’t trust each other or the government. Science and truth are under siege. The free press is under attack. We have a president with an approval rating under 50%.  Can we step-up?  Here is Lathwick:

Virtually every thoughtful epidemiologist I have read on this says that the absolute worst thing to be done right now is hoarding surgical masks and putting yourself first. Conversely, the decision to put altruism before panic would redound not just to our own benefit, but to the actual benefit of the entire herd. The choice to stay home, to care for the elderly and the sick (and help them stay home), to figure out systems to look after children whose parents cannot take time off—all of that would be good for everyone. Yet it comes after years, if not decades, of being told constantly that vaccines cause autism, poverty should be punished and criminalized, and every government system is “rigged” to harm you and help others. Tell people that everyone’s a criminal and grifter long enough and it’s awfully hard to get them to look out for each other.

David Roberts at Vox has been writing thoughtfully about the political science literature around “social trust”; the phenomenon, as described by Kevin Vallier, wherein one has a “generalized trust” that extends to “strangers, persons within one’s society with whom one has little personal familiarity. Social trust can thus be understood broadly as trust in society. But trust to do what? Social trust is trust that persons will abide by social norms.” Social trust, writes Roberts, is a sense that “we are all in this together,” whoever “we all” may be, and without it, no law or policy or institution can be effective. With social trust and political trust working to undermine one another, societies can enter a “doom loop” that allows us to increasingly distrust both systems and each other.

It is that infection that makes us far more susceptible to the coronavirus; a preexisting social and psychological condition that allows critical medical truth to be suppressed in the name of politics, which in turn allows an entire society to doubt the veracity of both government institutions and the press. And as we grow mistrustful of two central pillars of liberal democracy, we become inclined to mistrust the very people around us, whether they’re grabbing the last rolls of toilet paper at the supermarket or walking around among us despite exposure to the virus. We’ve spent the past three years fine-tuning the notion that the other half of the country hates us. It’s hard to imagine turning on a dime now to be mindful of the needs of strangers.

Read the entire piece here.