Book XIII, Chapters 28-38: The Good Creation and The Rest of God

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.

–Hebrews 4:9 (ESV)

Chapter 28: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Gen 1:31).  While each part of creation is good in itself, taken together it is “very good”.  “Severally good, they are exceedingly good all together.”  Just at the parts of the body are good, they only become “exceedingly good” when working together (the analogy to the Body of Christ should be clear).  God created the universe to work together in harmony for the good of all His creatures.  The piecemeal nature of creation does not mean that it was haphazardly thrown together.  Nothing was left to chance — all of creation (before the Fall, at least) conformed to the plan and the will of God.

Chapters 29&30:  After reminding us again that the succession of days does not mean that God experienced the passage of time, Augustine gets one last shot in at the Manichees before finishing his book.  Essentially, it seems that they believed that God was “forced” to create the world by welding together a bunch of pre-existing parts.  God constructed this cosmos to defeat his enemy, although much of what we see in the world was actually created by an evil “god”.  “People who allege this are mad,” Augustine declares.  This concept of creation simply does not logically hold together.  To be clear on the orthodox view of creation:  God created the world from nothing and of His own free will.  There is no pre-existent enemy, but rather an enemy who rebelled against God by using the free will given him by God.  At the point of creation, the entire universe, everything visible and invisible, was created good.  Nothing and no one, not even Satan himself, is inherently evil.

Chapter 31:  How do we know all of this?  The only person who knows God is the very Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11).  But, of course, we have the Spirit dwelling inside of us (see, e.g., Rom. 8:9).  Therefore, we can know and perceive the goodness of God by His Spirit who lives within us.  In some mysterious way, God is looking at His world through our eyes and seeing the goodness therein.  That, I suppose, is what it means to put on “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).  “Through him we see that everything is good which in any degree has being, because it derives from him who has being in no degree at all, but is simply He Is” (see Ex. 3:14).  Our perception of reality becomes more accurate the more we are united with the basis of that reality, God Himself.  And the reality is that everything and every person, no matter how twisted by evil, retains some good simply because they exist and that existence came from our infinitely-good God.

Chapters 32,33&34:  In these chapters, Augustine summarizes both the literal meaning of Genesis 1 and his allegorical interpretation of it.  There’s not much new to say, as this is just summary, but I didn’t want you to think I was skipping anything.  Moving on!

Chapters 35&36:  Augustine concludes this book and the Confessions as a whole, appropriately, with rest.  He prays for “the peace that is repose, the peace of the Sabbath, and the peace that knows no evening.”  Of course, this is a reference to the seventh day of creation: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Gen. 2:2-3).  I love the image of the Sabbath rest of God as eternal.  “But the seventh day has no evening and sinks toward no sunset, for you sanctified it that it might abide forever.”  The book has come full circle.  Just as our hearts are unquiet until they rest in God, so Augustine reminds us that God’s Sabbath rest is eternal life.  As the author of Hebrews puts it (in the verses following the epigraph for today): “Whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (4:10-11).  We enter the rest of God through obedience to Him, through a life united to God in the Holy Spirit.

Chapters 37&38:  Of course, we still have work to do and God is still working in His world.  “But you yourself, Lord, are ever working, ever resting.”  Paradoxically, we rest in God even as we continue to work and strive in this fallen world.  God exists beyond all that, in eternal rest, yet He has come to dwell with us in time through Jesus Christ and in each believer by the Holy Spirit.  Thus, he is ever working and ever resting.  So must we be until we achieve that final rest promised to all who put their hope in Him.

In the end, we see all created things because God made them, but for God it is the reverse: “they exist because you see them”.  Everything that is exists because God sees it and wills it to continue being.  Read Psalm 104 for a beautiful picture of God’s all-encompassing providence over creation and His care for everything from the starry host to wild donkeys.  All of these things are good, and we are good, at least as much as we share in the gift of God.  But even that goodness is transient, for “the world is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:17).  Whatever rest we have on this side of the grave is temporary and partial.  “But you, the supreme Good, need no other good and are eternally at rest, because you yourself are your rest.”  God is already at rest.  No matter what happens in this crazy, temporal world, God is not perturbed. If we abide in Him, we too can share in His rest.  So Augustine ends the book by reminding us to ask, seek, and knock (Matt. 7:7-8).  For God has promised to open the door to all who seek Him.  May we, like Augustine, seek God with all that we have and are, and, in doing so, enter the rest of God.

Quote for meditation:  “Your creation sings praise to you so that we may love you, and we love you so that praise may be offered to you by your creation.”

Book XIII, Chapters 22-27: God’s Image and Man’s Dominion

…you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

–Colossians 3:9b-10 (ESV)

Chapter 22:  We now move on to the rest of day six, which is the creation of mankind: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Gen 1:26a).  Augustine notes that, unlike the animals, we were not made “according to our kind”.  Instead, we were made in the image of God.  This means that the standard of what it means to be human is not whatever our fellow man has gotten up to, but rather the Triune God Himself.  Augustine points out that God says to make man in our image and after our likeness, both plural pronouns.  Yet in verse 27 it says that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him”, which are singular pronouns.  The Holy Trinity, Three persons in one God, created us to be like him, both plural and singular, containing being, knowledge, and will and yet still only one creature.  To settle for anything less than reflecting the image of God is to deny that which we were created for.

Chapter 23:  Genesis 1:26 continues, “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  This passage is quite controversial in our own day, as it has been used to justify environmental degradation or at least disregard for our human vocation as stewards of creation.  Augustine is, once again, concerned more with the allegorical interpretation of “dominion”.  What, exactly, are we in charge of?  He begins by eliminating some things.  We are not in dominion over Scripture or any of “the splendors of wisdom ablaze in the vault of heaven”.  God’s revelation is sacrosanct.  It is also not for us to declare who is saved and who damned.  We cannot tell on the basis of virtuous (or sinful) action alone the state of someone’s soul.  Such judgments are only God’s to make, a state of affairs for which we can all be thankful (cf. Matt. 7:1).  Rather, we are to judge the actions themselves (“they judge and approve what they find done rightly, but condemn anything they find amiss”).  We have “dominion” over the actions we and others take.  This dominion is carried out in both Word and Sacrament.  It seems like Augustine is mainly speaking about clerical authority here, but earlier he said that this applied to all believers.  He doesn’t go into detail about how this “dominion” should be carried out within the Church or toward the non-believer.  Perhaps he doesn’t see that as the point of this study.  Oh, well.

Chapter 24: On to verse 28 — “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”.  Augustine is very concerned with this special command to be fruitful and multiply.  Only the sea creatures (v. 22) and humanity are given this command, but clearly all the animals on the earth are fruitful and multiply.  “What sort of mystery have we here?” Augustine muses, with some consternation.  After much hemming and hawing, Augustine concludes that “the fecundity of our human reason leads us to interpret the breeding of humans as a symbol of truths processed by the intelligence”.  In other words, we are to increase and multiply knowledge to all the world, presumably the knowledge of God through preaching and evangelism.  In such a way to we increase and multiply the members of God’s household by incorporating new members and by increasing the knowledge of God.  This seems reasonable, although perhaps it’s about more than just reason and knowledge.  I think Augustine’s intellectual nature and Neoplatonic training have gotten the better of him again.  I believe that we increase and multiply the kingdom through the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.  This involves everything we are, requiring that we love God with our hearts and souls as well as with our minds (Matt. 22:37).  In other words, I agree that the verse can be read figuratively, but I don’t think Augustine goes far enough.

Chapters 25&26: Verses 29 & 30 — “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’”  Augustine reiterates that the fruit of the earth represents “the works of mercy produced by fertile soil to meet the needs of this present life.”  As Christians, we are nourished through performing good works (and as beneficiaries of those same works).  Augustine inserts a caveat: “Only those who find this food delicious are nourished by it; people whose god is their belly do not enjoy it” (cf. Phil. 3:19).  At this point, Augustine meanders off on a long example from Philippians chapter 4 of how this is lived out which I found only sporadically illuminating.  The main point is succinctly summarized: “What is your food, then? Joy!”  By rejoicing no matter the circumstance (Phil. 4:11-13), St. Paul was able to be fed by works of mercy and by seeing the fruits of his labor for the Church.  Paul rejoices over the growth that his disciples are showing “as though over a once-fertile field brought back into good heart”.  I sense Augustine the bishop identifying with Paul the apostle here.  By all accounts, Augustine cared deeply about those under his care in Hippo, and his “food” was to see the Church grow in the knowledge and love of God.  In any case, it is surely by works of mercy that the Body of Christ is fed and brought to greater unity.

Chapter 27: I’m not sure what Augustine is getting at when he says that unbelievers “do not truly feed their guests” when they give aid to believers.  He could just be trying to make his analogy work, or perhaps there’s something deeper here.  Maybe he’s simply saying that doing good works without a relationship with the Giver of “every good gift and every perfect gift” (Jas. 1:17) is ultimately fruitless.  We are not saved by works, and being a “good person” without God does not lead to a fruitful life that will feed others.  Perhaps it would be better to say that the unbelieving “do not fully feed their guests” for even the unbeliever benefits from common grace and can show that grace (and love) to others.  In charity to Augustine, that’s how I’ll choose to read this chapter.

Conclusion:  You can feel Augustine straining to fit each verse into a singular, figurative analogy for the Church.  It mostly works, but it’s a bit lumpy around the edges.  I do like the figurative reading of these verses, though, and I think taking each verse in turn and trying to discover deeper meaning can be fruitful.  The basic point of these chapters, that we were created in the image of God to serve Him and our neighbor and to become like Him, stands tall and is worth reflecting on.  May we never forget that we bear the image of God and may we use our dominion over the earth to bring forth life and to bear good fruit in the Holy Spirit.

Quote for meditation: “Our spirit feeds on what gives it joy.”

Book XIII, Chapters 18-21: Creation and the Life of Faith

[Jesus said,] “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden”.

–Matthew 5:14 (ESV)

In these chapters, Augustine continues his allegorical interpretation of the days of creation in Genesis chapter one.  Let’s dive right in.

Day Four (Chapters 18&19; Gen. 1:14-19):  When God created “lights in the expanse of the heavens”, Augustine is reminded of the day of Pentecost.  On that day, the Spirit lighted on the disciples as flames of fire (Acts 2:3).  “So they became luminaries in the vault of heaven, endowed with the word of life.”  We can join the disciples as luminaries in the heavens if we “lay hold on the Word of Life above…firmly set in the vault that is your scripture.”  Through prayer and contemplation of scripture, we become the light of the world.  I find it interesting that Augustine sees the works of mercy as coming first since they are the natural outgrowth of faith.  He assumes that we will, of course, be about works of mercy and must be convinced to pray, study, and meditate.  I feel like it is often the other way around.  In any case, the Christian life involves both and they feed on each other, just as the land and the sky are united through the cycles of nature.

Augustine equates the specific lights in the heavens with the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.  He equates the sun (“the greater light to rule the day”) with the gift of wisdom and the moon (“the lesser light to rule the night”) with the gift of knowledge.  It is entirely unsurprising that Augustine would choose these two gifts to represent the greatest lights in the heavens, as he has spent twelve books delving into his own wisdom and knowledge to discover God.  Also, those are the first two gifts that Paul lists, so maybe it’s just that.  As for the remainder of the gifts (faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, and tongues), “all these are like stars”.  As someone in the charismatic tradition, I find it fascinating that Augustine seems to view the spiritual gifts as a primarily evangelistic.  Signs and wonders convert the lost, just as they did on the day of Pentecost in Acts.  Maybe John Wimber was on to something with his idea of “power evangelism”!  The “race of the elect…shine in the firmament that the heavens may proclaim his glory.”  Augustine sounds like a modern evangelical here, ending the chapter with the exhortation: “Run, then, and make him known to all nations.”

Before we move on, though, I wanted to point out one way that Augustine is different from many modern evangelicals.  Using Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler as a model (Mark 10:17-31), Augustine declares “if you want to be perfect, follow the Lord in the company of those to whom he speaks wisdom”.  Just as Jesus told the rich man that he could only be perfect if he joined His disciples, so must we join the community of Christ’s Church in order to reach perfection.  Evangelism, even power evangelism, can only be truly effective if it is practiced within the Body and has as its end the growth of the Church.

Day Five (Chapter 20; Gen. 1:20-23):  On this day, God made the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air.  Augustine is helpfully lucid about the analogies: “these aquatic creatures represent your holy signs, O God…the birds represent the voices of your messengers.”  If the luminaries are the gifts of the spirit, then these more corporeal manifestations of God’s creation represent the sacraments and the miracles.  The sea “baptizes” these creatures and the wonders inherent in sea and sky proclaim the glory of God.  Augustine had little patience for those who ran after miracles and believed that such signs existed for the ignorant or at least the neophyte.  I imagine that he would not lump the sacraments in with this assessment, but his writing is not very clear here.  For example, I’m not sure how or whether Holy Communion is included in this.  The point of day five seems to be that signs and sacraments serve a primarily evangelical function.  I think that is true to an extent, although I also believe that signs and sacraments can strengthen the faith of even the most seasoned believer.

Day Six, part 1 (Chapter 21; Gen. 1:24-25):  Our meditation today will only cover the first part of God’s busy day six, the creation of the “living creatures” on the earth.  Augustine equates this with the creation of the soul, particularly the soul of the believer.  Unlike those who must depend on signs and wonders to maintain faith, these are the mature believers who need no such things.  They have already received baptism and have learned to transcend the merely physical: “only believers profit by so restraining themselves from attachment to this world.”  This feels like Neoplatonism creeping back in, with its emphasis on transcending the physical world to achieve unity with “The One”.  This otherworldly emphasis could lead to both spiritual pride and a detachment from the very works of mercy that have been commended to us.  On the other hand, one positive of this reading is the emphasis on self-denial (“the soul that dies by craving lives by avoiding what it craved”), which Augustine analogizes to wild animals being domesticated.  We learn this self-denial by imitating our fellow believers, just as God created each animal “according to its kind”.  We must tame our wild impulses, domesticating them under the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd.

Conclusion:  While some of these analogies are a bit of a stretch, there are some good points in here.  It does feel like a natural progression from the gifts of the Spirit fueling evangelism which calls to the “sea creatures” and “birds” (aka non-believers) who may one day become “living creatures” on the land.  The story of creation is not just about the one-time event of salvation, but about our entire life of faith and how we share it with others.  It may be “immature” to seek after signs and wonders, but the greatest sign of God’s presence is changed lives.  May we be Augustinian “living creatures” who, through self-denial and the gifts of the Spirit, declare the message of the gospel with our lives.

Quote for meditation: “Run everywhere, you holy fires, you fires so beautiful, for you are the light of the world, and your place is not under a meal-tub.”

 

Book XIII, Chapters 12-17: Genesis 1 as the Story of Salvation

EDITORIAL NOTE: I fell behind, so this is the second meditation I’ve uploaded today.  For the previous meditation, scroll down or click here

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

Psalm 27:1a (ESV)

Augustine spends the remainder of this books walking through the days of creation in Genesis 1.  However, unlike most modern commentators, he is not particularly interested in the creation of the physical world.  Instead, he sees these passages as highly allegorical and applicable to our personal lives and, more importantly, to the life of the Church.  Augustine is not denying the literal meaning of Genesis 1, but is merely searching beneath the surface for “the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:10).  It’s a fascinating way to read Scripture, so let’s see what he has to say…

Day One (Chapters 12-14; Gen 1:3-5):  Just as God created the heavens and the earth, so did He create His Church.  Christ’s call to repentance (Matt. 3:2) is the same as that primeval declaration of light in the midst of darkness.  Our very salvation is a response to God’s creation of light: “Disgusted with our darkness, we were converted to you, and light dawned.”  Of course, we only see this by faith, not by sight, for we are saved in hope and hope that is seen is no hope at all (Rom. 8:24).  Just as God cried into the primordial abyss with His declaration of light, even now “deep still calls unto deep, but at the roar of your waterfalls” (cf. Ps. 42:7).  This process of moving from darkness into light is not a one time event, but a lifelong process.  “Even Paul…does not consider himself to have laid hold of his salvation already” (cf. Phil. 3:12-14).  We yearn and groan inwardly to see God’s salvation fully revealed in us.  The Light that God created thus represents his abundant grace and provision for us and for our salvation.  “What, then is this fair light? A light by which we shall see him as he is, a light to put an end to the tears that have become bread to me, daily, nightly.”

Despite all this good news, Augustine says that “still my soul is sad”.  He is still burdened by sin.  However, there is an antidote: “But my faith takes [my soul] to task, that faith which you have kindled, lamp-like, on my nocturnal path.”  The light that God created in the beginning is “is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105).  Thus, Augustine simply declares: “hope in the Lord,” for “saved only in hope we may be, but we are at home in the light and in the day.”  Thus, our salvation is pictured when Genesis says that God separated light from darkness calling the light “day” (salvation) and the darkness “night” (sin).  Thus, Augustine’s full allegorical reading of these verses is as follows:  The Spirit was “hovering over the dark chaos of our inner being” until God shed “the light of salvation on my face”.  This salvific light separated us from our previous darkness and from those who still walk in darkness.

One quick side note: I find it fascinating that he sees Paul (and, by extension, us) as being both the Bride of Christ and the friend of the Bridegroom (cf. John 3:29).  Thus we long for Christ as His Bride and are jealous on behalf of Christ as His friend.  In some ways, the analogy breaks down because one person cannot be both things, but paradoxically it remains true.  Just an interesting thought.

Day Two (Chapters 15&16; Gen. 1:6-8):  “You alone, our God, have made for us a vault overhead in giving us your divine scripture.”  The sky which God stretched over the earth is pictured as being like the skin of a tent (Ps. 104:2) and at the last day will be rolled up like a scroll (Rev. 6:14).  This is enough for Augustine to equate the expanse over our heads with Holy Scripture.  The Scriptures are over us in authority just as the sky rules over the earth.  The sky also protects us from (for example) the sun’s rays, just as Scripture protects our minds from falsehood.  I think the analogy is a solid one.

Genesis goes on to say that God separated the water above the expanse from those below.  As you might expect, Augustine uses the waters “above the expanse” to symbolize “your angelic peoples above the heavens”.  These are the creatures who live in “heaven’s heaven” who choose to love God and live in his presence forever.  “Their book is never closed, their scroll never rolled up, for you are their book.”  They have no need for the “expanse” of scripture because they live in the very presence of God Himself.  They live in eternity, while we live in time (“clouds are wafted away, but heaven abides”).  God exists above the expanse He created in heaven in unchanging eternity.  This whole analogy should not be construed as making Scripture the mediator between God and man (that’s Jesus, of course).  Rather, just as the sky illuminates our physical reality, so does Scripture illuminate the spiritual reality of God.

Day Three (Chapter 17; Gen. 1:9-13):  “Who else gathered people brewing bitterness into a single mass?”  So, just as the waters were gathered to together to form the land, so God gathers people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9) to form His Church.  Only God could accomplish such a task, only God could “control even the unruly urges of our souls.”  And just like God tells the sea “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (Job 38:11), so does he limit the urges of our souls.  In the Bible, the sea usually represents chaos and disorder.  Therefore, the image of God setting limits to the sea naturally leads to the conclusion that He can (and does) limit the chaos and disorder in our lives and our souls if we turn to Him.

The newly-formed land sprouts vegetation, seeds and fruit.  In the same way, once God incorporates us into His Church, “the soil of our souls grows fertile in works of mercy according to its kind”.  Jesus calls his disciples to bear fruit (cf. John 15:8) and Paul calls upon us to “sow [seeds] to the Spirit” by “doing good” (Gal. 6:8-9).  Faith must bear fruit, for faith without works is dead (Jam. 2:17).  The works of mercy to which we are called are a natural outgrowth of the grace we receive in Christ just as vegetation is a natural outgrowth of the land.  Separated from the darkness and illuminated by Holy Scripture, God calls us to plant seeds of faith and bear the fruits of the Spirit.

Conclusion:  I must say, I like this way of reading Scripture.  It forgoes a simplistically literal interpretation of the Word for a deep exploration of God’s work in us.  It’s easy for something like Genesis 1 to be a source of philosophical curiosity or even political polemic (see the cultural war over evolution, for example).  But if “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), then there must be more to Genesis 1 than just a retelling of how the physical world came to be.  And, just as Augustine saw his life as recreating the story of the Fall and redemption in Genesis, so does he see Genesis 1 as the story of salvation in miniature.  May our meditation on these verses lead us to a greater appreciation of God’s gift to us and to an attitude of worship and adoration of Him.

Quote for meditation: “[Christ] peeps through the trellis of our flesh, and coaxes us, and enkindles our love until we run after him, allured by his fragrance.”  What a great image (cf. Song of Solomon 2:9)!

 

Book XIII, Chapters 1-11: The Holy Spirit, the Gift of God

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.

–Psalm 36:9 (ESV)

Chapter 1: Augustine begins this book, as usual, with a prayer.  It’s such good, dense stuff — it reminds me of the early sections of a Pauline epistle.  “Into my soul I call you, for you prepare it to be your dwelling by the desire you inspire in it.”  Even the desire for God is a gift from God.  He calls to us “multiplying and varying your appeals that I might hear you from afar”.  This is as good a summary of Confessions as any — the Hound of Heaven used every tool at His disposal to capture Augustine’s heart.  Now that he has been forgiven, Augustine declares that “over all that I am…your goodness has absolute precedence”.  I love the idea that, of all the qualities of God, “goodness” is the one the precedes all and rules over all.  God is great, but God is most of all good.  He ends the chapter with a call to worship and serve the God “who granted me first to exist, that I may enjoy well-being”.  This reminds me of the justly famous passage from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever”.  We were created for goodness and joy.  What a beautiful idea!

Chapters 2&3: We now turn to another imponderable question: why did God create the universe?  Why there is something instead of nothing is one of the foundational questions in all of philosophy.  Augustine asserts strongly that creation is not some sort of necessary emanation of the divine Being.  God created the world by choice even though “it could be of no profit to you”.  In the end, only God exists non-contingently: “You alone are, because you alone exist in utter simplicity.”  In a continuation of the thought from the previous chapter, a part of the answer to the “why” question seems to be that the goodness of God is the basis of creation.  This is why any creature becomes more “real” the more they cling to God’s goodness.  Just as corporeal objects can be beautiful or ugly, so can spirits live in either wisdom, goodness, and light or ignorance, evil, and darkness.  This is the reason that Augustine applies God’s declaration “let there be light” (Gen 1:3) to “your spiritual creation”.  Even the angels are dependent upon God not only for their existence, but for the blessings of life in the presence of God.  It’s grace all the way down.

Chapter 4:  After reiterating that God did not need to create the world, Augustine turns back to the second half of Genesis 1:2: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”  The Spirit was not dependent upon the primordial “waters” for existence but rather vice versa.  This is true down to today: “When your Spirit is said to rest upon people, it means that he causes them to rest in himself.”  That sentence stopped me short.  We often ask the Spirit to come into our lives when He is already there.  Rather, we ought to pray the He will incorporate our lives into His, that we may rest in Him.

Chapters 5, 6&7:  As I said back in the introduction to these final books, this last book focuses on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.  God the Father created the world through “the Wisdom who is your Son, coequal and co-eternal with yourself”.  Thus, in Genesis 1:1, “God” refers to God the Father, while the word “beginning” refers to the Son.  So we only lack the spirit, and lo and behold, here He is in verse 2!  To Augustine, the Spirit represents the love of God, which is why He hovers over all that God the Father and Son have made.  In the same way, He hovers over each of us, as Paul says in the verse Augustine quotes: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5b).  We have a choice, then, between two loves.  “One is the uncleanness of our own spirit, which like a flood tide sweeps us down, in love with restless cares; the other is the holiness of your Spirit, which bears us upward in a  love for peace beyond all care.”  Living in the Spirit allows us to transcend, to hover over, the cares and concerns of this world.  Only by the Spirit will we find peace, which is a fruit of that same spirit (Gal. 5:22).

Chapter 8:  Augustine obliquely mentions the origin of the demonic here. “When spirits slide away from you they are stripped of their vesture of light and exposed in their native darkness.”  Even the angels only receive light from the source of Light.  “For it is you, Lord, who will light up our darkness.”  God calls us to walk in the light (1 John 1:7) and we can only exist in the light (that is, in righteousness) if we walk with Him.  As St. John says, “in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).  Clearly, then, when Genesis has God say “let there be light” he was talking about more than photons.  God’s first words call all of life into existence and invites all life to take part in his eternal life.  All else is darkness.

Chapter 9:  Of course, by mentioning the Spirit hovering over the waters, the Bible is not suggesting that the Trinity was or is in any way divided.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were poised over the waters as the unchangeable Godhead “far above all that is changeable”.  Augustine postulates that the Spirit is specifically mentioned because He is God’s gift to us (see 2 Tim. 1:6-7) that we may find rest and enjoy Him.  He uses a great analogy here about weight.  “Drawn by their weight, things seek their rightful places.”  Fire goes up; stones fall down; oil floats on water; water sinks below oil.  Such things only rest once they have reached their rightful place.  Augustine continues: “Now, my weight is my love, and wherever I am carried, it is this weight that carries me.”  The Spirit carries the weight of our love up to the father, while our sins drag the weight of our love back to earth.  Fanning into flame the gift of God means turning our hearts of stone, which trend downward, into hearts of fire for God, which reach upward.  “By your fire, your beneficent fire, are we inflamed.”  Only then will we find true rest.

Chapters 10&11:  After reminding the reader that it was God who turned our darkness to light (just as he turned the primordial abyss into life), Augustine takes all of one paragraph to explain the Trinity.  To be fair, he wrote an entire, lengthy book on the subject, so he probably felt a simple analogy here would do.  Appropriately for a work so concerned with psychology, Augustine uses our selves as an analogy for the Trinity.  We have within us “being, knowledge and will.  I am, and I know, and I will”.  Despite containing these three things within us, we have “one inseparable life: there is one life, one mind and one essence.”  I exist and have knowledge and use my will, but there is only one “me”.  This is not a perfect analogy (there is no such thing as a perfect analogy), but it gets at how multiplicity and unity can paradoxically co-exist.  We live with a sort of “tri-unity” within ourselves every day, yet we sometimes consider God’s nature to be nonsensical.  Of course, the Holy Trinity is far greater than the triad within us in that God exists eternally, is fully known to Himself, and the Trinity “is its own all-sufficient joy without variation forever”.  God is complete and perfect in Himself because He is a community of persons in absolute unity of being.  Our God is as simple and as complicated as that.

Conclusion:  I feel like Augustine got back on track here after getting lost in minutiae in book XII.  This beautiful meditation on the Holy Spirit reminds us of the incomparable gift He is to us.  May we pray for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit in our lives today, that we may rest in Him, all the while fanning into flame this gift of God in us.  May we walk in the light as He is in the light and find it to be a path of goodness, joy, and peace.

Quote for meditation:  “This alone I know, that without you all to me is misery, woe outside myself, and woe within, and all wealth but penury, if it is not my God.”

Book XII, Chapters 27-32: True Opinions about the Truth

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

–John 8:32 (KJV)

Chapter 27:  Augustine begins this final section of the book with two apt metaphors.  The first is of a stream, which is a small source that can produce a great river, just as these two verses are the source of deep theology (“this narrative, destined to supply a theme for many messengers of the word, is a spring whence rivers of limpid truth gush forth”).  We all draw from this spring at different points, and perhaps that is why we reach different conclusions (Augustine’s version of the elephant metaphor).  The second analogy Augustine uses is a mother cradling her child or a mother bird building a nest for her young.  People who only see the surface meaning of scripture “are still children with their carnal outlook, but while their weakness is cradled in scripture’s humble mode of discourse as though in their mother’s arms, their faith is being built up for salvation.”  This feels a bit condescending, but I don’t think it’s meant that way.  Augustine simply means that baby Christians can feel safe in the arms of scripture even if they do not yet have the tools to unlock its deeper meanings.

Chapter 28: “There are others for whom these words are no longer a nest.  For them they are shady thickets in which they espy hidden fruit.”  Mixing his metaphors a bit, scripture is no longer a nest for him, but a grove of trees in which he can pick choice fruits.  It may be a stretch, but this is perhaps a nod to the parable of the mustard seed, where a small seed produces a large tree where “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matt. 13:32).  In any case, Augustine feels that mature Christians should be able to see the symbolic layers underlying the text.  The rest of chapter reiterates (ad nauseam if you ask me) the arguments that he has already made in this book about God’s eternity, the nature of “heaven and earth”, and Wisdom at “the beginning”.  We’ve already covered this, so (unlike Augustine) let’s move on.

Chapter 29:  “Rare indeed, and exceedingly arduous for us, Lord, is contemplation of your eternal being which, though immutable in itself, makes mutable creatures, and is in this sense prior to them.”  This is Augustine’s long way of saying that its nearly impossible for finite creatures to understand an infinite God.  When we say God was there “in the beginning”, we do not mean that He participates in time, but in the sense that His immutable nature comes before (that is above in rank to) the creation.  The final paragraph of this chapter is the best short encapsulation of his argument, so I’ll reproduce it here for anyone not reading the book:

Primal matter was made first and called “heaven and earth” because from it heaven and earth were made.  We must understand, though, that “first” does not mean earlier in time, because it is the forms of things that give rise to time, whereas matter was formless; but once time exists, we can observe within time both matter and form.  Yet nothing can be told with regard to formless matter without our seeming to attribute to it temporal priority, although in terms of value it is of the lowest rank, things endowed with form being unquestionably better than what is unformed; and certainly it is preceded by the eternity of its creator.  And rightly, so that the matter from which something was to be made should itself be made from nothing.

Chapters 30, 31&32:  “Amid this profusion of true opinions let Truth itself engender concord.”  Here Augustine reiterates that Truth can speak through multiple interpretations.  The little-t truths of the Bible all exist to serve the Truth, who is Jesus.  When looking at conflicting interpretations of a passage, we can say with Augustine “Why not both, if both are true?”  As long as we avoid outright heresy and Jesus is glorified, we can each believe different things about the same scriptures.  “What if human vision is incomplete?” Augustine asks.  It is, of course, so we need each other in order to get a full picture of what scripture is telling us about God.  This is why we must not assume that just because someone is a different denomination from us that they must be wrong.  Perhaps they have something to teach us about the revelation of God that we, in our human myopia, have not discovered.  We all have a piece of the full picture and only by coming together can we begin to put the puzzle pieces together.

Conclusion:  “Mark how much we have written about so few words, O Lord my God, how remarkably much!”  Indeed, Augustine, indeed.  We have only gotten through the first two verses of Genesis and it’s taken two whole books and eight days of meditations.  As Augustine points out, “if we continue in this style, where shall we find sufficient energy or time to cover all your books?”  I, of all people, cannot criticize Augustine for taking a deep dive into a single verse.  But the point stands that we cannot do this kind of study for every part of scripture or we will exhaust ourselves.  Most of the time, its best to read a short passage of scripture and seek God for “one meaning only”, one message to take away for that day or week or year.  This sort of exercise can be fun, but like a physical exercise done too much can damage the muscles, so can arduous spiritual exercises damage the mind and spirit.  May these deep dives into scripture point us back to the relationship, back to Jesus.  For it is only in knowing Him and being known by Him that we will find hope and love and eternal life.  Whatever truths we may discover, there is only one Truth that will set us free.

Quote for meditation: “May our God have mercy upon us and grant us to make lawful use of the law for the purpose envisaged by his commandment, pure charity.”

Book XII, Chapters 18-26: The Multiplicity of Interpretations and the Limits of Intellect

For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.

–1 Corinthians 2:11 (ESV)

Since today’s chapters all constitute one basic thought, I’m not going to divide this meditation into chapters.  I will give my general thoughts, then end with a coda on Neoplatonism and the “GOD project”.  Let’s get to it…

“A great variety of interpretations, many of them legitimate, confronts our exploring minds as we search among these words to discover your will.”  This basically constitutes the thesis statement for these chapters, and it demonstrates an admirable humility from Augustine.  He admits that his way of viewing Scripture is not the only way, and that is rare to see from any theologian.  That said, there is an almost whiny self-defensiveness about much of this book, a sort of “can you do any better?” to his critics.  Perhaps he was getting a lot of grief for his allegorical interpretation of Genesis (so much so that he would later write a book entitled De Genesi ad Litteram “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”).  Even so, all this hair-splitting over five different interpretations of Genesis 1:1 (see ch. 20) and five interpretations of Genesis 1:2 (see ch. 21) feels like overkill to me, especially since the distinction between many of these interpretations eludes me.  Augustine is trying to anticipate and address every possible objection to his theology and it is exhausting (at least to this reader).  Here is where the combination of Augustine’s self-doubt and rhetorical training kind of eats itself.  There are a few gems in here though, so let’s just cover those.

“What harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you…show to be true, even though it was not intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?”  In other words, Augustine is advocating for “death of the author” exegesis.  Maybe Moses didn’t mean what Augustine is saying, but that doesn’t mean that either of them is lying.  Moses wrote in truth and Augustine interprets in truth, and God speaks to them each in their own way.  We can’t really know what Moses (or whoever wrote Genesis) was thinking.  As Augustine says, “I do not see with equal certainty into his mind.”  Exegesis is not mind-reading.  It is, instead, seeking God through the words of Scripture and allowing Him to speak through those words.  To say that what God spoke to us in Scripture is the only way that God can speak through those words is reductive.  “Let no one henceforth try to pick a quarrel with me by telling me, ‘Moses did not mean what you say; he meant what I say’….So reckless an assertion is a mark of presumption, not of knowledge; it is the fruit of no vision but of conceit.”  Again, humility and charity must be at the forefront of our theology.  As St. Paul says, “charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Tim. 2:14).  The truth “belongs to all of us” and is found in the community of the Church, which is His Body.  Just as Paul tells the Corinthians, who were fighting over theology by saying they followed Paul or Apollos, “we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9).  Augustine goes on to quote from chapter 4 of that same book where Paul reminds us “not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another” (v. 6).  Augustine seems to feel the temptation that he could have written Genesis better than Moses, but he demurs.  “Well, we come from the same lump of clay after all,” he muses.

“Now scripture does not record that God made this formless matter, but neither does it record that he made many other things — the cherubim and seraphim for instance.”  This is actually a crucial point.  Many people seem to think that Genesis 1:2 negates the idea of ex nihilo creation by positing a primordial, chaotic abyss.  But the list of created things in Genesis 1 is clearly not exhaustive.  This has implications for the existence of extraterrestrial life, for example, which has been posited as something that would disprove the Bible.  God has only revealed to us that which is profitable for us to know.  The Lord clearly created orders in the spiritual realm that we know little about (cf. Col. 1:16).  So God could create that “formless matter” of Genesis 1:2 without scripture having to spell it out for us.  Augustine concludes: “If Genesis is silent about God’s making something, still a healthy faith and clear intellect are in no doubt that God did make it.”  This allows us to view the discoveries of modern science through a lens of faith without having to deny them because we adhere to a narrow fundamentalism.

Conclusion:  If nothing else, these chapters indicate just how deep the Holy Scriptures truly are.  Any time that we try to understand such literally incomprehensible subjects as the creation (or the end) of the universe we will be confronted with multiple possible interpretations.  Charity requires that, if we stray off what the text explicitly says, we treat those Christians with whom we differ with respect and deference.  We must always remember that dogma is merely a fence surrounding a mystery, the mystery of God Himself.  We must hold to the faith proclaimed in the Creed, but we must realize that such a faith takes many forms.  Such an attitude is the only hope for achieving the unity of the Body for which Christ prayed.

*****

CODA: NEOPLATONISM AND “THE GOD PROJECT”

Much of the struggle that Augustine has in these final books of the Confessions comes down to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  The Neoplatonic philosophy of Plotinus and Porphyry brought Augustine to Christ.  Indeed, the mystical contemplation that Plotinus taught him brought him into the presence of God.  So Augustine really wants the Bible and Plato to get along with each other, and they do to a remarkable degree.  But Plato, brilliant as he was, was still a pagan and pagan philosophy can only be reconciled with Biblical faith to a point.

Not that this would stop anyone.  My college philosophy professor, Dr. Jim Edwards at Furman, used to speak of the GOD project” in Western philosophy.  Basically, he felt that philosophers beginning in early Christianity almost up to the 20th century were trying to find a unifying principle for everything, religious and secular.  This they called “God”.  So when Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared that “God is dead”, he wasn’t talking about Yahweh or Allah or Jesus.  He was saying that this great project to discover God through philosophy had failed.  Of course, Nietzsche believed that it had failed because there was no God to be found and we had to move beyond this moribund idea in order to make anything of our lives.  I think that the “GOD project” failed because it was the intellectual equivalent to the Tower of Babel.  We were trying to reach God in our own power, through our minds, and thus God confused our language and frustrated our intentions.

The only way to God is through relationship, and the only way to have that relationship is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I argued as much with Dr. Edwards (who was an atheist), saying that mystical encounter with God, much like Augustine’s, necessitated a response beyond the intellectual.  That is why we must experience God in our personal relationship with Him and through the corporate relationship with the Body found in Christ’s Church.  God is not found through intellectual assent (or ascent).  It is found through worship, both individual and corporate.  No intellectual project will save us — salvation always requires a leap of faith.  Speaking of a leap of faith, perhaps I can best sum this meditation up with a quote from Søren Kierkegaard: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

Book XII, Chapters 12-17: Exegesis and Christian Charity

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

–Deuteronomy 29:29 (ESV)

Chapters 12&13:  “In the making of this world a succession of days is mentioned, because the nature of these things is such that temporal succession is needed in their case to bring about ordered modifications of motion or form.”  So…evolution?  The move from formlessness to form took place over time, and unless you believe that Genesis 1 records creation as taking place over six 24-hour days (Augustine certainly doesn’t), then some kind of evolutionary theology seems inevitable (besides, what does “day” mean before the sun is even created?).  That said, arguing that God ordained and ordered evolution stands in stark contrast to the way Darwin and those that followed him presented the origin of species.  Whatever else creation was, it wasn’t random or left to chance.  Augustine would have found both secular theories of unmediated evolution and fundamentalist “young earth” creationists equally ridiculous.

The point of this chapter is that both “heaven’s heaven” and the formless void of primordial earth exist outside of time.  Formless matter cannot evolve or change, and thus must be outside of time (which is definitionally about change).  “Heaven’s heaven” is the opposite, a sort of absolute form that is so complete and perfect as to be impervious to change and, therefore, to time.  So when Genesis 1:1 says that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”, it was these two timeless entities, the Lord’s heaven and the formless earth, that were created.  The actual, physical earth and sky were created in the succession of days over time as conveyed in the rest of Genesis 1.  At least, that’s Augustine’s theory.

Chapter 14:  The rest of the chapters we’ll cover today are mostly Augustine defending this somewhat controversial interpretation of the creation story.  Augustine writes that, in Genesis, “we are confronted with a superficial meaning that offers easy access to the unlettered; yet how amazing their profundity, O my God.”  Importantly, his critics here are not heretics like the Manichees, but fellow catholic believers.  This is a dispute within the family of God, which requires a different kind of argument and more charity.  There can be legitimate disagreements about interpretation in these thorny issues without resorting to calling anyone a heretic.  Indeed, arguing that the “superficial meaning” is the true interpretation of the text is still a popular way to exegete scripture (see, again, modern fundamentalism).  While I agree with Augustine that such interpretations leave little room for the mystery inherent in God’s nature, such simple interpretations are also less likely to venture “off the reservation” so to speak.  For many people, the more complicated the interpretation of Scripture, the more confusion reigns and confusion is not of God.  If a simple interpretation of Scripture is not heretical, it can be enough to encourage faith and inspire devotion.  That’s more than can be said of a lot of Ph.D. theses from theological seminaries.

Chapters 15: The will of God does not change –“what he wills, he wills once only and all together and eternally”.  Creation did not happen because God changed his mind.  God’s will is eternal and immutable, although the way that His will is actualized in the temporal realm changes due to the fact that we change.  The appearance of God changing is a case of us imputing to Him our own transience.

“Wisdom was created before all things, and prudent understanding from eternity. The source of wisdom is God’s word in the highest heaven, and her ways are the eternal commandments” (Sirach 1:4-5, RSV).  This verse accomplishes two important things for Augustine’s theology: (1) it indicates that the first thing to be created was not the physical world but “wisdom” which he equates with “heaven’s heaven”, and (2) it differentiates created wisdom from “God’s word” or Wisdom.  Remember that book XII of Confessions is about God the Son aka the logos (the Word) aka the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24).  So Christ is the origin of creation, the “beginning” of Genesis 1:1 and the source of little-w wisdom “the intellectual order of being which by contemplating Light becomes light itself.”  Christ is co-equal with the Father, but no created thing, not even heaven itself, is.

Chapters 16&17: In these chapters, Augustine basically admits that there’s more than one way to interpret the first two verses of Genesis.  Admittedly, some people just want to debate for its own sake and thus blind themselves to the truth (“I will get rid of those people who blow into the dust only to stir up earth and get it into their eyes” — what a great description of cable news!).  Others simply feel like Augustine is unnecessarily complicating things.  Moses was writing for people of a “crude and carnal disposition” who couldn’t understand such esoteric theology.  Perhaps, but God clearly has more to say than just the surface meaning in almost all of scripture.  Indeed, the medieval church (influence by Augustine no doubt) used a four-fold method to interpret Scripture: (1) literal (past events); (2) typological (connecting past to present; particularly connecting the Old Testament to the New); (3) moral (present application); and (4) anagogical (prophesying the future, including the last judgement and the afterlife).  All Scripture has such levels.  Even if you don’t agree with Augustine’s interpretations, I think we can safely say there is always more going on in Scripture than we can see at first glance.

Conclusion:  I’m honestly not sure if I agree with Augustine’s interpretation here, or whether I even care enough to have an opinion.  That God lives in heaven and created the universe seem to me matters of the highest importance.  The how and wherefore of it all seems comparatively insignificant.  Of course, the Bible always rewards deep thought and meditation and we shall never reach the bottom of what it has to say to us.  However, the deeper we go, the more willing we have to be to live with competing interpretations that each contains at least part of the truth.  I notice that the section we’ll read tomorrow is entitled (by translator Maria Boulding) “the author’s intention must be sought, in charity”.  Indeed, the greatest commandment includes both loving God and loving our neighbor.  We should never let our pursuit of the One lead to disunity with one another.  Our faith has room for both the ever-questioning Augustine and the person who proclaims that “God said it; I believe it; that settles it”.  We all understand God through the lens of who we are.  May our theology always lead us to charity, toward God and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Quote for meditation: “O lightsome house, so fair of form, I have fallen in love with your beauty, loved you as the place where dwells the glory of my Lord, who fashioned you and claims you as his own.  My pilgrim-soul sighs for you, and I pray him who made you to claim me also as his own within you, for he made me too.”

Book XII, Chapters 1-11: Our Changeable World and God’s Eternal Heaven

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.

–Psalm 102:25-27 (ESV)

Chapter 1:  “The penury of human understanding is apt to lead to excessive wordiness for to seek requires more talking than to find.”  Is Augustine poking fun at himself here?  We’re about to start a second book speculating about the nature of creation itself, so I guess he feels a need to apologize to the reader for his wordiness.  For my part, I am grateful that Augustine opens his thought process up to us, not shying away from admitting what he doesn’t know, and allowing us to see the dead ends that he has encountered in his search.  That, I think, is what has kept Confessions so fresh over the centuries — we can truly see his mind thinking.  However frustrated I may become with Augustine’s tendency to get entangled in minutiae, I appreciate that he sees the Christian life not as a proclamation of settled answers but as a journey through mysterious questions.  His ability to turn questions and doubts into prayer and wonder is a model for all of us who can never leave well enough alone.

Chapter 2: The key verse for the following chapters is Psalm 115:16: “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.”  Augustine calls the place where God abides “heaven’s heaven”.  Some other translations: “highest heavens” (NIV); “heavens of the Lord” (NASB); “heaven, even the heavens” (KJV); “the heaven of heaven” (Douay-Rheims).  Clearly, this is a different place than the “heavens and the earth” mentioned in Genesis 1:1.  The key point here is that God abides in a place outside of the universe He created — we are not pantheists.  God is, in the words of St. Paul, “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:15-16).  This is what we mean when we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven”

Chapters 3,4&5: We have finally made it to Genesis 1:2!  “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.”  Augustine views this darkness in the same way he sees evil.  Just as evil is not a substance but merely the absence of good, so is darkness merely the absence of light (in terms of physics he is correct, of course).  He writes that “when the earth is said to be invisible and unorganized [without form and void], this is a convenient way of making clear to people what formless matter is”.  We can’t really conceive of matter without some kind of form, so the writer of Genesis uses terms that call to mind a fathomless abyss.  This, perhaps, is the ex nihilo out of which God made creation.  Interestingly, this may be the only way that God could convey to ancient people how the earth was formed.  The leading theory among physicists about planet formation is the “nebular hypothesis” which states that the planets were formed from a cloud of material produced by our sun.  At the time, the sun was not much more than a chaotic mass of matter that began revolving at enough velocity to form a star and spin off planets.  Basically the earth started out as undifferentiated gas then cooled into a fluid and finally a solid.  In other words, God took that which was formless in the darkness and made the earth.  Pretty cool, huh?

Chapter 6: Augustine dismisses the idea that “formless” merely means “ugly”.  Our imagination cannot really conceive of the true nature of formless creation, existing as it does between non-existence and the form that creation currently takes.  I love his attempt at terms for this: “a nothing something”; “an-is-that-is-not”.  We have entered the realm of paradox again, and thus of that which must be pondered rather than explained.

Chapters 7&8: Creation derives its existence from God through whom all things exist.  However, “not from your own substance did you make heaven and earth.”  Jesus was made from God’s own substance, which is why we say in the Creed that He was “begotten, not made”.  But God “made heaven and earth out of nothing” (Augustine’s first explicit reference to ex nihilo).  Augustine is really trying to emphasize the separation between God in the “heaven’s heaven” from His creation.  Unlike the eternal nature of God’s heaven, the earth is changeable, beginning in a primal abyss of almost-nothingness whose formlessness took on the forms we see.  Creation is thus synonymous with change just as “heaven’s heaven” is synonymous with eternity.  This ties back to the idea of time, since time is always moving while eternity is an unchanging “now”.  We may live in a world that is forever changing, but the Lord does not change and stands forever (cf. Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; Jam. 1:17).

Chapters 9&10: What, then, is the “heaven’s heaven”?  Augustine conceives of it as an “intellectual creation”.  It is not coeternal with the Trinity, but it contains that Trinity in an eternal state.  Contemplating this mystery leads Augustine to write another poem/hymn to God, in which he prays for access to the light of God to illumine his darkness.  He is “fevered and panting for your fountain”, the Living Water that is the only source of true life.  Once again we are reminded that all of this is not idle philosophical speculation, but an earnest search for the living God who saves us from sin just as surely as he formed the earth from the primordial abyss and spoke light into the unfathomable darkness.

Chapter 11: Augustine turns here to the ethical implications of this theory of creation.  “If our will moves away from you, who are, toward anything which less truly is, that movement is transgression and sin.”  Thus, sin is a return to the chaos and formlessness of creation day zero, while moving toward God is to become, in a sense, more real.  God created us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29) just as he formed the earth.  Which is not to say we will ever become eternal as God is eternal.  Only the Trinity exists eternally, although we have the promise that we can live with Him forever in “your household, which contemplates your entrancing beauty, never tiring, never turning aside to any other joy”.  In the New Jerusalem, we will be the Bride of Christ, united to Him yet still distinct, just as a human bride becomes one flesh with her husband yet is still a distinct person.  We always carry with us a little bit of the formlessness of that primeval creation, at least until the day that “the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:54).  With that in mind, let us hold fast to God and remember that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).  For Christ has told us that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).  Let us abide in the eternal God while we pass through this temporal world.

Quote for meditation: “Let me not be my own life: evil was the life I lived of myself; I was death to me; but in you I begin to live again.”

Book XI, Chapters 23-31: The Power of Attention

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.

–Isaiah 26:3 (ESV)

Chapter 23: Continuing his discussion of time, Augustine brings up the theory that the movements of the heavenly bodies (the sun, moon, and stars) constitute time.  This makes some intuitive sense given that we measure days by the sun, months (roughly) by the moon, and seasons by the stars.  Since ancient times, man has used these heavenly bodies to mark the passage of time.  However, the means we use to measure something is not the same as the thing itself.  The mercury descending in a thermometer is not the reason that it’s getting cold out.  Indeed, Augustine points out, we could imagine that the sun had begun to move faster and that a day now only takes twelve hours.  Can we still say that the movement of the sun constitutes a “day” when we use that word to mean 24 hours?  No, we would say that the sun now only stayed in the sky for half a day.  In fact, there is biblical precedent for this: Joshua prayed that the sun would stand still for a whole day to allow Israel to defeat its enemies, and it did so (Joshua 10).  Time continued to move even though the sun stood still, meaning that time is independent of the sun’s movement.  “Let no one tell me, then, that time is simply the motion of heavenly bodies.”

Chapter 24:  Augustine expands his point to include all corporeal objects.  Nothing we use to measure time constitutes time itself: “Therefore if the motion of an object is one thing, and the standard by which we measure its duration another, is it not obvious which the two has the stronger claim to be called time?”  On top of that, some objects move erratically, stopping and starting.  We measure both the motion and the stationary periods in terms of time.  Again, Platonism is rearing its head here.  Creation is just a shadow of the perfect Forms.  Absolute Time cannot be contained within imperfect physical objects; it must exist in a realm beyond the physical.

Chapter 25: “Woe is me, for I do not even know what I do not know.”  Not only do we not know things, like what time is, but there are things we are ignorant about that we have not even thought to question.  This should lead us to deep humility and a recognition of our dependence upon the omniscient God.  This ignorance is why God calls us to continual prayer, for without His daily bread we are just the blind leading the blind into a pit (Matt. 15:14).

Chapters 26&27:  Though it is possible to measure time, what exactly we are measuring proves elusive.  Augustine ventures a guess: “I have therefore come to the conclusion that time is nothing other than tension: but tension of what I do not know, and I would be very surprised if it is not tension of consciousness itself.”  He doesn’t really explain this, but I think he means that consciousness exists in the same paradox as time does.  That is, our experience of the world is mediated by time, yet time doesn’t seem to exist.  We participate in the paradox of time by our very nature.

Stymied by the nature of measuring time, Augustine explores how we go about measuring time.  “We measure any interval of time from some inception to some ending.”  In order for time to make sense, it has to have a beginning and an end.  We cannot say how long a note of music lasted until it has finished sounding.  As a former teacher of rhetoric, he is particularly interested in how we measure words.  Some syllables last longer than others, but we can only make sense of that fact once the entire phrase has been uttered.  “Evidently, then, what I am measuring is not the syllables themselves, which no longer exist, but something in my memory, something fixed and permanent there.  In you, my mind, I measure time.”  Time only makes sense if we have a way of permanently storing the past.  And that storage place is memory, which we just spent the entirety of book X exploring.  It is our “awareness”  that “drags what is future into the past”.

Chapter 28: Which leads to an obvious question: “But how can a future which does not exist dwindle or be used up, and how can a past which no longer exists grow?”  For things that don’t exist, the future and the past sure are busy!  This can only be the case because of the “three realities of the mind…the mind expects, attends, and remembers, so that what it expects passes by way of what it attends to into what it remembers.”  Past, present, and future are all “present” in the mind through these three modes of operation.  Augustine uses the example of reciting a poem he knows by heart.  He starts out as pure expectation, but as he recites the poem his attention to each passing word moves more of that poem into memory until there is nothing left but memory.  This is true down to the syllable and out to the grand sweep of a human life or, indeed, all of human history.  In some mysterious way, it is consciousness itself that makes time real.  Thus, in writing something like Confessions, Augustine is participating in the Divine act of creating time by “reciting” his life and moving it through the three-step process of expectation, attention, and memory.  I’m not sure if Augustine has actually answered the question here, but I don’t think that was the point.  The entire purpose of Confessions has been to discover God by exploring himself, and here, at the center of the mystery, is our participation in God’s very creative act.  By the simple act of paying attention, we become a part of Genesis 1:1.  Augustine has succeeded in his true goal: uniting the story of his life with God’s story as it is revealed in Scripture.

Chapters 29&30:  Augustine makes explicit here the point of book XI.  “With no distracted mind but with focused attention I press on to the prize of our heavenly calling to that place where I yearn to hear songs of praise and contemplate your delight.”  It’s all about focus.  As the years of our lives race past us, it’s easy to get distracted and turn our attention a thousand different directions.  Our lives are “anxious distraction” but “your right hand upholds me”.  If we put our expectation on God, He will come to our attention and be stored forever in our memories (which is Augustine’s word for the deepest part of ourselves).  Augustine wishes to “stand still” to “find firm footing in you”.  Through attending to God with our entire lives, we can participate in His eternal being, rescued from the vicissitudes of time.

Chapter 31: Augustine concludes this book with an ode to the mystery of God.  His mode of existence is so far above ours as to be literally unreachable and incomprehensible.  Things don’t “happen” to God because in eternity there is no passage of time, so events by definition do not “happen”.  There is no “distension” in his activity; everything he does happens in an eternal Now.  This can be nothing other than a mystery to us time-bound creatures.  But even if we do not, and cannot, fully understand God, we are still called to praise Him.  And so we shall.

Quote for meditation: “In the most intimate depths of my soul my thoughts are torn to fragments by tempestuous changes until that time when I flow into you, purged and rendered molten by the fire of your love.”