Wednesday 27 August 2014

Three Impediments to the Christian Faith that St. Augustine Overcame, and Why They Still Matter

By Adam Hincks, S.J.


Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear. – J.R.R. Tolkien

Many of the things get in the way of Christian faith and have remain remarkably consistent through the ages. Here are three roadblocks that St. Augustine, whose feast we celebrate tomorrow, had to overcome before fully embracing the Catholic faith, as described in his autobiographical Confessions.

1. Disordered Sexuality

When it comes to sex, St. Augustine wears his heart on his sleeve in the Confessions, speaking with remarkable frankness. He is famous for relating that as young man he used to pray, ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not yet’ (VIII, 7). Unfortunately, he lived in a culture, not unlike ours, in which chastity was seen as unmanly. When his friends boasted of their own conquests, he was eager not to lose face with them:
I heard them bragging of their depravity, and the greater the sin the more they gloried in it, so that I took pleasure in the same vices not only for the enjoyment of what I did, but also for the applause I won. … If I had not sinned enough to rival other sinners, I used to pretend that I had done things I had not done at all, because I was afraid that innocence would be taken for cowardice and chastity for weakness. (II, 3)
Neither did his family dissuade him from his lack of discipline. His father was proud of Augustine’s virility; his mother, St. Monica, was distressed, but held her tongue and bided her time. Together, his parents were more concerned that he advance in a career rather than settle down and marry, which Augustine later thought might have been a suitable antidote to his unbridled lust.

As a grown man he had a long-term mistress who bore him a son. This does not seem to have been scandalous among his peers, and rather appears to have been a matter of course. Augustine truly loved and cared for his concubine but never married her. Later, when the two of them separated and he became engaged to a young girl, he took up another mistress while waiting for his marriage, explaining that he could not control his sexual appetite. (The engagement was later broken off.)

Now, despite the appearance of normalcy and social acceptability of Augustine’s relationships, he was in turmoil inside. Among all the forces holding him back from the Christian faith, he returns again and again to discuss his reluctance to fully embrace chastity as an impediment to his conversion. His struggles are pertinent today for a couple of reasons. First, they remind us that living a healthy sexuality is a perennial challenge. Widespread social pressure to shun sexual inhibitions are nothing unique to our times. Unfortunately, for Augustine, as for many today, sins against chastity are a real impediment to growth in faith. God must have full sovereignty over our lives. As Augustine explains,
I was quite sure that it was better for me 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. … For the rule of sin is the force of habit, by which the mind is swept along and held fast even against its will, yet deservedly, because it fell into the habit of its own accord. (VIII, 6)
The second lesson we can from Augustine is to trust in grace. As the Catechism explains, “Chastity is a moral virtue. It is also a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort. The Holy Spirit enables one whom the water of Baptism has regenerated to imitate the purity of Christ” (2345). This was certainly true for Augustine. He worked at it as a moral virtue by cultivating a desire to change and discussing his difficulties with his friends. But ultimately it was by God’s working in his life, in response to his prayers, he grew in virtue. Only by surrendering to God is he is able to leave behind the serious sin which had been enslaving him.

2. Materialism

Today, “materialism” usually means an excessive attachment to wealth, worldly possessions and honours. In a sense, Augustine was captivated by this kind of materialism due to his ambition to be a great orator and prestigious teacher. But in a deeper sense materialism is the conviction that all of existence is reducible to the material world.

In our time, materialistic doctrine is certainly preached by militant atheists, but it is also subtly present in certain religious movements in which God’s transcendence is denied or reduced, so that he becomes a spirit in the world or a life-principle or what have you. In Augustine’s time, there were similarly plenty of philosophies that had materialistic world-views.

Now, Augustine was never an atheist, but he did have erroneous ideas about God. As a young man, he fell under the influence of Manichaeism, a religion that denied the omnipotence of God by teaching that there is an uncreated evil principle in opposition to him. Thus, Augustine thought of God as a powerful being among other beings, not as the fully transcendent God of Abraham. He explains,
I attempted to understand you, my God … as though you too were [material] substance, and greatness and beauty were your attributes in the same way that a body has attributes by which it is defined. But your greatness and beauty are your own self: whereas a body is not great or beautiful simply because it is a body … My conception of you was quite untrue, a mere falsehood. It was a fiction based on my own wretched state, not the firm foundation of your bliss. (IV, 16)
A key element to Augustine’s conversion, therefore, had to be intellectual in nature. He needed to come to understand that God is wholly immaterial, simple and unchanging. Reading the Neoplatonic philosophers moved him in the right direction, for through them he was able to reject the Manichean notion that evil is a pre-existing substance and was confirmed in the notion of God as non-material. But he still had difficulty coming to terms with this: “I could not free myself from the thought that you [God] were some kind of bodily substance extended in space, either permeating the world or diffused in infinity beyond it” (VII, 1).

In the end, though the human wisdom of philosophy was a help, it was through faith that Augustine was able to come to know the true God. St. Paul helped him to see that though the Platonists taught true things about God, Platonism is not sufficient. Knowing God requires not just knowing about him, but loving him, and this means acting accordingly. Thus, Augustine’s own moral life was not unrelated to his intellectual difficulties in understanding who God is. It is much harder to see beyond the world of the senses when that world is your chief means of gratification; conversely, it is much easier to be ruled by material goods and worldly honours when you believe that there is nothing more to the world than those. Augustine’s attachment to honour and his rejection of chastity, then, are surely related to his difficulty perceiving a reality beyond the material world.

But most important of all for knowing God is the realisation that all along he has loved us. It is this discovery that culminates in Augustine’s magnificent hymn to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob: the God who had been patiently trying to reach him his whole life:
I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all. You called me; you cried aloud to me; your broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odour. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace. (X, 28)

3. Biblical Fundamentalism

While there is an authentic literal sense to scripture, it is frequently forgotten or unknown in our times. Instead, people treat Sacred Scripture as though it is a modern scientific and historical treatise, which leads to strange and even harmful notions about religion. Such Biblical fundamentalism is probably much more widespread today than it was in St. Augustine’s time, but it was a phenomenon that existed then as well.

In fact, it was partly a fundamentalist approach that made the young Augustine dissatisfied with the Christian faith. The Manicheans believed that the Bible, though having some truth in it, was a corrupted text. Augustine, reading the Bible in a fundamentalist way, was inclined to agree with this view because of the absurdities he perceived in it, especially in the Old Testament. He thought that everything in the Bible should be read as baldly factual claims, and when he found that they made no sense when read in this light, he had no more time for it.

It was through the preaching of St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, that Augustine learnt a more mature approach to Scripture:
I was glad too that at last I had been shown how to interpret the ancient Scriptures of the law and the prophets in a different light from that which had previously made them seem absurd, when I used to criticize [the] saints for holding beliefs which they had never really held at all.
This was a key realisation for Augustine, because it freed him from the notion that the Christian faith required one to switch off rational judgement in the presence of a religious text. Finally, he was able to engage with the Bible in a way that did not do violence to his reason.

Today, unfortunately, erroneous approaches to the Bible remain a stumbling block for many. After all, if one is presented with a fundamentalist reading of Scripture, it is pretty reasonable simply to dismiss it as incredulous. There are lots of people today who are suspicious of Christianity because of this, just as Augustine was. Perhaps we are called to be little St. Ambroses in our time, helping people to understand the Bible in the authentically Christian way.

Evangelising Our Age

Disordered sexuality, materialism and fundamentalism are not the only impediments to Christian faith. Different people have different weaknesses. But they still are three important phenomena that today, just as much as in the fourth century, can hold people back from seriously engaging with the faith of the Church.

We might think about how we might be evangelists in our own times by refuting the misunderstandings raised by these impediments. How can we resist the prevailing culture of irresponsible sex, while at the same time presenting a positive and life-giving alternative that brings people to God? How can we help people come to know God as the omnipotent Creator and personal Saviour, and not as a second-rate superhero or a vague spiritual force? How can we aid people in not only reading the Bible, but reading it with all of their critical intellectual powers guided by the light of faith?

If we engage in these issues, I am confident that we will discover that there are a lot of Augustines among us, not very far from the Kingdom of God.

Quotations from the Confessions are from the translation of R. Pine-Coffin (Penguin, 2003).


  1. Oh, would that I were not so old, so ill and weak, so unschooled in philosophy and Church teachings, that I COULD be a 'St. Ambrose' to my own sons ... and to all who are perishing all around me! All I CAN do is what St. Monica did ... keep my mouth shut, lest I give erroneous information ... and PRAY with every fibre of my being, that God Himself will break through, and 'touch' those for whom I pray!

    1. Well, the prayers are the best thing you can do, so keep them going. And remember that St. Ambrose did not win people to the faith primarily by his great learning, but by the attractiveness of his holiness.

      Thanks for your great witness of prayer! And please send a few our way as we migrate to our new platform.